Fed taper won't cause another financial crisis in Asia

asia 1997
India is in a stronger position to weather economic woes than it was in the 1990s.

Don't panic: This is not 1997.

Sure, it's easy to look at market upheaval in countries like India and Indonesia and see echoes of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, a panic that investors still remember.

That crisis, which wiped away hundreds of billions in economic production before bailout funds arrived, started with the collapse of Thailand's currency before quickly spreading across Asia.

Some analysts now see the ghosts of 1997 in Asian markets. Earlier this year, hints that the U.S. Federal Reserve might soon roll back economic stimulus was enough to prompt some investors to move their assets out of the region. Currencies and stocks in Asia came under pressure, and some central banks were forced to take defensive action.

While Asia got something of a reprieve after the Fed decided to continue pumping money into the markets, the threat of a stimulus taper still looms large.

Yet analysts and governments in the region say that fears of a repeat meltdown are unwarranted. In other words, take your hand off that panic button.

"In my view, Asian countries have learned the lessons from the past and significantly enhanced their capabilities to fend off risks," Chinese Premier Li Keqiang wrote last month.

How onions explain India's economy
How onions explain India's economy

Asian Development Bank chief economist Changyong Rhee agrees, arguing that Asia is now in a much stronger position to weather the coming economic storm.

In 1997, many countries in Asia ran high current account deficits and were heavily in debt. Weakening currencies exacerbated the issue, making it more difficult for countries to repay U.S. dollar-denominated debt. Coupled with a host of other economic woes, including investors moving their money out of Asia, governments weren't able to pay the bills.

What's different today is that "most regional economies now have robust current account surpluses and much higher foreign reserves relative to their modest amounts of short-term external debt," Rhee said.

And although some currencies in the region are again tumbling, central banks have large foreign currency stockpiles that can be used to better manage depreciation.

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That helps insulate even countries with super-high current account deficits, such as India and Indonesia -- the two economies that have taken the worst blows in the region. Both have sufficient foreign exchange reserves to cover imports -- for 7 months in India's case and 5 months for Indonesia, Rhee said. Globally, emerging market foreign exchange reserves hit $7.4 trillion in the first quarter of this year, compared to around $600 million in 1997, according to International Monetary Fund data complied by JPMorgan.

But an improved position won't allow Asia to completely avoid pain caused by the Fed taper, according to HSBC economist Frederic Neumann, who said that Asia remains headed for slower expansion as economic growth has "downshifted to a less spectacular pace."

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"The region is still vulnerable to a tightening in financial conditions," he said. "Because growth has been in large part driven by an increase in debt in recent years, financial stress will inevitably weigh on the pace of economic expansion."

Yet Rhee said that Fed pressure could spur governments in Asia to pursue structural reforms that will shore up their economies for the long run.

"Every crisis comes in a new guise," Neumann said. But "the dissimilarites with 1997 outweigh the parallels ... all considered, this ain't 1997. It's 2013."

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