Next stop Asia?
How an American recession might hit Asia
INVESTORS in Asian stockmarkets were until recently big fans of the “decoupling” theory: the notion that Asian economies can shrug off an American recession. This week’s plunge in shares, taking the MSCI Emerging Asia Index down by 25% at one point from its October high, suggests they have changed their minds. But the fact that Asian markets have not decoupled does not necessarily mean that their economies will follow America's over a cliff.
Decoupling was always a misnomer, seeming to imply that an American recession would have no impact on Asia. In fact exports and hence profits would certainly be reduced. The pertinent argument is that they would be hurt by much less than in previous American downturns.
As well as hitting exports, America’s troubles could affect Asia through various financial channels. Asia’s exposure to the subprime mess is thought to be much smaller than that of American or European banks. Even so, Chinese bank shares tumbled this week on rumours that they would have to make much bigger write-downs on their holdings of American subprime securities. And if stockmarkets slide further as global investors flee from risky assets, this could dampen business and consumer confidence in the region.
Some Asian economies are more vulnerable than others: Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia have exports to America equivalent to 20% or more of their GDPs, compared with only 8% in China and 2% in India. There are already some ominous signs. Singapore’s exports to America are down by 11% over the past year, while Malaysia’s fell by 16%. Exports to other emerging economies and to the European Union surged, so total exports still grew by 6% in both economies. But that was much slower than at the start of the year, and the worry now is that demand from Europe has started to flag.
The growth in China’s exports to America slowed to only 1% (in yuan terms) in the year to December from over 20% in late 2006. So far the impact on GDP growth has been modest. Figures on China’s fourth-quarter GDP are to be published on Thursday January 24th and most economists expect growth to slow to a still healthy 9-10% this year.
China’s economy would probably still expand by around 8-9% even if export growth dried up. During the 2001 American recession China’s GDP barely slowed. In contrast, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan and Malaysia suffered full-blown recessions. America’s recession this time is likely to be deeper than in 2001 and Asia is now more integrated into the global economy. Doomsters conclude, therefore, that these economies could be hit harder this time.
The main reason to be more optimistic is that domestic demand (consumer spending and investment) is likely to remain strong and governments have more flexibility. Last year, despite a slowdown in America’s imports, most Asian economies grew faster as domestic demand speeded up. Robert Prior-Wandesforde, an economist at HSBC, says that those who argue that Asian economies cannot decouple from America are ignoring the fact that they already have. Take Malaysia: exports to America plunged, yet its GDP growth quickened from 5.7% at the end of 2006 to 6.7% in the third quarter of last year.
Contrary to the popular view that Asia's meltdown in 2001 was entirely due to a slump in exports, Peter Redwood, at Barclays Capital, argues that a fall in investment played a bigger role. Firms had too much debt and excess capacity, particularly in the electronics sector, which was at the heart of the American recession. Today firms are in much better shape. Capacity utilisation is high across the region; outside China investment as a share of GDP is low by historical standards; corporate balance-sheets are stronger and real interest-rates are low. Firms are therefore much less likely to slash investment than in 2001.
Macroeconomic fundamentals are also much healthier in East Asia. Large foreign-exchange reserves make countries less vulnerable to foreign shocks. Budgets are in surplus or close to balance, giving policymakers more room for a fiscal stimulus to support growth.
Thus even if Asia’s exports clearly have not decoupled from America, its economies will be hurt less than in the past. Standard Chartered forecasts that emerging Asia will grow by an average of 6.4% in 2008, down from 7.8% in 2007. In 2001 growth dropped by three percentage points to 4.2%. Financial markets were slow to realise that Asian growth and hence the profits of some companies would be dented by an American downturn. But now they risk exaggerating the damage. Economic decoupling is not a myth.