20th anniversary of Start of Asian Crisis: Is China making the same mistakes?

Prof Barry Eichengreen points to several things South East Asian Countries have done since the 1997 crisis.

For starters, the crisis countries have ratcheted down their investment rates and growth expectations to sustainable levels. Asian governments still emphasize growth, but not at any cost.

Second, Southeast Asian countries now have more flexible exchange rates. None is perfectly flexible, to be sure, but the region’s governments have at least abandoned the rigid dollar pegs that were the source of such vulnerability in 1997.

Third, countries like Thailand that were running large external deficits, heightening their dependence on foreign finance, are now running surpluses. Running surpluses has helped them accumulate foreign-exchange reserves, which serve as a form of insurance.

Fourth, Asian countries are now working together to ring-fence the region. In 2000, in the wake of the crisis, they created the Chiang Mai Initiative, a regional network of financial credits and swaps. And now they have the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to regionalize the provision of development finance as well.

Ironically, the more things change the more they remain the same. In 1997, China was not a risk. This time it is as it seems to be following the same model followed by SE Asian countries 20 years ago:

 In 1997, a China still uncertain of its regional role was not a vocal supporter of the Japanese plan for an Asian Monetary Fund. Its lack of support ultimately sealed the fate of that proposal.

Subsequently, China’s growing self-confidence and leadership helped to spearhead regional institution building and cooperation. This change, occurring against the backdrop of 20 years of robust Chinese growth, is the most consequential change affecting Asia since the crisis.

But if the emergence of China signifies how much has changed, it is also a reminder of how much remains the same. China is still wedded to a model that prioritizes a target rate of growth, and it still relies on high investment to hit that target. The government maintains liquidity provision at whatever levels are needed to keep the economic engine humming, in a manner dangerously reminiscent of what Thailand was doing before its crisis.

Because China’s government relaxed restrictions on offshore borrowing faster than was prudent, Chinese enterprises with links to the government have high levels of foreign debt. And there is still a reluctance to let the currency float, something that would discourage Chinese firms from accumulating such large foreign-currency-denominated obligations.

China is now at the same point as its Southeast Asian neighbors 20 years ago: like them, it has outgrown its inherited growth model. We have to hope that Chinese leaders have studied the Asian crisis. Otherwise they are doomed to repeat it.

Hmm..

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