HONG KONG: The $2.5 trillion combined bailout of Western financial institutions may have eased the crisis, but it has done rather less to assure the creditor nations of the East that their holdings are safe from erosion by money-printing central banks. Indeed events have aroused the resentment that surfaced during the Asian crisis a decade ago at a global financial architecture perceived, with some justice, to be weighted against Asians.
The deputy governor of China's central bank, Yi Gang, recently castigated the International Monetary Fund for its almost total failure to put any teeth into surveillance of those countries - the United States, Britain, EU member states, Switzerland and Japan - enjoying the reserve-currency status that makes it easier to run deficits. As he rightly noted, "weak financial-policy discipline resulted in excess global liquidity and disorderly capital flows."
This should not be news. The unwillingness of the IMF to try to discipline these countries - America and Britain in particular - has been remarked upon often enough in these columns. It now makes a particularly poignant contrast to the IMF's zeal for dispatching experts from Washington to discipline other countries' economies - developing ones in particular. The humiliation of President Suharto of Indonesia in 1998 by the head of the IMF, Michel Camdessus, is not forgotten in Asia.
Asian (and a few other) major creditor nations now face many challenges. Perhaps the most immediate is whether the blanket guarantees offered to Western banks by their governments will set off a drain of capital as money moves from banks in other regions still operating under free-market principles that will have to compete with the now-partly-socialized systems of the West.
China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong have the fiscal and foreign-reserve capacity to defend themselves, but other economies may be more vulnerable. Given that foreign-exchange controls are undesirable and difficult to implement, Asia will need to see agreements between central banks on currency swaps to defend its currencies.
There is also the question of whether creditor nations should continue to accumulate ballooning Western government debt. If the U.S. really returns to fiscal discipline, this problem may solve itself. Consumer demand for imports will fall rapidly, savings will rise and Asian surpluses will fall dramatically. A serious recession in 2009 in the United States may not be inevitable, but it is necessary to restore equilibrium.
The alternative, from a creditor-nation perspective, is that in an effort to achieve a soft landing for the United States, the mix of fiscal deficits and continuation of very low interest rates will assure continued inflation and erosion of the real value of U.S. debt. In which case creditor nations will have to make a choice between buying more bonds or seeing the U.S. currency slide further, eroding the value of their existing holdings and further crimping their exports.
For the longer term, there is the issue of what can be done to end the perceived institutional bias of the IMF, and give creditor nations a much larger say in its activities. Recent events have shown a remarkable divide between endless, often inaccurate and alarmist reports appearing in the Western financial media about South Korea's situation - the woes of its banks and the threats of a repeat of the Asian crisis - and coverage of Australia. Unlike South Korea, this "lucky country" continues to receive almost nothing but praise. Take for example the IMF report in September praising Australia's "sound macroeconomic policies." That report was issued despite the country's huge current account deficit (which remains at 5 percent of GDP), five years of rising commodity export prices, minimal foreign-exchange reserves, very high household debt and net foreign debt of $600 billion Australian dollars, or 65 percent of GDP.
South Korea's foreign reserves are six times larger, its current account deficit just one third of Australia's, its household debt just half that of Australia. Its foreign debts are roughly matched by its foreign assets.
Australia's situation - and indeed that of New Zealand - should actually be viewed as more perilous than that of South Korea. But as many Asians see it, the IMF and the London and New York capital markets have one rule for the old, rich, English-speaking nations and another for Asian upstarts. Doing something about that, however, requires a degree of solidarity not yet evident in the region.