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By Philip Bowring - International Herald Tribune

- MELTDOWN: Asia's Boom, Bust and Beyond. By Mark L. Clifford and Pete Engardio. 24 pages. dollars 28. Prentice Hall Press

Reviewed by Philip Bowring


SO many books about the Asian crisis have already been published that yet another, almost three years after the crisis broke, may seem superfluous. But Mark Clifford and Pete Engardio, Business Week writers with several years of experience in covering East Asia, have written one of the more useful.

Timing, however, in publishing as in investment, is all. Authors who are too right too soon suffer the fates of the prophets in their own lands. Latecomers must not only write a ''better mousetrap,'' they must find ways of gaining attention. One hopes that this book, which makes no claims to originality, will win rewards through superior distribution.

It covers the crisis and its aftermath, describes many of the leading personalities and discusses in an evenhanded way the complex issue of where the blame for it lay. For anyone wanting a concise account of the recent past, or a primer for future reference as the events of the past five years fade into memory, this is the best there is. It has pace when needed to describe the world of hubris, fast money and policy failures that led to the crisis. And it has depth when addressing the underlying issues.

Three hundred pages of the sometimes breathless prose, verbal clichés and unremarkable quotes of weekly magazine journalism can grate after a while. But it is an easy enough read, with pen portraits of key figures well interwoven with the events and their causes. This is a significant feat given the spread of countries to be covered, the number of colorful and important players, and the mass of material available.

The authors might have brushed up on the history that occupies the first two chapters. Thais will be surprised to learn that Prem Tinsulanonda seized power in 1976 and then ran a ''police state.'' But Clifford and Engardio know the period immediately before and during the crisis very well. They met the players and reported the events at first hand. They are on especially firm ground in covering South Korea - Clifford wrote ''Troubled Tiger,'' an in-depth and insightful account of Korea's looming problems written three years before the storm broke.

This book is balanced in its assessments of the various factors that led to the crisis, including the innate instability of the world financial system that gave birth to the debacle of Long-Term Capital Management, the giant hedge fund. It is fair to the views of players like Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad of Malaysia, who said the fault lay more with the system than with crony capitalism, state intervention or the Asian ambition to catch up with the West. But it does not pass over Mahathir's attacks on Jews and the jailing of Anwar Ibrahim.

Asians might find that the authors rely excessively on quotes from multinational businessmen, particularly the employees of Western institutions. The greed of some of these groups and the corruption, as well as youthful misjudgments, of some of their employees have been given scant coverage by writers more fearful of retribution from Western firms than from Asian former presidents.

The generalizations that arise when covering a continent with constituents as different as the Koreas and Indonesia are often suspect. Was there ever really an Asia except in the minds of Western lenders? Perhaps not. But there was an Asian crisis, for sure, with some themes common to most of the participants. And for a book of this sort generalizations are not only inevitable. They are necessary.

The authors' conclusions rightly warn of the long-term cost to the countries involved in domestic and foreign debt. After the cyclical recovery, much slower growth is inevitable, and these countries will have to accept that there can be no return to the policies of the past.

But the American authors seem to have forgotten that Japan is still a remarkably innovative nation, exporting capital and know-how to its neighbors. And they have forgotten the hubris that hit East Asia in the mid-'90s. The future, they suggest, lies with the Western models, the Microsofts and Dells that are leaving Asian firms in the dust. Yes the United States is booming: new paradigm of growth, stock-market euphoria, exploding debt, huge current account deficits. Haven't we been here before?