You would expect a year marking the 10th anniversary of the Asian crisis to be hectic, and 2007 didn’t disappoint. Coup attempts, subprime fallout, terrorist attacks, scandals, volatile stocks, elections, you name it.
Yet, the biggest news wasn’t a singular event; it was a not-so-subtle shift in Asia’s role in global markets. Growth in Asia boomed as more developed regions plodded along. As the dollar lost its footing, currencies such as the Thai baht surged 18% and the Indian rupee jumped 15%. And as the US’ clout waned, China blanketed the globe, grabbing resources, making new friends and ignoring treasury secretary Henry Paulson’s demands to revalue the yuan.
The real shift, though, was about purse strings. A decade ago, Asia’s financial meltdown set in motion a series of humiliations that forced governments to allow Western investors to buy assets at knockdown prices. Now, it’s Wall Street’s turn. Unfolding troubles in credit markets have the West holding its hat out to cash-rich Asian states. As 2007 draws to a close, some awards seem in order for the countries and people that, for better or worse, helped shape Asia’s year. Drum roll, please.
“Money Talks” award: To Asian and Arab governments awash in riches from rising currency reserves and oil prices. Two years ago, Dubai couldn’t buy US ports because of “national security risks”. Now, few in the West are questioning selling off stakes in US financial institutions to Dubai, China, Singapore and others.
You would think a nation losing control of its financial infrastructure is at least as big a risk as a couple of ports. But with credit markets reeling, it’s hard for Citigroup Inc. to decline a multibillion-dollar lifeline from Abu Dhabi Investment Authority. Or for Morgan Stanley and Bear Stearns Companies Inc. to say no to state-linked Chinese money. Expect such deals to come under greater scrutiny in 2008.
“Greetings Earthlings” award: To Japan’s top government spokesman, Nobutaka Machimura, who last week thrilled science fiction fans by stating that he “definitely” believes UFOs exist.
“Bulldozer” award: To Lee Myung Bak, who won last week’s election in South Korea. Neither corruption allegations nor record-low voter turnout kept Lee from his goal of becoming Korea’s first president from a corporate background. It also brought new meaning to his nickname, “the Bulldozer.” The moniker comes from his days at the construction arm of Hyundai Group. Now, it also could refer to Lee’s push to change an economy held back by the policies of outgoing President Roh Moo Hyun. With so much red tape through which to bulldoze, Lee shouldn’t expect much of a honeymoon.
“Never Mind” award: To Bank of Japan governor Toshihiko Fukui, who for nearly five years threatened to raise interest rates amid daily predictions that deflation had been defeated. It turns out he may need to cut rates as economists buzz about a Japanese recession in 2008. A few years ago, Fukui was toasted by financial magazines as the world’s best central banker, even better than Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan. Given the subprime mess Greenspan let fester, perhaps Fukui isn’t looking so bad after all.
“Howard’s End” award: To Kevin Rudd, Australia’s new prime minister. This time last year, Rudd was a little known Opposition politician. Today, Rudd is the talk of political circles after ending John Howard’s 10-year-plus reign. Rudd immediately signed the Kyoto Protocol, simultaneously putting Australia at the forefront of combating climate change and isolating US President George W. Bush. In a year of tepid political leadership, Rudd shone brightly.
“Toxic Shock” award: To China, which triggered a global search for goods not made within its borders. How devastating 2007 was for the world’s factory floor was summed in a recent cartoon by David Horsey of Hearst Corp. In it, a boy sitting on Santa’s lap says: “I want toys that aren’t toxic and aren’t made by little kids in Asian sweatshops.” Santa replies: “Wow! You REALLY believe in Santa Claus!”
Rather than clamping down immediately on makers of contaminated food, tainted pet products, defective toys and other quality-control nightmares, China blamed the media for hyping the story. In 2008, we will see how much dithering permanently tainted the Made-in-China brand.
“Teflon” award: Shared by President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan and President Gloria Arroyo of the Philippines, for clinging to power amid continued efforts to oust them. Musharraff outmanoeuvred opponents by declaring emergency. Arroyo survived yet another coup attempt and yet more allegations of corruption. Anyone looking for the secret to staying in power should put down their Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt histories. Musharraf and Arroyo seem to be writing the definitive book on the issue even as we speak.
“Defying Gravity” award: To Asia’s equity markets, which had yet another stellar year. While China’s stock bubble got most of the focus—the benchmark CSI 300 Index was up 163% in local currency terms as of 21 December—double digit gains were widespread. As of 21 December, shares in Australia, Bangladesh, Hong Kong, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam were up 20% or more. With Asian currencies set to rise further, 2008 could be another solid year for the region’s equities.
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