Rapid increases in private sector debt across Asia could leave some countries vulnerable as interest rates return to more normal levels, Changyong Rhee, director in the Asia and Pacific department at the International Monetary Fund, has warned.
Credit growth has been seen not only in China but also in many other Asian developing and frontier economies. But while public sector debt in the region — with some exceptions —– have remained stable, corporate and household debt have jumped sharply.
“That means that when normalisation happens, it can have a negative impact in domestic investment and consumption,” Rhee told GlobalMarkets. “We’re not expecting another round of crisis in Asia in the near term as it is much more resilient, but in many countries, the banks’ balance sheet is not sufficient and they need more capital. “Together with that, what we are worried about is that normalisation can have some negative impact on growth prospects in Asia, because of tightening interest rates. Countries which have large debts and weak balance sheets will be most affected,” he added.
The US Federal Reserve’s slow but steady interest rate hike trajectory is not the only cause of concern. Closer to home, some are also looking at Japan. Although Japan has not explicitly announced a normalisation strategy, Bank of Japan’s annualised net purchases of government bonds have declined from ¥82.8tr in July 2016 to ¥63.4tr in September 2017, according to the central bank. Tightening monetary policies can certainly wreak havoc on capital inflows into Asia. But for some Southeast Asian economies, the fear of a slowdown in foreign direct investment is more acute.
“Rising rates might affect our region, particularly in terms of movement of capital,” Vathana Dalaloy, deputy government of the Laos central bank, told GlobalMarkets. “But because of the degree of development in the financial sector, we do not expect it to significantly affect Laos. However, in terms of foreign direct investment, that might be something we will focus on.” Laos is already taking steps to encourage FDI, by streamlining the process of foreign investment and implementing a new foreign investment law earlier this year, she added. The IMF said in its regional Asia Pacific outlook update this week that low interest rates could exacerbate financial risks in countries such as Vietnam and the Philippines where inflation is low but credit growth has been very high.