Biggest currency rout since 1997 puts Asia central banks in bind
The surge in the dollar has set Asian currencies on course for their worst quarter since 1997 and created a dilemma for central bankers.
Policymakers already grappling with the fastest inflation in decades now face stark choices: forcefully raise borrowing costs to defend currencies and risk hurting growth, spend reserves that took years to build to intervene in foreign exchange markets, or simply step away and let the market run its course.
"Central banks are thrust into a difficult position to tighten, even as the recovery from the pandemic is not yet complete and with the specter of a US recession ahead," said Eugenia Victorino, head of Asia strategy at Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken in Singapore. "Complicating the picture is the strong greenback, which adds to the pressure to tighten as weak currencies exacerbate imported inflation."
Most emerging Asian currencies fell on Wednesday, led by the South Korean won as investors increasingly worried about a US recession sought the safety of the dollar. The Philippine peso, India's rupee and the Thai baht also fell.
The Bloomberg JPMorgan Asia Dollar Index is poised for a 4.4% drop this quarter, the steepest since 1997 when the Asian financial crisis pummeled currencies. Central banks in Asia have lagged emerging-market peers in raising rates as they seek to boost the recovery from the pandemic. Albeit for different reasons, the yen has lost 11% of its value against the dollar since the end of March amid a growing yield differential as the Federal Reserve raises rates while the Bank of Japan sticks to its ultra-easy monetary policy.
But Asia's central banks may have to change tack as consumer prices steadily move up and weaker currencies add to concerns about imported inflation. Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas has signaled at least one more rate increase in August after two quarter-point moves, while Bank of Korea has kept the door open for a larger-than-usual hike in July.
"Inflation is proving to be persistent and central banks may have to move ahead of schedule and be even more aggressive than expected," said Eddie Cheung, senior emerging-markets strategist at Credit Agricole CIB in Hong Kong. "Growth is still holding up for the time being and that gives them leeway to focus on fighting inflation."
Faster and more aggressive rate hikes could bolster Asian currencies, which have all weakened this quarter as the Fed embarked on aggressive rate hikes, with the South Korean won and the Philippine peso falling more than 5% against the dollar.
Currency depreciation could cause regional central banks to tighten "if it adds to import-led inflation on top of the supply-side inflation already seen," Morgan Stanley economists led by Deyi Tan wrote in a report published Sunday. The analysts expect rate hikes to continue on surging inflation expectations.
Central banks have already drawn billions of dollars from their foreign-exchange reserves to slow the declines in their currencies. Stockpiles in Thailand and Indonesia have fallen to their lowest since 2020, as officials pledge to curb volatility in their currencies, while thus far holding off on raising rates.
But the worst may be yet to come for Asian currencies as the Fed has signaled another big increase in July, with traders pricing a 75 basis-point hike. Goldman Sachs has warned high-yielding currencies such as the Indian rupee and Indonesian rupiah may reel amid deteriorating external finances and as the Fed tightening spurs risk-off sentiment.
To be sure, even with currencies tanking, "central banks across the region are unlikely to go anywhere near matching the Fed's rate hikes like-for-like," Miguel Chanco, chief emerging Asia economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics Ltd., wrote in a report Monday. "Reserves remain ample, and are likely to continue to be used to lean against excessive currency volatility."