Asian effect is hitting home

ALMOST a year after the devaluation of the Thai baht triggered economic chaos in South-east Asia, the region's economic woes are starting to pinch in the UK.

There are as yet no headline-grabbing numbers, but Asia's troubles are affecting imports and exports, direct investment and the property market. The Confederation of British Industry and the Department of Trade and Industry estimate the crisis will trim up to 1 per cent from GDP growth this year.

On imports and exports, the picture is only just starting to become clear. The DTI reports that first-quarter exports to South Korea - the only market offering full data - fell 50 per cent to pounds 50m compared with the same period last year. Exports also fell significantly to Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Hong Kong, according to the DTI.

The decline in UK exports to the region can be explained by the collapse of local currencies there. Asian companies are finding they no longer have the funds to pay for goods ordered, which in local currency terms have doubled or tripled in price, leaving export credit insurance companies to pick up the tab.

The Dutch company NCM Credit Insurance last year imposed a Dfl34.8m (pounds 11m) provision for defaults on payments for exports to Asia on a total net profit of Dfl30.2m. The company last year covered world trade worth pounds 80bn.

"There are areas of concern such as Japan which may require cover on tougher terms and possibly higher rates," said NCM spokesman Gary Hicks. Another company source said there were increasing numbers of cases where buyers for exports in South-east Asia were unable to pay because of the currency devaluations, which have pushed up prices of foreign goods. "We're bearing the brunt of that because we have to shell out for contracts not being paid for," said the source.

A spokesman for the DTI said: "Imports have not yet been affected by the crisis." But signs of a dramatic rise in cheap imports from the region can be gleaned from the shipping companies that carry the goods over here. Last week the Far Eastern Freight Conference, a group of shipping companies that together account for 65 per cent of all trade between Asia and Europe, increased its freight

rates from the region by 15 per cent because there is a shortage of shipping containers in South-east Asian ports as fewer goods are carried to the regions and more are being sent here. "Imports are growing very fast. All the shipping lines have space problems coming in to Europe and are obviously suffering going out," said an employee of APL UK.

City economists agree. "Imports from Asia are picking up sharply in volume terms," said David Owen, UK economist with Kleinwort Benson. "Asian companies do seem to be exporting their way out of difficulties."

Mr Owen said the increase in imports is not yet showing up on import data calculated in terms of value because the goods coming in are so cheap..

Further evidence can found in government figures on relative trade volumes from non-European Union states to the EU (see graph on page 1). Although the country of origin of the imports is not stated, there has been a flood of imports from outside the EU in terms of volume, with no other possible explanation other than the Asian effect.

Asian government figures also show a significant rise in exports from the region, with Malaysian exports growing 43 per cent in the first four months of the year, Vietnamese exports up 13 per cent in the first five months and Thai exports up 8.3 per cent in March on February.

The bad trade news on the import and export front follows the drying up of Asian capital injected into the British economy. Direct investment from the Far East in Britain was the first economic activity to suffer and has now virtually stopped, jeopardising the creation of up to 100,000 jobs over the next decade in investment according to some of the most pessimistic estimates.

A number of big investments are being postponed, including the pounds 2bn second phase of Hyundai's semiconductor plant in Scotland and LG's semiconductor plant in Wales.

The UK property market is also feeling the impact, although the buoyant economy has so far managed to cushion the housing market from a resultant fall in prices.

"Of particular relevance has been the withdrawal of Asian purchasers from the London residential market and the upper end of provincial and country markets," said Steve Mallen, partner and head of research at the international estate agents Knight Frank

"Asian investors have withdrawn from the commercial property market as well, not yet by enough to destabilise it, although the real question is: is it going to get any worse?" Mr Mallen added.

Uppermost in his mind is a possible collapse in the Japanese stock market which could trigger falls in other markets. "There are significant pieces of London property still owned by Asian, particularly Japanese, institutions. A continuing crisis might force them into distress sale positions" said Mr Mallen.