Asian markets braced for new slump

South-east Asian markets battered by last week's financial typhoon will reopen today facing a period of extreme nervousness, exacerbated by criticisms made at the weekend by Alan Greenspan, the US Federal Reserve chairman, over the handling of the crisis.

Echoing many western investors, Mr Greenspan said current levels of "transparency" were too low and called for international financial institutions to intervene to force the issue.

Addressing a meeting of central bankers in Wyoming, he said the lessons of both the Thai crisis and the earlier difficulties faced by Mexico showed that governments must provide reliable and up-to-date economic and financial information. Mr Greenspan's is the most high profile of a number of criticisms by western financial observers of the handling of the economic problems of the region.

At the same weekend meeting, Stanley Fisher, deputy managing director of the International Monetary Fund, said Thailand could have averted the crisis had it heeded IMF advice earlier: "We were very frank with the Thais. It didn't prevent the crisis. You cannot force a government to take action."

Last week's panic selling of stocks wiped billions of dollars off bourses in Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and beleaguered Thailand. Even the normally resilient markets in Hong Kong and Tokyo received a hammering as jittery investors pulled out their funds in what may be a large-scale reassessment of Asian economies.

"We are certainly witnessing the effect of a crisis in confidence amongst investors," said Brett Williams, a senior analyst with Krungthai Thanakit Securities in Bangkok. "There may be a global rethink under way in the markets, and to some extent the falls we saw last week in the South-east Asian region could reflect a real concern that Asia may not be as good a deal as it once was."

The catalyst in this re-think has undoubtedly been the devastating financial crisis in Thailand. Low exports, a badly overstretched banking sector and a slumped property market which has left lenders saddled with more than $70bn in private sector debts, has plunged this once booming Tiger economy into its first recession for more than two decades.

Despite innumerable plans by the country's leadership to halt the decline, none was successful and a humiliating de-facto devaluation of the Thai currency, the baht, was followed last month by the acceptance of a stringent $16bn economic bail-out package agreed with the IMF.

But the package has done little to restore the collapse in investor confidence that preceded it, and financiers are concerned that the problems which led to Thailand's economic malaise may also have the potential to emerge in neighbouring countries.

"At the moment there are only anecdotal signs that things could be wrong," said Mr Williams, "but more scrutiny of these countries' economies may reveal problems not unlike Thailand's just waiting to happen. The market will judge."

This contagion effect, the knock-on of Thailand's woes, may account for much of last week's turmoil on the South-east Asian markets.

Sharing a "risk-group" with Thailand, the other nations and economies of the region may be suffering as a direct result of their neighbour's poor image and failing financial structures.

Analysts separate out Japan and Hong Kong, where different influences - Wall Street in the case of the former and domestic issues in the case of Japan - are seen as more important.

But the rest of Asia has, more or less, moved as a financial entity, a fact repeatedly derided by several governments, most notably that of Malaysia.

The country's outspoken Prime Minister, Mahathir Mohamad, has publicly cursed George Soros, the American financier, for attacking South-east Asian currencies for political reasons.