International Markets: Asia - At last, the clouds are lifted

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The Independent Online
As South Korea clutched a $57bn lifeline from the IMF last week, stocks rallied from Seoul to Singapore. Hong Kong rounded out its best week in two-and-a-half years and, for the first time in weeks, money managers in Asia had some good news for their clients.

But even as stocks rallied - Korea's benchmark index surged almost 9 per cent on Friday - the Indonesian rupiah and Malaysian ringgit fell to record lows.

"It's not about currencies, it's not about Malaysia's trade figures; it's the whole region against the dollar, and every Tom, Dick and Harry is selling Asia to buy dollars," said Chia Woon Khien, head of Asian economic research at Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken in Singapore.

Last month, US money managers withdrew almost $3bn from Asian stock markets on a bet that Asian economies would slow, according to Salomon Brothers Smith Barney. That figure more than offsets the total inflow of funds last year into Asia, where economies are expected to slow next year to their lowest pace in 15 years.

Asian central banks drove up interest rates this year to fend off attacks on their currencies by making local deposits more attractive. Jakarta's three-month Interbank Offer Rate has almost doubled in six months to more than 22 per cent.

Granted, weaker currencies bolster exports by making products cheaper in world markets - good news for export-dependent Taiwan, where the benchmark stock index gained 4.7 per cent this week.

Asia's woes are also forcing governments to open once-shuttered markets. Korea said this week that foreign investors will now be allowed to own as much as 50 per cent of a company's shares, up from just 7 per cent. The announcement, part of the IMF rescue package, spurred Friday's record one-day percentage gain in Korean stocks.

Stocks also rose in Hong Kong, Asia's biggest market outside Japan. The Hang Seng Index rose more than 9 per cent last week. Malaysian stocks also surged after the government vowed to slash spending, shelve public works projects and cut imports to reduce the current account deficit.

Still, few investors are betting that the worst is over. Stock market indices in Korea, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand have all lost more than half their value this year.

"It looks like everybody here is going to have a very subdued Christmas," said Gary Greenberg, deputy managing director at Peregrine Asset Management (HK), which manages about $600m in Asian stocks.

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