Managing the problems of surging capital inflows

Vincent Lingga, The Jakarta Post, Jakarta

President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, Vice President Jusuf Kalla, chief economics minister Boediono and Bank Indonesia Governor Burhanuddin Abdullah asserted Friday the economy is resilient enough to weather any sudden decline in the risk appetite of foreign portfolio investors, as the rupiah fell almost 1.5 percent after a few months of steady appreciation.

Yudhoyono summoned his economics ministers for a special briefing Friday afternoon, Kalla convened a special news conference after Friday's Islamic prayer services and Boediono, Burhanuddin, Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati and other economics ministers held a breakfast meeting earlier Friday, all to discuss the same issue: the problems of burgeoning capital inflows.

They all played down the risks of sudden reversals of foreign portfolio (hot) capital inflows, citing the country's foreign reserves of US$49.2 billion, strong economic fundamentals, expanding exports, a higher pace of investment and low inflation.

The rupiah gained a lot in recent months on the back of short-term capital inflows into local stocks, bonds and money market instruments, pushing the local unit to a one-year high last Thursday, while the Jakarta Stock Exchange boomed to an all-time high of over 2,000.

So, why the sudden uproar among the top economic policy-makers and economic management team?

It seems to have been set off by Sri Mulyani's statement Thursday, which was headlined by several newspapers Friday. The finance minister, who had just returned from a May 5 meeting of East Asian finance ministers and central bank governors in Kyoto, Japan, said the surge in capital inflows to Asia in recent months was similar to those that caused the financial crisis that started in Thailand in mid-1997.

What Sri Mulyani told the press was, by and large, the concerns of the Kyoto meeting, which consequently adopted a basic agreement to pool almost $3 trillion in foreign reserves to prevent the kind of currency runs that led to the Asian financial crisis a decade ago.

Many seemed to read too deeply into those remarks, apprehensive that the current situation was as vulnerable to speculative attacks on the rupiah as that in mid-1997. Hence, the 1.5 percent decline in the rupiah on Friday.

Many in the government appeared shocked by Sri Mulyani's remarks, criticizing what they saw as an exaggeration of the dangers of capital inflows.

True, the condition of Indonesia's economy and the capacity of the country's state and economic institutions are now much stronger than in 1997, but that does not negate the threat of a sudden change in the sentiment of foreign portfolio investors.

Bank Indonesia, like the central banks in most other Asian countries, has been struggling with the problem of steadily surging short-term capital inflows, wondering what to do with these reserves.

The accumulation of reserves, derived from hot money rather than foreign direct investment, is not an inherent sign of strength, but actually represent deep-seated structural imbalances, which policy makers need to address.

This is the message Sri Mulyani wanted to convey.

Under the surging capital inflows and rising foreign trade surplus, Bank Indonesia, in a bid to keep the rupiah rate competitive, must buy up dollars, thereby fueling money supply growth. This loose liquidity is driving up asset prices and potentially stoking inflationary pressures.

As Frederic Neumann, an economist at HSBC bank in Hong Kong, recently observed, "by most yardsticks Asian central banks have long surpassed the levels of reserve holdings deemed sufficient to counter a potential external payments crisis".

Indeed, as Sri Mulyani noted last week, the main macroeconomic risks facing the region, including Indonesia, at present are the consequences of unmanageable balance of payments surpluses, which might spread Asian crisis-style through the region.

What the government is encountering now is excess financial market liquidity, not economic liquidity.

Yet, making Indonesia more vulnerable to currency speculators is that while most of the foreign hot money flowing into other East Asian countries is parked in stocks, the bulk of recent inflows to Indonesia went mostly into fixed income and money market instruments.

The excess liquidity Bank Indonesia is now coping with is tremendously huge. As of last month there was more than Rp 250 trillion ($27.8 billion) of private funds, including Rp 45 trillion of foreign hot money, invested in central bank debt instruments (SBI). In addition, another Rp 77 billion of foreign money was parked in government bonds and billions more in stocks. This is quite a mountain of ammunition that could immediately be used to attack the rupiah anytime the risk appetite of foreign portfolio investors falls.

The central bank has said it has the leverage to intervene in the market to prevent too much market volatility, pointing out that prudent banking regulations and economic reforms over the past few years would minimize the impact of sudden reversals of capital inflows.

However, such assurances are meaningless unless the real business climate is conducive for attracting new investment, particularly foreign direct investment, allowing for a high rate of bank lending expansion.
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