10 years after crisis, Asia must trim reliance on exports, attract investment

SINGAPORE (AP): Asia must reduce its heavy reliance on exports and attract more foreign investment if it wants to sustain its robust turnaround after the 1997-98 financial crisis, an International Monetary Fund expert said Tuesday.

"Asia continues to rely heavily on net exports as an engine of economic expansion," David Burton, director of the IMF's Asia-Pacific Department said.

"Over time, greater reliance on domestic demand will be needed to assure a more balanced and sustainable pattern of growth," he said in a speech to the Singapore Press Club that addressed challenges facing Asia 10 years after the financial crisis, whicherupted on July 2, 1997, the day the Thai baht plunged.

Burton said one way to address the problem would be to bolster foreign investment, which hasn't recovered strongly in the region - except for China - following a sharp drop 10 years ago.

"While pre-crisis levels of investment were certainly excessive, the limited recovery is puzzling," Burton said.

The crisis started when foreign capital flows, which had sustained investment in property and other projects, rushed out of Thailand, leading to a rapid devaluation of the baht. The crisis spread through the region, with Indonesia and South Korea also falling into recessions.

Contributing factors to the crisis were the lack of transparency and weaknesses in the corporate and banking sectors, Burton said. In many cases, large unsecured loans were given to business cronies of the political bosses, and the loans could not be retrieved when the companies went under.

Burton said improving corporate governance and macroeconomic policy frameworks and broadening and deepening financial systems would help support investment and rebalance growth.

The IMF bailed out Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea with billions in emergency loans, but later came under criticism for imposing harsh conditions - raising interest rates, cutting public spending - that many believe exacerbated the crisis.

In China, which was largely untouched by the Asian financial crisis, investment and exports have expanded rapidly, but more needs to be done to boost domestic consumption, Burton said.(***)
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