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Rates markets turn up heat on Asia's central banks

Tom Westbrook
·4-min read

By Tom Westbrook

SINGAPORE (Reuters) - As Brazil, Russia and Turkey lift interest rates to ward off inflation and currency pressures, investors are beginning to prod Asia's central banks to follow suit, setting up a potential showdown with countries keeping rates at record lows.

South Korea and Indonesia, where central bankers have cut hard and downplayed the prospect of imminent tightening, are most firmly in the spotlight and interest rate swaps have raced to price in rate rises within a year.

Hikes in Thailand, Malaysia and India over the next 12 months are also in investors' sights and the danger is that the mood could force policymakers to choke off support sooner than they please, or risk capital flight and a currency selloff.

The moves also open a gap against benchmark U.S. short-term rates, which have barely moved and, now that Brazil, Russia and Turkey have made unexpectedly bold hikes, leave Asia's central banks lagging both their peers and the market.

While economists see a growing distinction between the risk profiles of Asian emerging markets and other more vulnerable blocs, they warn Asia nonetheless remains exposed to sudden shocks to global sentiment.

"Asia central banks now need to be a bit more cautious," said Sonal Varma, chief economist for Asia ex-Japan at Nomura in Singapore, with historically low rates in the region and "choppy" global capital flows.

"Some sort of additional compensation in terms of risk will need to be given," she said, especially in countries such as Indonesia where foreigners hold more than a fifth of government debt and the financial system is vulnerable to capital flight.

Bank Indonesia (BI) cut its benchmark rate by 25 basis points to 3.5% only in February, and yet swaps are already priced for about 50 basis points of hikes over the next 12 months, according to analysts at DBS Bank in Singapore.

Binay Chandgothia, a portfolio manager at Principal Global Investors, said while BI might need to hike rates if the rupiah weakens towards 15,500 per dollar, about 7% from current levels, the central bank probably has the room to hold a while.

"If they hike, they'll probably have to hike at least twice to bring stability," he said, which could dampen domestic growth before local demand finds a footing.

"Exports have been driving Asia, and I think the markets are beginning to think about the next leg - that's where domestic consumption and forced rate hikes are creating some sort of concern," he said.

(Grapic: Asia's short-term rates market positioned for hikes: https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/xlbvgxxekpq/Pasted%20image%201617092714466.png)

(Graphic: Asia's benchmark policy rates: https://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/mkt/jbyvraawype/Pasted%20image%201617092512013.png)

LONG SHADOW

Concern has also filtered through to emerging market stocks, which are lagging their developed peers, and currencies where dealers see a stronger dollar driving an increase in demand for options products to hedge against the risk of even further greenback gains.

Asia's central bankers have so far held firm, and, to be sure, a slew of investors and advisors think rates markets have run too far ahead.

"In my view, investors are drawing incorrect parallels between now and recent past episodes of rate hike cycles," said Nader Naeimi, head of dynamic markets at AMP Capital.

In 2015 and 2018, he said, emerging market economies hiked rates in the face of faltering growth to stem outflows, while this time growth and inflation are firming.

DBS rates strategist Duncan Tan has recommended fading the move in swaps markets, including in South Korea where last week central bank chief Lee Ju-yeol made an out-of-cycle statement to emphasise there is no rush to tighten.

Swaps there have retreated slightly, but they are still aggressively priced for about 30 basis points of tightening over the next 12 months and almost 50 basis points over the next 18 months.

Even if Asia's economies are better placed for recovery than peers in Latin America or Europe, and the central banks well equipped with reserves, the perception that authorities are caught behind the curve may be enough to scare away global cash.

"No matter what Indonesia is still an emerging market...so there are always going to some who take that bucket approach," said Wellian Wiranto an economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore.

"And when dealing with a country like Indonesia, there's always that long shadow of crises of the past."

(Reporting by Tom Westbrook. Additional reporting by Cynthia Kim in Seoul and Gayatri Suroyo in Jakarta; Editing by Sam Holmes)