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Malaysia has a freely floating Renggit – and thank god for that!

The Chinese surprise devaluation yesterday and has put currencies across Asia further under pressure. This is only a natural and the most stupid thing local Asian central bankers could do would be to fight it. Rather as China moves closer to a freely floating exchange rate it should inspire other Asian countries to do the same thing and I am therefore happy to see that the Vietnamese central bank this morning has widened the fluctuation band for the Dong and in that sense moved a bit closer to a freely floating Dong. Even though the hand has been forced somewhat by the PBoC’s devaluation yesterday it is nonetheless positive that we are seeing a move towards more freely floating exchange rates in Asia.

In that since it is not a “currency war”, but rather a liberation war, which in the end hopefully will secure monetary sovereignty to Asian nations such as Vietnam.

The floating Renggit is a blessing – also when it drops

This morning we are also seeing big moves in the Malaysian Renggit and the Renggit has already been under some pressure recently on the back of a worsening of Malaysia’s terms-of-trade and increased political uncertainty.

The sell-off in the Renggit has sparked some local concerns and the demands for the central bank to “do something” to prop up the Renggit are surely on the rise. However, it is extremely important to remember that the problem for Malaysia is not that the Renggit is weakening. Rarther the Renggit-weakness is a symptom of the shocks that have hit the Malaysian economy – lower commodity prices (Malaysia is a commodity exporter), increased political uncertainty and Chinese growth concerns.

None of this is good news for the Malaysian economy, but the fact that this is reflected in the Renggit is not a problem. Rather it would be a massive problem if Malaysia today had had a fixed exchange rate regime has was the case during the Asian crisis in 1997.

So the Malaysian central bank (BNM) should be saluted for sticking to the floating exchange rate policy, which has served Malaysia very well for nearly exactly a decade.

In fact BNM should move even closer to a purely free float and waste no opportunity to stress again and again that the value of the Renggit is determined by market forces and that the BNM’s sole purpose of monetary policy is to ensure nominal stability. The BNM should of course observe exchange rate developments in the sense it gives useful information about the monetary stance, but never again should the BNM try to peg or quasi-peg the Renggit to a foreign currency. That would be the recipe for disaster. As would such stupid ideas as currency and capital controls.

My friend Hishamh over at the Economics Malaysia blog has an extremely good post on his take on the Renggit situation. You should really read all of it. The post not only tells you why the freely floating Renggit is the right thing for Malaysia, but it is also extremely good in terms of making you understand why every (ok most…) countries in Asia should move in the direction of the kind of currency regime that they have in Malaysia.

Here is a bit of Hishamh’s excellent comments:

Another week, another multi-year low for the Ringgit. Since BNM appears to have stopped intervening, the Ringgit has continued to weaken against the USD, to what appears to be everyone’s consternation. There is this feeling that BNM should do something, anything, to halt the slide – cue: rumours over another Ringgit peg and capital controls.

To me, this is all a bit silly. Why should BNM lift a finger? Both economic theory and the empirical evidence is very clear – in the wake of a terms of trade shock, the real exchange rate should depreciate, even if it overshoots. NOT doing so would create a situation where the currency would be fundamentally overvalued, and we would therefore be risking another 1997-98 style crisis. Note the direction of causality here – it isn’t the weakening of the exchange rate that gave rise to the crisis, but rather the avoidance of the adjustment.

Pegging the currency under these circumstances would be spectacularly stupid. I’ll have more to say about this in my next post.

….

In the present circumstances, it’s not even clear why BNM should in fact intervene. You can make the argument that the Ringgit is fundamentally undervalued, and the FX market has overshot; but I have no idea why this is considered “bad”. If you want to live in a world of free capital flows, FX volatility is the price you pay.

… Malaysia’s latest numbers puts reserve cover at 7.6 months retained imports, and 1.1 times short term external debt, versus the international benchmark of 3 months and 1 times. Malaysia is at about par for the rest of the region, apart from outliers like Singapore and Japan.

Australia and France on the other hand, have just two months import cover, while the US, Canada and Germany keep just one month. You might argue that since these are advanced economies, there’s little concern over their international reserves. I would argue that that viewpoint is totally bogus. Debt defaults and currency crises were just as common in advanced economies under the Bretton Woods system. The lesson here is more about commitment to floating rather than the level of reserves. One can’t help but see the double standards involved here.

…All in all, this alarmism betrays a lack of general economic knowledge in Malaysia, even among people who should know better. Or maybe I’m being too harsh – it’s really a lack of knowledge of international macro and monetary economics.

…The Bank of Canada, the Reserve Bank of Australia, and the Reserve Bank of New Zealand, have all aggressively cut interest rates and talked down their own currencies – it’s the right thing to do in the face of a commodity price crash. BNM on the other hand has to walk and talk softly, softly, because Malaysians seem to think the Ringgit ought to defy economic laws.

Bravo! Please follow Hishamh! His blog posts are always good and insightful.

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If you want to hear me speak about these topics or other related topics don’t hesitate to contact my speaker agency Specialist Speakers – e-mail: daniel@specialistspeakers.com or roz@specialistspeakers.com.

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