POLITICAL RISK NOW THE BIGGEST FEAR: NO BOTTOM IN SIGHT FOR RINGGIT AS INVESTORS FLEE NAJIB’S 1MDB-TAINTED REGIME
Currency hits levels last seen in 1998 as uncertainty over Trump, interest rates and 1MDB scandal create perfect storm – but government denies capital controls could be on the cards
The beaten down Malaysian ringgit is showing no signs of catching a break in the tail end of 2016.
The currency on Tuesday hovered near its lowest level since the height of the 1998 Asian Financial Crisis, as it reeled from a perfect storm of bearish factors including uncertainty about Donald Trump’s impending presidency in the United States, the acceleration of US interest rate hikes and a long-running corruption scandal linked to Prime Minister Najib Razak.
Some observers said the slump – the ringgit is poised to finish the year as Asia’s worst performing currency for a second year running – raised the spectre of a repeat of the controversial capital controls imposed in 1998.
The government has so far swatted away suggestions it will re-introduce such measures.
The ringgit traded at 4.4798 in Tuesday afternoon trade in Asia, according to Bloomberg. It had fallen to 4.4805 on Monday, its weakest point since January 1998.
It has lost six per cent since Trump’s shock victory in the US presidential election on November 8.
“The ringgit, like other emerging market currencies, has been badly hit by the anti-globalisation fears brought on by Donald Trump’s election and the US Fed’s accelerated plans for interest rate hikes,” said Stephen Innes, a Singapore-based senior trader at foreign exchange firm Oanda.
Song Seng Wun, an economist with CIMB Private Bank in Singapore, said “political risks” were exacerbating the ringgit’s slump.
Malaysia – which derives some 14 per cent of its national revenue from energy exports – has seen its economy hard hit by the ongoing global crude oil supply glut that has caused prices to slump.
Its currency has taken a further beating owing to the graft scandal involving its sovereign wealth arm 1MDB. The company is facing money laundering investigations in multiple jurisdictions including Singapore, Switzerland and the US. Najib, who set up the fund in 2009, denies any wrongdoing and insists the government is cooperating with international probes.
“The ringgit’s problems also lie with the fact that the 1MDB scandal has not left the headlines despite a lot of rhetoric otherwise and this is agitating global investors,” Innes said.
Asian countries like Malaysia, India, Indonesia and Thailand have seen their currencies take a beating after the Fed this month signalled plans to accelerate interest rate hikes in 2017. Such a move could induce investors to pull back their investments in these emerging markets in favour of higher returns in the US.
Trump’s election on a platform championing protectionism has also cast a pall over these trade-reliant economies. And economists say his plans for big ticket infrastructure spending could trigger an uptick in US domestic inflation, further compelling the Fed to put up interest rates to control prices. This will worsen capital pull-backs in Asia.
NO PEG BUT OTHER ONSHORE CONTROLS
Despite these concerns, Malaysian officials have brushed off suggestions they will re-introduce a currency peg or capital controls.
Former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad pegged the ringgit to 3.80 to the dollar in 1998, a measure that was kept in place until 2005. Mahathir pinned blame on “rogue speculators” like US billionaire George Soros for the ringgit’s rout during the 1998 financial crisis.
“We shouldn’t panic. We have the ecosystem to make it right. Just do the right thing and make sure political stability is intact,” Malaysia’s second foreign minister Johari Abdul Ghani was quoted by local media as saying on Monday.
“As far as the currency is concerned, we have to look at the fundamentals. If you get the right fundamentals, focus on what we are supposed to do, I think in a matter of time, the ringgit will come back to its original place,” he said.
Malaysia’s central bank in November sought to clamp down on the trading of “non-deliverable forward” (NDF) contracts, where international investors settle bets on the ringgit in US dollars.
This allows foreign investors – who own around a third of Malaysian government bonds – to hedge their exposure to the currency. The central bank has no control over such trades in overseas jurisdictions. It has attempted to make offshore banks guarantee through signed letters that they will not trade the ringgit on NDF markets.
“The central bank is not going to stand in the way of the genuine trading…but they also want to make sure there is a level playing field and that the currency is not hijacked by speculators,” Song, the Singapore-based economist, said.
He said the “fair value” of the ringgit was likely between 3.90 to 4.00 per US dollar, a level unseen since August.