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Asia after the pandemic storm

Govinda Finn
Govinda Finn • 4 min read
Asia after the pandemic storm
Covid-19 has hit everybody hard, but Asia may be well-placed to weather the storm.
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SINGAPORE (June 19): The world has been battered by the coronavirus pandemic. Most economic activity has been suspended. The Asia Pacific region will not escape unscathed. Decades of globalisation ensures that we are all in this together.

That said, there are three reasons why this region may be better placed to weather the storm.

First, Asian countries have been among the most successful in tackling the public health crisis. Many were among the first to restrict the movement of people; test populations at a meaningful scale; and do contract tracing.

As of June 1, South Korea had kept coronavirus deaths to 271. Fatalities in Taiwan and Hong Kong were in single-digits. China, despite initial missteps, was reopening for business. Vietnam, defying the odds, had reported no deaths.

To be sure, inadequate testing elsewhere prevents public health authorities from responding effectively. Less wealthy Asian countries are especially vulnerable. Poor healthcare infrastructure and a weaker ability to bear the economic costs of a prolonged lockdown, cloud their outlook.

But, as a region, Asia’s handling of the public health crisis compares favourably with many other parts of the world. Policymakers got serious early on. Populations, in general, trusted their governments and cooperated with their governments.

Asia has demonstrated a level of competence and self-discipline that may yet mitigate the damage caused. It should be in relatively good shape once the economic recovery arrives.

Next, Asian policymakers have followed a “lite” version of the advanced economy playbook. The region’s central bankers have room to escalate their response because they do not face the same constraints as other major economies (interest rates are not close to zero).

Central banks, such as those in South Korea, Indonesia and Thailand, have also initiated asset purchases, but at a modest scale so far.

The size of these purchases will grow, even though regional central banks are at different stages of preparedness. These quantitative easing (QE) programmes, a major feature of the global financial crisis more than a decade ago, help inject liquidity into the financial system.

Funding and credit easing policies (such as India’s Long-Term Repo Operations) are being stepped up. So far the size of these schemes represent a tiny fraction of GDP. There is scope for further expansion of unconventional stimulus policies.

Asian countries tend to be much better financed and governed than during earlier crises. Public sector debt-to-GDP is generally more manageable, with the ratio ranging between 30%–55% for most Asian economies (except Japan, India and Singapore). Public sector in Asia has room to borrow more to fund stimulus efforts. Given the size of the fiscal expansion already announced, deficits are likely to widen. But this is from a low base.

The dynamic between private and public sector savings will matter. In particular, a reduction in private investment — or a rise in savings — implies that space is opening up for more government borrowing, without impacting the current account.

Last but not least, bigger developed economies in Asia are not as reliant on exports as they would have been, say, a decade ago, in the wake of the global financial crisis.

For some years, policymakers have emphasised domestic consumption and improve service sector productivity.

The growth of middle-income households has coincided with a slow but steady rise in the share of private consumption of overall GDP. For economies in the East Asia and Pacific region, household spending now accounts for 49.1% of economic activity.

There is now a greater emphasis on income-led growth. Calls for higher wages in more developed economies and, more recently, cash handouts as part of relief measures, indicate the importance of consumption.

However, one side effect of these developments has been higher consumer debt, especially mortgage debt. While red hot property markets may have caused concerns, a virus-linked property slump would damage consumer sentiment.

Furthermore, as long as the global economy remains shaky, even a large domestic market would feel the impact from weaker manufacturing and exports.

Looking ahead, a potential source of growth could lie in closing the productivity gap between Asian and western economies. Asian productivity has been in decline for years. Productivity per capita GDP fell to some 4.56% last year, after peaking at 9.97% in 2007.

Boosting productivity, especially in the service sector, will be key to growth. This would require opening up to greater competition, as well as spending more on education and retraining to equip workers with new skills.

Govinda Finn is Japan and developed Asia economist at Aberdeen Standard Investments

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