Fri, Dec 10, 2010 - Page 9 News List

Asia learns painful lessons from eurozone crisis

Europe’s debt woes are driving home the message that forming a currency union is a dangerous game

By Alan Wheatley  /  Reuters, BEIJING

ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE

One more victim can be added to the casualty list from the fallout of the eurozone debt crisis: the cause of currency integration in Asia.

The idea that countries as different as Japan and Laos, or Singapore and Myanmar, might share the same money has always been a vision for future generations, not the here and now.

However, policymakers have at least been heading in the direction of closer cooperation by formalizing the network of emergency central bank loans they set up in Chiang Mai, Thailand, in 2000 to try to prevent a repeat of the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis.

Any notion, though, that the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI) could form a springboard to more ambitious monetary coordination looks doomed since the bailouts of Greece, and now Ireland, have exposed the frailties of a common currency area with infinitely deeper economic and institutional roots than Asia can offer.

“The key message from Europe for Asia is that it undermines any argument that currency union is a sensible way forward toward closer integration,” said Peter Drysdale, emeritus professor of economics at Australian National University (ANU) in Canberra.

“That was never a persuasive argument, but it has close to zero credibility now,” Drysdale added.

The nations of Europe painstakingly knitted together their economies, and then their exchange rates, over the course of nearly half a century before they were ready to create the euro.

FISCAL DISCIPLINE

Even then, as the current crisis has exposed, the fathers of the single currency left gaping institutional holes that they are now scrambling to fill by creating mechanisms to enforce fiscal discipline and, as a last resort, enable sovereign debt restructuring.

Governments in Asia, by contrast, pride themselves in not poking their nose into their neighbors’ business.

It took the 10 members of the ASEAN along with China, Japan and South Korea — ASEAN Plus Three — a decade to turn the CMI’s complex web of bilateral currency swap agreements into a single, uniform facility.

The US$120 billion, ungainly named Chiang Mai Initiative Multilateralization agreement finally took effect in March.

However, don’t expect leaders to conclude that the moral from Europe’s debt mess is to get a move on. The opposite is more likely.

“There is a bit of concern about what has been going on in Europe and what it means for Asia,” said Jay Menon, an economist in the Office of Regional Economic Integration at the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Manila.

Menon said the first lesson to be learned was the need for greater institutionalization to ensure the success of regionalism; second, admitting countries to a single currency before they were ready and without a means of enforcing fiscal discipline could lead to disastrous consequences.

“This implies that the deepening of Asian regionalism is likely to take even longer than before the euro zone crisis erupted,” he said. “It was a long way away before, but it’s even further away now.”

Some would say that is not a bad thing. Asia should concentrate on getting the basics right before reaching for the stars.

Razeen Sally, director of the European Center for International Political Economy, a Brussels think tank, said the logic for the EU to integrate trade in goods and services as well as investment capital flows was reasonably clear.

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