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Malaysia seeks to nix '98 comparison as it herds ringgit sellers

35818723 - 24_08_2015 - pixringgit.jpg
Malaysia's attempt to cajole currency traders to stop selling down its plunging ringgit is evoking memories of 1998 capital controls among global banks - a comparison policy makers were quick to discourage.

[KUALA LUMPUR] Malaysia's attempt to cajole currency traders to stop selling down its plunging ringgit is evoking memories of 1998 capital controls among global banks - a comparison policy makers were quick to discourage.

RBC Capital Markets and Brown Brothers Harriman said investors were reminded of the Asian financial crisis 18 years ago, after Bank Negara warned foreign banks this month against using offshore forwards to bet against the currency and vowed to limit speculation.

While the central bank said Friday it was stepping in to "maintain orderliness" following a 5 per cent tumble over the past month, Assistant Governor Adnan Zaylani said it wasn't considering tightening controls on the flow of funds across its borders.

"The motivation to try and reduce speculation is a reasonable one from a central bank perspective," said Sue Trinh, head of Asia foreign-exchange strategy at RBC Capital Markets in Hong Kong.

"But there are always unintended consequences. Moving the goal posts suddenly and at a whim has destroyed liquidity and foreign investor confidence."

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The ringgit tumbled for eight straight days through Friday, sinking to 4.419 per US dollar, the weakest level since Jan 18.

One-month non-deliverable forwards, which fix a rate for exchanging the ringgit in the future but are settled in US dollars, plunged 6.3 per cent in the period and touched an unprecedented 4.5848 on Nov 11, the widest discount to the spot rate on record.

The latest slump seems more urgent than the currency's slide through to the middle of 2015. While that move helped slow economic growth and made consumers less likely to spend, only the past month's decline spurred the central bank to expressly say it was intervening. The central bank has rarely disclosed any episodes of intervention.

Track Record

Malaysia's track record means some investors are nervous about the possible introduction of capital controls, though the economy is less vulnerable now than it was in 1997, Brown Brothers Harriman wrote in a Nov 16 report. It said any limits on hedging would risk "scaring away" global bond investors.

"Definitely no capital controls, there's not even any discussion of moving in that direction," Mr Adnan told reporters in Kuala Lumpur.

"What we are doing is really trying to have a targeted measure to contain the offshore NDF market. We have to contain the influence of the offshore prices on the onshore market."

After the ringgit plunged to a record 4.885 per US dollar in 1998, then-prime minister Mahathir Mohamad imposed restrictions including a peg at 3.8 per US dollar and a ban on offshore trading in the currency, blaming US billionaire George Soros and other "rogue speculators". The peg was eventually scrapped in 2005.

"Bank Negara's statements are needed to ensure ringgit volatility is stemmed," said Saktiandi Supaat, head of foreign-exchange research at Malayan Banking Bhd in Singapore.

"We have to see it in the context of the current market environment we are in. Other central banks are also leaning against the wind and intervening in their own different ways and channels."

Maybank sees the currency strengthening to 4.25 per US dollar by the middle of next year, supported by a possible cut in Opec oil output.

Bond Slide

Regional central banks are propping up their currencies after more than US$1.2 trillion was wiped off the value of bonds worldwide in the week ended Nov 11 amid speculation US President-elect Donald Trump's stimulus policies will quicken inflation. Indian state-run banks sold US dollars on behalf of the Reserve Bank while Bank Indonesia has stepped in to stabilise the rupiah.

Global funds own more than a third of Malaysia's government bonds, leaving it at risk during emerging-market selloffs. While foreign-exchange reserves have climbed in the past year, they're still 31 per cent below the record US$141.4 billion reached in 2013, giving the central bank less ammunition to defend the ringgit.

It remains to be seen how effective Bank Negara's efforts to control NDF trading will be.

"I don't think they can contain the offshore market," said Jeffrey Halley, a market strategist at Oanda Asia Pacific Pte. in Singapore.

"Sending letters out and ordering people not to do it may have a short-term effect, but in the medium term it's not a sustainable policy measure."


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