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Uncertainty over Fed rate hike becoming too costly for markets: Tharman

He urges US Fed to 'move past the crisis' and start normalising rates to quash the uncertainty

NO CRISIS: The current global economic volatility should be viewed as a chance for long-term reform, said Mr Tharman.


DEPUTY Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam on Friday made his strongest case yet for the United States Federal Reserve to raise interest rates, on the grounds that the uncertainty brought about in anticipating when the hike will come is a cost too much for the world to bear.

"We've got to that point where the benefits of near-zero interest rates for economic growth will be increasingly outweighed by the costs," he said firmly in response to a question asked by the moderator of a discussion in which he was taking part.

He was exchanging views on a wide range of issues with fellow panellist Enrique Garcia, who is president and chief executive of CAF (the Development Bank of Latin America), and moderator Susan Segal, who is president and chief executive of Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

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The discussion was the keynote panel at the Latin Asia Business (LAB) Forum, which took place at the Shangri-La Hotel.

Mr Tharman, also Singapore's Coordinating Minister for Economic and Social Policies, pointed out that the mood now was different from what it was a year ago, when observers were afraid that the Fed would raise interest rates.

Instead, there is now anxiety caused by the uncertainty over when the Fed would normalise rates - and this has affected business sentiment, with companies holding back on operations.

It has also led to market volatility and affected exchange rates of major currencies and capital flows.

"There's really a desire on the part of many countries to see the Fed get on with it, move gradually, but move ahead so as to reduce uncertainty," he said.

This is not the first he has spoken on the need for the Fed to raise rates sooner than later.

Last week, a report by The Wall Street Journal quoted him as having said that compared to a year ago, "many emerging-market central bank governors and some others were keener that the Fed just get on with it - not because they were keen to see interest rates rise, but because they wanted to reduce uncertainty."

Markets have roiled in recent months over when the Fed would do it.

There has been palpable sense of anticipation on many fronts, with reports of observers accusing the Fed of "finding excuses" not to raise rates each time the minutes of the Fed's meeting are released.

For the Fed, even though domestic unemployment has been falling faster than expected, consumer spending is picking up and the housing market recovering, dark clouds seem to be looming on the international front; chief among these worries is the slowdown in China's growth.

The latest minutes released last week said: "The committee decided that it was prudent to wait for additional information confirming that the economic outlook had not deteriorated."

In Mr Tharman's view, current global economic volatility should not be viewed as a crisis, but a chance for long-term reform. Describing the instability as "a well-needed correction", he said at the panel discussion: "It's a global correction, not just in over-inflated prices, but also a correction politically, with regard to what governments should be focusing most on."

He urged governments to seize this opportunity for intensified reforms and to work on getting the right mix of factors in order to facilitate growth; some of the factors he cited were the need to fortify skills and to strengthen regional inter-linkages.

Already, the LAB Forum organised by International Enterprise (IE) Singapore has become a platform for Singapore and Latin America to commit to deepening institutional linkages.

At the biennial event, which is in its 11th edition, IE Singapore and CAF signed a memorandum of understanding to provide a framework for both parties to collaborate on several fronts.

IE Singapore's chief executive officer Teo Eng Cheong said: "With the slowdown, it may not be a bad time to invest in infrastructure because of lower commodity prices."

During the discussion held after the signing, Mr Tharman, when asked when he thought would be the best time for the Fed to raise rates, replied: "We can't wait for the perfect moment.

"At some point, we have to go past the crisis, we have to begin the process of normalisation and focus on the fundamentals," he said.