Malaysia riskier than its credit rating suggests

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By:
Jeremy Weltman
Published on:

The fall in the currency could have repercussions for investor safety, extending the downward trend in its country risk score.


Petronas kuala lumper-600
Two towers: fiscal and external account strengths are undeniable,
but the view from the top in Kuala Lumpur is precarious


The ringgit has depreciated by more than 6%, to its lowest level in more than a year, since Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential elections.

To some extent the market’s response might be exaggerated.

Malaysia’s fiscal and external account strengths are undeniable, and Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, has hitherto maintained an orthodox, market-friendly approach to monetary policy.

Yet, confidence in the currency has been undermined by the central bank offering assurances it will not implement capital controls.

Trying to talk up the currency is only adding to the uncertainty, and it comes on the back of a declining risk score this year.

Malaysia is 36th in ECR’s global risk rankings, ranked A- by both Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, but is barely two-tenths of a point above Mexico, ranked BBB+ by both agencies.

The scores for capital access, bank stability, and the regulatory and policymaking environment have all fallen, heightening economic risk.

ECR_Malaysia_last_year_USE-460

There are also acute political risks to factor in with the multi-billion-dollar scandal surrounding the 1MDB state development fund prompting public demonstrations calling for prime minister Najib Razak’s resignation.

Razak is attempting to deflect the attention by supporting the conservatives’ demands for a stricter Islamic code, but at the risk of opening up ethnic divisions with non-Muslim Malays.

Low scores for corruption and government stability are hardly conducive to an investor-friendly environment, and capital access has tightened.

Arjen van Dijkhuizen, senior economist with ABN Amro, takes an holistic approach, arguing that “economic fundamentals make Asia more resilient than other emerging-market regions”.

True enough, Malaysia has a strong external position underpinned by robust foreign-exchange cover and a current-account surplus, albeit one that will shrink from 3% to 4% of GDP in recent years to around 1.2%, the IMF predicts.

However, he also points the finger at Malaysia as one country that is affected by the tightening of financial conditions caused by Trump’s US victory, and expectations concerning an interest-rate rise from the Federal Reserve.

Furthermore, Malaysia is vulnerable to a potential hard landing in China, and has high debt levels which could have repercussions for the banking system, and economic growth which has slowed this year to below the pace in Indonesia.

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