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Political flashpoints – watch North Korea; Assessing Asia’s post-pandemic fiscal headroom

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Highlights from the CAA Weekly Table:

Regional overview

  • Don’t underestimate the risk of protectionism: The Biden Administration has signalled a tough position on trade issues. As the American external deficit grows this year and next, the US is likely to employ more aggressive trade-related measures. These are likely to include accusations of currency manipulation against Asian exporting nations, higher tariffs and the possibility of a border adjustment tax.
  • A new wave of COVID infections has set back the region. Indonesia, India and the Philippines have seen caseloads rise to multi-month highs. However, vaccination rates are now likely to accelerate as nations finally receive their first tranche of the vaccines. Several countries have also expressed a willingness to open their borders so as to kickstart tourism.
  • Taiwan’s economy has got off to a flying start, with industrial production soaring in early 2021. Policy makers in China, Singapore and Thailand are likely to adopt a pragmatic, data-driven approach to monetary policy which is unlikely to change markedly in the near term.

Political flashpoints – watch North Korea

  • Recent media reports raised concerns about China making a military move on Taiwan sooner rather than later. We doubt that. A more imminent risk is North Korea where the economy is in crisis and the leadership desperately needs a foreign crisis to distract its people.
  • On a more positive note, India and Pakistan appear to be engaged in a peace process which should reduce the risk of a flare-up between the two nuclear-armed neighbours.

Assessing Asia’s post-pandemic fiscal headroom

  • India, Malaysia and the Philippines have the least fiscal headroom after accounting for the tax base, the debt ratio, the debt burden and the external debt of the economies.
  • Economies with less fiscal headroom tend to encounter a higher cost of borrowing.

Table 1: Z-scores for fiscal headroom in Asia

Economy

Tax base (% of GDP)

Debt ratio (% of GDP)

Debt burden (% of revenues)

External debt (% of GDP)

Z-scores,

The higher the better

10Y Yields (%)

TH

15.43

52.13

5.59

6.47

6.03

1.77

CN

15.19

73.69

4.85

7.13

2.97

3.23

VN

15.52

54.30

8.31

18.30

2.28

2.39

ID

8.31

39.36

18.43

5.63

0.87

6.75

AVG

12.68

59.46

15.42

12.15

4.02

PH

13.93

57.04

13.32

17.79

-1.21

4.50

MY

10.91

62.15

15.33

16.24

-1.90

3.37

IN

9.50

77.56

42.10

13.49

-9.04

6.13

Source: Centennial Asia Advisors. Only 2019 data is available for Vietnam’s external debt.

What do worsening US-China relations mean for Asia?; Forthcoming technology inflection to extend the upturn in the global tech cycle

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Highlights from the CAA Weekly Table:

Asian political risks:

  • Near term political risks in Thailand have abated as protests wilt under government pressure but the unresolved divisions in society will keep political tensions high.
  • Similarly, Malaysia’s Prime Minister Muhyiddin has been fortunate in his choice of opponents who are divided and losing support. But a fragmented political system carries longer term risks for stability.

Asian economies

  • Indonesia’s current account could worsen later in the year. Bank Indonesia will therefore avoid further rate cuts, leaving macro-prudential policies as a preferred policy option.
  • In India, the spate of demonstrations by banking sector employees will not force a re-think in the government’s decision to privatise state banks.
  • The Philippines is facing more risks to growth. In Singapore, recent data strengthen our view that the central bank will only normalise monetary policy in April 2022.

What do worsening US-China relations mean for Asia?

  • The meeting of the foreign ministers of China and the US highlighted the new chemistry in their relationship, one that is more ill-tempered, with less willingness to compromise.
  • However, the real action took place before and after that meeting. The US has been busy rebuilding its alliance with Japan and South Korea and successfully elevating its strategic relationship with India to its strongest ever level. The US has also been penalizing China with sanctions. China, in turn, is determined to show that it will not be intimidated.
  • The resulting higher risk in the region will force the smaller countries to divert scarce resources into higher defence spending. There is now a stronger case for ASEAN regional integration. With Indonesia showing more leadership in regional matters of late, there is hope that integration could be more successful. Finally, Singapore could gain as political trends weaken Hong Kong’s position as a global heart of commerce and finance.

Forthcoming technology inflection to extend the upturn in the global tech cycle

  • The current tight supply-demand dynamic in semiconductors and related areas could persist for some time, underpinned by important transformative trends such as the digital transformation of cars, proliferation of high-performance computing (HPC) applications, and the shift of enterprise workloads to public clouds, all of which have been boosted by the pandemic. We foresee an inflection point for technology that will drive greater demand for chips, extending the upturn and reducing the chip cycle’s inherent cyclicality.
  • Lead indicators for the global tech cycle continue to trend up, presaging further gains through 2021. The composite inventory-to-sales (I-S) ratio among chip producers in Korea, Taiwan and the US, a gauge of the supply-demand balance in the global tech sector, fell to a 17-year low in January. Taiwan export orders for semiconductors and information & communications technology (ICT) products notched high double-digit growth rates in January, as did Korea’s early chip exports print.