Economic monitor: The Group of Seven’s wrung war cry

The G-7 summit in Japan, despite currency war talk, was a tame event hardly moving Asian financial markets. It was mostly notable as US President Obama’s valedictory after stops in Vietnam and Myanmar, where bilateral trade and investment clashes were also avoided.

Several years into the Abenomics experiment the hosts scrambled for fresh fiscal and monetary approaches to defeat deflation and revive the domestic economy, and irked Washington with the threat of yen intervention beyond previous agreement only in “disorderly conditions.” The issue disappeared on its own during the meeting as the Federal Reserve signaled a June interest rate hike again lifting the dollar.

Yuan worries fade

Chinese currency devaluation fallout also faded as a concern, as the yuan seemed to stabilize on minor foreign exchange reserve growth with reduced capital outflows. Foreign investors have yet to return in size to the mainland, but an MSCI nod to boost its equity index weighting along with recent opening of the local bond market could shift direction. Vietnam and Myanmar highlighted the Obama administration’s respective foreign policy breakthroughs with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and military-civilian rule transition, but questionable human rights and economic policies were likewise prominent to underscore near-term business and financial community skepticism.

Prime Minister Abe attempted to promote joint stimulus as he presented a faltering global recovery scenario hinting at a 2008 crisis repeat. US and European representatives dismissed the scaremongering as they focused on their own regional issues, including elections, the EU refugee influx, and Greece’s interminable bailout.

From left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and French President Francois Hollande participate in a tree planting ceremony during a visit to the Ise Jingu shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture, Japan, Thursday, May 26, 2016, as part of the G-7 Summit. REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool

From left, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, U.S. President Barack Obama, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, and French President Francois Hollande participate in a tree planting ceremony during a visit to the Ise Jingu shrine in Ise, Mie Prefecture, Japan, Thursday, May 26, 2016, as part of the G-7 Summit. REUTERS/Carolyn Kaster/Pool

Focus on structural reforms

Asian security problems featured such as Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea and North Korea’s nuclear missile launch, but the economic agenda largely revolved around more specific structural reform pledges. In Japan’s case corporate governance and labor market flexibility moves will go further, according to officials, but the immediate linchpins of its growth package are consumption tax delay and public works rebuilding in earthquake areas.

This strategy kept local financial asset sentiment negative as fund managers considered boosting neighboring emerging market bond and equity allocation. Despite negative bond yields at home, banks and insurers have preferred other industrial country instrument abroad with low returns, and in stocks individual investor fund positions continue to show outflows as so-called Mrs. Watanabes have been burned continuously on currency swings.

El Nino impact

Both Vietnam and Myanmar have cozied up to the US, Japan and Europe to distance themselves from the Chinese economic and geopolitical orbit, but the entire Mekong region also blames Beijing for aggravating its original El Nino-induced drought. The water level in the main river artery is at a century low, and Vietnam’s rice output was down 10 % in the last quarter as GDP growth slipped under the 6 % preliminary forecast. Farmers accuse China of blocking irrigation with its gate control over hydroelectric dams, and many also use pesticide that damages crops and the environment, according to experts.  

At the same time, the state-owned rice trading and export apparatus has deep job and patronage tentacles defying change, and it would be among the last candidates under the country’s phased TPP commitment to privatization. Free labor practices are also to be adopted within 5 years of treaty ratification to replace the current worker union monopoly. With rising wages strikes are more frequent and the government has been quick to crack down on activist members. During President Obama’s visit such advocates were reportedly in detention, angering congressional members who accompanied him as they prepare to vote on the free-trade pact, which will enlarge Vietnam’s economy 10% in the coming decades, the World Bank estimates.

Vietnam’s three hundred listed stocks have been flat for the year with the mixed messages, but investor enthusiasm still far exceeds Myanmar’s new exchange with its one company available. Aung San Suu Kyi wields ultimate power and is said to have a 100-day plan with scant economic details. Coincident with President Obama’s G-7 swing the US left individually-targeted commercial and banking sanctions in place. The IMF slashed the growth projection to 7 % and decried persistent high budget deficits and inflation, with the battle there barely begun.

Gary N. Kleiman is an emerging markets specialist who runs Kleiman International in Washington, D.C.

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