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EU-style economy for East Asia?
( 2003-09-28 01:03) (China Daily)

As East Asian nations work in earnest for regional trade arrangements, financial co-operation in the area has begun moving quietly onto the agendas of experts, financial technocrats and regional politicians.

On their minds is the building of a framework that might help the region avoid the repetition of the disruptive 1997 financial crisis, and enhance the efficiency of financial resource allocation and facilitate economic integration.

There are also talks about a single regional currency. But that seems still a matter of debate and no one seems to be putting the concept into a working plan, at least for the next few years.


Financial co-operation for the entire East Asian region seemed inconceivable only a decade ago.

Economic and historical differences were just too sharp in the region then.

However, for Adlai Stevenson, the former chairman of the Pacific Economic Co-operation Council's Financial Markets Development Project, believes the obstacles and differences do not seem unsurmountable now.

"Europe faced large assymetries between economies and the legacy of a bloody history, but it has moved on parallel tracks to achieve a free trade area, common currency and monetary regime,'' he said last week at a conference in Beijing on the topic of financial regional co-operation.

Indeed, Europe's progress towards the euro and the devastating effects of the 1997 financial crisis have spurred nations in East Asia to consider doing something similar to what Europe has accomplished.

And specific steps have been taken to start that kind of financial co-operation.

In 2000, countries of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) plus Japan, China and South Korea (ASEAN-3) launched the Chiang Mai Initiative (CMI), which hopes to forge closer monetary ties by creating a network of central bank currency swaps.

The idea of the swaps is to make foreign-exchange reserves available at short notice to a member of the group whose currency may come under a sudden speculative attack.

The group's central bankers have so far signed more than 10 bilateral swap arrangements worth about US$30 billion.

In June of 2003 11 East Asian nations created a US$1 billion Asian Bond Fund drawn from their huge central bank reserves, pledging to speed up development of a regional bond market.

CMI founding countries said the fund will act as a catalyst for more efficient bond markets to woo back some Asian assets invested outside the area.

But Li Yang, an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS), said even more important is a more developed regional bond market to reduce the region's over-reliance on banks and to enhance the role of local currencies in the area nations.

Li, a member of the central People's Bank of China's Monetary Policy Committee, said the Asian financial crisis revealed the area's banking system's fragility. Asian banks are not capable of offering sufficient support to the high-tech sector or supporting structural reforms of regional economies.

The bond market, however, can help in those two sectors, he said.

To develop the regional bond market, financial authorities of the region need to foster mature institutional investors and to build effective systems for regulating the market and policies on issues such as taxation, trading, credit ratings, clearance policies and information disclosure, he said.

Bilateral co-operation is needed in areas like allowing two countries to float bonds in one another's national markets, he said.

In addition to the bond market, much still can be done to have full-fledged financial co-operation, according to Stevenson.

The co-operative programme could include effective surveillance and early-warning systems, as well as supplementary lenders of last resort and balance-of-payments financing, he said.

The programme could also cover co-ordination of macroeconmic policies in the region.

Regional standards for regulation of financial settlements and clearing mechanisms are essential to integrated, regional financial markets, he said.

Stevenson said a common East Asian currency is desirable, and could quite significantly increase intra-regional trade.

Currently, transactions within the area are usually carried out in US dollars.

Some local currencies are pegged to the US dollar and some float, but within bands.

This means  "control of monetary policy is surrendered,'' Stevenson said.

Such a currency could also insulate East Asia from external influences that do not reflect the region's economic fundamentals.

With a single currency, "hedge fund predators who attacked East Asian currencies in 1997 would have second thoughts before trying that again.''

The prospects of building a framework are attractive, said Zhang Yunling, director of the Institute of Asia-Pacific Studies at the CASS, though he cautiously noted that the issue of the necessity for a single currency in the region needs much further discussion.

"In practice, a single currency needs a high standard of political co-operation at its foundation. East Asia is still very far from that,'' he said.

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