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Malaysia can ride out 'almost perfect storm', minister says

Abdul Wahid Omar, a minister in the Malaysia Prime Minister's Department overseeing the economic planning unit, speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
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Abdul Wahid Omar, a minister in the Malaysia Prime Minister's Department overseeing the economic planning unit, speaks during an interview in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

Malaysia's economy and currency are suffering from "an almost perfect storm" due to an outflow of funds from emerging markets, low oil prices and China's slowdown, the country's economic planning minister said on Tuesday.

But he said Malaysia was better placed than in the 1990s Asian financial crisis to ride out hard times.

"A lot of people ask us whether we are going to go back to 1997, 1998," Abdul Wahid Omar told Reuters in an interview on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. "Circumstances are very different between then and now. The circumstances are much better - our fundamentals are much stronger."

Omar said Malaysia was suffering particularly because it was an emerging market at a time of capital outflows, it was a net exporter of oil and gas at a time of a significant drop in prices, and it was perceived to be badly affected by the Chinese slowdown as China was its largest trading partner.

"It's almost like a perfect storm for Malaysia," he said.

But he said a close look at the data allowed a more hopeful view.

"Based on fundamentals, our currency does not deserve to be this low ... over time we believe that the ringgit will come back to reflect its fundamental value."

The ringgit has lost a quarter of its value against the U.S. dollar this year and fallen to its lowest levels since the Asian financial crisis 17 years ago. Bonds have also fallen.

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Omar said that despite the ringgit's decline, Prime Minister Najib Razak had made it clear there would be no return to the capital controls of the 1990s, nor a return to a peg to the dollar.

He said the situation for Malaysian corporates was much better than in 1998.

"They are less leveraged and not many of them have foreign currency liabilities and those that do have U.S. dollar borrowings, for example, that's because they have U.S. dollar assets or revenue streams in U.S. dollars. So we have better matching of assets and liabilities."

"As far as the overall economic management, fiscal management, we are on the right track and obviously we are better prepared and more resilient to face the challenges that may come our way."

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Omar said he could not give a timeframe for recovery, but a special economics committee he chairs was recommending "proactive measures to be taken from time to time to deal with the current situation."

"It's our responsibility to make sure our businesses are prepared for more challenging times.

"We must make sure we provide the support and assistance to our people to ease their burden ... this will include making sure that their access to credit will not be impaired and they are able to sustain their business and for the people to be able to continue to remain employed."

Omar declined to address details of the case of troubled strategic investment fund 1MDB, which has helped shake confidence in Malaysia, saying investigations must be allowed to take their course.

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The power and property fund, whose advisory board is chaired by the prime minister, has amassed debt of more than $11 billion and a number of foreign jurisdictions have reportedly begun investigations concerning the fund or its staff.

"What has happened has happened and there is that parliamentary process with the public accounts committee and the various investigations by respective agencies. We must allow them to do their job," he said.

"What is actually more important is to make sure  that management will be able to execute the rationalization plan so that they will be able to realize sufficient proceeds from the assets to pay off their debts."

He noted that the management had said it was "hopeful that the proceeds will be sufficient to cover the debts."