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On 20th anniversary of Asian 'flu,' markets still feeling the effects

  • On Oct. 27, 1997, the NYSE closed for trading early after systemwide circuit breakers shut it down.
  • A financial crisis that began in Asia's emerging markets spilled over into global markets and the effects are still reverberating today.
  • The cause was Western hot money that poured into countries like Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea in the 1990s.
A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange watches the board as trading is halted and the market closed, down 554.26 points, 27 October, in New York. Blue chip stocks recorded their biggest-ever points fall as Wall Street staggered under the Asian financial crisis.
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange watches the board as trading is halted and the market closed, down 554.26 points, 27 October, in New York. Blue chip stocks recorded their biggest-ever points fall as Wall Street staggered under the Asian financial crisis.

A crisis that climaxed 20 years ago this week changed global investing.

It's been called the Asian financial crisis, or the "Asian flu." Leading up to it was the first gold rush into emerging markets — billions went into Thailand, South Korea, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan, and other countries. It all blew up in 1997, when the U.S. raised rates and many investors pulled out.

On Oct. 27, 1997, the Dow dropped 554 points, the greatest single-day point decline that had been seen until then, and the NYSE floor shut down a half-hour early. It was the only time systemwide circuit breakers were triggered that shut markets down.

Much more than the 1987 crash, this event had widespread repercussions, some of which are still with us today.

The cause was Western hot money that poured into countries like Thailand, the Philippines and South Korea in the 1990s that created a huge bubble, as foreign investors decided that millions of people in Asia were being lifted out of poverty and would join the middle class. Western investors wanted in on this potential gold mine.

It was, arguably, the first really wide-scale rush into emerging markets. There was rapid economic growth in all the countries. Thailand's economy grew over 9 percent a year from 1985 to 1996. GDP growth was in the 8 to 12 percent range for many other countries. Investors touted it as an "economic miracle."

Except it wasn't, or rather it was vastly inflated. The Asian governments made it even more attractive by keeping interest rates artificially high.

A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange watches the board as trading is halted and the market closed, down 554.26 points, 27 October, in New York. Blue chip stocks recorded their biggest-ever points fall as Wall Street staggered under the Asian financial crisis.
Stan Honda | AFP | Getty Images
A trader on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange watches the board as trading is halted and the market closed, down 554.26 points, 27 October, in New York. Blue chip stocks recorded their biggest-ever points fall as Wall Street staggered under the Asian financial crisis.

The crisis started after U.S. interest rates began to rise. Many Asian currencies — particularly the Thai baht — were pegged to the U.S. dollar. When you have fixed exchange rates and there is a big difference in borrowing costs, investors borrow abroad and bring the money home to invest. This is great while it lasts, but it leaves investors open to foreign exchange risk.

Which is exactly what happened. When the Federal Reserve began raising rates in the U.S., investors started pulling money out of emerging markets to bring back to the U.S. The dollar rose, which made Asian exports more expensive on the global markets. The Asian currencies were hit by waves of speculative attacks in the summer of 1997.

By then, a general panic was in the air in Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, South Korea and the Philippines. A credit crunch forced many companies into bankruptcy. Governments raised interest rates in a desperate bid to keep international investors from withdrawing money.

It didn't work, and with governments literally running out of money, they abandoned their fixed pegs to the dollar and allowed their currencies to float.

The IMF stepped in with a series of bailouts, but the damage was done, and that damage that is still with us today:

In political change, President Suharto of Indonesia was forced out after being in power for 30 years, and so was the prime minister of Thailand.

In economic changes, the crisis accelerated Japan's decline as a global powerhouse. Some 40 percent of its exports went to Asia. Real GDP growth rates slowed dramatically, and Japan fell into a recession in 1998. The GDP of other countries also declined.

There was an oil crisis. Lower global demand caused a big drop in oil (it hit $11 at the end of 1998). This led to several large oil company mergers in 1998 and 1999, culminating in the merger of Exxon and Mobil in 1999.

It also was the cause of a second crisis the following year, the Russian financial crisis. The Russians defaulted on their debt the following summer due to a reduction in oil revenue largely caused by the Asian crisis. This caused the hedge fund Long-Term Capital to collapse and forced Allen Greenspan to intervene, saving the markets from yet another crisis.

There was a weakening of global institutions and the slowing of global trade deals. There was a backlash against the World Bank and the IMF as their prestige declined, which continues. Global trade talks stalled. They are still stalled today. Because nothing can get done on a global scale, trade agreements have become more regional in nature.

And there was an attitude change. Millions of people were forced back into poverty. Central authority was weakened in many countries, which allowed the growth of separatist movements that still exist. Anti-Western sentiment also rose, as the crisis deepened suspicions of foreigners as people who would invest and quickly flee the country when growth slowed.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that the seeds of the anti-globalization movement began here.

Can it happen again? A lot has changed. Most currencies now float, reducing currency risk. But debt levels are still very high, a point the Chinese have been making repeatedly. And interest rate risk still very much remains. If rates rise notably in the U.S., an ocean of money parked overseas will come home. There will be pressure, though how much depends on the magnitude of the move.

Tomorrow on Trader Talk: Oct. 27, 1997: the day the NYSE floor shut down, as the Asian financial crisis came to a climax.