Malaysian ringgit set to weaken further as political chaos and coronavirus take hold, says Aberdeen

Key Points
  • Aberdeen Standard Investments Malaysia's Gerald Ambrose says the Malaysian ringgit is likely to weaken further.
  • Malaysia was thrust into political turmoil earlier this week following the unexpected resignation of its prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad.
  • The political upheaval comes at a time when governments across the world are grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that is spreading rapidly outside China, where the disease was first reported.
Durian fruit sits on display at a stall on Petaling Street in the Chinatown district of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Monday, Jan. 6, 2020.
Samsul Said | Bloomberg via Getty Images

The Malaysian ringgit could weaken further as the country grapples with a host of issues ranging from this week's political upheaval to the coronavirus outbreak that's spreading beyond China.

That's according to Gerald Ambrose, chief executive officer at Aberdeen Standard Investments Malaysia.

"Malaysia, after a little bit of a recovery last year, does appear to be ... one of the sick men of the region," Ambrose told CNBC's "Squawk Box" on Wednesday. Malaysia's Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not immediately respond to a CNBC request for comment on those remarks.

Commenting on the outlook for the Malaysian ringgit, Ambrose said: "I don't know how much weaker it can go. I don't know how much a weaker currency will actually help the economy."

Malaysia's 94-year-old prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, unexpectedly resigned on Monday. His decision threw the country into turmoil, and broke apart a coalition of parties that ruled the country for less than two years after its surprise win at the 2018 general elections.

Since the start of the week, the Malaysian ringgit has weakened significantly against the greenback, last trading at 4.235 per dollar after seeing levels below 4.17 last week.

Commenting on whether the central bank might step in to support the currency, Ambose said: "I don't think Bank Negara — with reserves of what, slightly over a 100 billion U.S. dollars — is gonna blow a lot of that supporting it if everyone wants out."

Malaysia's central bank, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), said Monday it was "closely monitoring conditions in the financial markets."

"While ringgit movements will continue to be market determined, BNM's market operations will ensure sufficient liquidity and orderly financial market conditions," BNM said in a statement.

Mahathir has since been appointed interim prime minister by the Malaysian king, where the veteran politician will continue to oversee administrative matters in the country until the appointment of a new premier and cabinet.

'Confusing and difficult' environment

The political upheaval comes at a time when governments across the world are grappling with a coronavirus outbreak that is spreading rapidly outside Asia, to Europe and the Middle East.

South Korea currently has the most number of reported cases outside China, with more than 1,100 people infected by the disease. Meanwhile, Iran confirmed 15 deaths on Tuesday, and has the most fatalities outside China, where the new virus first emerged.

Planned stimulus measures to combat the coronavirus "are not going to be announced" since the cabinet has been dissolved, Ambrose said. "I think that Malaysia's domestic demand might suffer as a result of not much pump-priming … being available because of the unavailability of a government at the moment."

However, Mahathir said on Twitter Wednesday that he met with officials from the finance ministry about the planned stimulus package, and the initiative will be announced in due course.

Ambrose said the current environment makes it "confusing and difficult" to advise his clients.

"What we're advising people to do would be to invest in companies that were gonna benefit from a pick up in consumer demand ... and in domestic demand improvement and private investment," he said.

In the near term, he said, people will likely start taking refuge in stocks that may not have great growth "but have got strong cashflow, pay out a good dividend yield, good governance."

— CNBC's Yen Nee Lee contributed to this report.

Clarification: This story has been updated to include Mahathir's comments on the planned stimulus package.