Flood of Easy Money Putting This Region at Risk

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The risk of asset bubbles in Southeast Asia's fastest-growing emerging economies is rising, warn economists, pointing to red flags including surging domestic credit growth and rapidly rising property prices.

"We have long argued that monetary policy has been kept too loose for too long in Indonesia, but the policy authorities in the Philippines, Thailand and Malaysia are in significant danger of making the same mistake. In our view, evidence of overheating is set to become more obvious," said Robert Prior-Wandesforde, head of India & Southeast Asia economics at Credit Suisse.

Prior-Wandesforde, who expects central banks in the region will start tightening monetary policy in late 2013 or 2014, says policymakers are getting a false sense of security from benign inflation levels, and ignoring the excesses being built elsewhere in their economies.

"We expect interest rates to move higher and it is at that point that history suggests we should worry about possible bubbles turning to bust," he said.

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The mix of U.S. monetary policy and relatively low levels of inflation have led many ASEAN nations to adopt "inappropriately" low interest rates, according to economists.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) in its latest Regional Economic Outlook for Asia and the Pacific published on Monday warned of overheating risks in the region, noting that Asian policymakers must be ready to act "early and decisively" to prevent the situation from escalating.

"Rapid credit growth is the key risk. If central bank's don't normalize policy fast enough or implement macro prudential measures, we could get an over extension of the credit cycle where non-performing loans build up and property bubble bursts," said Leif Eskesen, chief economist for India & ASEAN at HSBC.

Eye on Indonesia

According to Prior-Wandesforde, the region's largest economy Indonesia is most vulnerable to overheating pressures.

"Indonesia is furthest ahead in the economic cycle, lending growth is roughly double the pace the economy is expanding at in nominal terms," he said. Credit growth is expected to hit over 23 percent in 2013 year on year, according to forecasts by Bank Indonesia.

The real estate segment market, in particular, is showing extremely strong gains.

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"Property companies that specialize in mid to high-end apartments in central Jakarta told us there were gains of up to 50 percent in 2012," said Prior-Wandesforde.

Indonesia's resilience to the global economic slowdown and its domestic consumption has made it a magnet for foreign investment in recent years. But weak exports have weighed on growth: fourth quarter growth in gross domestic product was 6.1 percent from a year ago, weaker than expected.

Increased domestic consumption may widen the country's current account deficit, which is expected to climb to 3.2 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) this year from 2.7 percent of GDP in 2012, a level which the government may struggle to finance, Prior-Wandesforde said.

Thai Debt Concerns

In Thailand, rising household debt, which has been increasing at a 15-20 percent annual rate over the past three years is worrying, said economists.

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"Consumer debt is largely mortgage debt in Thailand. And, there's an enormous amount of capacity being created that's not easy to sell - they are at a point of overcapacity being built up," said Uwe Parpart, chief strategist and head of research at Reorient Financial Markets, noting that real estate prices in the country have risen more than 30 percent since 2011.

Low interest rates and capital inflows have contributed to a surge in prices, with some high end projects being launched at prices not seen before in Thailand.

Of particular concern is that debt is being accumulated at the lower end of the income scale, according to experts.

"While official numbers were not available, we were told that some banks believe debt service levels are over 40 percent of income for many poorer households," said Herald van der Linde, head of equity strategy, Asia Pacific at HSBC.

"With asset prices rising and liquidity so strong, the fear is that businesses are going to get too ambitious. Anecdotally, a local contact of ours said that his local car repair shop now had a debt-to-equity ratio of 3 times, and that banks were urging the business to take on more debt to expand," he added.

"While this is just one story, we suspect it is not an isolated incident."