Sep 19, 2008 Friday

Asia's investors pulling out of US

Wall St tremors stoking panic as many rush to bring money home

HONG KONG: Asia's savings have bankrolled American spending for decades to the tune of trillions of dollars.

Now, tremors from Wall Street are rattling Asian investors - from central banks to industrial corporations to hedge funds to individuals queueing up to withdraw their money from American International Group (AIG) - and making them question the very wisdom of being invested in the United States.

Asia's loss of confidence in American financial institutions and assets could have dire consequences for both the US government and American taxpayers.

Asian investors were starting to show hesitation even before the financial earthquake of the last week. Now, a wariness towards the US is setting in that is unprecedented in recent memory.

The non-stop deluge of bad publicity for American investments seems to be stoking panic among some of the rich and middle-class across Asia who are rushing to bring their money home.

'I do not believe in US financial institutions anymore; I don't think any US bank is safe anymore,' said Hong Kong homemaker Wang Xiaoning. Even after the Federal Reserve had taken control of AIG, she waited in line with dozens of other anxious policyholders for the chance to close her investment account.

The asset management operations of American banks have steered many Asian investors into American securities for years.

But Mr Thomas Lam, senior treasury economist at United Overseas Bank in Singapore, said many of these investors had not fully understood what they were buying. They became more curious and more concerned when, for example, mortgage finance giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac were placed in conservatorship.

'All these top executives, Indonesians and others started asking, 'What do they really do?'' Mr Lam said. 'They bought because the next company did.'

Some experts say that with Asia's phenomenal economic growth, savings are piling up so quickly that those funds will inevitably start flowing again to the US at a fast clip once the present crisis is over.

'The interest for the moment is depressed, but the trend is, we have a lot of savings in Asia and this is a bargain time' for assets in the US, said Mr Paul Tang, chief economist at the Bank of East Asia in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile, Asian investment in the US has been faltering.

Data released by the Treasury Department on Tuesday showed that the sharp change in international capital movements began in July. Private investors pulled a net US$92.9 billion (S$133.4 billion) out of the US, after putting US$46.8 billion into American securities in June.

Central banks, mainly Asian, did continue buying American securities in July. But they did so at a slower pace than usual. They made net purchases of US$18.2billion, compared with an average monthly purchase of US$22.3 billion in the first half of this year.

The central banks also changed the allocation of their purchases.

They bought short-term Treasury bills while slowing their purchases of longer- term Treasury bonds and American corporate bonds.

Foreign cash coming into the US to buy American assets helps the country hold down interest rates by making plenty of money available for the federal government to borrow to cover its budget deficit. It also provides cash for consumers to borrow so that they can afford imported cars, DVD players and other goods.

The US has relied heavily on this money to fund its spending. US Commerce Department data released on Wednesday showed that the nation's current-account deficit, the broadest measure of trade in goods and services, had a deficit of US$183.1 billion in the second quarter.

Also worrying is how much all of Washington's measures to prevent a financial meltdown could cost the nation in the long run.

Said Mr David Walker, former US comptroller general: 'The real question is, Will Washington wake up and realise that the federal government's finances are not in good shape and that we need to start getting our nation's fiscal house in order? If not, some may start asking, 'Who will bail out America?''