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Friday, Jan. 22, 2010

Optimism in Asia tempered by call for better oversight


Staff writer

HONG KONG — Key financial leaders and regulators from around Asia gathered at a two-day conference that began in Hong Kong on Wednesday, with participants trumpeting an economic power shift from West to East in the wake of the global financial crisis, despite growing concerns about a possible asset bubble in China.

The dominant theme at the annual Asian Financial Forum is China's growing economic power. Echoing the upbeat sentiment of many participants, Ronald Arculli, chairman of Hong Kong Stock Exchanges and Clearing Ltd., highlighted the "gradual economic gravity shift from West to East" in a speech at the start of the plenary session Wednesday.

"Today, Asia is leading the world in terms of economic recovery from crisis. And over the coming decades, the region's continued dynamism will give it an even greater role," said International Monetary Fund Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn during the session.

Strauss-Kahn warned that the economies of most developed countries will remain sluggish, dependent on government support and continue to struggle with high unemployment.

However, many emerging market economies, led by the recovery in Asia, will be able to exit from crisis support measures sooner than the developed countries, he said.

At the same time, many participants expressed concern over an early "exit strategy" now being mulled by central banks and governments to withdraw extraordinary stimulus measures and tighten ultraloose monetary policies that have kept the world economy afloat during the financial crisis.

Participants paid close attention to remarks by Chinese officials at the forum, as speculation has been rife that Beijing may finally have started tightening its easy-money policy to prevent its economy from overheating amid growing concerns over ballooning asset prices.

However, Wang Chunzheng, executive vice chairman at China Center for International Economic Exchanges, said, "Now is not the timing to think about the exit strategy."

But not all economists were as upbeat as those from the mainland China and Hong Kong. Stephen Roach, chairman of Morgan Stanley Asia and a noted economist, argued that China's impressive growth was due to "artificial stimulus" and is not sustainable over a long run.

For the first three quarters of 2009, China grew at an average annual rate of 7.7 percent, but 95 percent of that growth came from investment, mainly funded by a surge in bank lending, Roach said.

"China did the right thing in the crisis, but this is not the long-term, sustainable outcome," Roach said.

He also pointed out private consumption accounts for only 35 percent of China's GDP, the lowest share of any major economy.

Roach argued the Chinese government must promote encourage consumption by providing a social safety net, such as pensions, along with medical and unemployment insurance. It also needs to move more aggressively to correct income disparities through tax policy, and promote more migration from rural to urban areas.

Some financial regulators also raised concerns over weaknesses in the financial regulatory system, which may have contributed to the global financial meltdown.

Gerald Corrigan, managing director of Goldman Sachs and former president of Federal Reserve Bank of New York, argued that regulators should systematically monitor risks to financial systems and introduce higher and more rigorous capital and liquidity standards for financial institutions over the next couple of years.

Strauss-Kahn, however, warned that momentum for stronger regulation has already started losing steam and the financial sector itself "seems to be going back to business as usual" just a little more than a year after the collapse of the Lehman Brothers in September 2008.

"As financial markets and economies recover, there is a real danger that political momentum for reform is lost," he said. "This must not be allowed to happen. We cannot return to the financial system yesterday."



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