Foreign Exchange Market

ADB could call it quits as Sato packs his bags

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 01 August, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 01 August, 1998, 12:00am

The president of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), Mitsuo Sato, is to step down in January, because 'after five years I got very tired'.

The ADB should not have much trouble filling the post. There are no jobs in Asia quite as plum as a posting to the bank's Manila headquarters.

It is a 20-minute drive from the Makati business district if the traffic is clear, and it is like entering a new world. Through the gates, the breeze-block slums of Manila are replaced by manicured gardens surrounding a palace.

Inside, it is clean and quiet, unlike other Manila offices, and the biggest difficulty you have is finding your destination among the endless single-occupant offices along endless corridors.

Come the bank's annual meeting, and investment bankers from around the world arrive to bow and scrape in front of the senior finance ministry representatives who have gathered from countries around Asia. The mutual flattery then builds up to a mountain of self-esteem.

But there is not much point to it any longer.

The ADB was set up to finance infrastructure projects in Asia at a time when the commercial banking systems of Asia were insufficiently developed to do the job.

It raised money from donor countries and from sales of its financial instruments; it required all borrowers to provide repayment guarantees from their governments. But then two things happened.

First, Asia's financial institutions developed and found they could do the job as well themselves. They did not have the ADB's overheads and could raise money as cheaply as the ADB if they could also have government guarantees.

Second, the ADB adopted a policy of setting low interest rates on its loans. It did this denominating them in yen, US dollars, German marks and Swiss francs. It got the low interest rates. It also got trouble, when Asian currencies devalued and Indonesian water projects with rupiah revenues had to repay borrowings in expensive foreign currencies.

In the end, the ADB became a vehicle for governments to help their domestic industries sell their products to Asia through export credits funnelled through the bank. Mostly this meant the Japanese Government and yen credits, which is why the president is always Japanese.

Even this is no longer working well. Japanese commercial banks have fallen over each other for years to undercut foreign competition in providing finance to Japanese corporations operating overseas and they haven't used the ADB to do it. They may rue that now. They would have liked the government guarantees on which the ADB insisted.

So, instead, the ADB has tried to involve itself in regional banking reform, in international rescue efforts for countries hurt by the Asian currency crisis and in anti-corruption policies aimed at reducing losses on development projects.

In all three areas the ADB could point a finger of blame at itself. What reform lessons can the region's commercial banks take from the ADB's enormous cost base, failed currency policies and reliance on government guarantees? What does it have to offer on rescues from a currency crisis when it contributed to that crisis by lending in foreign currencies? What remedies can it offer for corruption, when its insistence on government guarantees aggravated corruption among borrowers who found it easier to stick their fingers in the till when they knew others would have to make the losses good? It is quite understandable that Mr Sato should be tired of it. All that is left for the ADB management is an endless tour of the international social circuit to prop up through political contacts what would otherwise tumble if it were left on its own.

It is about time donor and recipient countries of this institution had a good hard rethink of exactly of what its role is now to be.

If this rethink comes to the conclusion there is not much role left, then so be it. Sell the palace, refer the staff to the true banking disciplines of commercial banks and leave a tombstone for an institution that grew too old.