So much for talk about a shift in financial power to the East

As moves in Asian stocks, bonds and currencies over the last few weeks demonstrate, it's what happens in the United States that really matters

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 August, 2013, 4:52am

Over the last few years there has been a lot of talk about a shift eastwards in the world's economic centre of gravity and the emergence of China as an engine of global growth.

But as the abrupt sell-off in Asian stocks, bonds and currencies over the last few weeks demonstrates, when it comes to the interface between financial markets and the real economy, it's what happens in the United States, not China, that most affects what goes on in the rest of Asia.

As expectations have grown that the US Federal Reserve will begin to taper, or wind down, its programme of quantitative easing, US bond yields have risen, and investors have begun to reassess the riskiness of Asian markets.

Attention has focused on the economies most dependent on foreign capital. That means India, where the current account deficit - the country's overdraft with the rest of the world - is now higher than the level which precipitated 1991's balance of payments crisis, and Indonesia, where the current account deficit has grown to proportions last seen in 1996, just before the Asian currency crisis.

Spooked investors have rushed for the exits, and both countries have seen a steep fall in their currencies over recent weeks, and a sharp rise in borrowing costs. For Asian corporate borrowers with leveraged balance sheets, warn analysts at Morgan Stanley, the coming months "will feel like a recession".

Yet the abiding influence of the US on the region isn't wholly negative. After all, the Fed is only contemplating tapering because the US economy is recovering, and stronger US growth will be good news for Asia.

According to analysts at Standard Chartered a 1.1 percentage point pick-up in US growth next year will more than offset the 0.3 percentage point slowdown they expect in China.

The net effect will be positive even for economies with strong ties to China like Taiwan, Singapore and Korea, while Hong Kong, which has the greatest exposure to China, will enjoy a 0.8 percentage point growth boost.

Think of it as switching over to the back-up generator.

One area where the balance of financial power really is switching from the West to Asia is the gold market.

Since last December US and European investors have been bailing out of their long-standing safe haven: exchange-traded funds, or ETFs, that specialise in holding gold.

As a result, the funds have been forced to sell bullion to meet redemptions.

According to data from Bloomberg, so far this year ETFs have sold an enormous 681 tonnes of the stuff; more than a quarter of their entire holdings (see the first chart).

The most obvious impact has been on the gold price, which has slumped almost 20 per cent from US$1,695 at the end of last year to US$1,375 last week.

But the sheer scale of the ETF sales has prompted many observers to wonder just what has happened to all that gold.

Recent figures provide an answer. In the first half of the year exports of gold from Britain - where most ETFs store their gold holdings - to Switzerland shot up to 800 tonnes, up almost tenfold compared to the first six months of 2012.

In Switzerland, the world's main refining centre, the 400 ounce gold ingots held by ETFs are melted down and recast into 1 kilogram bars and other weights popular in Asia and shipped eastwards for sale to investors in this part of the world.

Much of the gold is being shipped to Hong Kong for re-export to China (see the second chart).

But despite recent import restrictions, sizeable quantities are also going to India.

And according to reports last week, Indonesia's gold imports have recently surged 30 per cent to a four-year high.

Safe havens, it seems, are always in demand somewhere.