Asian central banks face rate cut pressure

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People scramble to buy face masks in a medical supply store a day after the government confirmed the first novel coronavirus case in Manila on Jan. 31. -- REUTERS

CENTRAL BANKS in Asia face increasing calls to cut interest rates as they jump into action against a spiraling coronavirus crisis that’s hammering tourism, travel and confidence across the region.

The People’s Bank of China trimmed some interest rates Monday and injected massive liquidity into the financial system to shore up slumping markets. Indonesia’s central bank said it was taking “bold” steps to bolster the nation’s currency and bonds.

Asia — set to see the worst spillovers from the virus due to its dependence on Chinese demand and tourists — boasts a handful of central banks that have space to ease monetary policy in a world of rock-bottom interest rates.

On Tuesday, Australia kept interest rates unchanged as the labor and property markets’ strength gives the central bank room to wait and see how badly the economy will be hit by a slump in China’s growth.

Next up is Thailand, where there are growing calls for a move Wednesday, but no consensus estimate so far that a cut is coming. By contrast, a reduction is expected Thursday in the Philippines, which has reported the first death from the coronavirus outside China.

India — which on the weekend announced a budget that underwhelmed those hoping for more stimulus — also sets policy Thursday. A recent spike in inflation is expected to keep the central bank sidelined, but some economists think it will have to act at coming meetings to spur a faltering economy.

Growth risks are accelerating as China enforces strict travel curbs and airlines around the world suspend service to the mainland. Bloomberg Economics estimates that even if the virus outbreak were severe but short-lived, China’s first-quarter GDP growth would hit a record low 4.5%. UBS Group AG’s China economist, Tao Wang, predicts a slump to 3.8%.

“The downside risks to growth have increased substantially in the short-term, especially for the more tourism-oriented countries like Thailand,” said Priyanka Kishore, head of India and Southeast Asia research at Oxford Economics Ltd. in Singapore.

Even before the virus spiral, manufacturing gauges signaled a shaky start to the year as the US-China trade agreement failed to boost sentiment. South Korea’s purchasing managers index — a key barometer of global demand — fell to 49.8 in January from 50.1 in December.

In Thailand, restrictions on Chinese travel have hammered the tourism industry, which makes up about one-fifth of the economy. Growth was already taking a hit from drought and government spending delays, with the central bank last week signaling it may cut its 2.8% forecast for economic growth this year.

“The central bank needs to do something to help shore up confidence now,” said Burin Adulwattana, chief economist at Bangkok Bank Pcl. “We used to think the revenue stream from tourism will help drive the economy this year while other engines are weak. Now that engine is gone. One cut may not be enough this year depending on the severity of the pandemic.”

Bank Indonesia, which cut interest rates four times last year, stepped up intervention in the bond and currency markets Monday to stem losses in the rupiah. Deputy Governor Dody Budi Waluyo said the bank is open to further policy action as it assesses the impact of the virus outbreak, and “future utilization of easing space will be carried out at the right timing.”

David Sumual, chief economist of PT Bank Central Asia in Jakarta, said if the situation worsens, “the government may opt to stimulate the economy via a more aggressive fiscal policy, since doubts remain over the efficacy of monetary easing amid tepid loan demand.”

In Singapore, which has confirmed 18 cases of coronavirus, authorities are bracing for an economic hit that may be worse than the SARS outbreak in 2003. The government has halted travel from China, where about 20% of the city-state’s international visitors come from. The Feb. 18 budget will likely provide support measures for industries like tourism and transport, and economists — including from JP Morgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup, Inc. — see a higher risk that the Monetary Authority of Singapore will ease policy in April. — Bloomberg