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Stronger ringgit seen [09-08-2011]  
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Economists expect the ringgit to further strengthen against the greenback and attract extensive capital inflow into the region. It will also lead to possible further hikes in statutory reserve requirement (SRR) to stem excess liquidity if the global financial volatility worsens following the US credit rating downgrade.

Standard and Poor's (S&P's) had last Friday downgraded the world's largest economy a notch lower to AA+ from a triple A rating since the credit rating was issued to the US in 1917.

MIDF Research chief economist Anthony Dass said he expected the ringgit to strengthen against the US dollar at an average 2.97 for the year supported by a combination of healthy economic fundamentals and strong inflow of liquidity.

He added that the stronger ringgit against the US dollar would help cushion some level of imported inflation, which would give some breathing space for Bank Negara on further raising the overnight policy rate (OPR), which now stood at 3%.

“We have now placed a 30% odd for the OPR to stay at 3% for the rest of the year and expect the central bank to raise it by another 25 basis points (bps) in the second half of this year,” Dass said.

Much depends on the direction of the ringgit, the global commodity and food prices, liquidity and whether there will be further relaxation of subsidies.

Underpinned by healthy economic fundamentals and benefiting from the regional net inflow of funds, liquidity inflow into Malaysia has been strong, forcing the central bank to raise the SRR by 300 bps to 4% between April-June 2011. SRR are non-interest deposits kept at the central bank to mop up excess liquidity in the financial system.

With lingering uncertainties on the global front, Dass said he expected Malaysia, like other Asian ex-Japan economies, to continue to see inflow of funds. While this would strengthen the ringgit, he said ample liquidity would add pressure on inflation, adding that he was not ruling out the possibility of further hikes in SRR by another 50 bps to 100 bps should the inflow of liquidity pose a problem.

RAM Holdings economist Jason Fong, in response to a query from Starbiz, said if the financial volatility in the US turned out to be very significant and persistent, the impact on its external markets, including Malaysia, could be substantial.

One of the worst case scenarios would entail extensive capital flight from US-centric assets, he said. In this scenario, he added that there would be considerable decline in the value of the US dollar, causing an appreciation of US-denominated assets, particularly commodities.

The US financial volatility might also cause investors to put their money into safe haven assets such as precious metals, like gold, Fong noted.

Furthermore, he said if there were further US debt rating downgrade within the next two years as pointed out by S&P, then banks (depending on its portfolio weightings in US Treasuries) might slow down lending activities to meet international banking guidelines and this could slow domestic lending and cause consumption and investment to decline.

Fong said a larger-than-usual capital inflow would likely put upward pressure on the ringgit, causing Malaysia's exports to be more uncompetitive.

He said the rating agency maintained its economic growth forecast of 5.6% for Malaysia this year but acknowledged that the downside risk to growth had risen in the last few months.

This included a prolonged US slowdown coupled with a deteriorating external economic environment, he noted.

AmResearch Sdn Bhd director of economic research Manokaran Mottain reckons that the impact on Malaysia from the US credit rating downgrade will be minimal as the local economy is more domestic-oriented.

Countries more exposed to US Treasuries, including Japan and China, would face the brunt in the near term. China would be pressured to ease the grip on a weaker yuan policy, he added.

For Malaysia, the biggest impact will be in the currency market, with the ringgit rallying again towards RM2.93 per dollar again. The ringgit was traded at RM3.019 to a US$1 yesterday.

In the medium term, a possible quantitative easing (QE3) in the US would lead to the appreciation of the regional currencies, including the ringgit - which is expected to rally towards RM2.90 per dollar before settling between the RM2.80-RM2.90 range for this year.

Manokaran, who is maintaining the country's gross domestic product forecast at 5% this year, said the Government had trimmed its exposure to the G3 and plans to boost domestic demand. Apart from the US, the G3 also include Japan and the European Union.

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