Malaysia’s ringgit fell the most in seven weeks as China’s record weakening in its daily reference rate spurred the biggest decline in the yuan in two decades and triggered losses across Asia.
China took the unprecedented step just days after data showed exports contracted in July for a fifth month this year, underscoring concern that the region’s largest economy is slowing. Malaysia’s currency is Asia’s worst performer in the past 12 months as a slump in Brent crude weighs on the oil exporter’s earnings. A political scandal involving the prime minister and a looming U.S. interest-rate increase have sent the ringgit to a 17-year low, fueling capital outflows.
“This is some form of devaluation by China,” said Sean Yokota, the Singapore-based head of Asian strategy at Skandinaviska Enskilda Banken AB. “There’s downside risk to Chinese growth and that’s generally negative for Asia.”
The ringgit retreated 0.8 percent for a fifth day of losses to 3.9600 a dollar in Kuala Lumpur, according to prices from local banks compiled by Bloomberg. It earlier fell to 3.9605, the lowest level since August 1998, and is down almost 20 percent in the past 12 months.
A government report on Thursday may show Malaysia’s second-quarter economic growth slowed to 4.5 percent from 5.6 percent in the previous three months, according to the median estimate in a Bloomberg survey. That would be the slowest pace since early 2013.
Weaker currencies tend to support exports by making goods more competitive overseas and at the same time push up the cost of imports. Malaysia’s shipments unexpectedly rose in June, increasing for only the second month this year. Brent crude prices have more than halved from 2014’s peak to $50 a barrel.
The ringgit dropped 1.9 percent to 6.2090 versus the British pound and earlier fell to 6.2174, the weakest since 2008. It reached a record low of 2.8506 to the Singapore dollar.
As the currency weakened and the political scandal linked to state investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd. escalated, global investors cut holdings of Malaysian government and corporate debt by 2.4 percent in July to 206.8 billion ringgit ($52 billion). That’s the lowest level in three years.
Stocks funds pulled $3 billion from the nation’s equities in 2015, the most since 2008. The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI Index has lost more than 12 percent from this year’s high in April.
Foreign-exchange reserves dropped below $100 billion last month for the first time since 2010, fueling speculation the central bank is buying the currency to stem its losses. The holdings of $96.7 billion are enough to finance 7.6 months of imports, according to a central bank statement accompanying the Aug. 7 data.
Malaysia continues to have sufficient reserves, Julia Goh, an analyst at Singapore’s United Overseas Bank Ltd., wrote in a research note on Tuesday. As a rule of thumb, the optimal level for the holdings is that they should cover at least 5 months of import payments, she said. The central bank will continue to “smoothen out excessive volatility,” Goh added.
Morgan Stanley and BNP Paribas SA are both forecasting the ringgit will end the year at 4 per dollar, the most bearish of bets among 33 analysts surveyed by Bloomberg since the start of July. One-month implied volatility for the currency, a measure of exchange-rate swings used to price options, is the highest in Asia at 13 percent and above a two-year average of 8.2 percent.
Malaysia’s government bonds fell, with the five-year yield rising nine basis points to 3.93 percent, data compiled by Bloomberg show.