• University of Indonesia's Azis says Indonesia lagging Vietnam
  • Hope for Indonesia economy lies in president, Azis says

University lecturer and economist Iwan Azis hadn’t lived in his home country for a quarter century before he returned to Indonesia last year. He wasn’t pleased with how he found it.  

“It’s the same story -- I don’t see any change. That’s why I have no reason to be optimistic,” said Azis, who lectures in economics at the University of Indonesia near Jakarta and previously taught the country’s current finance minister and central bank governor. “It’s worse now. The world wasn’t as interconnected then.”

Among the things troubling Azis is an increasingly protectionist approach toward trade and investment, government policy flip flops, and a build-up in private foreign-currency debt that’s reminiscent of a pattern before the Asian financial crisis of 1997-98. 

While Indonesia benefits by being a large market, with the world’s fourth-largest population, it’s failed to insert itself in the global manufacturing supply chain as Vietnam has in electronics, Azis says. Vietnam has lured billions of dollars of investment from Samsung Electronics Co. among others, stoking its exports.

By contrast, Indonesia remains tied to natural resources and assembly operations, said Azis, 62, who previously worked at the Asian Development Bank and has taught at Cornell University in New York state.

The financial system is now vulnerable as the rupiah’s exchange rate continues to weaken, after a surge in private debt raised in foreign currencies, Azis said. Non-performing loans may climb and “I am worried about the medium and small banks,” he said.
“No one really paid attention to the danger” during the period of faster growth from around 2006, when commodity prices benefited Indonesian exports, the economist said.

Even so, one of the country’s top regulators, Fauzi Ichsan, says the country has strengthened its banking system and is resilient to risks. Capital standards are stronger, and the deposit insurance pool is larger than during the global financial crisis a few years ago, Ichsan, who heads the Indonesia Deposit Insurance Corp., said in an interview on Tuesday.

“I can’t predict when a crisis will come,” Azis said. “I say in my class that a crisis is not predictable -- but explainable.”

Azis, who plans to return to Cornell, said “the only hope I have is the president himself,” given his commitment to reform.

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