Deflation Risks Unnerve Asia Bankers: The Ticker

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By William Pesek

If you want to know where risks to Asia are heading, events in Seoul and Jakarta provide troubling clues.

Six months ago, many worried that South Korea was behind the inflation curve. Last week, the Bank of Korea opted against raising interest rates for a fifth straight month. The reason: Price pressures are rapidly taking a backseat to deflationary events in Europe. Korean consumer inflation slowed to 3.9 percent in October from 5.3 percent in August. That's quite a downward shift without aggressive monetary tightening.

Ditto for Indonesia, where this week the central bank -- which in October led Asian economies in cutting rates -- cut growth forecasts for Southeast Asia’s largest economy.

Few central bank watchers saw this coming. The combination of strong Asian growth, ultralow rates in the West and rising commodity prices had the region firmly in monetary-tightening mode. Italy's downward spiral changed all that. Europe's woes are precipitating an intensifying “knock-on effect,” says Rajat Nag, director general of the Manila-based Asian Development Bank.

Asia's 2012 is suddenly looking a bit bleak. Markets are heading into another crisis period, one that may be deeper and harder to contain than the meltdown of 2008. It's equally clear that the risks to world growth are shifting toward deflation.

In reality, this dynamic has been afoot all year. Economists fretting over world inflation were applying conventional thinking and yardsticks to a financial environment that was anything but. Asia now finds itself in that disorienting place after spending much of 2011 heading off price pressures.

International Monetary Fund head Christine Lagarde says the global economy is entering a "dangerous phase" and that some Asian nations should pause on tightening economic conditions. And she's absolutely right. Anyone who thinks the U.S., Europe or Japan will be growing solidly in the next 12 months is dreaming. China, meanwhile, is clamping down on credit growth.

For Asia, it's a balancing act. Policy makers must add liquidity to domestic economies, while also making sure things aren't so accommodative that they inflate fresh bubbles. That's a difficult enough feat when global markets are stable. Now that they're decidedly in uncharted territory, the task is positively Herculean from Korea to Indonesia and beyond.

(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)

-0- Nov/17/2011 00:32 GMT