Is Asia Ready for Another Wild Ride?

Asia rode out the last recession in relative style. But the methods it employed then are no longer sustainable in the face of renewed global volatility.
Asia is hardly immune from volatility.

From Ebola to debt to deflation, fear stalks the global economy.

With bewildering speed, concerns about of credit defaults, slowing demand and political instability have eclipsed exuberance over America's falling jobless rate and Alibaba's record-breaking IPO. The most-asked question isn't where to make profits, but where's a safe haven from the coming storm? Is it Asia again? Sadly, as markets unravel anew, even Asia finds itself in an increasingly dangerous position this time around.

There's a temptation for the region to take a bow. Even with China's worsening data, the failure of "Abenomics" in Japan and structural headwinds challenging officials from Seoul to New Delhi, Asia may ride out renewed turbulence better than the West -- just as it did in 2008. If you think of investment destinations as one giant beauty contest, Asia is still hands-down the least ugly contestant.

But Asia's growth over the last six years has been driven more by asset bubbles than genuinely sustainable economic demand. Already, we are seeing structural slowdowns from Seoul to Jakarta. These strains will become even more pronounced as Europe's debt troubles re-emerge and the Federal Reserve's record stimulus loses potency. Asian policy makers also have less latitude going forward to support growth.

"A full recovery of demand in the West, sufficient to pull Asia out of its malaise, remains a distant prospect," says Qu Hongbin, Hong Kong-based co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC Holdings. "Rather, reviving growth in Asia, whether in China, Japan, India or anywhere in between, requires deep structural reforms: pruning subsidies, spending more on quality infrastructure, boosting education, opening further to foreign direct investment, and, perhaps most important of all, introducing greater competition in local markets. These are politically tough choices to make. But they will grow only more difficult, the longer they are put off."

That's not to say Asia hasn't done considerable heavy-lifting since the region's own crisis in 1997. For a reality check, I consulted with Callum Henderson of Standard Chartered in Singapore, who arguably published the first comprehensive history of that period, "Asia Falling." One parallel between then and now worries Henderson: a huge devaluation in the Japanese yen that pressured exchange rates around the region.

But the differences are far more striking: Asian currencies are generally unpegged; many governments have sizeable current-account surpluses and huge foreign-exchange-reserve cushions; and the investor base is now longer-term real money as opposed to fickle hot money. While risks abound, Henderson concludes, "this is not 1997."

Yet those risks are flaring up in hurry to ensure 2015 is a rocky one even for rapidly-growing Asia. What worries economist Glenn Maguire of Australia & New Zealand Banking Group in Hong Kong is how rapidly commodity prices are receding from the gains of recent years. "Certainly, the global or regional economy does not seem to be slowing as quickly commodity prices are falling," Maguire points out.

Or are markets an omen of big trouble to come? News out of Singapore this week offered a ray of hope that Asia might be slowing less than commodities from oil to iron ore suggest (commodity prices in general are at a five-year low). Singapore's open economy is often a weathervane of sorts for Asian demand, and its annualized 1.2 percent growth in the three quarter pleasantly surprised many. If only data from Beijing to Jakarta suggested similar vigor.

Asia did a remarkable job steering around the worst of Wall Street's crash in 2008. But it did so with fiscal stimulus and monetary that stretched national balance sheets and boosted asset prices in artificial and unsustainable ways. "We are stuck in a narrow and disappointing growth range across Asia," says HSBC's Hongbin. "The temptation is to blame the West for its tired consumers. But that is to miss the real problem. Slowing productivity growth is what really ails the region, prompting its dependence on credit to sustain demand."

Asia may indeed be the least ugly region as global markets cascade lower. But it's high time policy makers looked into the mirror and addressed their own economic blemishes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.