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Financial "Meltdown" in East Asia in 1997 - Dissertation Sample

17 Mar 2017Dissertation Samples

This dissertation will explain and discuss the financial breakdown in East Asia in 1997, and debate whether that meltdown has wider regional if not global economic and political implications.  As part of the explanations for the financial meltdown of East Asia during 1997, the economic development and performance of the main economies of East Asia such as South Korea and Indonesia will be examined.

To a large extent, as will be explained the financial meltdown in East Asia during 1997 came as an unexpected surprise and may need to be explained from different perspectives to any previous economic crisis.  The economies of East Asia had, prior to the meltdown, experienced strong economic growth and even if the economic policies of their governments were not always ideal they did not pursue policies considered to have been detrimental to high growth rates.

Explanations will be based around factors such as whether the governments of East Asian countries have pursued the wrong economic strategies or whether circumstances just conspired against them.  Other factors will be explained, for instance whether the incompetence and corruption in parts of the East Asia region finally became too much to support economic growth.  Or perhaps more ominously that the economic development strategies advocated by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were flawed or have become outdated due to developments generally attributed to the process of economic and political globalisation (Radelet & Sachs, March 30 1998 p.1).  There seemed to be few indicators to show that South Korea, Singapore, and Hong Kong amongst other economies in the region would be unable to continue annual growth rates in gross domestic product of 6 to 7% (Turner, 2001 p. 48).

Introduction

Aside from Japan none of the economies of Asia had been heavily industrialised and economically developed before the post-war period.  The Second World War had devastated the Japanese economy, yet in the post-war era it was a role model for economic growth and development for the countries of East Asia.  The countries of East Asia prior to the financial meltdown of 1997 had the most impressive economic growth rates in the world, better than the United States, the European Union and Japan.  The economies that proved most vulnerable to the crisis were the ones that seemed to have made the most progress, namely South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia (Cleaver, 2002, p.199). 

The economies of East Asia followed the development policies of the Asian Tigers, particularly of Japan and Thailand (Evans & Newnham, 1998, p.36).  The focus of this dissertation will be on Hong Kong, South Korea, Indonesia and Singapore, as well as Japan.  Before the East Asia crisis and financial meltdown of 1997, many observers believed that the economies of East Asia had achieved a strong balance between dynamic growth and liberal economic policies.  The processes of growth and liberalism were arguably reinforced by membership of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).  ASEAN originally consisted of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Thailand, Singapore, and Brunei, with more countries joining later (Comfort, 1993 p. 23). 

To some the financial crisis of 1997 came as a shock, although there are arguments about how long-term or long lasting the implications of the meltdown are upon the wider East Asia region as a whole.  The implications to be explained and examined that resulted from the financial meltdown include the need or desirability for political, as well as economic liberalism, economic reforms to reduce corruption, improve efficiency and also measures to restore confidence in the financial markets of East Asia.  The financial meltdown on 1997 could arguably have had implications beyond East Asia, especially if the importance of Japan and China to the global economy is taken into account.  South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia amongst other countries in East Asia had become important parts of the global economic system.  Decades of growth and extensive development, as will be explained below, meant that the countries of East Asia have increasingly interconnected economies that are strongly linked to the global economy (Turner, 2001 p.49). 

Globalisation and computer technology means that information and money can be exchanged in a matter of moments.  This can have the advantage of making investments rapidly or the disadvantage of speeding up economic crisis or panic across regions or the whole world.  Currency speculators could force de-valuations on countries such as Britain in 1992 or more destructively Mexico in 1994, for example.  Once one country’s currency in a region has been de-valued, currency speculators will target other economies in the region to make further pickings, this is what happened in the East Asia region after Thailand de-valued the Bhat in 1997.  Governments that are desperate to avoid devaluation will usually follow similar strategies to those adopted by Thailand.  For instance, interest rates will be increased, with foreign currency reserves and central bank reserves being used to keep the currency overvalued.  Without co-operation from other governments and central banks such strategies are unlikely to succeed and potentially do more harm than a devaluation carried out by the government or the central bank concerned with setting exchange rates (Cleaver, 2002, p.198).

At the end of the Second World War, Japan was in ruins, as previously mentioned, previous high levels of economic development were shattered in defeat.  The United States helped the Japanese to rebuild their country, mainly to prevent the spread of communism into Asia.  The containment of communism provided incentives for the United States to help the countries of East Asia, as well as providing the context for further economic development.  Japan provided the impetus for growth across the East Asia region.  The United States had originally intended to break up the largest Japanese enterprises to increase competition, yet in the end decided that strong economic growth was the best way of containing communism (Tipton, 1998, p.289).  For the Americans the East Asia region seemed prone to communism and underdevelopment during the 1950s, although it seemed highly important for economic and security reasons. 

China had succumbed to communism in 1949, the United States and its allies prevented South Korea being defeated in the Korean War, whilst France and the United States ultimately failed to prevent the communist takeover of Vietnam.  Democracy was lacking throughout the East Asia region and development was lagging behind expectations until the 1960s (Tipton, 1998, p.289).  Japan’s economic growth was planned by its Liberal Democratic Party governments, which meant that it went from a war torn economy to the United States’ largest trading partner and one of the world’s leading exporters (Tipton, 1998, p.293).  Japan’s economic progress was helped as it was not allowed to spend money on weapons, due to the United States protecting her as part of the peace treaty  (Maidment, Goldblatt & Mitchell, 1998, p.69).

Japanese multi-national corporations have a major role in the global economy, which partly explains why the financial meltdown in East Asia in 1997 had implications outside the East Asia region, as well as within it.  These multi-national corporations had plants in other parts of East Asia, such as South Korea, Malaysia, and China.  Long term implications of the financial meltdown could have included plant closures throughout the region.  Plant ands business closures paradoxically could affect the countries that developed the most, South Korea and Indonesia for instance.  South Korea had remarkable successes in rapidly industrialising and expanding its exports.  However, that success made its economy more vulnerable to financial speculation as well as potentially open to greater levels of financial and capital investment.  Exposure to international competition can make economies stronger or it can make them weaker.  South Korea’s proneness to economic instability as a result of the crisis of 1997 was to be almost as noticeable as its well documented successes at export diversification (Siebert, 2002, p.168).

Explanations for the East Asian financial meltdown

The financial meltdown of East Asia during 1997 can be explained by shortcomings in the domestic economies of East Asia.  Although, the states of East Asia had been committed to operating in the capitalist global economy, the economics of these states were not as liberalised or efficient as their high growth rates had suggested.  The economies of East Asia had grown due to the government interventions and controls.  Countries such as South Korea had avoided the debt crisis that had badly affected Africa, Latin America, and other countries in Asia.  Government intervention had prevented the banking systems from developing their own proper financial controls. 

Some of the economies of East Asia relied upon the export of natural resources, whilst others, most notably Japan, are reliant on the import of such resources to achieve economic growth through the export of manufactured products.  Japan, just like the United States, is susceptible to increases in oil prices, such as the oil crisis of 1973.  There were no such problems with oil supply that could explain the financial meltdown of East Asia in 1997.  However, the failure of some of the East Asia economies to diversify their exports can arguably be used to explain the financial meltdown in 1997.  This is due to East Asia countries being prone to changes in global prices for commodities such as timber, cotton, rubber, and sugar which could have implications for the East Asia region as a whole. 

Long term decreases in such prices would reverse the growth rates of countries such as Malaysia and Indonesia with the possibility of plunging the East Asia region into recession.  Recessions in one region of the global economy can have implications in other regions.  Recession in the strongest economies can cause downturns in the economies of their trading partners just as strong growth can promote high growth in neighbouring states.  In the East Asia region Japan and China can be seen as the main pivotal economies that strongly influence the rest of the economies.  However, the export diversification strategies for the majority of the East Asia economies had been very successful for stimulating high economic growth rates.  Other explanations would be better to describe the financial meltdown in the East Asia region (Siebert, 2002, p.172).

The financial meltdown of East Asia in 1997 can be partly explained by changes in the domestic politics throughout the region.  For instance, there was uncertainty about the future of Hong Kong, which reverted to Chinese control after being a British colony.  Fears that China would dramatically change how the Hong Kong economy was run were unjustified.  When China was still controlled by Mao Zedong, those fears would have been justified, as communism would have probably been imposed.  The Chinese government was anxious to emphasise that the Hong Kong economy would not be altered. 

In the long term the financial implications for the East Asia region of Hong Kong being part of China are good, as it strengthens the economies of both.  The price for the people of Hong Kong was the loss of political freedom, although they had never experienced full liberal democracy under British rule.  In Indonesia the long running authoritarian rule of President Suharto was nearing its end.  Political uncertainty started to affect confidence in the economy, although there were no signs that the financial meltdown would affect Indonesia (Howard & Louis, 2000 p.239). 

Indonesian economic development had been slower to take off as it was the first government after independence, which had abandoned the most promising of the economic development strategies advocated by the departing Dutch colonial administration.  The Indonesian economy would soon be hampered by the consequences of the Indonesian government’s attempts to retain control of East Timor in the face of its efforts to gain independence.  Eventually, those actions prompted United Nations intervention under the auspices of the United States and Australia.  Economists and political analysts hoped that the change of regime in Indonesia would increase the chances of economic reforms and the curtailing of corruption (Howard & Louis, 2000, p.239).

The financial meltdown of the East Asia region in 1997 can be explained by corruption in parts of the East Asia economies.  Some of the countries of East Asia have a reputation for having corrupt governments and equally corrupt economies.  Taiwan is probably the country in East Asia with the worst reputation with regard to corruption.  The governments of Taiwan had been dominated by the former Nationalists coalition that had governed main land China before the communist take over in 1949.  Corruption however, did not prevent the other countries of East Asia trading with Taiwan.  The United States, as part of its containment of communist China, backed Taiwan itself. 

Taiwan is wary of China’s intentions towards it, which causes tension within the region.  Without American support Taiwan would prove no match for China.  In the long term corruption does not threaten trade within the East Asia region.  However, the implications of corruption could include a loss in confidence that trade is being carried out fairly and effectively.  The fear of corruption could have implications for trade with countries outside of the East Asia region, such as the United States and members of the European Union.  Corruption can have a harmful effect upon prices and confidence as well as business transparency (Newnham & Evans, 1998 p. 139).

Another explanation of the financial meltdown in East Asia in 1997 is based on the level of financial and business regulations in parts of the region.  The East Asia region was traditionally subject to less developed independent financial regulation, rather than other parts of the global economy such as the United States and the European Union.  The level of interference in the region’s economies was generally determined by governments that usually controlled the central banks and access to loans and investments.  The region’s economies despite high levels of government interventions had a reputation for being highly liberalised due to the lack of recognisable financial and business laws.  The lack of financial regulation was not seen by many governments or experts whilst the East Asia region was experiencing high levels of sustained economic growth. 

High rates of growth and the potential for large returns on investment meant that the economies of East Asia had not been short of investors from East Asia itself and other parts of the world.  The under regulated nature of parts of the East Asia economies were actually regarded by some investors as an advantage rather than a disadvantage.  Regulations can be seen as adding costs to investments, although they compensate for those costs by reducing risks.  All investments are carried out with an element of risk.  Prior to the financial meltdown of 1997, East Asia’s long periods of economic growth meant that these economies were seen as sound economies to invest in, arguably less risky than the United States or European Union economies, for instance. 

If the long-term implications for the East Asia regions were that lack of financial regulation would harm their long-term economic growth prospects, then it would not prove too difficult to regulate their financial institutions.  Advice and guidance for the introduction of effective regulations would be available from ASEAN, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank.  Arguably, confidence is more important than regulation for determining the financial health of any individual economy, or the performance of a region such as East Asia (Newnham & Evans, 1998, p.139).  The level of government intervention and the amount of financial and business regulations varied across the region, Singapore for instance had a great deal of regulation whilst Hong Kong barely had any at all (Cleaver, 2002 p. 231).

A lack of confidence in the present and future performance of the economics of East Asia can contribute to an explanation of the financial meltdown in 1997.  Stock market crashes and financial meltdowns have often been caused by a loss of confidence in the strength of economic performance.  Growing fears of economic stagnation and decline usually turn out to be self-fulfilling prophecies.  The extent of the damage caused by such losses of confidences can depend on how quickly confidence is regained.  The underlying strengths and weaknesses of economies, and the level of foreign investment can make the difference between short-term downturns, medium term recessions, or long term down turns, medium term recession, or long term depression.  The implications for the economies of the East Asia region could have been disastrous in the wake of the financial meltdown in 1997. 

A long-term loss of confidence could have resulted in recession or even in depression.  The financial meltdown in 1997 demonstrated that the governments of East Asia could not assume that economic growth was guaranteed or that it could be sustained over an unlimited period.  It also dented confidence that the individual countries could escape the implications of such a meltdown.  Communist China, for instance was not isolated from all the effects of the meltdown, even the extent of state ownership of enterprises offered some protection.  It should be considered that capitalism is a system that has cycles of strong growths interspersed with periods of downturn, although countries or regions can sometimes seem immune from economic cycles, which is not a position that last forever.

All economies go through stages of economic growth, although those at the lower stages are at a disadvantage compared to the more developed ones (Bannock, Baxter & Davis, 2003, p.110).

Another explanation for the financial meltdown in the East Asia region was that most of the countries within the region had fixed exchange rates.  Under certain conditions fixed exchange rates can be conducive to economic growth.  The East Asia countries that used such a system believed it helped increase trade within the region and with the United States.  Provided governments are flexible enough to consider changing fixed exchange rates their disadvantages can be kept to a minimum (Bannock, Baxter & Davis, 2003, p.130).  Fixed exchange rates work best when all the economies with the system have similar rates of growth and when they are all converging towards each other. 

Overvalued currencies can be harmful to economies as they make exports more expensive and imports cheaper.  Currency speculators target overvalued currencies as a means to make instant amounts of profits, such speculation, however means governments are forced into de-valuations, businesses collapse and people lose their jobs.  Once one country in a fixed exchange rate system devalues, others are forced to follow.  This is what happened to Thailand in 1997 (Cleaver, 2002, p.201).

There is also an explanation of the East Asia crisis based upon how investments and loans were used in the economies of the region prior to 1997.  Originally foreign investors had tended to invest their funds into the emerging industries and enterprises.  Countries such as South Korea, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and Singapore had proved adept at attracting investments to their industrial and business developments, investments that drove growth and modernisation.  In fact these countries were seen as ideal role models of economic development by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank due to low rates of international debts and high economic growth rates over a long period (Radelet & Sachs, March 30 1998 p.1). 

However foreign investments began to shift away industries and businesses towards property and land sales.  That shift in how foreign finance was invested occurred because the industrial section of the East Asian economies was now enjoying the spectacular growth rates of the 1960s and the 1970s.  Investors turned their attention towards property and land developments as they promised a higher rate of return and profits than investing in industries and businesses. 

However the property markets were not as stable or risk free as the industrial and business sector.  High property prices attracted foreign investments and loans to companies and individuals hoping to make their fortunes.  The problem for domestic and foreign investors alike was that the property and land prices were unstable and not able to sustain high growth or support the mounting levels of debt used to pay for property and land developments.  The situation in East Asia at the start of 1997 provided a prime example of a speculation bubble set to explode.  Such speculation bubbles are built upon unrealistic and overoptimistic expectations of continuous growth and ever increasing profits.  Confidence is a major catalyst for economic growth and progress, yet once confidence has gone it can bring about economic crisis and recession. 

Once confidence is lost desperate remedies are sometimes required to restore it.  The overoptimistic confidence in the continuing economic growth of the East Asia region were shattered by the devaluation of the Thai currency, an event that induced panic amongst investors and the governments of the region alike.  The Thai devaluation burst the bubble in the East Asian economies.  Decades of hard work and sound investments had been put at risk because investors had gambled too much on the property and land boom continuing and had fuelled that boom by unwise and over extensive borrowing.  In other words it was the high levels of private debts rather than high levels of government borrowing that brought instability to the East Asian region.  Arguably there was a financial meltdown in waiting that nobody noticed and nobody attempted to prevent.  Any event could have caused the crisis before or after the Thai devaluation (Cleaver, 2002 p. 201).

Implications of the financial meltdown in the East Asia region in 1997

So far the implications of the financial meltdown in the East Asia region have been mentioned in general, when putting forward explanations for the crisis in East Asia.  The financial meltdown in East Asia had had political, social and economic implications for the region.  Short-term implications of the crisis included the financial losses of businesses, investors, and individual shareholders.  The crash led to the loss of billions of dollars worth of stocks and shares.  The financial meltdown brought bankruptcy to top businesses and individual investors and threatened profitability of other businesses.  Crashes lead to unemployment and increased poverty.

Other implications of the financial meltdown of East Asia in 1997 included increased financial burdens for the governments of East Asia.  Economic crashes can have undesirable costs and implications for governments.  Tax revenues and earnings from exports can fall alarmingly, whilst governments could do with the extra revenue to deal with the costs of unemployment and avoid increased borrowing.  Recessions can make it more difficult for governments to borrow money from foreign sources, whilst increasing the debt burden of countries due to having to pay higher rates of interest.

  Higher rates of poverty and unemployment can have a detrimental effect on social and political stability putting strains on regimes that are not as stable as was previously assumed.  Regimes tend to be more secure when economic growth is strong, rather than when the economy is in decline.  The implications of the East Asia financial meltdown could have been worse.  The International Monetary Fund developed financial rescue packages that stopped the crisis.  However, the austerity measures and reforms ushered in by those packages were harsh and in turn can increase levels of unemployment and financial hardships (Cleaver, 2002, p.201).

The financial meltdown in 1997 did not have as many global implications as some had initially feared.  Although, European and United States imports to the East Asia region dropped sharply, financial meltdown and crisis in the region did not plunge the United States and the European Union into recession.  That the East Asia crisis did not induce global recession had more to do with circumstances favouring the continuation of economic growth in North America and Europe than the lack of potential to cause economic dislocation on a global scale.  All was not well in the global economy during the late 1990s, as the Japanese economy was in recession for much of that period. 

The continuing globalisation of business and finance meant that the chances of a regional crisis such as the one in East Asia have the very real potential to induce global depression.  The risk remains that a disastrous chain of crash and crisis could spread very quickly across the world.  Globalisation is a process that generally creates great levels of wealth as well as transforming economies through higher growth rates combined with investments, yet it is also a process that can export instability and recession.  Economic instability has domestic and international causes, once the wrong combination of factors is achieved the economic results can be dire, the world did not have to wait long for the next crisis after the events in East Asia, the Russian crash of 1998 (Turner, 2001, p.49).

The immediate implications of the East Asian crisis was for the first time in decades countries such as South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia were faced with the prospect of severe economic contraction with a sharp decline in the levels of domestic and foreign investments into their economies.  The consequences of these factors can be demonstrated by financial data for 1998.  In Thailand gross national product per capita declined by 8.5 % and the growth of investment declined by 32%.  The data for South Korea, Malaysia, and Indonesia was equally bleak.  Respectively they suffered declines of 7.4 % and 38.6%, 9.6% and 42.9%, and most disastrously of all18.0% and 44.8% in Indonesia.  The economies of the region do face stiff competition in some areas, for instance Thai electronic components are undercut by cheaper Chinese exports, whilst South Korean car manufactures face competition from European, American and most notably Japanese rivals (Cleaver, 2002 p. 201).

Another implication of the financial meltdown in the East Asia region during 1997 was the increased realisation that all economies are interconnected to each other.  The process of globalisation means that the economies of the East Asia region are not only increasingly linked to each other, they are also linked to the global economy.  AESAN had been formed to promote trade between the countries of East Asia.  As a consequence of the financial meltdown of the East Asia region, it was logical for East Asia countries to strengthen regional co-operation and integration to restrict the damage of the 1997 crash, whilst reducing the chances of further financial meltdowns affecting the region.  AESAN helped the East Asia region expand and it reduced the harmful effects of the financial meltdown in 1997.  Organisations such as AESAN have limits to how far they can help the economies in their regions, yet without such organisations economic growth could be harder to achieve whilst recessions would last longer. 

AESAN continued to enlarge its membership after the financial meltdown, although that in turn has caused controversy.  New members have included Cambodia and Burma (Howard & Louis, 2000, p.239).  Amongst the implications of the financial meltdown in East Asia was the need for reforms being highlighted?  Some financial experts believed that reforms would have reduced the impact of the financial meltdown or possibly prevented it.  Governments are not always keen to introduce economic reforms though, as opening up economies can increase pressure to introduce social and political reforms which governments do not always want to implement.  However, governments may believe that reforms are preferable to the economic, social and political harm caused by the financial meltdowns or severe economic recessions (Newnham & Evans, 1998 p. 139).

A worrying implication of the whole crisis was that the International Monetary Fund’s strategies did not solve the crisis immediately.  That was mainly due to the nature of the crisis being misunderstood.  It was not a crisis caused by a balance of payments problem or high levels of government debt.  Too much private borrowing and the banks of the region lending too much money caused the crisis.  The usual austerity measures advocated by the International Monetary Fund made the financial situation worse, slowed down the recovery process and meant the governments of those countries involved in the crisis had to receive bigger loans (Radelet & Sachs, March 30 1998 p.27).

Conclusions

Therefore, there are several explanations for the financial meltdown in the East Asia region in 1997.  Many of the countries in the East Asia region had, since the 1960s, benefited from almost unbroken periods of high rates of sustainable economic growth which few other countries came close to matching.  That period of growth moved countries such as South Korea and the city-states of Singapore and Hong Kong up the order of international economic performances.  The financial meltdown in 1997 came as surprise to many governments, financial and political experts, although there are factors that explain how it happened even if it could not have been avoided. 

Political stability and the determination of governments to promote economic growth had arguably assisted high economic growth in the East Asia region.  The growth strategies of countries such as Japan, Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea seemed to show the way forward, not only for East Asia but also for developing countries in other regions such as Africa.  In ASEAN the region had an organisation that seemed capable of promoting economic co-operation and growth.  The de-valuation of Thailand currency proved to be the catalyst for the financial meltdown across East Asia.  A combination of factors can be used to explain how financial meltdown hit East Asia.  The economies of East Asia were not as strong or well developed as their growth rates suggested they were.

  Inadequate financial regulation and even corruption weakened some economies, or even decisions made to protect the interests of political or the economic elite, rather than promote economic policies to improve the situation of the whole country.  There was complacency amongst the strongest economies of the East Asia regions that they could avoid the worst effects of international recessions and still sustain high levels of economic growth.  In the end though, it was not an international recession, but the loss of confidence in East Asia, started in Thailand, which was the main trigger for the financial meltdown in that region in 1997.  Declining confidence and currency speculation was instrumental in seemingly ending sustained economic growth in the East Asia region.

The implications for the financial meltdown in the East Asia region were political and social as well as economic in nature.  The financial meltdown affected the confidence that the governments of the region and economic ministries would be able to sustain high levels of economic growth over a long-term period.  South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia were the countries most adversely affected by the financial meltdown.  Although the implications for the East Asia region could have been much worse if financial rescue packages had not been put in place.  The scale of the meltdown had been considered to be vital. 

Financial aid meant that recovery occurred faster than could have been expected, given the size of the crisis in 1997.  The financial meltdown highlighted structural weaknesses within the economies of East Asia.  The main implications for the region were that if those weaknesses were not addressed then the East Asia region could be prone to further economic crisis.  Without reforms any renewed levels of economic growth will not be sustainable for any long periods of time.  Perhaps it would also be sensible if the East Asia region could find ways to predict potential financial meltdowns to be able to take preventative measures.

Bibliography

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  • Comfort N (1993) Brewer’s Politics, a phrase and fable dictionary, Cassell, London
  • Evans G & Newnham J, (1998) The Penguin Dictionary of International Relations, Penguin, London
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