Malaysia - Money

During the last 2 decades the value of Malaysian currency has shown remarkable stability, mainly due to the country's steady economic growth and regular state intervention into the currency exchange rate . The Malaysian dollar was floated in 1973, and in that year its exchange rate stood at around RM2.45 per US$1. At the same time, the Malaysian dollar became the sole unit of legal tender, as Singapore and Brunei currencies were excluded from free circulation in the country. The government periodically revised its exchange control regulations, introducing further liberalization of the controls. In 1985, the Malaysian ringgit was valued at RM2.48 per US$1, and this exchange rate remained practically unchanged until the 1997 Asian financial crisis.

During the period between 1973 and 1997, inflationary pressure was relatively small, with a peak inflation rate of around 17 percent in 1974. Remarkable stability was supported by a very high rate of savings. Malaysia has one of the highest savings rates in the world, at a level of around 40 percent of GDP. However, Malaysians also borrow rampantly, with a large proportion of investments directed to the booming property market and stock market. Outstanding loans were equivalent to 170 percent of GDP by the end of 1997, one of the highest such ratios in the world.

The Malaysian banking system is well established, with 38 commercial banks operating in the country in 1996, including 14 foreign banks and 12 merchant banks.

Exchange rates: Malaysia
ringgits (RM) per US$1
Jan 2001 3.8000
2000 3.8000
1999 3.8000
1998 3.9244
1997 2.8133
1996 2.5159
SOURCE: CIA World Factbook 2001 [ONLINE].

The foreign banks were represented by the biggest names, such as ABN AMRO Bank of the Netherlands, Mitsubishi and Tokyo banks of Japan, Citibank of the United States, Standard Chartered Bank of the United Kingdom, and others. However, the fundamental problem of the banking system in Malaysia, as in other emerging markets in Asia, was its exposure to bad loans , allegedly made to politically well-connected businessmen and to overheated property and share markets. This was an important factor that eventually led to a financial downturn.

The 1997 Asian financial crisis affected all regional currencies, dragging them downwards. The property and share markets also dwindled, putting additional pressure on the currencies. The Malaysian ringgit had plummeted from about RM2.55 per U.S. dollar in early 1997 to about RM3.75 in April 1998, and further to RM4.2 in August 1998 (speculations against the Malaysian ringgit on the currency exchange market largely contributed to this downturn). In response to this pressure, in September of 1998 the Malaysian government introduced a range of capital and currency-exchange control measures. A key component of this unprecedented move was pegging the Malaysian ringgit at RM3.80 per US$1. The Malaysian government also closed all legal channels for the transfer of Malaysian ringgit abroad and froze the repatriation of stock assets abroad held by non-residents in Malaysia for a period of 12 months. It even limited its own tourists headed abroad from taking more than RM500 in cash.

Such tough measures reduced the impact of the financial turmoil of 1997 and 1998, although they were sharply criticized by the IMF and other international organizations. In August 1998, Russia defaulted on its international obligations, while Malaysia was slowly achieving economic recovery. Malaysia rejected financial assistance from the IMF and kept its external debt at the relatively moderate level of US$42 billion, or 59 percent of GDP, with debt service payments of about US$6.0 billion (1998). In order to rehabilitate non-performing loans (NPLs), the Malaysian government established the Danaharta, an asset-managing company with the task of buying and rehabilitating NPLs, and the Corporate Debt Restructuring Committee, which facilitated voluntary debt restructuring between creditors and debtors. By May 2000, the Danaharta had acquired about 42 percent of NPLs, with a total value of US$9.63 billion. The government also injected US$1.9 billion into 10 banking institutions. In 1999 and 2000, Malaysia's economy was recovering, prompting the government to ease many of the restrictive measures, although it will take time for international investors to revive their confidence in the Malaysian market.

Malaysia has a single stock exchange, the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange (KLSE). During the period of expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, the KLSE was among the fastest growing stock exchanges in the region, with ambitions to become one of the region's leading financial centers. However, the KLSE lost ground after the stock market collapse in 1997, with some shares losing up to 80 percent of their value. With the strong economic recovery, there was a return of investors and the KLSE strengthened in late 1999 and 2000.

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