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Despite Political Worries, Asia Still World’s Economic Powerhouse
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Despite Political Worries, Asia Still World’s Economic Powerhouse

 
 

Asia is set to remain the world’s biggest contributor to global growth in 2017, with activity picking up in two-thirds of the region’s developing economies, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The growth outlook has reassured investors amid rising geopolitical tensions in the world’s most economically dynamic region.

In its “Asian Development Outlook 2017,” the Philippines-based organization predicted gross domestic product (GDP) growth for Asia and the Pacific of 5.7 percent this year and next, a slight drop from last year’s 5.8 percent, despite stronger external demand, improved commodity prices, and domestic reforms.

The uptick will see the region remain the largest single contributor to global growth in 2017, accounting for 60 percent of world activity, the ADB said.

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“Developing Asia continues to drive the global economy even as the region adjusts to a more consumption-driven economy in [China] and looming global risks,” the ADB’s chief economist, Yasuyuki Sawada, said.

“While uncertain policy changes in advanced economies do pose a risk to the outlook, we feel that most economies are well positioned to weather potential short-term shocks.”

The ADB said industrial economies were picking up speed, with the United States, Eurozone, and Japan expected to post a collective expansion of 1.9 percent in 2017 and 2018. The United States, the world’s biggest economy, is benefiting from rising business and consumer confidence, while the Eurozone continues to improve, despite the uncertainties posed by Brexit.

Japan, the world’s third-largest economy, “remains dependent on its ability to maintain export growth to continue its expansion,” the ADB said.

Meanwhile, growth is expected to moderate in China, Asia’s biggest economy, as Beijing implements measures to transition toward a more consumption-driven model. The days of double-digit GDP growth are a distant memory, with output expected to slow to 6.5 percent this year and 6.2 percent in 2018, down from 6.7 percent last year and representing the slowest pace of growth in 26 years.

“Efforts to maintain financial and fiscal stability will continue to be a modest drag on growth going forward, but continued structural reform will help to maintain growth in the government’s target range,” the ADB said.

Incredible India

On a brighter note, South Asia will remain the fastest-growing subregion, with GDP growth rising from 7 percent this year to 7.2 percent in 2018, led by its largest economy, India. The South Asian powerhouse is seen expanding by 7.4 percent in fiscal 2017 and 7.6 percent the following fiscal year, both improvements on the 7.1 percent registered last fiscal year.

“The impact of the demonetization of high-value banknotes is dissipating as the replacement banknotes enter circulation. Stronger consumption and fiscal reforms are also expected to improve business confidence and investment prospects,” the ADB said.

Southeast Asia is also expected to accelerate further, with the region seen growing by 4.8 percent this year and 5 percent in 2018, up from the 4.7 percent posted in 2016. Improved global food and fuel prices are expected to aid Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam, the ADB said, factors that will also benefit Central Asia and the Pacific.

However, the ADB pointed to risks to its rosier outlook, including higher U.S. interest rates and rising household debt in some Asian economies. Economies with flexible exchange rates could experience sharper depreciations and higher imported inflation should capital outflows increase to developed economies, while authorities may need to intervene to cool housing bubbles in some economies, it said.

Investors Return

Investors appear to have shrugged off the risk of capital flight from Asia’s emerging economies, judging by the latest data.

The benchmark MSCI Emerging Markets stock index hit a near two-year high in March on the back of gains in China, India, and South Korea. Some $30 billion flowed into emerging market assets last month, the biggest inflows since January 2015, according to the Institute of International Finance.

Despite the gains, emerging market stocks are still trading at a 26 percent discount to those in developed markets, according to UBS Wealth Management. Bond yields also remain well above those prevailing in developed markets such as the United States, Japan, and Europe.

“Emerging markets are one of the very few places in the world where valuations still look cheap,” Chiron Investment Management’s Ryan Caldwell told the Wall Street Journal.

“There’s not a lot of value left in developed markets.”

According to the U.S. financial daily, the rally in emerging markets reflects expectations that the U.S. Federal Reserve will raise interest rates only gradually in 2017. Beijing’s stimulus efforts and improved commodity prices have also helped sentiment, while fears over a protectionist Trump administration have eased.

However, it also noted reasons for caution, including the fact that the emerging markets index fell for three straight years before rebounding in 2016, while commodity prices are still subject to the economic health of China, the world’s biggest resource consumer.

Nevertheless, even Asia’s developed economies appear to be showing healthier signs. The latest Bank of Japan survey showed Japanese households to be the most upbeat since 1998, helped by the lowest jobless rate in 22 years of just 2.8 percent.

The survey found the highest impression of livelihoods since 1998, while sentiment toward income was the highest on record dating to 2006 and confidence regarding employment was the second-highest since 11 years prior.

Asia’s outlook may also be influenced by political issues, from North Korean missile strikes to relations between the world’s two biggest economies, the United States and China.

In a keenly watched first meeting Thursday between U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Florida, Trump reportedly joked that “we’ve had a long discussion already, and so far I have gotten nothing, absolutely nothing. But we have developed a friendship… and I think long term we are going to have a very, very great relationship.”

With fears over a U.S.-China trade war apparently subsiding, and worries over the U.S. Fed’s interest rate hikes easing, Asia’s outlook in 2017 may be far better than many feared at the start of the Year of the Rooster.

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