Isn’t this similar to the 90s?

The spate of events that happened in the last six months reminded me of what we had experienced in the 90s. More than 20 years have zoomed passed us and how many of us remember those events that had taken place. In fact, many of us would have, either forgotten what happened or too young to know what had happened then. Based the historical time-line, it is likely that those in the Generation Z or Generation Y may not have really experienced the times of high interest rate environment, let alone making comparison between now and then.

By today, that business environment of the 1990s seems to be re-surfacing itself each passing day. There are just too many similarities. Let me quickly bring out a few examples. First of all, in the past few years, we had enjoyed a phenomenal economic growth, and as such, the stock market index was pushed to its high (second only to the all-time high of 3,875 in made on 11 October 2007). Whether regionally, or Asia as a whole, we were all doing well. This was a complete copy of what happened in the early 90s. The regional growth was so phenomenal that many economies were given names, namely, five tigers and four dragons. At that time, the local stock market index or STI raced from about 1000 in 1990 to about 2500 in 1994. Back then, there was a Dr M, who was holding the post of the prime minister of Malaysia, and by today, he returned as a prime minister after having left the office for many years. In between his two terms of office were two prime ministers, Abdullah Bidawi and Najib Razak. Then, in the year around 1994, the FED hiked up the interest rate several times. Is it not that what we are seeing now – in the midst of an increasing interest rate environment? The US economy at that time under the Clinton administration was so strong that the US stock market powered from 4,000 at the beginning of the administration to about 10,000 when Bill Clinton handed over the US presidency. That was also the period when the FED chair, Mr Alan Greenspan, coined the term “irrational exuberance” to describe the crowd madness of the stock market. The economic environment was so brisk that even the Lewinsky scandal could not derail Bill Clinton’s presidency term. Towards the 2nd half of the 90s, many people were expecting the Dow Jones to crash as it continued breaking new highs. On the contrary, it was the Asian stock markets that crashed leading to the Asian Financial Crisis (AFC) while the Dow Jones was pretty unscathed. Isn’t it that similar to what is happening in US now. For many years, many people were expecting the Dow Jones to fall, but at the moment, we are seeing the Asian stocks markets spiraling downwards more than the Dow Jones. Look at COE prices. In 1994, the COE price hit all-time high of $100k and then started to decline to hit a low of $50 in January 1998 (though in different category). In a similar way, COE prices are likely to continue to decline as business prospects gloom. Then, there was also a sudden property curb on May 1996 to stem property prices. Isn’t it similar to what the government announced three days ago regarding property prices? Since the property curb in 1996, property prices never really recovered until the recent years.

Frankly, all these are not for the sake of digging up the old history. By drawing out the similarities, it helps us get a glimpse of what we could expect going forward. If history can be the guide, what we had seen in the past 6 months or so, could even be only the prelude to a series of events that lead to more difficult times some time later. As earlier mentioned the 1st half of the 90s were the good years of phenomenal growth, and everybody became complacent. Many governments were taking on mega-projects that worth millions of dollars (millions of dollars is like billions of dollars in today’s terms). Just like today, many Asian economies, apart from Japan, were comparatively small back then. (China, itself, was focusing on its internal development and was less exposed to the outside world at that time.) To keep economies stable, both for internal control and export, many Asian countries pegged their currencies to the USD.   In response to the increasing interest rates, funds were moving out of Asia causing Asian currencies to fall. Isn’t it what is happening to the Philippines peso and Indonesian rupiah reported recently? At that time, the Indonesian rupiah was about 2,900 against one USD before the AFC and then spiraled to 16,000 rupiah against one USD at the peak of the crisis, shrinking 5,500%. Imagine, an Indonesian company originally owed a debt of US$10m before the AFC, the debt would have ballooned to a USD debt of 55 million without any wrong-doing on the part of the company. Really, how many companies can withstand such onslaught? To stem fund outflow, Asian economies were correspondingly forced to increase their interest rates. This, ironically, further stifled the lifeline of many Asian economies, which is to export their way out of recession. Increasing interest rates makes it more expensive to export and cheaper to import. The trickiness in such a falling currency avalanche often leads to more falls because of concerted speculations, causing many governments to dip into the reserves in an effort to maintain their currency peg to the USD. Before long, many government found their coffers depleted and had to let their currencies into free-falls by unpegging against the USD. One-by-one, the economies succumbed to the AFC, and had to be rescued by the IMF. Apart from the currency turmoil, there is another knock-on effect as well – a political instability in the region. Within a period of 2 to 3 years, Thailand and Indonesian respectively changed their prime minister and president several times.

By today, the Asian economies are generally stronger and have stronger financial muscles to ward off a similar financial tsunami that had wiped out the Asian economies back in the late 90s. The unpegging of their respective currencies to the USD acts as a counterbalance to the trade mechanism, which is vital for many small Asian economies. Unfortunately, based on past historically, increasing interest rates has never been beneficial to small open economies including Singapore. Added to this gloom is the increasing stakes in the trade war between the world’s two largest economies. The trade war and the retaliation actions put up by the trading partners are likely to push small open economies into difficult times. Personally, I think the 2nd quarter results will not reflect the full impact yet, but it could surface by year-end. Unless there is some kind of breakthrough in the negotiations, the worst is yet to come. The end results could be recessions and job losses. It’s time to put on our seat belts!

A video clip on the expectations in the coming months has been posted in the private group discussion for the students of “Value Investing – The Ultimate Guide.”

Disclaimer – The above arguments are the personal opinions of the writer. They do not serve as recommendations to buy or sell the mentioned securities or the indices or ETFs or unit trusts related to it.

Brennen has been investing in the stock market for 28 years. He trains occasionally and is a managing partner for BP Wealth Learning Centre. He is the instructor for two online courses on InvestingNote – Value Investing: The Essential Guide and Value Investing: The Ultimate Guide. He is also the author of the book – “Building Wealth Together Through Stocks” which is available in both soft and hardcopy.