Ringgit hits two-year low of 4.36 despite high oil price

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How Umno leaders destroy the currency in the last 25 years.

When Muhyiddin Yassin betrayed the democratically elected Pakatan Harapan and took over as Malaysia’s first backdoor prime minister on March 1, 2020, the local currency – Ringgit – plunged from 4.17 to 4.44 within days. It was as bad as during Najib Razak’s government, during which Ringgit hit a low of 4.50 as the country was plagued with the 1MDB scandal.

In fact, ever since the 1MDB corruption and money laundering scheme was exposed, the country’s currency has never appreciated to below 3 Ringgit to a dollar, the same way it has failed to go back to RM2.5 to the greenback after the 1997-98 Asia Financial Crisis during the administration of Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled for 22 years (1981 to 2003).

Since August 2015, at the peak of the 1MDB scandal, the Ringgit has effectively lost its value, trading more than RM3.80 to a US dollar and hasn’t looked back, even though then-PM Najib implemented the Goods and Services Tax (GST) effective April 1, 2015. The extra revenue from GST, averaging RM43 billion a year, wasn’t enough to impress the currency market.

The Muhyiddin regime did not last long, and the traitor suffered a humiliating exit when he was toppled by the same group of corrupt and power-crazy lawmakers from the United Malays National Organization (UMNO) who had agreed to appoint Muhyiddin as the prime minister 17 months earlier. He reluctantly resigned on August 16, 2021 and was replaced by Ismail Sabri.

And since the unelected Ismail Sabri government took over the country in August last year, the Ringgit has again tumbled from 4.13 to Monday’s exchange rate of 4.36. In essence, the Malaysian currency has increasingly become worthless in the last 25 years. During the peak of the Asia Financial Crisis, the Ringgit fell to the jaw-dropping low of 4.9 to a dollar in January 1998.

Mahathir could easily blame currency speculators like George Soros for the depreciation of local currency. However, since the 1997 Asia Financial Crisis, the Ringgit has lost a whopping 75% of its value. Thailand, the first country under attack by speculators, has seen the Baht recovered substantially – losing just 49.2% of its value over the period of 25 years since January 1997.

South Korea, another country badly hit during the same financial crisis saw its currency – “Won” – depreciated by up to 95% against the US dollar at one point. Unlike Malaysia’s move to peg the Ringgit to the dollar at 3.80 in September 1998, South Korean creditors were bailed out by the IMF (International Monetary Fund). Today, the Won has lost 48.5% since 1997.

The only currency in Southeast Asia that enjoys appreciation is the Singapore dollar, which has actually gained 2.4% since the 1997-98 Asia Financial Crisis. Of course, Malaysia can take comfort that Indonesia Rupiah was the worst performer, having lost a whopping 398% of its value for the past 25 years. But Indonesia was never one of the Asian tigers to begin with.

Najib probably would like to blame mentor-turn-nemesis Mahathir, the Wall Street Journal, Jews, US Justice Department, the CIA or even his partner-in-crime Jho Low for the 1MDB scandal, which in turn has destroyed the local currency. Likewise, power-crazy Muhyiddin may blame the Coronavirus, despite his own economic mismanagement and Covid-19 mishandling.

Besides the 1MDB scandal, Najib could also blame the lower value of oil for the Ringgit losing its shine because the commodity is one of Malaysia’s main exports. Muhyiddin could similarly blame the cheap oil during the pandemic as the world was on lockdown and did not need oil. Still, both had squeezed special dividends from Petronas, the national oil company, to make ends meet.

But what excuse PM Ismail Sabri, vice president of UMNO, can use for the weakening Ringgit against the US dollar? He can’t point fingers at Covid-19 because the pandemic has become an endemic, and the economy and borders have reopened to pre-pandemic level. In the last nine months, the country is being run by the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government.

He similarly can’t blame Finance Minister Tengku Zafrul, Minister of International Trade and Industry Azmin Ali, Economic Minister Mustapa Mohamed or any of the bloated Cabinet of 73 ministers and deputy ministers because it was PM Sabri himself who had chosen to retain the same useless and incompetent Cabinet. Can the turtle-egg man blame the US Federal Reserve?

The Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell may have dented market sentiment when he said during an International Monetary Fund panel that taming inflation is “absolutely essential” and a 50-basis point hike is on the table in May. It came after the US inflation rate accelerated to 8.5% in March, after hitting 7.5% in January and 7.9% in February – the highest in 40 years.

However, if that’s true, Sabri government cannot explain why the Ringgit is the worst currency when compared to regional currencies like the Singapore Dollar, Indonesia Rupiah, Philippines Peso and Thai Baht. If the US interest rate hike is the major culprit, why does it affect Malaysia’s currency more than its neighbours in Southeast Asia over the last one month?

The PM cannot blame oil like Najib or Muhyiddin because despite crude oil prices remained above US$100 a barrel, the Ringgit dropped to its lowest level in almost two years. Worse, instead of appreciating against the greenback when the crude oil prices go up, as it usually does, the local currency seems to have diverged or broken away from the crude oil trend in recent months.

Embarrassingly, the Ringgit also traded lower against regional currencies. For the past month, it weakened against not only the mighty Singapore Dollar, but also Indonesia Rupiah and Thai Baht. It only performed better than the Philippines Peso. This could only mean one thing – the Malaysia economy isn’t as rosy as the government was trumpeting, to put it mildly.

Finance Twitter

Malaysia’s Finance Ministry said the depreciation of the Ringgit will be cushioned by the country’s strong external position and robust fundamentals. That’s a truckload of technical bullshit because it failed to explain why the local currency performs worse than other currencies. The US dollar is gaining strength due to expectation that the US Federal Reserve will accelerate its interest hike.

When the Federal Reserve increases the interest rate, the higher yields attract investment capital from investors abroad seeking higher returns on bonds or interest-rate products. Unless the Malaysian Central Bank (Bank Negara) follows with a similar rate hike, investors will dump Ringgit in exchange for the “more valuable” US dollar, leading to a plunging Ringgit.

However, even as recent as last month, the Bank Negara had to maintain its interest rate at a historic low (1.75%) as it was still awaiting signs of a more sustained economy. If it increases interest rate, it will have a huge impact on deposit rates, lending rates as well as home loan interest rates. Meaning, without cheap money supply, local businesses and people with debts will be in trouble.

The central bank will be forced to raise interest rates eventually to fight inflation, which is contributed by an increase in global cost. Sure, Malaysia can subsidize fuel or petrol, but it doesn’t produce fertilizer or wheat or other raw materials, not to mention the labour shortage situation. All these will trigger a rise in goods prices, hence the inflation (which the authorities claim to be only 2.2%).

Besides a weaker economy, another reason why regional currencies are stronger than the Ringgit is because the Malaysian government has been quietly printing money. While this provides liquidity to the domestic market, it devalues the currency. For example, to allow EPF premature withdrawals without selling assets to raise hundreds of billions of Ringgit, they simply print more money.

It certainly didn’t help to instil investor confidence when the debt level is being consistently raised. During the 2008-09 Great Recession, the Najib administration raised the debt ceiling from 45% to 55% in July 2009. The backdoor Muhyiddin regime then raised it from 55% to 60% in August 2020 under the pretext to mitigate the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Under the clueless and incompetent Ismail Sabri government, the statutory debt ceiling was raised again in September 2021 from 60% to 65% of gross domestic product (GDP). It’s one thing to raise money through debt to grow the economy. But when the economy isn’t growing because the money has either gone into wasteful projects or simply disappeared through corruption, the currency will take a beating.

The international reserves of Bank Negara Malaysia amounted to US$115.6 billion as at 31 March 2022. That looks like a lot of money. But how many knew that Malaysia could not rebuild even 50% of its foreign reserves since its fall from USD128.2 billion in mid-May 2013 to USD85.2 billion in mid-September 2015 (thanks to the 1MDB scandal) on one of the greatest Ringgit slides since the 1997-08 Asian Financial Crisis.

Some might argue that a weak currency is good for an export country like Malaysia. It’s a double-edged sword – a weak currency has weak purchasing power, translating to serious negative economic consequences like the rising cost of living. Besides, can the country still compete with China, Vietnam or even the Philippines in the game of low-cost production and manufacturing?

In a nutshell, Malaysia’s economy is incredibly screwed up. The ongoing brain drain in the country coupled with lower foreign direct investment (FDI) inflows compared to neighbouring countries, as well as lower investment outflows, means Malaysia is no longer the preferred FDI destination in the region (meaning less interest in Ringgit). Malaysia is losing traction because its policies are driving away investments. – Finance Twitter