September 6, 2018 / 3:02 AM / 18 days ago

Breakingviews - Indonesia can best defend rupiah by staying calm

SINGAPORE (Reuters Breakingviews) - Indonesia’s best defence of its currency may be a cool head. A dramatic selloff in emerging markets has pushed the rupiah to its weakest level against the dollar since the 1998 Asian crisis. Policymakers appear rattled, but measured approaches are available.

A truck arrives to ferry excavated gold, copper and zinc ore from the main mining pit at the Bisha Mining Share Company (BMSC) in Eritrea, operated by Canadian company Nevsun Resources, February 17, 2016. To match Special Report ERITREA-MINING/NEVSUNÊ REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya/File Photo - S1BEUDMYAOAA

Jakarta is better placed to defend the rupiah than it was two decades ago. Foreign-exchange reserves are bigger and its external debt is lower. Yet a widening current account deficit means Indonesian markets have been punished alongside those of Argentina and Turkey. Indonesia’s stock market also suffered its sharpest fall in nearly two years on Wednesday, ending down almost 4 percent.

Local officials have been laudably proactive. Bank Indonesia has raised policy rates four times since May, by a total of 1.25 percentage points, and has regularly intervened to support the rupiah, using $13.7 billion of foreign currency reserves between February and July. In recent days it has also tried to reduce the cost of hedging. The government, meanwhile, has focused on shrinking a current account deficit that is forecast by the central bank to grow to around 2.5 percent of GDP in 2018 from 1.7 percent last year.

The announced measures to squeeze that gap may help in the short term. For example, imposing biodiesel requirements could reduce the roughly 400,000 barrels per day of crude that Indonesia imports. They will do nothing, however, to revive sluggish growth or to attract much-needed foreign direct investment into the $1 trillion economy.

A better long-term fix would be continued liberalisation and stable policies that help attract outside cash. More such inbound flows to the energy sector could even make Indonesia a net exporter again. Similarly, delaying some $25 billion of power plant investments hinders efforts to improve infrastructure. Without these upgrades, Indonesia might struggle to make itself a choice destination for foreign money. 

Vague threats against speculators on Tuesday by Finance Minister Sri Mulyani Indrawati are, by contrast, unhelpful. With a dwindling number of levers to pull and an election on the horizon, politicians may be tempted to try more such rhetoric and short-term measures. Bank Indonesia expects pressure from the dollar to abate in 2019, however. More reforms and reversible steps would serve the country better until such relief comes.

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