Less than 10 months ago, the great fear in Asia was that the region would suffer through the wealth destruction already taking place in the U.S. as a result of the financial crisis. Stock markets tumbled as exports plunged and economic growth deteriorated. Lofty property prices in China and elsewhere looked set to bust as credit tightened and buyers evaporated.
But with surprising speed, fear in Asia has swung back to greed as the region shows signs of recovery and some economists are warning that asset-price bubbles that had been popped by the global recession may be reinflating. Property and stock prices are soaring in many parts of Asia: Shanghai's main stock-market index has surged about 90% this year, while Indonesian stocks are up 70%. By comparison, the S&P 500 is up 11%.
It feels a bit curmudgeonly to suggest these happy Asian trends should be greeted with skepticism. Higher asset prices mean households feel wealthier and better able to spend, which could further fuel the region's nascent rebound. But just as easily, Asia could soon find itself saddled with overheated markets similar to the U.S. housing market of a few years ago and on the brink of another crash. "The seeds are being sown for Asia's next bubble," HSBC economist Frederic Neumann said in a recent report. "The world has not changed, it just moved places."
The incipient bubble is being created by government policy. In response to the global credit crunch of 2008, policymakers in Asia slashed interest rates and flooded financial sectors with cash in frantic attempts to keep loans flowing and economies growing. These steps were logical for central bankers striving to reverse a deepening economic crisis. But there's evidence that too much money is now sloshing around. It's winding up in stocks and real estate, pushing prices up too far and too fast for the underlying economic fundamentals. "We're not in a full-blown bubble yet," says David Cui, China strategist for Banc of America Securities Merrill Lynch in Shanghai. "But the risk is there. There is such a sharp turnaround, especially since it is largely fueled by easy money."
Much of the concern is focused on China, where government stimulus efforts have been large and effective. Money in China has been especially easy to find. Aggregate new bank lending surged 201% in the first half of 2009 from the same period a year earlier, to nearly $1.1 trillion. Exuberance over a quick recovery which was given a boost by China's surprisingly strong 7.9% GDP growth in the second quarter has buoyed investor sentiment not just for stocks but also for real estate. According to government data, new home prices in 36 Chinese cities rose 6.3% in June from a year earlier. The property sector is showing signs of the frothy enthusiasm that is symptomatic of the onset of a bubble. In the Chinese city of Nanjing last month, 3,000 people snapped up tickets for the right to purchase an apartment in a new development with only 600 units.
Exuberance can be contagious. Shares of China State Construction Engineering, the country's largest home developer, jumped 56% on July 29, the day of their debut on the Shanghai stock exchange. In Singapore, property prices are rising despite the city-state's sharp recession. The resale index for Housing and Development Board apartments, a key indicator of local property-market conditions, rose an annualized 5% in the second quarter to an all-time high. In Hong Kong, a city famous for its property booms and busts, prices have rebounded from last year's slump and are on course to retake highs reached in mid-2008, according to analysts for HSBC.
Former U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan argued that bubbles could only be recognized in hindsight. But investors who have been well schooled in the dangers of bubbles over the past decade are increasingly wary that prices have risen too far, and that the slightest bit of negative economic news could knock markets for a loop. These fears are compounded by the possibility that Asia's central bankers will begin taking steps to shut off the money spigots and bring the party to an end. On July 29, rumors that Beijing was on the verge of tightening credit sent Shanghai stocks plunging 5%, their biggest decline in eight months.
Yet many economists believe that policymakers will not aggressively rein in monetary policy and stimulus measures, out of fear of squashing Asia's fragile recovery while the global economy remains weak. "There is close to a zero possibility that the Chinese government will do anything this year that constitutes tightening," says Andy Rothman, a Shanghai-based economist for the brokerage CLSA. "The recovery is only in its early stages." And without a major shift in thinking, the easy-money conditions will stay in place so even if there's no bubble now, there's a good chance one may be forming. In a global economy that has produced more dramatic ups and downs than anyone thought possible over the past two years, Asia may be heading for another disheartening plunge.