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Economy

Asian companies and consumers weighed down by sliding currencies

From Indonesia to Turkey, people struggle with rising prices and interest rates

The Indonesian rupiah has fallen 9% against the dollar since the start of the year.   © Reuters

JAKARTA -- Gold, so the conventional wisdom goes, is a safe haven in times of market turmoil, and Indonesians are snapping up the precious metal in response to the rupiah's 9% decline against the dollar since the start of the year.

"The impact of the weakening rupiah is, people are buying gold," Arie Prabowo Ariotedjo, president of Indonesia's Aneka Tambang, told reporters with a smile at a recent investment event in Jakarta.

The state-owned miner, which sells gold to consumers through its retail stores, sold 13.7 tons -- an increase of 317% year on year -- worth 8.2 trillion rupiah ($553.8 million) in the first half of the year. That was equal to roughly 70% of its revenue . "Gold demand is increasing domestically. Gold prices were down, but have started to pick up again," he said.

Companies like Aneka Tambang, which benefit from a falling rupiah, are few and far between. And the same is true around emerging Asia, where a host of businesses are being squeezed by currencies weakened by a combination of U.S. Federal Reserve interest rate increases and Turkey's financial crisis.

In India, where the rupee hit 70 to the dollar for the first time in August, airlines are reeling from a one-two punch of currency declines and higher fuel prices. IndiGo, the biggest private carrier in the country, saw its net profit fall 97%, year on year, to 278 million rupees for the three months ended in June.

"Our profits for the quarter were adversely impacted primarily by the depreciation of the Indian rupee, an increase in fuel prices, continued pressure on yields and an increase in our maintenance costs," said Rahul Bhatia, interim CEO of InterGlobe Aviation, which owns a majority stake in IndiGo.

The story was similar at discount airline SpiceJet, which tumbled to a net loss in the same period, despite recording double-digit increases in domestic passenger numbers for 46 months running.

Indian low-cost airline SpiceJet recorded a net loss for the three months ended in June. (Getty Images)

Back in Indonesia, the country's largest drugmaker, Kalbe Farma, which imports 90% of its raw materials, has been forced to cut its revenue and net income growth targets for the year due to the rupiah's depreciation. Its gross profit ratio declined to 48.1% in the first half of 2018, from 48.9% in the same period last year, for the same reason.

"The biggest challenge today is the weakening rupiah, which has forced us to do some recalculations," said Kalbe President Vidjongtius at a news conference in Jakarta on Wednesday. "We'll raise prices of some products. We already started increasing some prices in July. We'll keep monitoring the rupiah movement," he said.

Along with aggressive interest rate increases by the central bank, the Indonesian government has taken unconventional steps to improve its trade balance and support the rupiah. One is policy changes aimed at increasing the export of coal. The government raised the national production target for this year by 100 million tons to 585 million tons in August, with the additional amount exempted from rules requiring coal miners to sell 25% of their output in the domestic market at a fixed price.

But these efforts have so far failed to prop up the rupiah, which hit its lowest against the dollar since July 1998.

Across the archipelago, people have yet to feel the full effect of the weaker rupiah. The government is trying to keep a lid on inflation, as President Joko Widodo aims to win a second term in next year's presidential election.

Elsewhere in emerging Asia, people have not been so lucky. "Even if the peso has depreciated, prices have also skyrocketed," said Anna Berdin, a Filipino nurse working in the United Arab Emirates who regularly sends remittances home. "Other [overseas Filipino workers] who have worked longer than me have felt the drastic change."

Since the beginning of the year, the Philippine peso has fallen more than 7% against the dollar, with the currency hitting 53.7 to the greenback, its weakest point in more than 12 years. Inflation hit 5.7% in July, a five-year high.

Emilio Neri, lead economist at Bank of the Philippine Islands, said the surge in commodity prices has negated the benefits of the depreciating peso. "It looks like inflation is eroding all of the gains in the overseas Filipino remittances," Neri said. "Hopefully, depreciation will continue while inflation slows down in 2019."

Remittances from abroad are equivalent to about one-tenth of the Philippines' total output and rising inflation has crimped the country's growth. The economy expanded 6% in the second quarter, the slowest rate in three years. Household consumption has decelerated for two quarters in a row.

Despite her woes, Berdin can take comfort from the fact that she does not live in Turkey, where the slide in the currency and spiraling inflation are getting out of hand. The country imports most of its food and capital equipment.

Inflation in Turkey, which had been hovering around 10% until April, jumped to 15.85% in July due to the drop in the Turkish lira. With the currency weakening further since, inflation in August is expected to top 20%.

Tomatoes, an essential ingredient in Turkish cooking, were priced at 5 lira (76 cents) per kilogram at one Istanbul supermarket in mid-August. "Fertilizers are imported, and the cost of fuel is rising. The increase in farmers' costs is reflected in the wholesale price," explained a clerk.

"It's crazy," said a man in his 40s who was shopping with his family. "It really is crazy."

Erwida Maulia in Jakarta, Akira Hayakawa in Mumbai, Kenta Shinozaki in Istanbul and Mikhail Flores in Manila contributed to this article.

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