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Learning the lessons of the Asian financial crisis

The 1997 meltdown pushed companies down the reform path, but more must be done

Sirivat Voravetvuthikun, once a wealthy stock investor, turned to peddling sandwiches on the streets of Bangkok after a condo deal went bust in 1997. (Photo by Marimi Kishimoto)

BANGKOK/JAKARTA/MANILA In June 1997, Sirivat Voravetvuthikun found himself selling sandwiches on the streets of Bangkok. The former high-flying stock investor had lost everything when his project to build luxury condos went belly-up.

At a loss for how to support his family, Sirivat's wife suggested he sell sandwiches. It was a total change in lifestyle, but he survived the tidal wave of the Asian financial crisis. Sirivat is now president of TGIF Corporation, a small company that makes beverages, snacks -- and sandwiches.

The financial meltdown that hit Asia 20 years ago was a turning point. Although it left scars, many people and companies took lessons from it, refining economic and social systems that had hitherto been rudimentary.

So what progress has been made, and what remains to be done?

One of the biggest changes wrought by the crisis was to corporate governance. In Southeast Asia, state-run companies and family-run conglomerates remain dominant. But corporate groups that were once opaque are gradually becoming more transparent.

Earlier this year, Indonesia's Salim Group bought Bank Ina Perdana. The deal raised eyebrows among those who remember the hole the group fell into during the financial crisis.

The Salim Group has returned to the banking sector for the first time since it was forced in 1998 to give up Bank Central Asia -- Indonesia's largest private bank at the time -- to pay off bad debts that ballooned during the crisis.

But Salim's CEO, Anthoni Salim, told reporters that the move is not aimed at reviving the group's bank-centered structure. "What is important is how to begin digitalization," Salim said. The group is working to create an electronic settlement system as part of its push into online services, he said.

In fact, the deal is in line with the group's other acquisitions and joint ventures. It sees the drive to strengthen the online business as a symbol of the group's revival and evolution.

LESS SELF-DEALING Khor Hoe Ee, chief economist at the ASEAN+3 Macroeconomic Research Office, or AMRO, said the Asian financial crisis was caused mainly by currency mismatches and excessive lending to companies, and that crony capitalism played a big role in the latter. "It was very common for conglomerates in the region to set up banks that lent to their own companies. That was part of the reason for the excessive lending and borrowing," Khor said.

Corporate governance became a big issue in the aftermath of the crisis. "The countries took it very seriously. They tried to minimize the risk of crony capitalism. The banking sector was forced to implement governance reform," Khor said.

Institutional mechanisms have also been established to improve transparency. Regulators in Indonesia, for example, limited bank lending to affiliated companies to less than 10% of their loans. Bankruptcy rules have been improved.

The separation of ownership from management is taking deeper root, too. At SM Investments, a shopping mall developer that is the Philippines' largest conglomerate, the founding Sy family has become less involved in the day-to-day operations, appointing Frederic DyBuncio, a non-relative, as president.

DyBuncio joined SM in 2011 after a career in international banking. His goal is to transform the group into a professional organization, utilizing his financial knowledge and overseas experience. While the second generation of the Sy family, led by Vice Chair Teresita Sy-Coson, focuses on long-term strategy, DyBuncio will work on making the group more competitive in Asia.

PRUDENCE WINS Awareness of financial risks has also sharply increased.

AMRO's Khor said companies now avoid borrowing in foreign currencies if they can. "Thailand is a good example. If you talk to Thai conglomerates, many don't borrow in foreign currency. They borrow foreign currency only when they have foreign projects."

The Siam Cement Group illustrates this caution. When the Asian financial crisis erupted, the company was the biggest manufacturer in the country, rapidly branching out from its original cement business into petrochemicals, packaging and the automotive sector. The expansion was mostly financed by cheap foreign-currency loans.

But when the Thai government devalued the baht in July 1997, the company's debt doubled overnight. Foreign-currency debt accounted for about 90% of its liabilities.

SCG has learned its lesson, and now raises more capital through bond issues denominated in baht. It has eliminated nearly all foreign-currency debt in its domestic operations. But the company has a long memory. It will avoid doing business with foreign banks that refused to deal with the group's own bank during the crisis, an official said.

In addition, SCG has become more focused, concentrating on its core businesses namely cement, packaging and chemicals.

Companies in the region are cutting debts and strengthening their capital bases. In Thailand, for example, the debt to equity ratio of listed companies has fallen from around five times before the crisis to below two, according to the Bank of Thailand.

But corporate governance reform is still a work in progress, and founding families retain an outsize influence on how companies are run. According to Ernst & Young, an international accountancy, 85% of all companies in the Asia-Pacific region are family-owned.

POLITICAL HURDLES Another problem involves balancing the need for corporate reform with demands that businesses do more for the societies they operate in. During the crisis, the South Korean government took a scalpel to the family-run chaebol conglomerates that dominate economic life in the country, in exchange for aid from the International Monetary Fund.

Although the reforms made the economy more efficient, new rules making it easier for companies to fire workers have worsened economic inequality in South Korea. The chaebols' huge economic role means that people blame them when things go wrong. Scandals highlighting the cozy ties between big business and politicians periodically landed business executives in jail and cost former President Park Geun-hye her job.

"What will happen if South Korea's weakened economy is joined by political unrest?" asks Shumpei Takemori, professor of economics at Keio University in Tokyo. "If the won plunges in value, there are still companies with foreign-currency loans, so they will be hit."

The long-term task for Asia's economies is to improve industrial competitiveness. South Korea has largely succeeded, as seen by its steady current-account surplus. Thailand has also made progress, thanks in part to soliciting Japanese direct investment over the past decade.

But many other countries remain shaky and have yet to find a stable industrial niche. Vietnam relies heavily on smartphone production, for example, but it is unclear how long this will remain profitable.

Back in Thailand, people sometimes still ask Sirivat for investment tips. The logo on TGIF's sandwiches and sweets shows the Thai currency floating on a balloon and the year on the Buddhist calendar when the Asian financial crisis began. He made the logo to remind Thais of the crisis because, he said, people have a poor memory.

Nikkei staff writers Yukako Ono, Hiroshi Kotani in Bangkok, Jun Suzuki in Jakarta, and Jun Endo in Manila contributed to this article.

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