The Asian Financial Crisis

Causes, Solutions, and Lessons Learned

Aerial View of Shanghai Financial District after Snow
••• Jackal Pan / Getty Images

The Asian Financial Crisis of 1997 affected many Asian countries. These "tiger economies" included South Korea, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore, and the Philippines. The countries were seeing compound annual growth rates of 6%-9%. These were some of the largest growth rates in the world at the time. The crisis caused their stock markets and currencies to lose about 70% of their value.

What Caused the Crisis?

The Asian financial crisis, like many other financial crises before and after it, began with a series of asset bubbles. Growth in the region's export economies led to high levels of foreign direct investment. This in turn led to soaring real estate values in places like Hong Kong and Bangkok, bolder corporate spending, and even large public infrastructure projects. Fueling this wildfire growth was heavy borrowing and bank lending.

Ready investors and easy lending often lead to reduced investment quality. As early as 1995, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was warning of dangers after the collapse of the Mexican peso. This advice went unheeded.

Excess capacity soon began to show in the tiger economies. The U.S. Federal Reserve also began to raise its interest rates around this time to counteract inflation. This led to less attractive exports (for those with currencies pegged to the dollar). This meant less foreign investment flowed into the Asian economies.

The tipping point came when Thailand's investors realized that the rate of growth in that country's property market values had stalled. This made price levels unsustainable.

Results were severe. Developer Somprasong Land defaulted and Thailand's largest finance company, Finance One, went bankrupt in 1997.

Next, currency traders began attacking the Thai baht's peg to the U.S. dollar. This was a success. On July 2, 1997, the currency was eventually floated and devalued. Consumers lost their spending power. Loans taken out when the currency was worth more became impossible to pay off.

Soon, other Asian currencies all moved sharply lower. Among them were the Malaysian ringgit, Indonesian rupiah, and Singapore dollar. These devaluations led to high inflation and a host of problems that spread as wide as South Korea and Japan.

What Solved the Crisis?

Some $118 billion in loans came through to help end the crisis, led by the IMF. This went on to solve the Asian financial crisis. The IMF supplied the bulk of the loans needed to stabilize the troubled Asian economies. The World Bank and Asian Development Fund also threw in support.

By late 1997, the IMF alone had pledged more than $110 billion in short-term loans to Thailand, Indonesia, and South Korea to help stabilize their economies. This was more than double IMF's largest loan ever.

In exchange for the funding, the IMF set strict conditions and the countries had to adhere. These included higher taxes, reduced public spending, privatized state-owned businesses, and higher interest rates to cool the overheated economies. The countries also had to close illiquid financial institutions with no concern for jobs lost.

On December 24, 1997, the Federal Reserve Bank of New York hosted a meeting of banks with loans made out to South Korea. Banks with the largest loans agreed not to call in short-term loans. They worked with the country to restructure them into medium-term loans. This gave much needed time.

By 1999, many of the countries that had been in distress showed signs of recovery. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth resumed. Many saw their stock markets and currency valuations greatly reduced from pre-1997 levels.

But the solutions imposed set the stage for Asia to re-emerge as a popular choice for investors.