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Zeti: Malaysia may raise rate further if needed

KUALA LUMPUR/TOKYO: Bank Negara Malaysia said it may increase interest rates further to avert asset bubbles and discourage risky investments by people seeking better returns, even as inflation will likely remain “modest” this year.

“We will review the conditions at our next monetary policy meeting and work toward further normalising if necessary,” Governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz said in a March 12 Bloomberg Television interview in Kuala Lumpur. “Inflation will continue to be modest and therefore it would not prompt us towards tightening, but that does not preclude that we will continue to normalise interest rates.”

Malaysia raised its benchmark interest rate from a record low to 2.25% this month, becoming the second Asian country to boost borrowing costs as the region leads a recovery from the global slump. The ringgit faces “upward pressure” as regional trade rebounds and the central bank increases rates before the US, Europe and Japan, according to Franklin Templeton Investments.

The Malaysian currency is Asia’s best performer this year, gaining 3% against the US dollar. The central bank wants to prevent “financial imbalances” that could undermine the economy’s recovery from last year’s recession, Zeti said.

“There is no compelling evidence of asset bubbles in Malaysia based on current indicators,” Suhaimi Ilias, chief economist at Maybank Investment Bank Bhd in Kuala Lumpur, said before the interview. Still “the risk is there if the interest rate is kept very low for an extended period as money searches for returns to beat inflation that is creeping up.”

China has started draining excess cash from the economy to prevent asset bubbles. Australia and Vietnam have raised borrowing costs as inflation accelerates, and the Philippine central bank last week pared back a lending programme for banks.

Keeping interest rates too low for too long may lead to the “mispricing of risks” by those who anticipate borrowing costs will stay low, as well as create asset bubbles, Zeti said. While the central bank doesn’t expect to see bubbles forming “on the horizon”, there are signs that people are buying higher- yielding assets “that pose significant risks”, she said.

Bank Negara Malaysia will monitor the strength of the economic recovery in deciding whether interest rates need to rise further, the governor said. Current borrowing costs are still “very supportive” of economic growth, Zeti said. The level at which rates are considered to be “normalised” would depend on the strength of the recovery, she said, adding that inflation won’t be “a factor” in 2010 even after taking into account possible increases in fuel and power prices.

The central bank, whose policy team next meets in May, raised its overnight policy rate from 2% on March 4, the first increase in almost four years, saying the economy’s recovery is “firmly established”.

Malaysia’s GDP expanded 4.5% last quarter after contracting the previous nine months. Exports surged by the most in more than 11 years in January.

“We expect growth to improve from the levels we have seen in the fourth quarter,” Zeti said. “Certainly the first half of the year, all the signs are pointing to stronger growth” as domestic demand and investment recover, she said.

JCY International Bhd, a Malaysian supplier of hard-disk- drive components for Seagate Technology and Western Digital Corp, said last month it plans to spend RM182 million in the financial year starting Oct 1, 2010 to increase its capacity amid rising orders.

Inflation of about 2% would be considered “modest”, Zeti said. Malaysia’s consumer prices rose for a second month in January, climbing 1.3% from a year earlier from an average 0.6% in 2009.

Should price gains accelerate further to 3%, for example, “we would begin looking at what are the sources of inflation because if it was demand-induced then” the central bank would look at “tightening” monetary policy, Zeti said.

Zeti refrained from raising interest rates in 2008 when consumer prices rose as much as 8.5% in July and August amid soaring oil and commodity prices, saying inflation wasn’t driven by higher demand and would ease as global growth slowed. Malaysia’s policy makers aren’t “inflation targeters”, she said last week.

The Malaysian ringgit has climbed 2% since the central bank’s decision to raise rates this month, making it Asia’s best-performing currency outside Japan during the period.

The currency’s appreciation has reflected Malaysia’s strengthening “fundamentals,” Zeti said.

“We have seen this level before and we are not concerned,” she said. “We have allowed our exchange rate to be market determined and we are there to ensure orderly market conditions. Our export sector has never relied on the exchange rate to gain competitiveness.” – Bloomberg LP

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