Asia's Decoupling From U.S. Economy Is a Myth: William Pesek http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601039&sid=aICNcnU6pG4w&refer=home By William Pesek May 8 (Bloomberg) Ten years after the Asian crisis, the region is reveling in strong growth and booming markets. The exuberance was palpable over the weekend in Kyoto, Japan, where the Asian Development Bank held its annual meeting. Politicians, bankers and economists from every financial center chewed over the vast opportunities in a region many fled a decade ago and, until recently, pointedly avoided. The spotlight on Asia's growth rates is also spawning hubris about how far the region has come since 1997. Perhaps the best example is the argument that China and India are doing so well that Asia no longer needs the U.S. economy. ``This idea of Asia decoupling is a complete myth,'' Ifzal Ali, chief economist at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank, said in an interview in Kyoto. ``It's simply not supported by the facts.'' Other economists, including those at Merrill Lynch & Co., have a very different view. ``We're increasingly confident that Asia can withstand a U.S. slowdown,'' Merrill's Asia-based economists argued in an April 24 report. ``New export markets (Japan, Europe, and the developing world), new export products (services and labor), domestic demand (especially investment) and supportive macro policies all should help cushion regional growth as the U.S. slows.'' To economists such as Ali, the emphasis should be on the word ``cushion.'' Asia's Boom Asia is booming and has more growth locomotives than it did a decade ago. Japan, which was sliding into deflation in 1997, is growing again. And as Merrill Lynch points out, China and India combined now account for more than 20 percent of global gross domestic product in purchasing-power-parity terms, greater than the U.S. economy's 19.7 percent share. Looked at that way, Asia would appear to be immune from a U.S. slowdown. Yet in a new report, Ali says the forces of globalization and changes in the nature of trade are merely masking Asia's vulnerability to the U.S. Take China, the largest driver of regional exports in Asia. For all the excitement about China's 11 percent growth and 1.3 billion-person market, its final demand -- essentially, goods purchased in China -- accounts for only 6.4 percent of total Asian trade. That's only half the contribution of Japan. When you dissect Asia's trade data, more than the 70 percent of trade within the region consists of so-called intermediate goods that are used in production, according to Ali. Of this, half is created by demand outside Asia. And roughly 61.3 percent of total Asian exports are eventually consumed in the U.S., Europe and Japan. If U.S. Sneezes ``It's still the case that if G-3 economies, particularly the U.S., sneeze, Asia catches a cold, too,'' Ali says. ``Weak demand in the U.S. will hit the current drivers of Asian growth, which then will hurt the rest of Asia.'' None of this is to downplay the important changes that swept Asia after the 1997 crisis. Financial systems are healthier, living standards are generally higher and enough currency reserves have been amassed to shield economies from volatility in markets. ``But investors shouldn't get ahead of themselves in thinking that what happens in the U.S. doesn't matter in Asia,'' Caio Koch-Weser, vice chairman at Frankfurt-based Deutsche Bank AG, told me in Kyoto. Decoupling Doubts Peter Fisher, head of Asian operations for New York-based investment firm BlackRock Inc., said ``Asia hasn't decoupled from the U.S. as much as it's synchronizing'' with trends in the biggest economies. What's more, Fisher warned that investors -- in Asia and elsewhere -- may be misreading the nature of risks emanating from economic balances around the globe. ``It always worries me when we all agree on something,'' Fisher said of the commonly held view that imbalances such as U.S. budget and trade deficits, an undervalued Chinese currency and ultra-low Japanese interest rates are unsustainable. Yet they have gone on for so long without a crisis or official measures to fix them. ``That says to me that we don't understand them yet,'' Fisher said. Another reason Asia isn't as independent from the U.S. as believed is the action taken in Beijing and New Delhi to cool growth. A key presumption of the Asia-decoupling argument, after all, is for China and India to keep zooming along. Japan's economy, meanwhile, remains an export-driven one. Robust domestic demand in Asia's biggest economy remains elusive. Not There Yet Driving the Asia-can-stand-alone theory is the region's success in withstanding slower U.S. growth in 2006, a period characterized by a plunging housing market. Yet, the housing bust didn't send the U.S. into recession, as many predicted, said Abby Joseph Cohen, New York-based chief U.S. investment strategist at Goldman Sachs Group Inc. In other words, the Asia-decoupling view has yet to be tested. If it were, more than a few investors betting on strong Asian growth in the years ahead might be sorely disappointed. ``Asia has come a long, long way since the crisis,'' Ali said. ``But let's not exaggerate how much it's ready to stand on its own. This region will get there -- it's hardly there yet.''