20 years ago this month, a run on the Thai currency triggered a financial crisis that quickly devastated the economy of the entire region, sinking the currencies of Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea and ultimately spreading as far as Russia and Brazil. Far from ‘lessons being learned’, however, history looks worryingly set to repeat itself. On 2nd July 1997, Thailand’s Prime Minister Chavalit Yongchaiyudh announced that the baht would be freely floated. The Thai government lacked the foreign exchange reserves necessary to continue pegging the currency to the US dollar – and the result was a collapse of the baht to less than half its former value. The contagion quickly spread to Thailand’s neighbours as panicked investors began selling off their stocks in other East Asian currencies. Within months, noted the Financial Times on the 2nd January 1998, the crisis had “laid waste to what was once the most dynamic part of the world economy”, leading to a collapse of the currencies of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and South Korea. Later that year, the economies of Russia and Brazil were seriously hit by the impact of the crisis on commodity prices, triggering (currency?) crises of their own. Across the region, economic devastation reigned. Unable to refinance their debts, companies of all sizes had their loans called in. But the collapse of their currencies meant that the value of these debts – denominated in dollars – had increased exponentially. A wave of bankruptcies drove unemployment through the roof, whilst governments hit by declining tax revenues – and IMF-imposed austerity – were forced to cut back on social safety nets. At the same time, the collapse of currency values led to rapid inflation, forcing up prices of basic essentials such as food and fuel. Poverty rates ramped up – and in Indonesia, the resulting social unrest even led to the overthrow of the government. What had caused this devastation? In the years preceding the crash, the economies of East Asia had, under IMF tutelage, removed capital controls. This, in turn, had led to an influx of ‘hot money’ into those economies, as low returns in the developed world prompted investors to seek capital outlets elsewhere. As the Financial Times noted in January 1998, “between 1992 and 1996 net private capital flows to Asian developing countries jumped from $21bn to $101bn. …What caused the inflow was largely the search for better returns by investors made insensitive to risk and hungry for profit by the western bull market.” Those investors had been especially encouraged by the 1993 World Bank report “The East Asian miracle” praising the growth those countries had achieved. To keep their exports competitive, they had pegged their currencies to the – then undervalued – dollar. But things turned sour when the so-called ‘reverse Plaza accord’ of 1995 brought about a major appreciation of the dollar, decimating the exports of the East Asian economies. It took a while for this to ‘filter through’ to investors, but once it became clear that East Asian currencies and stocks were overvalued, the herd mentality took over. “As usual,” wrote the FT, “mania ended in panic”. Thailand, Indonesia and South Korea were all forced to take billions of dollars in emergency loans from the IMF – coming, of course, with strict conditions, which exacerbated the crisis. As is standard with the IMF, recipient governments were forced to adopt strict austerity measures, effectively preventing them from doing anything to stimulate demand. But they were also forced to abolish all barriers on foreigners purchasing assets such as banks and property (real estate?). As a result, Western capital was able to swoop in and buy up Asian infrastructure – some of the most modern plant and machinery in the world – for pennies on the dollar -pound as companies unable to meet their denominated debts were forced to sell their assets at rock-bottom prices. As Wade and Veneroso wrote, “the combination of massive devaluations, IMF-pushed financial liberalisation, and IMF-facilitated recovery may have precipitated the biggest peacetime transfer of assets from domestic to foreign owners in the past fifty years anywhere in the world”. For Professor Radhika Desai, this was “the most impressive exercise of US power the world had seen in some time”, providing, in the words of Peter Gowan, “a welcome boost for the US financial markets and through them for the US domestic economy” as “capital flows bypassed emerging-economy financial markets and went directly into the upward-moving US bond and stock markets”. Western policy had facilitated the crisis, exacerbated it, and profited immensely from it: for, as Peter Gowan has noted, “the US economy depends…upon constantly reproduced international monetary and financial turbulence” – whilst Wall St in particular “depends upon chaotic instabilities in ’emerging market’ financial systems”. Published in Daily Times, August 14th 2017.