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Asia Sputters Into Low Gear

The financial news pages here, once bursting with tidings of miraculous economic growth, now contain phrases like "loss of confidence" and "free falls."

And investment gurus such as Barton Biggs of Wall Street's Morgan Stanley Dean Witter have cut emerging Asian markets from their global portfolios.

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Not the sort of headlines one might expect from a region that produces a good part of your wardrobe, manufactures your kitchen appliances, and fills up your children's toy chests.

But from Malaysia to the Philippines, governments are scaling down growth forecasts.

"In Southeast Asia, the economic miracle is over," pronounces economist Rudi Dornbusch of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass.

The slowdown comes amid a currency crisis that Dr. Dornbusch calls much worse than Mexico's 1994 peso debacle. The purchasing power of many Asian countries has fallen by 25 to 50 percent in just four months.

Three of the so-called miracle economies - South Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia - have had to swallow pride and ask the international community for help.

Just a few months ago, most analysts still touted the Asian miracle. They praised leaders for "getting the fundamentals right" - high savings, balanced budgets, low inflation.

Much of the growth was export-driven, and electronic goods played an important role. But America's appetite for new computers eased and the region began developing dangerous trade deficits.

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Meanwhile, a penchant for grand public projects plus indiscriminate lending left Asia vulnerable. Malaysia, for example, has spent billions to build a new capital city. The Philippines and Thailand are also full of gleaming, empty high rises.

"There's going to be carnage," says Bill Overholt, managing director of Bankers Trust here.

Expect to see a large number of corporate failures as a result, Mr. Overholt says. Some analysts see banks saddled with half a trillion dollars in bad loans by July.

That will make new credit difficult to come by and bodes poorly for the region's recovery.

"It's become a banking crisis," Dornbusch says. "Without banks, you get much less growth.... The credit isn't there."

While analysts generally agree on the causes of Asia's current malaise, they part company over its length and severity.

Dornbusch says the era of high-powered growth in East Asia is gone. When Thailand, Indonesia, and the others emerge from the downturn in a couple of years, he sees economic growth at about 4 percent annually - a far cry from the 8 percent many Asians once considered a birthright.

Many economists say it's natural for emerging economies to slow once they start catching up with developed nations.

"In a sense, it's what you would expect from ... 30 years of uninterrupted success," Overholt says.

Others believe Asia will emerge stronger than ever.

"Even in Mexico, which suffered a similarly severe exchange crisis and recession in 1995, growth is now higher than ... before the crisis," says Nouriel Roubini of New York University's Stern School of Business.

He expects the current slump to last about a year, and if leaders adopt the needed policies, their economies will regain former states of grace.

For many, that's the key. Do Asian leaders have the political will and skill to adopt tough measures, such as opening up the finance sector to foreign competition and deregulating industries?

Reform is not coming easy in many countries.

In Thailand, where the crisis started, politics and indecision have already slowed reforms. Foot-dragging in parliament frustrated the finance minister so much that he resigned.

"The politics are awful," says Dornbusch. "I think the corruption is pervasive, and that complicates the workout because the people who own the assets want to get looked after [first]."

In the Philippines, President Fidel Ramos calls the recent turmoil a "wake-up call from the markets." But while he has been trying to liberalize the economy, the country's supreme court has been protecting local interests to the detriment of foreign investors.

And Indonesia is receiving high marks. It has closed 16 insolvent banks (including one owned by the president's son) and pledged further reforms. But analysts say it has a way to go.

As does Malaysia, where analysts see continued cronyism.

How The Tigers Got declawed

Penchant for projects: Government and business poured billions into flamboyant, unnecessary projects.

Bank bombast: Banks lent money indiscriminately and now face billions in bad loans.

Corruption: Asia has notoriously corrupt governments, raising costs and protecting unstable companies.

Currency: Asian companies borrowed in US dollars. When local currencies plummeted, those loans became a crisis.

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