Currency values fluctuate all the time, but some changes leave a lasting impression on the banking industry. In the Bretton Woods-era of fixed exchange rates, the 1967 devaluation of the British pound was one such seminal event.
It made demand for dollars explode in Asia. Out of that craze, Dick van Oenen, an enterprising Dutch currency trader at Bank of America, fashioned an entire cross-border financial center in Singapore.
More than a half-century later, the US currency is once again in the limelight, as evidenced by its surge to a 20-year high and its weaponization by Washington to isolate Russian President Vladimir Putin over his war in Ukraine.
This, too, will leave a long shadow. But this time around, the real opportunity for Asian banks is to help moderate the demand for dollars, a process analysts refer to as “de-dollarization.”
Financiers can’t dictate the choice of invoicing currency to exporters; nor can they taper investors’ safe-haven yearnings. What they can do, however, is to cut the American currency out of those cross-border payments where it’s superfluous.
Technologically, it’s become feasible to do this. Starting with South Korea in 2001 — and China and India a decade later — 24/7, real-time, retail payments have taken off across Asia, with smartphones and QR codes speeding up adoption in the past few years.
An individual or business can collect a claim instantaneously and nearly free of cost. This progress is remarkable because Indonesia went live with its BI-FAST system in 2021, two years before the proposed launch of a comparable service in the US.
Now policy makers want to bring together what each Asian nation is doing successfully within its own borders to create a bigger network.
Such a link-up of domestic payments systems could become a reality for five of Southeast Asia’s largest economies — Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and the Philippines — by November, Bank Indonesia Governor Perry Warjiyo said recently in a panel on the sidelines of a meeting of the Group of 20 finance ministers and central bank governors in Bali.
According to the plan, payments transacted in Thailand using an Indonesian app would be directly exchanged between rupiah and baht, bypassing the need for US dollar as intermediary.
What this means is that for small-value purchases, bank accounts in any of the five participating economies will become practically interoperable in the other four.
Singaporeans visiting Indonesia won’t have to put up with the hidden fees and unfavorable exchange rates of international credit card transactions; money will get debited from their Singapore dollar deposit facilities back home and credited into merchants’ rupiah-denominated local accounts.
With a QR code facilitating payments, the process will feel no different from a domestic transfer.