Root Causes of Financial Crisis in the 1990s

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The objective of this paper is to discuss the root causes of financial crisis in the 1990s. In this light, the paper has identified financial liberalisations that occurred in the late 1980s as a principal cause of crisis in the 1990s. The paper begins by presenting a discussion of financial liberalisation in section 2 below and then focuses on how it resulted in financial crisis in the 1990s. The paper employs the East Asian Financial Crisis as a case study and provides a discussion of how financial liberalisation contributed to the crisis 1997/1998 in section 2; while section 3 provides general conclusions and recommendations of the paper.

Financial Liberalisation and the East Asian Financial Crisis

One of the main causes of financial crisis in the 1990s was financial liberalisation which facilitated the flow of capital across borders. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, most developed and developing economies liberalised their financial systems and removed a number of regulations regarding the movement of funds. In particular many countries eliminated restrictions on foreign exchange movement thus increasing the flow of cross-border capital. One major crisis that occurred during the 1990s was the Asian Financial Crisis. This crisis has been linked directly to an increase in cross-border capital flows which resulted to currency crisis across the East Asian Countries that were involved in the crisis. Most of the countries involved in the crisis witnessed depreciation in their currencies which in turn led to major crisis across all the countries involved. Thailand was facing competition for its exports which led to a decline in its export sales. One of the reasons for Thailand’s export declines was as a result of the devaluation of the Chinese Yuan in 1994 (Pathan et al., 2008). Rising export competition Thailand forced many businesses to shift from manufacturing to the real estate. Banks began providing loans to home buyers to facilitate real estate investments. A banking facility – The Bangkok International Banking Facility (BIBF) offered funds to both local and foreign borrowers thus facilitating their real estate investments (Pathan et al., 2008; Bisgnano, 1999).

In the early 1990s, the East Asian countries were witnessing significant economic growth. As a result, these economies maintained huge current account deficits (Bird and Rajan, 2000). As a result, large inflows of capital and a depreciation of international reserves were required to reduce finance the deficits (Bird and Rajan, 2000). During This period, many East Asian economies also made significant efforts to liberalise their domestic financial systems as well as the capital account balance of payments. The establishment of the BIBF in Bankgok is a typical example of how domestic liberalisation facilitated the attraction of foreign capital. It enabled domestic banks to accept foreign-currency-denominated loans and deposits from foreign investors. These loans were later used to offer loans to the domestic market. This process led many local firms to increase their leverage thus increasing their financial risk.

Net capital inflows for all countries in the region were positive and most often than not exceeded the current account deposit. In addition, international reserves were significantly high (The World Bank, 2000). Capital inflows were significantly high in Malaysia and Thailand. These countries were classified among the top ten emerging market economies to received net private capital flows during the period under study (Lopez-Mejia, 1999).

A significant portion of the loans were made in foreign currency. This strategy increased the gearing of many foreign and local borrowers. The huge influx of capital combined with high current account and trade deficits in the first half of the 1990s resulted in the massive decline in the value of the currencies of the region, which eventually transformed into the financial and economic crisis of 1997 and 1998. Moreover, most of the countries involved in the crisis were operating a semi-pegged exchange rate regime, which also contributed to the currency crisis.

Significant movements in the Thai Bhat meant that the currency could no longer sustain its value. the currency was forced to crash in 1997. On the 2nd of July 1997, the Thai Bhat was allowed to float freely and its value fell tremendously against other currencies (Joosten, 2004; Pathan et al., 2008). Despite the introduction of foreign exchange controls as well as large spot and forward interventions by the government and Central bank, the magnitude of the disaster on the currency was so high that these measures could not stop it. As a result, the devaluation of the Thai Bhat on the 2nd of July 1997 marked the onset of the East Asian Financial Crisis (Joosten, 2004; Li and Kwok, 2008). The currency crisis in Thailand was transmitted to five other East Asian economies. As explained earlier, the main cause of the crisis was the liberalization of the financial system which led to large cross border movements in foreign currency. The large movement in the East Asian currencies led to their depreciation which eventually led to the crisis.

Singapore has often tried to compare itself to London as a major financial Centre. Consequently, U.S financial institutions often used it as a safe haven for depositing toxic assets. Given the liberalised nature of global financial markets, Singapore attracted a lot of toxic assets from the U.S which also helped in fuelling the crisis in Singapore (Lim and Maru, 2010).

In Indonesia, the channel taken by the crisis was somewhat different from those of other countries like Korea and Thailand (Joosten, 2004). The Central Bank (Bank of Indonesia) increasing became concerned about an economy that was operating above full employment and decided to take measures that would slow down the economy to ensure that it return to full employment. The Central bank however, lacked the tools required to reduce aggregate demand. This is because it became concerned that if interest rates were increased, more foreign capital would flow into the economy a situation that would result to a currency crisis. Lack of an appropriate monetary policy tool meant that the Central Bank was unable to prevent an imminent crisis.

Like Indonesia, Malaysia’s economy was operating beyond full employment. During the year 1995, the country witnessed an increase in public investment. The money was spent mainly on large infrastructure projects (Joosten, 2004). By the end of 1996, the count, Malaysia witnessed a decline in its current account deficit and the concerns over capacity overutilization were reduced. However, given increasing concerns over the ability of other East Asian countries as good investment environments, investors began to perceive Malaysia as a safe haven. Consequently, the country witnessed a huge influx of foreign capital which resulted in an increase in bank lending that in turn fuelled an asset boom. The influx in capital led to an increase in the country’s current account deficit over the period 1992-1995 as wel as declining exports. Huge current account deficits combined with trade deficits, the local currency could no longer sustain its value. This means that Malaysia could not escape the crisis either. The Philipines also had a sound economy when compared to other East Asian economies. The country operated at low levels of foreign debt and showed no immediate risk of a crisis. However, an influx in foreign capital soon fuelled a rapid lending boom that was mainly used in the financing of risky investments and as such the country began facing difficulties (Joosten, 2004).

Conclusions and Recommendations

The objective of this paper was to identify the root causes of financial crisis in the 1990s. Using the East Asian Financial Crisis as a case study, the paper concludes that one of the major causes of financial crisis in the 1990s was financial liberalization. Financial liberalization facilitated the movement of capital across borders. The East Asian Economies liberalized their financial systems thereby allowing a huge influx of foreign capital. Given that most of these countries suffered trade deficits, the capital was spent mainly on infrastructural development which means that enough returns could not be realized to cover the current account deficits. As such the current account deficits had to be financed with international reserves. This resulted in a currency crisis across the region which eventually led to the financial crisis in 1997 and 1998. One of the main lessens that can be learnt from this crisis is that countries with huge current account deficits should not attract foreign capital if they are also operating trade deficits. This is because most of the foreign capital is used to finance unprofitable projects that cannot generate enough cash flows to offset the current account deficit. This increases the financial risks of both the private and public sector, which eventually result in a financial crisis.


Bird, G. and Rajan, R. S. (2000) “BANKS, FINANCIAL LIBERALISATION AND FINANCIAL CRISES IN EMERGING MARKETS”, available online at: , accessed: [8th January, 2012].

Bisgnano J. (1999). Precarious Credit Equilibria: Reflections On The Asian Financial Crisis. BANK FOR INTERNATIONAL SETTLEMENTS Monetary and Economic Department Basle, Switzerland Working Papers.

Joosten W. (2004). The Asian Financial Crisis in Retrospect. What HappenedWhat Can we concludeCPB Memorandum. CPB Netherlands Bureau for Economic Policy Analysis.

Li, K., Kwok m. (2008). Output volatility of five crisis-affected East Asia economies Japan and the World Economy, In Press, Corrected Proof, Available online 24 April 2008.

Lopez-Mejia, A. (1999), “Large Capital Flows: A Survey of the Causes, Consequences, and Policy Responses”, Working Paper 99/17, IMF.

Mahui, M. N., Maru, J. (2010), “Financial Liberalisation and the Impact of the Financial Crisis on Singapore”, Third World Network 131 Jalan Macalister, 10400 Penang, Malaysia.

Pathan, S., Skully, M. & Wickramanayake, J. (2008) Reforms in Thai bank governance: the aftermath of the Asian financial crisis, International Review of Financial Analysis, 17 (2), 345-362.

World Bank (2000), East Asia: Recovery and Beyond, New York: Oxford University Press.

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