JAKARTA, July 1 (Reuters) - Strong growth and political stability made Indonesia Southeast Asia’s most attractive investment destination last year, but the outlook is threatened by a struggle between reformers and powerful vested interests.
Top reformer Sri Mulyani Indrawati’s decision to quit in May, fed up with the pressure from the political old guard, was a setback. But no major problems have emerged in the economy since her departure and her successor as finance minister, Agus Martowardojo, is no pushover, so prospects for continuing her work and achieving an investment grade credit rating are strong.
The sovereign credit default swap spread IDGV5YUSAC=R, has widened since May mainly due to euro zone concerns, and has been trading at around 180 basis points.
The rupiah IDR= has strengthened from 12,600 per dollar in November 2008 to trade at about 9,060 by the end of June. The benchmark stock index .JKSE has surged 2.6 times from its Oct. 28, 2008 low and reached an all-time high on May 4.
Following is a summary of key Indonesia risks to watch:
President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, re-elected with a strengthened mandate last July, is widely seen as a progressive, market-friendly reformer. Many investors hoped the pace of reform would pick up in his second term after he chose Boediono, an economist, as vice president; gave two reformist technocrats -- Indrawati and Mari Pangestu -- key cabinet posts; and picked Kuntoro Mangkusubroto to head a new presidential delivery unit.
Instead, his second term got off to a bad start. Boediono and Indrawati -- who had made many enemies among opponents of reform, including Aburizal Bakrie, the businessman who heads the Golkar Party -- came under attack for their decision to rescue a small lender, Bank Century, during the 2008 crisis. [ID:nJAK447688]
A parliamentary inquiry into the case dragged on for months, distracting the governments. Yudhoyono expressed full support for Boediono and Indrawati, who had backed the bailout to avoid a collapse of confidence in the financial sector. [ID:nJAK443320]
However, the political pressure clearly took its toll on Indrawati, who accepted a job at the World Bank. Soon after she quit, Yudhoyono gave Bakrie a new post as coalition manager, raising questions over his commitment to reform. [ID:nJAK299378]
In June, Golkar proposed the creation of an ‘aspiration fund’, under which lawmakers would each receive an allocation of 15 billion rupiah ($1.66 million). Golkar said the money would be used to fund development in the regions but critics attacked it as pork barrelling and said the money would be vulnerable to corruption. Martowardojo and other senior ministers have opposed the fund but Golkar’s push shows it has been emboldened by its success in getting rid of Indrawati and that rifts within the ruling coalition continue to run deep.
Yudhoyono has shown a preference for incremental reforms rather than bold action, disappointing some investors. However, progress is slowly being made. In March, Boediono announced a new team to oversee reform of the bureaucracy, a positive sign for foreign investors, while Mangkusubroto has introduced regular progress reports on ministers and their projects. [ID:nJAK226817]
Also, healthy fundamentals and a large and growing domestic consumer base still provide reasons to invest in Indonesia even if reform progress is slower than had been hoped.
What to watch:
-- Opponents of reform, including those within Yudhoyono’s ruling coalition, will probably try to block pro-investment policies such as changes to the tough labour laws and cuts in energy subsidies. [ID:nJAK427204]
-- So far there is no evidence that Bakrie’s new post gives him more powers to try to block reform. Despite Indrawati’s departure, prospects for reform under Martowardojo remain reasonably strong. As head of Bank Mandiri (BMRI.JK), he took on powerful tycoons and forced them to repay their debts. He was quick to reiterate his commitment to sound macroeconomic policies and to continuing Indrawati’s reforms. [ID:nJAK135796]
-- Progress with tax cases, particularly those involving Bakrie’s companies. [ID:nJAK389318]
-- The future of the coalition. The Bank Century inquiry strained relations between Yudhoyono’s Democrats and coalition partners Golkar, many of whose members oppose reform, and PKS, an party which sometimes takes a nationalist, anti-Western stance.
Corruption emerged as a defining issue at the start of Yudhoyono’s second term, with popular anger mounting over a power struggle pitting the respected Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK) against the attorney-general’s office and police. The KPK has made significant progress in investigating corrupt officials, but this stirred powerful opposition. Yudhoyono has vowed to back the anti-corruption drive but his slow response to the KPK scandal disappointed many Indonesians who wanted bolder steps.
Under Mangkusubroto, the presidential delivery unit and legal task force has begun tackling legal reform, for example exposing graft in the prison system and investigating officials suspected of perverting the course of justice.
What to watch:
-- Who heads the KPK next. A new chairman will be chosen soon to replace Antasari Azhar, who was jailed for murder. With the KPK still under attack from vested interests, it’s important the job goes to someone with impeccable credentials. [ID:nJAK149966]
-- Effectiveness of the presidential delivery unit in tackling legal reform and other issues that deter investors.
-- Pace of reform of Indonesia’s civil service, police and courts. Yudhoyono’s cautious response to the power struggle over the KPK suggests he will move much more slowly than markets had hoped. Investors betting on more decisive reform during Yudhoyono’s second term have had to adjust expectations.
The rupiah was Asia’s best-performing currency in 2009 with a gain of 17 percent against the dollar, threatening Indonesia’s export competitiveness but helping to contain imported inflation.
The rally continued for much of this year too, prompting the central bank to intervene to stem the rupiah’s gains as it traded around 9,000 per dollar. More recently, the sell-off in the rupiah and other Asian currencies prompted the central bank to intervene again by selling dollars.
Such capital flows are closely watched by the authorities. Memories are still raw of the 1998 Asian crisis, which was widely blamed in Indonesia on foreign “hot money” being yanked from the country. In June, Bank Indonesia announced a range of new controls aimed at keeping foreign money invested longer in Indonesia, including a minimum one month holding period for its SBIs and new 9-month and 12-month SBIs that will be made available later this year. [ID:nJAK275824]
In March, Bank Indonesia began reducing the frequency of auctions for one-month SBIs, so foreign investors have shifted into three-month paper. [ID:nJAK197199]
What to watch:
-- Data on exports and speculative inflows, and whether the central bank’s measures for SBI auctions have the desired effect of reducing volatile short-term capital inflows. If problems arise, controls may be tightened. Draconian measures that send investors fleeing to the exits are unlikely -- measures would be aimed at directing flows, rather than halting them, so any negative impact on asset prices would be muted. However, the issue can still spook markets -- the rupiah suffered its biggest one-day sell-off in nine months last November due to mixed signals on capital controls. [ID:nHKG263506]
Suicide bombings at two luxury hotels in Jakarta last July were the first major terror attacks in Indonesia since 2005 and raised concerns that the threat from militants was again on the rise. Since then, the killings of Noordin Mohammad Top and, more recently, the bomb-making expert Dulmatin, have significantly reduced that threat. But some risk persists.
Earlier this year, police discovered a new network of armed militants operating a secret training base in Aceh in Sumatra province. The group was plotting to assassinate Yudhoyono and government officials at an independence day celebration, and wanted to create an Islamic state, police said. [ID:nJAK214087]
In late June, police captured preacher Abdullah Sonata on suspicion of involvement in the Aceh group. [ID:nJAK59920].
Sonata had been jailed in the past but released early for good behaviour. His return to militancy raises questions about the effectiveness of Indonesia’s efforts to rehabilitate captured militants. Police also uncovered a plan to attack a European embassy and a police ceremony in Jakarta. [ID:nSGE65O0E8]
What to watch:
-- Ability of militants to regroup and launch more attacks. Particularly if remaining militants are able to establish firm enough links with al Qaeda or allies in Southeast Asia to secure sustained funding, expertise and recruits, the threat may be far from over. But Indonesia’s markets have proven highly resilient to militant attacks. Unless there is a significant and sustained deterioration in security, or militants reignite sectarian unrest, any sell-off would be limited and brief. [ID:nSP545301] ($1=9015 Rupiah)
Editing by Andrew Marshall