Myanmar’s junta powerless as currency drops 60% in four weeks, economy tanks

Myanmar’s junta powerless as currency drops 60% in four weeks, economy tanks
Myanmar's junta powerless as currency drops 60% in four weeks, economy tanks
© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: People line up outside a bank to withdraw cash, in Yangon, Myanmar May 13, 2021. REUTERS/Stringer

(Reuters) – Myanmar’s currency has lost more than 60% of its value since the beginning of September in a collapse that has driven up food and fuel prices in an economy that has tanked since a military coup eight months ago.

“This will rattle the generals as they are quite obsessed with the kyat rate as a broader barometer of the economy, and therefore a reflection on them,” Richard Horsey, a Myanmar expert at the International Crisis Group, said.

In August, the Central Bank of Myanmar tried tethering the kyat 0.8% either side of its reference rate against the dollar, but gave up on Sept. 10 as pressure on the exchange rate mounted.

The shortage of dollars has become so bad that some money changers have pulled down their shutters.

“Due to the currency price instability at the moment…all Northern Breeze Exchange Service branches are temporarily closed,” the money changer said on Facebook (NASDAQ:).

Those still operating were quoting a rate of 2,700 kyat per dollar on Tuesday, compared to 1,695 on Sept. 1 and 1,395 back on Feb.1 when the military overthrew a democratically elected government led by Nobel Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi.

In a report published on Monday, the World Bank predicted the economy would slump by 18% this year, partly due to the pandemic, and said Myanmar would see the biggest contraction in employment in the region and the number of poor in the country would rise.

The increasing economic pressures come amid signs of an upsurge in bloodshed, as armed militias have become bolder in clashes with the army after months of protests and strikes by opponents of the junta.

“The worse the political situation is, the worse the currency rate will be,” said a senior executive at a Myanmar bank, who declined to be named.

Myanmar is also struggling to deal with a second wave of coronavirus cases that started in June with the response by authorities crippled after many health workers joined protests. Reported cases have comes off their highs though the true extent of the outbreak remains unclear.

Stay at home orders in some townships have been withdrawn, but are still in effect in some areas.

In the immediate months after the Feb. 1 coup, many people queued up to withdraw savings from banks and some bought gold, but a jewellery merchant in Yangon said many desperate people were now trying to sell their gold back.

The central bank gave no reason to why it abandoned its managed float strategy earlier this month, but analysts believe its foreign currency reserves must be seriously depleted.

Central bank officials did not answer calls seeking comment on how much foreign currency was left, but World Bank data shows it had just $7.67 billion in reserves at the end of 2020.

After coming off its managed float, the central bank still spent $65 million, buying kyat at a rate of 1,750 to 1,755 per dollar between Sept. 13-27.

The bank executive said the central bank’s efforts had limited impact in a currency market shorn of confidence.

The economic crisis has driven up the price of staples, and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said this week that around three million people now require humanitarian assistance in Myanmar, up from one million before the coup.

A 48-kilogram bag of rice costs 48,000 kyat, up nearly 40% since the coup, while gasoline prices have nearly doubled to 1,445 kyat per litre.

The crisis is also hurting businesses, particularly those needing to import raw materials. A plastic bag manufacturer in Yangon said he had been forced to increase prices and sales had dropped about 30%.

Per capita gross domestic product was just $1,400 last year, and Zaw, a resident in Yangon who asked to use only part of his name, was under no illusion about where Myanmar was heading.

“People will become poorer.”

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