Asia ’97: The Financial Crisis that Left its Mark for Good

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Euromoney, May 9 2019

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The Asian financial crisis of 1997/98 was the region’s most important event during Euromoney’s 50 years of coverage – those who experienced it share their recollections and what they learned.

Piyush Gupta recalls the Asian financial crisis clearly. The chief executive of DBS was at Citi at the time, and when riots broke out in Indonesia, the country head did not want to go back to Jakarta with his family. So Gupta put his hand up to go.

“For the next year, I had a conference room which was like a war room,” he says. “Every morning, when we got there, we would map out: where is the civil unrest in the city? Is the branch shut? Can we move cash in and out?

“It was not like being a banker. It was like being a platoon commander.”

Don Hanna, then Asia economist for Goldman Sachs and now at CIMB, recalls it well too. He was in Jakarta the night before the race riots broke out and had dinner with an IMF representative whose wife had just arrived.

“I was telling them: ‘Don’t worry, this is a lovely safe place,’” he says. “A day and a half later they were being evacuated.

“It was not the finest moment for forecasting,” he says, but he does not treat the moment lightly. “That day sticks out for the loss of life and tragedy. It was a dismal moment for the country generally.”

Nestor Tan left BZW in London for what is now BDO Unibank, and where he is now chief executive, in May 1997.

“I started here in June, and by July the crisis came,” he says in Manila at the bank’s head office. “So I brought the crisis with me. I was four weeks into my job and it happened.”

One banker recalls flying to Bangkok to work on a bank restructuring and being forced to go in through a back entrance, starting work at midnight because nobody was willing to admit publicly that there was a problem. Another remembers the sense of denial in Seoul, in the midst of an IMF bailout, where the banks and public offices continued to turn off the air conditioning at 5pm, crisis or no crisis, because that was what they had always done.

The Asian financial crisis left a mark on everyone who worked through it.

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Chris Wright
Chris Wright
Chris is a journalist specialising in business and financial journalism across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He is Asia editor for Euromoney magazine and has written for publications including the Financial Times, Institutional Investor, Forbes, Asiamoney, the Australian Financial Review, Discovery Channel Magazine, Qantas: The Australian Way and BRW. He is the author of No More Worlds to Conquer, published by HarperCollins.

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