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Google searches offer insights into Asia’s tumultuous year

by December 23, 2016 General

People chant slogans during a protest calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in central Seoul December 3, 2016. — Reuters picPeople chant slogans during a protest calling for South Korean President Park Geun-hye to step down in central Seoul December 3, 2016. — Reuters picHONG KONG, Dec 23 — Seek, and ye shall find your queries on a year-end list.

Such is the case for Asia’s Googlers, whose most popular financial searches of 2016 have been compiled and released by the company. The data is evidence of the roller coaster year it’s been for some of the world’s biggest economies, where local political scandals roiled the markets at the same time that curveballs from outside the region heightened volatility and triggered capital outflows.

After watching US$5 trillion (RM22.4 trillion) evaporate from China’s stock market last year, investors may have thought they deserved a calmer 2016. Yet, the flurry of bad news, from South Korea’s trio of political, economic and corporate scandals to India’s shock decision to junk 86 per cent of its currency bills, ensured the year has been anything but. Add to that the UK’s June vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s shock election in the US, and you start to understand why China’s dwindling foreign-currency reserves lay behind the country’s most popular financial search term.

Using Google’s data, here are four charts that gauge the pulse of Asian economies in 2016.

1. Trump’s impact on trade

With President-elect Donald Trump pulling off a stunning electoral upset in November, his name was one of the most popular keywords throughout the world.

But there was a clear distinction within Trump-related searches, with Asian countries expressing the most interest in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or TPP, a trade treaty from which Trump has vowed to withdraw.

That may figure, given that seven of the 12 participating nations are in the Asia Pacific — Australia, Brunei, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, Singapore and Vietnam. Yet this geographical skew is particularly stark when compared with the region’s relative lack of interest in the president-elect’s foreign policies: Asia-based Googlers searched for the words “Trump foreign policy” only 19 per cent as often as their European counterparts.

2. China’s stock market

With an epic US$5 trillion collapse over the summer, negative sentiment plagued China’s equity markets in 2015. This year was relatively calmer, with global searches for Chinese stock exchanges remaining subdued since January’s 23 per cent rout prompted another huge surge in queries. 

The focus seems to have shifted to accelerating capital outflows, and Beijing’s fight against a weak yuan. In November, the world’s largest foreign-currency hoard shrank by the most since January to US$3.05 trillion, after the currency declined to an eight-year low. That saw capital-market queries supplant equity-related ones at the top of the table.

3. India’s ban on cash

Following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s unanticipated decision to invalidate 500 and 1,000 rupee banknotes, “demonetisation” soared to become the most popular of India’s financial search terms. Citizens increasingly searched for the words “ATM queue,” “Paytm,” and “withdrawal limit” in the wake of the November 8 announcement.

While interest in digital payment remains elevated — suggesting that one of the experiment’s key aims has been at least partially vindicated — interest in gold also spiked last month, as the wealthy rushed to convert their cash into non-productive holdings of the precious metal.

4. Inflation

Having lowered its benchmark rate for the first time in 11 months in January, Bank Indonesia became one of Asia’s most prolific easers of monetary policy, with a further five cuts to rates since.

The January move arrested a slowdown in consumer-price growth, and also prompted a surge in searches for “inflation.”

The search term also became more popular in India, albeit briefly, after the announcement of the ban on high-denomination notes. The currency recall, which has led to a shortage of cash, is expected to cool consumer prices.

Meanwhile, in Japan, where the government has been trying to spur inflation for years, the adoption of an unconventional negative interest-rate policy in January seems to have done as little to generate internet buzz as it did to raise prices.

5. Domestic politics

It has been a tough year for some of Asia’s politicians.

South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye was impeached by parliament earlier this month over an influence-peddling scandal, while the cash crackdown put Narendra Modi in hot water as anger grew over the scramble to exchange currency.

Googlers around the world were very interested in the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and particularly when the firebrand candidate surged to victory in May’s election. His controversial remarks since then, such as his outburst against Obama and the United Nations, have also prompted spikes in searches. — Bloomberg