A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

A VOTE OF CONFIDENCE

Michael Ducker is a believer. As executive vice president, international, of FedEx, he's been watching Asia's economic recovery, and he's confident it's for real.

''I believe that manufacturing will continue to move to the region,'' Ducker said. And he said this offers opportunities. ''Why not take advantage of some of the best economics in the world?'' he asks.

Ducker was named to his current position after serving as president of the FedEx Express Asia Pacific division. His current responsibilities, which include overseeing Asia One - a FedEx intra-Asian, hub-based program that provides overnight express service to every Asian nation not under embargo - give Ducker a uniquely inside perspective on the Asian economy.

Many Asian nations have rebounded since the economic crisis of 1997-1998, but most experts agree that it's too early to tell whether it's a full-fledged recovery or a short-term bounce.

Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley Dean Witter predicted that economic growth this year in Asian nations other than Japan will approach pre-crisis levels of 5 percent to 6 percent. The combined gross domestic product of Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand - the four nations hit hardest by the crisis - is expected to grow by around 3.6 percent this year after contracting by 9.8 percent in 1998.

According to data from the Asian Economic Review, exports from China to the U.S. and Europe - which account for around 40 percent of all Chinese exports - increased by more than 16 percent between 1998 and 1999 and are expected to show similar growth this year. Exports of machinery grew 28 percent and electronics and textiles increased 30 percent.

But the good news on the exporting front is offset to some extent by the fact that direct investment in China, and the inflow of foreign funds, continues to decline. It has become increasingly difficult for Chinese companies to obtain loans from international commercial banks, which is a key growth driver. Exports alone cannot grow China's economy; whereas exports account for around 40 percent of GDP in South Korea and Taiwan, the figure is only 20 percent for China. There is also increasing internal opposition to economic reform, particularly of state-owned enterprises, which account for 60 percent of all jobs in China.

In South Korea, the recovery appears to be real. The economy grew by close to 11 percent in 1999 and should approach 10 percent this year. The government has discharged much of its bad debt and non-performing loans, and has gone further than many Asian nations in corporate restructuring. Daewoo, the massive conglomerate whose bad debts, according to a survey in Fortune Magazine, accounted for close to 18 percent of South Korea's GDP, agreed last year to a massive restructuring. Hyundai, the automobile giant, has also undergone major management changes that are expected to improve the company's performance.

Corporate takeovers appear to be helping South Korea's recovery. In 1999 mergers and acquisitions totaled $19 billion in Korea, a threefold increase over 1998. The same was true in Japan, which saw $78 billion in M&A deals in 1999, a figure that was four times higher than for the previous year. The number of major Japanese banks has also dropped from 21 in 1997 to only eight as of this year.

In Singapore, which was not as seriously hurt by the financial crisis as most other nations, the economy is expected to grow by around 7 percent this year.

Although he thinks that some of the economic reforms in Asia didn't go far enough toward promoting true free-market economies, Ducker said there have been significant structural changes in the way many Asian nations do business. That, coupled with the strength of the American economy and a unified Europe, is allowing Asia time to recover from the recent crisis, he said.

Despite the recent recession and a shaky recovery, FedEx anticipates growth of 20 percent to 30 percent in the Asia Pacific region, Ducker said. In some ways, because of the nature of exports coming from Asia, the company wasn't affected as much by the economic crisis as non-express freight companies. FedEx is riding a global trend toward high-tech, high-value products with fast-cycle distribution times, such as computers, medical instruments and parts that are components in chain manufacturing processes. Those types of goods depend on express delivery and still have to get to market whether there's a recession or not.

''It was the worst recession in 50 years in Asia, and all industries were impacted,'' Ducker said. ''Even Taiwan was affected, and they have one of the most robust economies in the world. But it affected us less based on the nature of goods that we carry.''

Whether the recovery comes now or later, FedEx continues to view Asia as one of its major growth markets. ''There is always a big bounce after it has fallen so low,'' Ducker said, ''but we will continue to see strong growth in Asia.''