SINGAPORE, Jan 7, 2015 (AFP) - The plunge in crude prices will give a much-needed boost to Asia's oil-guzzling economies and provides governments a "golden opportunity" to implement crucial structural reforms such as cutting expensive energy subsidies, analysts say.
A slowdown in the key export markets of Europe, China and Japan, the end of US stimulus measures, and an expected US rate hike -- fuelling a flight of foreign cash in search of better returns -- has left some governments having to make tough decisions to get back on track.
But experts say lower oil prices would ease inflationary pressures throughout much of Asia, allowing many central banks to either keep monetary policy on hold or reduce interest rates.
And the Asian Development Bank last month said developing countries could see an additional 0.5 percentage point of growth on average this year if oil prices remain low.
However reforms are needed, analysts say, and among the most crucial and controversial is the removal of fuel subsidies, which in the past been the catalysts for sometimes violent protests across the spectrum, from the impoverished to the region's growing middle class.
While global equity markets are being strafed by a continuing slump in the prices of black gold -- they have fallen more than 50 percent since June to five-and-a-half-year lows -- analysts said countries should grab the opportunity and move now.
Malaysia, Indonesia and India have already made cut to the populist but economically disastrous subsidies, which have contributed to government fiscal deficits.
Shang-Jin Wei, chief economist at the Manila-based ADB, said in a statement that easing oil prices "present a golden opportunity" for oil-importing countries to introduce the reforms.
And Rajiv Biswas, Asia Pacific chief economist at global consultancy IHS, warned if they fail to move, leaders "will miss the window of opportunity and face public resistance to removal of fuel subsidies if oil prices strengthen significantly in future years".
Previous efforts in Indonesia to slash fuel subsidies sparked violent protests, but the country's new president Joko Widodo has vowed to tackle the problem despite risks to his popularity.
Widodo, who took office in October, wants the money diverted to overhauling infrastructure and helping the country's poorest.
An attempt by former Indonesian president Suharto to reduce the subsidies triggered riots that helped end his three-decade dictatorship in 1998.
India also experienced similar protests in the past when it tried to cut the subsidies -- diverted government funds used to artificially keep fuel prices low.
Removing the payouts allows market forces to determine prices and free them from political manipulation.
The softer crude prices will also provide some respite for the region's oil-reliant economies, facing global headwinds from slowing in their key export markets.
Biswas said "most of the Asian economies are large net importers of oil and gas, and will benefit from lower oil import costs and significantly reduced fuel costs for consumers".
"This positive boost helps to mitigate the negative effects of China's moderating growth rate and Japan's slump back into recession in late 2014," he said.
Analysts expect India, Asia's third largest economy, to be a major beneficiary as it imports nearly 80 percent of its oil needs.
Like China and South Korea, the lower prices should keep inflation in check and allow the central bank to implement much-needed interest rate cuts with less fear of stoking inflation.
Among the top winners is the airline sector, while shipping and energy-intensive heavy manufacturing industries such as steel will benefit across the region.
Shukor Yusof, founder of Malaysia-based aviation research firm Endau Analytics, said jet fuel accounts for about a third of airline operating costs in Asia.
Further losses ahead
"You're likely to see airlines posting profits for the fourth quarter of 2014 and for this coming quarter," he told AFP.
"Given the trend in falling oil prices, we should see a corresponding correction in air fares as well."
However, oil and gas exporters including Malaysia and Brunei stand to take a hit.
With petroleum-related earnings accounting for 30-40 percent of Malaysian government revenues annually, the ringgit currency has fallen almost 11 percent against the US dollar over the past six months as oil prices sank.
Malaysia in October forecast economic growth of 5-6 percent for 2015, but the World Bank projects the expansion at 4.7 percent due in part to lower oil prices.
And there could be further falls in the oil price from the present levels of $47.90 for West Texas Intermediate and $50.82 for Brent.
Daniel Ang, an investment analyst with Phillip Futures in Singapore, told AFP he expects WTI to hit bottom at $46 and Brent to hover at $50-$53 in the second quarter of this year.
He forecasts WTI to average $58-$63 a barrel this year, against the average $92.60 in 2014 and $98.05 in 2013. Brent is projected to average $60-$65 this year, compared with $99.29 last year and $108.70 in 2013.
But Ang and other oil market watchers say further price falls to below $40 would not surprise them.