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Singapore Inc's foray abroad could add girth to earnings this year

Govt data shows outward-oriented companies boost productivity by 5% per year - versus just 1% annual growth for locally-focused firms

The earnings profile of Singaporean companies with global ambitions could come into focus this year, as the government nudges more firms to expand and global central banks' monetary easing benefits exporters in the short term.


THE earnings profile of Singaporean companies with global ambitions could come into focus this year, as the government nudges more firms to expand and global central banks' monetary easing benefits exporters in the short term (INFOGRAPHIC: Full-time score).

Analysts also see some boost from other Budget 2015 measures, with the key real estate investment trust (Reit) sector holding on to critical tax breaks.

As part of this year's Budget announced last week, the government will offer a slew of incentives that effectively reduce the risks for companies looking to go abroad. To complement this, the government will also make it more attractive for companies to acquire others, so stronger businesses can build enough heft to compete on the international stage.

The end game appears to be boosting productivity: the buzzword in transforming Singapore Inc for the long haul. And there's evidence that growth is sturdier when companies head overseas.

Over the past five years, outward- oriented sectors posted productivity growth of over 5 per cent per year on average, government data shows. By comparison, those that have focused on local turf registered productivity growth of less than one per cent.

As it is, Singapore corporates eked out a mild 0.1 per cent increase in 2014 profit compared to a year ago, fresh data compiled by The Business Times shows. Total profit for 323 companies with comparative figures stood at S$30.3 billion (INFOGRAPHIC: Full-year results ended December 2014)

Meanwhile, said Kelvin Tay, regional chief investment officer of Southern APAC, UBS Wealth Management, the aggressive easing of global central banks "is confirming that commodity price inflation is undergoing a more permanent level-shift, and requires more near-term accommodative policy settings globally".

"Against this backdrop, in Singapore, export-oriented companies deriving revenues from the global recovery are likely to perform well. In contrast, domestic companies may struggle with slowing revenue growth and higher costs," he told BT.

Still, Credit Suisse cautioned that Singapore's economic growth has greater correlation with global trade volume growth than with headline global GDP growth.

"Post-GFC (global financial crisis), global trade flows have grown much less than their historical correlation with global GDP; growth now seems less 'trade intensive'," it said in an equity research report last December.

"To that extent, it is possible that while headline economic growth may recover globally, the benefits of that may not flow down to global trade volumes - and, by implication, to Singapore - in a big way."

There are some signs of this. Bank lending in Singapore dipped more sharply in January compared to the previous month, amid a stubborn decline in trade loans, preliminary data released last Friday showed. Trade loans booked through the domestic banking unit fell for the fifth straight month. And on a yearly comparison, such lending shrank for the first time over five years.

But the impact of this - and lower loan growth, in general - on banks could be mitigated by higher interest rates out of the US, noted analysts.

"As their earnings are likely to remain resilient and asset quality manageable, we expect banks to perform well," said Mr Tay of UBS.

In the Reit market, there was relief that income tax concessions for the sector have been extended for five more years. While the stamp duty concession will be no more from April - meaning Reits buying properties here must pay stamp duties of about 3 per cent from then on - this will not have a significant impact on the sector, said OCBC Investment Research in a client note.

Analysts remain cautious on Singapore's property market, as cooling measures temper demand. One bright spot, though, is that the lifting of the CPF salary ceiling to S$6,000 in the latest Budget would be "mildly positive" for the sector, said CIMB Research.

There should be keen interest in Keppel Corporation's performance this year, given the shift in oil prices. The rigbuilder has indicated that while the fall in oil prices and projected oversupply of oil rigs have created a "challenging environment", a growth in energy consumption is expected to sustain the oil-and-gas business.

Investors are also watching the latest slugfest between Noble Group and a little-known research firm called Iceberg Research, which has alleged that Noble's profits are overstated.