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More pain ahead seen for Malaysia economy
"KU" or bitter was the Chinese character most picked by Malaysian Chinese businesses to characterise 2015 which saw the introduction of a consumption tax, public transport hikes and numerous other cost increases made worse by a tanking ringgit that has lost nearly a fourth of its value against the US dollar over the year after dropping 8 per cent in the previous year.
Sadly, the signs are pointing to an even more tumultuous 2016.
With global oil prices slumping below US$40 a barrel - bad news for oil producers such as Malaysia - and business and consumer sentiment stuck at lows last seen during the global financial crisis of 2008, the reality of a diminishing ringgit is expected to hit businesses even harder in the new year because of price adjustments for new stocks.
In truth, there have been a number of price revisions in the past year, especially in April when a 6 per cent Goods & Services Tax (GST) kicked in.
The domino effect of GST has been made worse by the feeble ringgit and its impact on import costs - it's decline was not arrested by the government's "proactive measures" in January.
Currency analysts predict further devaluation in the currency in 2016 with projections ranging from 4.49 to 5.00 to the greenback from about 4.30 at year end.
Not surprisingly domestic consumption - previously a main engine of growth - is stuttering as households struggle to balance rising expenses with stagnant incomes. One wag mocking the government's persistent fiscal deficit observed: "I now have my own fiscal deficit to contend with."
RHB Research Institute executive director Peck Boon Soon said cash handouts to lower income households have provided some cushion. "But the effects were eroded by GST and the increase in daily expenses brought about by the weaker ringgit."
He rates the currency's sharp depreciation as the most challenging factor given its far reaching implications on investments and consumption.
"The decline is across the board," he said, noting property, construction, manufacturing (bar exporters) and services are suffering, prompting concerns of further job cuts. "Right sizing" exercises in the banking sector saw an estimated loss of 8,000 jobs this year, adding to the 7,000 positions axed by Malaysia Airlines in its bid to become a newer, leaner entity.
Real estate transactions have also slowed and property prices are expected to moderate further in 2016. Home loan approvals shrunk by about a tenth this year after registering zero growth last year.
GDP growth is expected to moderate to 4-4.5 per cent in 2016 from about 5 per cent in 2015 but analysts caution economic indicators are weakening rapidly amid the ringgit's feeble performance.
Aghast at Putrajaya's lack of action, independent currency analyst Suresh Ramanathan stressed market mechanisms need to be put in place urgently including ensuring dollar liquidity and even cutting interest rates to assist the economy. "Then only will sentiments improve and fundamentals remain intact."
Should external factors including oil prices, China's slowing economy and US interest rate hikes further move against Malaysia's interests, Putrajaya will not have much room to manoeuvre given the narrowing fiscal space, including high public and household debt.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership with the anticipation of more investments and business opportunities ought to benefit Malaysia, even though it will take another two to three years before it materialises.
But Malaysia will not gain the full benefit of economic liberalisation until it scraps exemptions for bumiputra policies and government-linked companies, observed Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan.
Other Asean economies that used to trail in Malaysia's wake are now advancing faster, less hamstrung by impediments including a five-decade-old bumiputra affirmative action policy.
Investor disquiet has deepened because of the lack of transparency over scandal and debt-laden 1MDB and the controversial deposits of some US$700 million into the personal bank accounts of Prime Minister Najib Razak, ostensibly by an Arab donor.
This has led Mr Najib's younger brother and banker, Nazir, to say that Malaysia is proving to be a harder sell these days given concerns about its political stability and the independence of key institutions including the central bank.
Investors are concerned about Bank Negara governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz's impending retirement in April as events over the past year have led many to conclude that the authority of the central bank has been undermined.
Despite Bank Negara recommending criminal proceedings against 1MDB for its breach of exchange control laws in its overseas investments involving US$1.3 billion, Attorney General Apandi Ali decided otherwise.
That official investigations have amounted to nothing after nearly a year has seriously eroded trust in government institutions.
Tellingly, even though the economy is on shaky ground, most think it has been put on autopilot as the country's leaders appear more intent on deflecting criticism of 1MDB and Mr Najib.
Also the finance minister, Mr Najib has managed to pare the fiscal deficit to a more acceptable 3.2 per cent of GDP; however, the continuing slump in global oil prices could put next year's 3.1 per cent target at risk.
A credit downgrade by Fitch was averted this year but subsidy cuts and the GST have taken a toll on a wide segment of Malaysians not used to paying taxes since they fall under the taxable threshold.
Retail Group Malaysia managing director Tan Hai Tsin said all sub-sectors have seen a 20-50 per cent slowdown in businesses, but he is hopeful of a marginal growth of 1.3 per cent this year.
On the equities front, the benchmark KLCI underperformed and is about 5 per cent lower year to date. Most analysts are cautious about next year's prospects but an additional RM20 billion (S$6.5 billion) in state funds could help support undervalued stocks.
Initial public offerings were dismal last year as sentiments were hit by global factors and 1MDB's problems including its RM42 billion debts. Antipathy towards the state-owned company ruined its listing plans for its power subsidiary Edra Global Energy Bhd.
In the end, Kuala Lumpur opted to lift a 49 per cent cap on foreign ownership and allowed China General Nuclear Power Corporation (CGN) to acquire all of Edra Global for nearly RM10 billion cash and the assumption of its gross debts in an effort to rationalise 1MDB's position.
The Chinese, who are hoping to land the high speed rail project between Kuala Lumpur and Singapore, have also said they will buy more government bonds should there be a substantial exit of Malaysian bonds by foreign funds back to the US.
Even so, given that the majority bumiputra community chafe at ethnic Chinese domination of the economy, the sale to the mainland Chinese of Edra - and perhaps other strategic assets to come - was enthralling to many, particularly as a substantial part of the year was occupied by the politics of race baiting. This new dimension is set to become all the more riveting in the coming months and years ahead.
For more of BT's year-in-review stories, visit bt.sg/review_15