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Gloom deepens for local firms in Q2: survey

Economists lay blame on domestic and external factors, including the slowdown in China

Dark clouds lingered over the local business environment in the second quarter this year, as firms in Singapore became even more downcast amid the ongoing global economic uncertainty and domestic restructuring of the economy.


DARK clouds lingered over the local business environment in the second quarter this year, as firms in Singapore became even more downcast amid the ongoing global economic uncertainty and domestic restructuring of the economy. Economists, reacting to the findings of the latest Business Times-UniSIM Business Climate Survey, said they expect the pall to hang over Singapore at least until the US economy recovers.

The figures pointed to the continued deterioration in business sentiments from April through June; companies notched up poorer sales, thinner profits and a lower number of orders overall. The survey, for which 181 companies were polled in June and July, also found that pessimism over business prospects had spread to even more firms than in Q1.

Based on its findings, the poll predicts that the Q3 gross domestic product (GDP) will expand 1.8 per cent year on year - not much better than the official flash estimate of 1.7 per cent year-on-year growth in Q2 GDP. The full Q2 GDP figures will be out next week. Both the poor Q2 showing and bleak prospects for Q3 came as no surprise to economists, who attributed these to a combination of external and domestic factors, including the drastic slowdown in China and uncertainty in the euro zone.

OCBC economist Selena Ling, noting the sluggish growth in the US, potential headwinds from the upcoming US interest rate hike and domestic restructuring issues including the labour crunch and high business costs, said: "Market sentiments are also being hurt by the China-related volatilities and questions about whether the Chinese policy stimulus measures are really solving the problem."

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Of the companies polled, half (51 per cent) said they expected their business prospects would be bleaker in H2 2015 than H2 2014. Only 15 per cent of companies believed that their prospects would brighten; the remaining 34 per cent expected no change.

The gap between the pessimists and optimists, known as the net balance, was thus -36 per cent for Q2, a substantial seven percentage points worse than the -29 per cent net balance for business prospects in Q1.

The BT-UniSIM business prospects figure, a year-on-year one, was far worse than those from two official business-expectations surveys released late last month, which were both not year-on-year. One set of figures came from a poll by the Economic Development Board, which asked manufacturers about their business outlook for July through December, compared with April through June. This survey produced a slightly-positive 2 per cent net balance.

The other set of figures, from a survey of the services sector by the Department of Statistics (DOS), also put the sector's business expectations net balance at 2 per cent. However, this poll asked firms to compare July through December with January through June.

A new Nikkei Singapore purchasing managers' index (PMI) by Markit gave an economy-wide PMI reading above 50, indicating optimism about anticipated orders, but this indicator was a month-on-month one.

The BT-UniSIM Q2 net balances for companies' sales, profits and orders remained mired in negative territory, and were worse for smaller firms.

For sales, the overall net balance worsened by nine percentage points to -25 per cent in Q2 this year, marking the 16th consecutive quarter that this figure has been in the red, and spurring concerns that Singapore firms might have lost their edge.

This represents the longest stretch of sales contraction since the survey began in Q4 1995, said survey co-authors Chow Kit Boey and Chan Cheong Chiam; in their report, they attributed the prolonged sales contraction phase mainly to global instability and domestic restructuring.

DBS economist Irvin Seah said the protracted contraction in sales suggests that companies could be losing competitiveness. Smaller companies, which have been bearing the brunt of Singapore's economic restructuring efforts, may need to step up in terms of productivity, he said.

The Q2 figures would have been worse if not for better performances in overseas business activities, which helped to offset a deterioration in local activity, the survey report said.

Economists said that a firm recovery in the US could prompt a pick-up here, though they warned that a likely accompaniment to that would be an interest rate hike by the US Federal Reserve. UOB economist Francis Tan said: "It's still quite tough for Q3 and Q4. We're still seeing a slowdown in the external environment. ... The only likely catalyst ahead is a US recovery."

Noting that investments would slow down in the wake of a rate hike, he added: "We're actively telling businesses to hedge." Ms Ling also warned the rate hike could trigger a "rude awakening". "While Yellen and her Fed gang have been guiding the markets that the lift-off trajectory will be shallow and benign, ... another 'taper tantrum' cannot be fully discounted."

The government is expected to narrow its full-year 2015 GDP growth forecast next week from the current 2 to 4 per cent band, after Q2 flash figures came in far worse than expected in July. Private-sector economists tip it to narrow the forecast range to 2 to 3 per cent or even lower it to 1.5 to 2.5 per cent.

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