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Singapore cannot jump the gun on economic bail-out

SBF chief Ho Meng Kit says there have not been deteriorations such as significantly higher business closures or retrenchments.


WITH factory output and exports falling year on year, business sentiment darkening and gross domestic product (GDP) growth grinding to a halt, no one would say that the Singapore economy is in tip-top shape.

But senior political leaders still stressed in recent weeks that there is no need yet for off-cycle moves and that a recession has not hit.

Warning against jumping the gun on stimulus measures, economic observers largely affirmed this assessment, while reiterating that the job market remains key to determining when policymakers make their move.

That is even as the risks of a technical recession - two straight quarters of quarter-on-quarter contraction - have ticked up. Flash estimates for third-quarter GDP growth are due by next Monday, with the final print slated for release by end-November.

Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) are reporting lower growth expectations in the next six months, according to a recent poll by the Singapore Business Federation (SBF) and credit firm Experian, while the latest Purchasing Managers' Index pointed to a three-year low in manufacturing sentiment in September.

Still, ministerial sangfroid has prevailed: Singapore's leaders have said they are closely watching economic conditions and stand ready to intervene, but "we don't think we've gone into a recession as yet", Second Minister for Finance and Education Indranee Rajah told Bloomberg last week.

Her comment came less than a week after Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat said, in an interview with radio station CNA938, that he did not "foresee a need for an extraordinary Budget at this stage".

Economists who spoke to The Business Times concurred that the Republic should not move too early. With the slowdown partly due to external challenges such as global trade tensions and exposure to the cooling Chinese economy, "a knee-jerk reaction probably cannot shift the dial for the local economy or alter the economic reality by much", said Selena Ling, chief economist at OCBC Bank.

Also, any attempt to address these issues could be premature and ineffective, as conditions change quickly, said DBS senior economist Irvin Seah.

"I am on the same page as the policymakers: We are not in a crisis scenario yet," he told BT over the phone.

Besides a likely easing of monetary policy this month, businesses and households are also widely expected to get targeted support in the next national Budget. That's usually delivered in February, although Mr Seah thinks it could come earlier, in January - an option Ms Ling won't rule out.

Still, Singapore has enough in its reserves for a full-on emergency stimulus deal, like the S$20.5 billion Resilience Package tapped during the financial crisis in 2009, analysts added.

Standard Chartered economist Jonathan Koh said: "The government has long-term fiscal plans and projects so, when they think the timing is necessary, they can definitely spend."

Among the economy watchers, the odd man out is Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin, who believes that "ministers are painting bluer skies versus the ground reality".

"Some segments are facing severe distress," said Dr Chua, calling for fiscal support ahead of the Budget. "Some SMEs, especially in trade and commodity-related sectors, are under water and may have drowned by the time Budget 2020 comes along."

But, DBS' Mr Seah said: "it is not the duty of the government... to ensure that non-viable businesses remain operating". Instead, he expects planners to step in when contagion spreads to the labour market, as "it is within the purview of the government to ensure that we do not have excessive retrenchment".

For example, the Budget could nip layoffs of professionals in the bud with targeted measures to redeploy workers within their companies and pre-empt retrenchment, Mr Seah said.

But the labour market is not showing signs of haemorrhage at the moment, which may be a crucial reason that watchers can still breathe easily.

Ho Meng Kit, chief executive of the SBF, told BT: "There have not been other deteriorations such as significantly higher business closures or retrenchments. Therefore, it is better to monitor the situation closely and not reach for the medicine chest so soon."

Plus, the job losses in the year so far do not stack up against the sea of pink slips during the last crisis, when there were more than 19,000 layoffs in the first half of 2009, Minister for Manpower Josephine Teo told Parliament in August. Official statistics peg retrenchments at around 5,550 in the same period this year.

Meanwhile, services - which make up about two-thirds of the economy - underpins some of the hope as well.

Irene Cheung, senior strategist at ANZ Research, noted that the services sector is expected to be "the main positive growth contributor" for the GDP, and "that may be where the cautious optimism of the government lies".

Services industries such as finance and insurance, information and communications and healthcare have been touted as bright spots by analysts and policymakers alike, even as the construction sector turned the corner after spending 2018 in the red.

So, "while the domestic economic prints are flashing amber", OCBC's Ms Ling still has faith that the full-year GDP is likely to "eke out positive, albeit marginal, year-on-year growth".

Without a technical recession or actual full-year shrinkage, "there is probably less of an urgency to bring out the big bazooka" of off-cycle or hefty stimulus measures, she said.

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