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Singapore's industrial production up 24.2% in September on strong pharma output

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Singapore's factory output soared 24.2 per cent year on year in September, boosted by a near-doubling in output from the volatile biomedical cluster.

SINGAPORE'S factory output soared 24.2 per cent year on year in September, boosted by a near-doubling in output from the volatile biomedical cluster, Singapore Economic Development Board figures showed on Monday.

This was far in excess of economists' expectations of 2.5 per cent growth, and up from August's upwardly-revised figure of 15.4 per cent growth.

September's surprisingly strong industrial production performance is expected to cushion the third quarter's contraction in gross domestic product (GDP). The September figure means that industrial production rose 10 per cent year on year in Q3, recovering from Q2's 0.8 per cent decline and beating the advance estimate of 2 per cent.

Barclays economist Brian Tan expects overall Q3 GDP growth to be -5.5 per cent, up from the advance estimate of -7 per cent, while Maybank Kim Eng economists Chua Hak Bin and Lee Ju Ye put it at -5.4 per cent.

Excluding biomedical manufacturing, output was still up 8.5 per cent year on year. On a seasonally-adjusted, monthly basis, industrial production was up 10.1 per cent in September, but fell 1.6 per cent excluding biomedical manufacturing.

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"Manufacturing is exceptionally resilient in this pandemic recession as supply chains and trade flows faced only temporary disruptions," said the Maybank economists, noting that Singapore is benefitting from "pandemic-induced demand" for semiconductors, pharmaceuticals and medical technology.

September's surprising growth was thanks to biomedical manufacturing's 89.8 per cent output growth, led by pharmaceutical output rising 113.6 per cent. The medical technology segment also grew 15 per cent, with higher export demand for medical instruments.

On a year-to-date basis, biomedical manufacturing remains the best-performing cluster, up 26.6 per cent from the year-ago period.

The electronics cluster continued to put in a strong showing, up 30.1 per cent in September. This was led by a 37.4 per cent growth in the semiconductors segment, supported by demand from cloud services, data centres and the 5G market. For the first nine months of the year, electronics output rose 7 per cent from the year-ago period.

The chemicals cluster saw a marginal 0.4 per cent rise in output, with increases in the specialties (25.2 per cent) and other chemicals (6.7 per cent) segments just outweighing contractions in the petrochemicals (-7.3 per cent) and petroleum (-25.7 per cent) segments, due to plant maintenance shutdowns. On a year-to-date basis, chemicals output remains below that of the year-ago period, falling 3.5 per cent.

The remaining three clusters saw year-on-year decreases in September.

Precision engineering output saw its first decrease since May, down 1.5 per cent, with declines in all segments. Still, on a year-to-date basis, the cluster's output is up 10 per cent from the year-ago period.

General manufacturing output continued to see declines in all segments, with the cluster's output down 8 per cent, though this marked a slowing from the previous two months of contraction. On a year-to-date basis, the cluster's output is down 12.6 per cent.

Transport engineering remains the worst performer so far this year, with output down 35.8 per cent in September. Though the land segment grew 35.1 per cent, this was offset by declines in the marine and offshore engineering (-40.9 per cent) and aerospace (-44 per cent) segments, with new orders staying low due to the weak global oil and gas market, and Covid-19 travel restrictions respectively. Transport engineering output fell 24 per cent in the first nine months of the year, compared to the year-ago period.

Looking ahead, the Maybank economists see the manufacturing sector as likely to continue outperforming in Q4, driven by both semiconductors and biomedical production.

"While pharma tends to be volatile, it will likely register another strong performance in Q4 given the low base from last year," they added.

The economists have raised their full-year GDP growth forecast to -5.7 per cent, from -6 per cent previously, while maintaining their 2021 forecast of 4 per cent growth. The revised 2020 forecast "pencils in a further improvement in Q4 GDP to -4 per cent as services and construction gradually normalise", they said.

Mr Tan noted upside risks to Barclays' forecast of a 6 per cent decline in full-year gross domestic product in 2020, followed by 4 per cent growth in 2021.

"The downturn remains largely domestic in nature, supporting the view that fiscal policy should continue to be the more effective response, and there are signs of a gradual recovery," he added.

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