Economic Update

Despite an uncertain international climate, Malaysia is set to put in another strong economic performance this year. While growth is not expected to hit the heights achieved in recent years, a rate of 4-5% will serve to keep Malaysia on the right track.

In May, the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) announced its forecast for 4.5% growth in 2012, down somewhat from 5.1% last year and 7.2% in 2010. This is broadly in line with most expectations: in March, the Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), the country’s central bank, forecast growth of 4-5%, while the IMF puts the figure at 4%.

While speaking at the launch of ESCAP’s economic report, Mohamed Ariff Abdul Kareem, a professor at the Kuala Lumpur-based Global University of Islamic Finance (ICIEF), said Malaysia’s economy will be driven both by private consumption at home and commodity exports.

According to Oliver Paddison, the economic affairs officer at ESCAP, countries in the Asia-Pacific area need to increase regional cooperation and realign their economies to increase domestic consumption. This will help offset the effects of a potential drop in exports to the developed world, which has been suffering the effects of debt and growth crisis.

Malaysia is already successfully moving in this direction, building trade with fast-growing emerging markets and supporting domestic demand. As Kareem noted, China is now Malaysia’s largest trading partner, behind Singapore. Overall, exports grew 7.1% year-on-year in the first two months of 2012, according to official figures.

The IMF reported in February that Malaysia’s “growth remains supported by robust consumption and investment”, praising “the ambitious reform agenda to boost potential growth, based on comprehensive diagnoses of the bottlenecks that hinder investment and productivity”.

Malaysia is implementing a number of strategic plans to boost productivity and growth in order to achieve its goal of becoming a “developed country” by 2020. These include the New Economic Model (NEM) and Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), which lay out reforms to increase the private sector’s role in driving growth and expanding value-added sectors in which Malaysia has competitive advantages. Extensive infrastructure investments and urban and rural development plans will also support the economy’s long-term trajectory.

Importantly, investors remain confident about the outlook for Malaysia. A May survey by international investment management firm Franklin Templeton found that 44% of Malaysian investors felt the domestic economy was improving, while only 24% felt it had worsened.

Foreigners are similarly upbeat; official figures show that foreign investment grew 12.3% in 2011, to RM33bn ($10.59bn). Government officials have said this has been spurred by the implementation of the NEM and ETP, as well as closer ties with other countries in the region.

Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the governor of the BNM, has said that domestic demand and investment by the private sector remain “highly robust”, despite global difficulties and some local inflationary pressures. Inflation is expected to be between 2% and 3% this year, underlining Malaysia’s reputation for macroeconomic stability, developed since the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis.

While the outlook for this year and beyond is indeed positive, officials and analysts are aware of the challenges Malaysia must tackle to continue its growth path.

In the IMF’s view, foremost among these is the need to maintain fiscal consolidation. The budget deficit is expected to be around 5.1%, down from 5.5% in 2011, but unsustainable in the long term, particularly given the country’s relatively high public debt.

The ICIEF’s Kareem identified over-reliance on oil and gas income (which contribute around 40% of the government’s revenue) and an unwieldy subsidy regime (which costs about 4% of GDP) as issues the government should address to strengthen its fiscal position in the future. Subsidy cuts proposed in 2011 are currently on hold due to concerns regarding the effect on inflation.

As the IMF stated, Malaysia has done well to bring down the deficit in recent years. To continue its growth path, Malaysia aims to push on with its ambitious reform and investment programmes, which should strengthen the business environment, broaden and deepen its export markets, and accelerate diversification.