Malaysia braced for austerity challenge

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While rising domestic demand in Malaysia helped reassure investors after last summer’s regional downturn, concerns remain that the country is displaying an over-reliance on high domestic consumption levels to prop up growth.

According to the World Bank’s latest projections, Malaysia is expected to achieve 4.3% GDP growth in 2013, despite substantial capital outflows and a nearly 10% depreciation in the ringgit during the second half of the year.

Domestic demand’s key role

The significant contribution that strong domestic demand has made to Malaysia’s economic resilience is widely acknowledged, with officials, including Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, highlighting its impact.

“The domestic sector has been solid and the anchor to drive our growth during this more challenging period,” Zeti told Bloomberg in November. “Global trade slowed down very significantly [in 2013], and of course, that affected us because of the openness of our economy. But had we not rebalanced our economy, we would have had 1-2% growth.”

In the same month, Bank Negara Malaysia announced domestic demand grew 8.3% year-on-year in the third quarter of 2013.

High household debt

In December ratings agency Standard & Poor’s, said increasing levels of household debt in Malaysia, which now exceed 80% of GDP, would be “problematic” if the country’s growth rate slowed. The agency had cut its credit outlook for four Malaysian lenders in the preceding weeks over concerns stemming from a rise in home prices and consumer leverage.

Just two weeks earlier, Nancy Shukri, the minister in the prime minister’s department, said that 16,306 people, or an average of 60 Malaysians daily, had been declared bankrupt in the first nine months of 2013.

Malaysia has one of the highest ratios of household debt to disposable income in the world, with its current level of 140% outstripping even that of the US (123%).

In a move to slow consumer credit growth, in July the central bank introduced certain restrictions on lending, including a ten-year ceiling on personal loans, a maximum tenure of 35 years on property mortgages and a ban on pre-approved personal finance products.

However, conditions may not be as dire as some have made them out to be. As Zeti pointed out in September, less than 2% of household loans were non-performing as of that time.

Effect of new budget

While national efforts to rein in spending are taking shape, they follow a wave of populist interventions, including wage hikes for civil servants introduced ahead of last May’s elections, which almost certainly boosted domestic consumption.

However, Malaysia has been more generally moving to tighten its fiscal position. Under the 2014 budget introduced in October, the government will reduce certain subsidies this year and introduce a new goods and services tax (GST) in 2015. Everyday goods and services will be subjected to a 6% levy, although basic food items and some methods of transport are to be exempt.

International critics have urged Malaysia to break the cyclical nature of spending patterns, suggesting that a new strategy would improve investor sentiment in the long term.

“The new government elected in May must consolidate its credibility by meeting its commitments to reduce the public debt without reneging on its electoral promises,” wrote BNP Paribas in an October analysis. “The prime minister also said the 2014 budget would be marked by austerity … [But] these measures … will only stabilise the public debt ratio at best, without reducing it.”

Public debt stands at around 54% of GDP. According to Douglas McWilliams, economic advisor to the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales, keeping this figure under 60% is important in terms of maintaining investor confidence and, with reforms in place, is an attainable goal.

“The fast growth is helping taxation revenues and government’s budgetary consolidation, particularly on subsidies but also GST, which means Malaysia’s debt ratio will be below 60%,” he told the local media in December.

The national drive to slow lending to consumers and keep government spending in check has been given a largely positive reception. However, accelerating initiatives and increasing their impact may well help the country in its efforts to attract investors and allay their concerns.

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