Malaysia: Infrastructure investments to drive loan growth

With Malaysia’s economy expected to post growth of just above 5% in 2013, investors expect further increases in lending to the private sector. While rising household debt remains a concern in the medium term, domestic bank capitalisation leaves some room for further growth in their portfolios.

On May 15, Moody’s announced it was maintaining a stable outlook on the Malaysian banking sector for the next 12 to 18 months. The ratings agency said its assessment was based on an expectation of favourable operating conditions, as well as high levels of capitalisation.

Moody’s has projected that loan portfolios will rise by 10% in 2013, in part driven by a 5% increase in GDP. Economic expansion will be supported by government investment in infrastructure projects and pro-growth monetary policy, both domestically and internationally. With interest rates in developed countries at historic lows, investors are drawn by Asia’s growth markets, with Malaysia attracting particular attention due to its economic stability.

As the IMF noted in a February report, Malaysia’s economy has continued to grow as domestic demand, driven by public and private investment, has offset a weak external environment. Low inflation – averaging 1.7% in 2012 – has allowed the central bank to maintain a loose monetary policy stance for a sustained period.

The IMF also expressed a favourable view on Malaysia’s financial system, noting that it is “robust, highly capitalised and underpinned by a sound supervisory and regulatory framework”. Similarly, stress tests carried out by Moody’s indicate that banks have built up substantial loss-absorbing buffers, allowing them to withstand a possible deterioration in asset quality without their capital levels falling below regulatory minimums. Moreover, as lenders work to implement Basel III, capital requirements will increase further, “locking in” these buffers, the ratings agency said. Liquidity is also ample – the loan-to deposit ratio stands at 79%, and banks have access to global debt markets to raise capital.

However, both Moody’s and the IMF warn that the outlook is not risk-free. The IMF mentions the growth of unsecured consumer lending, while Moody’s “cautions over the looming risk posed by the twin trends of household leveraging and house price appreciation”.

The ratings agency asserts that risks are low for its forecast period, although it says an increase in interest rates would have an adverse effect on certain types of loans, including high loan-to-valuation mortgages, credit extended to export-oriented businesses and consumer debt held by highly leveraged households. However, these asset classes account for less than one-fifth of total loans in the banking system, it added.

Moreover, the bulk of growth in lending in the near term is expected to come from business loans, not consumers. In the wake of the recent victory of the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) party, big-ticket projects linked to the government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP) are more likely to be implemented. In addition, businesses that had been holding back investments while waiting to see how the political landscape took shape after the election may now also push forward. Indeed, in a report issued in May, Kuala Lumpur-based RHB Research said that loans to businesses, particularly government-linked companies, slowed in recent months as firms adopted a “wait and see” approach.

Meanwhile, consumers are expected to borrow less, in part the result of stricter regulations put in place in 2012, Nor Zahidi Alias, chief economist at the Malaysian Rating Corp, said in an interview with local media. This is a “welcome development” he added, as the level of household debt is at historically high levels, equivalent to 80.5% of GDP. Nonetheless, he said, “We do not foresee a significant drop in the overall loan growth, as robust economy activity and stiff competition in the banking sector would continue to support loan growth in 2013.”

The challenge for banks, however, may be declining profitability, as competition for loans drives down net interest margins. Nonetheless, with the rate of non-performing loans low, ample liquidity in the system and high demand in certain sectors associated with the ETP, now may be the time for banks to expand their loan books.


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