Sunday, May 6, 2012

A brave new year 2012 for Malaysia

Jan 26, 2011
Raymond Woo

After several weeks of heavy workload and depressing news about the never-ending global economic gloom, social unrest and national scandals, I finally found a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel after reading Paul Krugman’s latest article, “Is Our Economy Healing?” (New York Times, Jan 22, 2012).
According to Krugman the incorrigible pessimist, data has shown that the main problems of the economic gloom in the US – depressed housing prices and high private debt are gradually easing. Despite today’s broad undersupply of housing in the US, Americans are not throwing money into buying property because of remaining uncertainties of the job market. However, Krugman suggests that the trends of increasing home sales, declining unemployment claims and rising builders’ confidence should provide room for the optimistic view that America is experiencing an incipient recovery. Indeed, the main threat to this recovery is does not come from within the country, but from the still-continuing Eurozone sovereign debt crisis.

So, how will Malaysia’s economy perform in 2012? The International Monetary Fund (IMF) lowered its 2012 global GDP growth forecast to 4% from its previous forecast of 5.1%, due primarily to global uncertainties surrounding the Eurozone crisis (again), and cuts to this forecast would be undertaken later this year. While Malaysia’s growth was more resilient at an average of 5.1% across the first three quarters of 2011, its growth rates for the Industrial Production Index, Retail Trade Index and Residential Property Index have declined significantly. Further, the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) has discovered that consumer sentiment in Malaysia has worsened quite a bit. Overall, economic growth and sentiment has moderated in 2011 and will become more unstable in 2012.

While we cannot do much about global economic uncertainties, the following items can and should be handled well to ensure our continued economic dynamism.

While Malaysia’s score in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has improved slightly from 4.4 in 2010 to 4.3 in 2011 (with 0 being the most corrupt and 10 being the cleanest), its ranking has worsened from 56 in 2010 to 60 in 2011, perhaps due to anti-corruption efforts in other countries. A study by IMF economist Paolo Mauro (1985) shows that, “if a given country were to improve its corruption "grade" from 6 out of 10 to 8 out of 10, its investment-GDP ratio would rise by almost 4 percentage points and its annual growth of GDP per capita would rise by almost half a percentage point." In other words, the less the corruption, the higher the economic benefits and savings.
We should all have heard of this by now: US-based financial integrity watchdog Global Financial integrity (GFI) reported that Malaysia’s illicit money outflows in the 2000-2008 period was RM 888 billion, ranking fifth behind China, Russia, Mexico and Saudi Arabia. How much of that sum was actually due to corruption rather than organised crime such as human trafficking and smuggling is unclear, but the very fact that an uproar has ensued in Malaysia shows that the corruption perception among the people is not very pretty indeed. Remember that measuring corruption is always a matter of measuring the perception of corruption, and as I have mentioned in my previous articles, intangible indicators such as perception and confidence are what drive an entire economy, at least in the short-term.

Public debt
The Star reported in October 2011 that Malaysia’s public debt rose 12.3% to RM 407 billion in 2010, according to the Auditor-General. The ratio of the Federal Government's debt to GDP at the end of 2010 was 53.1%, which was over 50% for the second year in a row, and with Act 637 of the Loan (Local) Act 1959 and Act 275 of the Government Investment Act 1983 recommending that combined loans raised domestically should not exceed a ceiling of 55% of the nation's GDP, we are fast approaching our legislated debt ceiling.

The data speak for themselves. In 2010, Malaysian government revenue was RM159.65bil which was an increase of 0.6% over 2009 revenue. However, operating expenditure and development expenditure were RM151.63 billion and RM52.79 billion respectively, and the gap between revenue and expenditure must be covered by debt. In fact, Malaysia has run budget deficits for all but 5 years since 1970, which if handled sustainably (i.e. devotion of resources to investment and development) is beneficial to the economy. If not, the budget deficit will be wasted due to leakages and low productivity, and its negative effects will cascade through the economy.

Is Malaysia on the road to glory in the year 2012? Only time will tell.

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