Not all debts are bad


Rising household indebtedness could be a signal of robust consumption pattern that is the driver of domestic economic growth.

Construction workers at work in Kuala Lumpur. About 46 of household debt is for the purpose of financing purchase of residential properties.

Rising household indebtedness could be a signal of robust consumption pattern that is the driver of domestic economic growth.

FEDERAL government debt, external debt, household debt, non-financial corporate debt – these debts amount to billions of ringgit each and there should be proper context and understanding of the different classifications of debts to be fully informed of the economic issues at stake.

At face value, debt is money owed that has to be repaid in principal and interest. To look at debt from a more constructive point of view, debt is also future consumption brought forward. Furthermore, the benefit derived from consuming at the expense of expected future income should equal or even outweigh its associated costs of financing.

The point is, there are good debts and there are bad debts. Debts raking in billions or outstanding loans growing at an increasing rate could potentially be alarming. However, it would be misleading to label huge debts as unsustainable and destabilising before making sense of the origins and the purposes of the money borrowed.

Debts continue to pile up

A recent research on global debt and leverage by the McKinsey Global Institute in February highlighted that global debt continues to grow post-global financial crisis. These debts – the sum of money owed by governments, households, corporates and financial sectors in the 47 countries under the research – have grown to US$57 trillion since 2007 and a significant portion of the growth came from the public sector.

Overall, the research pointed out that only five developing economies showed signs of deleveraging while most of other countries saw increased debt to GDP ratio during the period.

With hindsight, global growth recovery post-global financial crisis has been rather slow and a handful of governments had pursued expansionary fiscal programmes funded through debts.

Unfortunately, as the global pace of growth is still relatively tentative, high level of government indebtedness would take longer time to deleverage.

Meanwhile, the increase in household and corporate sector debts could signal deeper financial system penetration and also recovery in household and corporate balance sheets for private sector expenditure to grow again.

As of end-2014, Malaysia’s federal government debt amounted to RM583bil (54.5% of GDP); external debt totalled RM744.7bil (69.6% of GDP); household debt increased to RM940.4bil (87.9 % of GDP).

In the past four years, the compounded annual growth rate for government debt was 9.4%; 14.4% for external debt and 12.2% for household debt.

While these numbers seem alarming, the major concern over debts arises when they are unsustainable.

While there are concerns over the sustainability of our fiscal deficit over the long term, the Government has embarked on a fiscal consolidation effort in recent years. Because of this, government debt should be under control in line with its commitment to achieve a balanced budget by 2020.

The Government operates on a few crucial self-imposed budgetary rules and it caps the maximum limit of government debt to GDP ratio at 55%.

On external debt, Bank Negara has adopted the new debt definition in early 2014, keeping in line with the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) new guidelines of widening its definition to better reflect the depth in financial markets and the real economy.

In essence, external debt refers to the debts owed by residents to non-residents, be it denominated in ringgit or foreign currencies.

Therefore, the public and private sector’s offshore borrowings, Malaysian Government Securities held by foreigners are included in the classification of the external debt.

Since the last quarter of 2013, the external debt growth has been on a downward trend, easing to 6.9% in the last quarter of 2014, down from the peak of 15.7% growth recorded in the last quarter of 2013.

Besides, the bulk of the growth in external debt since 2013 was primarily from offshore borrowings as it made up almost half of the total external debt.

Bank Negara, in its recent annual report, guided that private sector offshore borrowings are sound and sustainable, given that 70% of the corporate sector’s offshore loans were sourced from associated companies, parent companies and shareholders.

High household debts a concern

However, Malaysian household sector indebtedness undoubtedly tops the chart in the region.

According to McKinsey’s study, Malaysia’s household debt to income ratio is highest at 146% in 2014, way above the level of the United States (99%) and Indonesia (32%).

When we break down the household debt, 45.7% of it is for the purpose of financing purchase of residential properties. Hire purchase financing (16.6% of total household debt) and personal financing (15.7%) made up the remaining major components.

Even though Malaysia’s household financial asset to total household debt ratio is relatively high at 214% in 2014, the associated risks of high household indebtedness cannot be taken lightly.

The IMF, in its financial sector assessment on Malaysia in April 2014, cautioned that in the event of a sharp fall in housing property prices coupled with a recession in the economy, the burst of the housing asset bubble would have dire consequences on the real economy.

The Government and Bank Negara have in recent years attempted to rein in the growth in housing loans and also put a check on the property market through various macro-prudential tools.

For instance, the last Overnight Policy Rate hike in July 2014 by 25 basis points was primarily to mitigate the financial imbalances within the economy.

In January 2015, the growth of household outstanding loans from the banking institutions has slowed to 9.7%, down from the peak of 13.9% in November 2010.

Although it is a sign of improvement in domestic financial stability, a continued assessment of household loans would be a prudent measure.

Responsible use of leverage

Bad indebtedness is often described as how an overleveraged economy collapses on its own pile of toxic debts when triggered by an overlooked external event – the subprime mortgage crisis in the United States is a classic example.

On the other hand, good debts are those that are used to finance productive and sustainable purposes.

A government manoeuvering an economy out of recession could issue bonds to fund its fiscal stimulus programme while a company could maximise its true potential through the proper use of leverage.

In fact, given a youthful population and a stable work force in Malaysia, rising household indebtedness could be a signal of robust consumption pattern that is the driver of domestic economic growth.

Therefore, regulators and policy makers should not, in their fear of “indebtedness”, stifle the credit lines and the channels to expand present consumption for future capacity of growth.

Unfortunately, with a lack of hindsight, it can be difficult at times to ascertain if a debt is good or bad, A-tier quality or just a default waiting to happen.

In the end, it is not only the viability in repaying the loans but also the realised output and gains from entering a debt contract that should be examined to determine the sustainability in taking up debts.

In short, indebtedness is not necessarily bad. A responsible debtor should have a clear and comprehensive business or personal financial planning and ultimately transparency in dealing with all parties. After all, a good debt is a good customer for the other end.

My point By Mandkaran Mottain

Manokaran Mottain is the chief economist at Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd.

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