Benefits of Korean unification likely to be internal


Although there’s still uncertainty over prospects for peace on the Korean Peninsula, it seems that South Korea is highly optimistic about the economic aspect of its cooperation with North Korea.

North Korea has a population of about 25 million. The largest city, the capital of Pyongyang, has about 3.2 million people and other cities generally have populations of about 300,000. The country’s per capita GDP is a mere $530.

By comparison, with a population of 51 million, South Korea boosts per capita GDP of more than $27,500. But South Korea’s economic growth is believed to have peaked, and its export-oriented growth model has run into trade protectionism.

If the hypothesis of merging and unifying North and South Korea were true, South Korea’s population would increase by 50 percent. In light of this, although North Korea’s GDP is a negligible fraction of that of South Korea, there is a chance that South Korea could see a 50 percent rise in its GDP that now adds up to $1.4 trillion. With a GDP of more than $2.1 trillion, a unified Korea would have an economy half the size of Japan’s, or larger than the economies of Brazil, Italy or Canada.

South Korea’s economy is dominated by family-owned conglomerates known as chaebol, with the top 10 chaebol accounting for a hefty part of GDP. Economic growth is seen mainly benefitting big chaebol such as Samsung and Hyundai, which in theory would have the opportunity of maintaining a fairly high rate of wealth growth over the next 10 years.

An assessment of Asia’s economic future based upon the hypothesis of Korean unification indicates that it would be hard for Japan, China and even the US to derive any meaningful economic benefit from such an outcome.

North Korea’s abundant pool of cheap labor and its market eager to see wealth growth will mostly benefit South Korea. In the past, China used to host a certain number of North Korean workers, but that was during an era when North Korea was blockaded by the outside world and could only rely on China for foreign-currency earnings.

If Korean unification, or to be exact the two nations’ economic unification, becomes a reality, the situation will change. In this case, China or Japan will be just onlookers.

China might even find itself challenged by a unified Korea with lower costs in the world market. Japan might fare slightly better, considering its technological advantages and traditional partnerships with South Korean business groups. The benefits the US would get from unification would be limited or nil, taking into account uncertainties about its geopolitical interests.

For the world economy with total GDP of more than $70 trillion, Korean unification is likely to boost global growth by 1 percent. But much is still uncertain if this scenario is to play out.

North and South Korea still face tough obstacles including ideology, capital, nuclear weapons and internal political stability on the path toward genuine unification. The outcome also depends particularly on US political moves. Nevertheless, amid uncertainties there seems to be one certainty: The only way to avoid risk is to have the foresight to make future-proof plans.

By Chen Gong Source:Global Time

The author is the chief research fellow with Beijing-based private strategic think tank Anbound. bizopinion@globaltimes.com.cn

 

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US-China trade war escalates, tariff list aims to hinder China’s high-tech development: expert


China will impose 25 percent in tariffs on 659 US goods worth $50 billion, including soybeans, cars and seafood.

The move came as a tit-for-tat response to the tariffs announced by the Trump  administration Friday morning. An expert  said the US decision does not aim to tackle the trade deficit with China but to block the Chinese government’s efforts in high-tech development.

Tariffs on 545 US goods worth $34 billion will take effect on July 6, involving agricultural products, car parts and seafood, according to a statement released by China’s Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) on Saturday morning. Soybeans, which are China’s biggest import from the US in value, are on the list.

Chemicals, medical equipment and energy products from the US will also be subject to 25 percent tariffs, which will be announced at a later date.

The revised list is longer and involves more categories of products than a preliminary list of 106 US goods published by the ministry in April, but the total value of the products remains at $50 billion.

A Chinese commerce expert found that aircraft were removed from China’s new list, which is noteworthy.

“We need aircraft [from the US]. We have to consider the costs of the countermeasures we plan to take,” Bai Ming, deputy director of the Ministry of Commerce’s International Market Research Institute, said on Saturday soon after the Chinese tariffs were announced.

It’s like acting as a soccer referee who will not call out the offenses and let the play continue when the game still benefits the attacking team even though an attacking player is fouled, Bai further explained.

China is one of the fastest-growing civil aviation markets in the world, and 15 to 20 percent of Boeing’s aircraft deliveries are projected to end in the Chinese market over the next two decades, according to Morgan Stanley.

The US has kept changing their mind and ignited a trade war, which China does not want and will firmly oppose, a spokesperson of the MOFCOM said immediately after US took trade measures on China. “This move not only hurts bilateral interests, but also undermines the world trade order.”

“China and the US still have hopes of negotiating and reaching an agreement, as both the tariffs announced by the two countries will not take into effect until next month,” said Wang Jun, deputy director of the Department of Information at the China Center for International Economic Exchanges.

Wang told the Global Times that the removal of aircraft from the new list can be a signal that China still wants to talk, and also aircraft can be a valuable chip in the next round of trade negotiations.

Meanwhile, Wang said the Trump administration’s newly published list is not so much a solution for the trade deficit problem with China as efforts to hinder China’s technology development.

US President Donald Trump on Friday announced 25 percent tariffs on $50 billion in Chinese goods, containing industrially significant technologies related to China’s “Made In China 2025” strategy.

According to a list published by the office of the US Trade Representative, the tariffs will be applied on more than 1,000 types of Chinese goods, including aircraft engine parts, bulldozers, nuclear reactors and industrial and agricultural machinery.

American industry also opposed Trump’s decision.

“Imposing tariffs places the cost of China’s unfair trade practices squarely on the shoulders of American consumers, manufacturers, farmers, and ranchers. This is not the right approach,” US Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Thomas J. Donohue said in a statement posted on the chamber’s website on Friday.

By Zhang Ye Source:Global Times

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US Federal Reserve rate rise, Malaysia and regional equity markets in the red


 

Fed’s big balance-sheet unwind could be coming to an early end

NEW YORK: The Federal Reserve’s balance sheet may not have that much further to shrink.

An unexpected rise in overnight interest rates is pulling forward a key debate among US central bankers over how much liquidity they should keep in the financial system. The outcome will determine the ultimate size of the balance sheet, which they are slowly winding down, with key implications for US monetary policy.

One consequence was visible on Wednesday. The Fed raised the target range for its benchmark rate by a quarter point to 1.75% to 2%, but only increased the rate it pays banks on cash held with it overnight to 1.95%. The step was designed to keep the federal funds rate from rising above the target range. Previously, the Fed set the rate of interest on reserves at the top of the target range.

Shrinking the balance sheet effectively constitutes a form of policy tightening by putting upward pressure on long-term borrowing costs, just as expanding it via bond purchases during the financial crisis made financial conditions easier. Since beginning the shrinking process in October, the Fed has trimmed its bond portfolio by around US$150bil to US$4.3 trillion, while remaining vague on how small it could become.

This reticence is partly because the Fed doesn’t know how much cash banks will want to hold at the central bank, which they need to do in order to satisfy post-crisis regulatory requirements.

Officials have said that, as they drain cash from the system by shrinking the balance sheet, a rise in the federal funds rate within their target range would be an important sign that liquidity is becoming scarce.

Now that the benchmark rate is rising, there is some skepticism. The increase appears to be mainly driven by another factor: the US Treasury ramped up issuance of short-term US government bills, which drove up yields on those and other competing assets, including in the overnight market.

“We are looking carefully at that, and the truth is, we don’t know with any precision,” Fed chairman Jerome Powell told reporters on Wednesday when asked about the increase. “Really, no one does. You can’t run experiments with one effect and not the other.”

“We’re just going to have to be watching and learning. And, frankly, we don’t have to know today,” he added.

But many also see increasingly scarce cash balances as at least a partial explanation for the upward drift of the funds rate, and as a result, several analysts are pulling forward their estimates of when the balance sheet shrinkage will end.

Mark Cabana, a Bank of America rates strategist, said in a report published June 5 that Fed officials may stop draining liquidity from the system in late 2019 or early 2020, leaving US$1 trillion of cash on bank balance sheets. That compares with an average of around US$2.1 trillion held in reserves at the Fed so far this year.

Cabana, who from 2007 to 2015 worked in the New York Fed’s markets group responsible for managing the balance sheet, even sees a risk that the unwind ends this year.

One reason why people may have underestimated bank demand for cash to meet the new rules is that Fed supervisors have been quietly telling banks they need more of it, according to William Nelson, chief economist at The Clearing House Association, a banking industry group.

The requirement, known as the Liquidity Coverage Ratio, says banks must hold a certain percentage of their assets either in the form of cash deposited at the Fed or in US Treasury securities, to ensure they have enough liquidity to deal with deposit outflows.

The Fed flooded the banking system with reserves as a byproduct of its crisis-era bond-buying programs, known as quantitative easing, to stimulate the economy. The money it paid investors to buy their bonds was deposited in banks, which the banks in turn hold as cash in reserve accounts at the Fed.

In theory, the unwind of the bond portfolio, which involves the reverse swap of assets between the Fed and investors, shouldn’t affect the total amount of Treasuries and reserves available to meet the requirement. The Fed destroys reserves by unwinding the portfolio, but releases an equivalent amount of Treasuries to the market in the process.

But if Fed supervisors are telling banks to prioritise reserves, that logic no longer applies. Nelson asked Randal Quarles, the Fed’s vice-chairman for supervision, if this was the Fed’s new policy. Quarles, who was taking part in a May 4 conference at Stanford University, said he knew that message had been communicated and is “being rethought”.

If Fed officials do opt for a bigger balance sheet and decide to continue telling banks to prioritise cash over Treasuries, it may mean lower long-term interest rates, according to Seth Carpenter, the New York-based chief US economist at UBS Securities.

“If reserves are scarce right now, and if the Fed does stop unwinding its balance sheet, the market is going to react to that, a lot,” said Carpenter, a former Fed economist. “Everyone anticipates a certain amount of extra Treasury supply coming to the market, and this would tell people, ‘Nope, it’s going to be less than you thought’.” — Bloomberg

Malaysia and regional equity markets in the red

 

In Malaysia, the selling streak has been ongoing for almost a month. As of June 8, the year to date outflow
stands at RM3.02bil, which is still one of the lowest among its Asean peers. The FBM KLCI was down 1.79 points yesterday to 1,761.

PETALING JAYA: It was a sea of red for equity markets across the region after the Federal Reserve raised interest rates by a quarter percentage point to a range of 1.75% to 2% on Wednesday, and funds continued to move their money back to the US. This is the second time the Fed has raised interest rates this year.

In general, markets weren’t down by much, probably because the rate hike had mostly been anticipated. Furthermore for Asia, the withdrawal of funds has been taking place over the last 11 weeks, hence, the pace of selling was slowing.

The Nikkei 225 was down 0.99% to 22,738, the Hang Seng Index was down 0.93% to 30,440, the Shanghai Composite Index was down 0.08% to 3,047.34 while the Singapore Straits Times Index was down 1.05% to 3,356.73.

In Malaysia, the selling streak has been ongoing for almost a month. As of June 8, the year to date outflow stands at RM3.02bil, which is still one of the lowest among its Asean peers. The FBM KLCI was down 1.79 points yesterday to 1,761.

Meanwhile, the Fed is nine months into its plan to shrink its balance sheet which consists some US$4.5 trillion of bonds. The Fed has begun unwinding its balance sheet slowly by selling off US$10bil in assets a month. Eventually, it plans to increase sales to US$50bil per month.

With the economy of the United States showing it was strong enough to grow with higher borrowing costs, the Federal Reserve raised interest rates on Wednesday and signalled that two additional increases would be made this year.

Fed chairman Jerome H. Powell in a news conference on Wednesday said the economy had strengthened significantly since the 2008 financial crisis and was approaching a “normal” level that could allow the Fed to soon step back and play less of a hands-on role in encouraging economic activity.

Rate hikes basically mean higher borrowing costs for cars, home mortgages and credit cards over the years to come.

Wednesday’s rate increase was the second this year and the seventh since the end of the Great Recession and brings the Fed’s benchmark rate to a range of 1.75% to 2%. The last time the rate reached 2% was in late 2008, when the economy was contracting.

“With a slightly more aggressive plan to tighten monetary policy this year than had previously been projected by the Fed, it will narrow our closely watched gap between the yield rates of two-year and 10-year Treasury notes, which has recently been one of a strong predictor of recessions,” said Anthony Dass, chief economist in AmBank.

Dass expects the policy rate to normalise at 2.75% to 3%.

“Thus, we should potentially see the yield curve invert in the first half of 2019,” he said.

So what does higher interest rates mean for emerging markets?

It means a flight of capital back to the US, and many Asian countries will be forced to increase interest rates to defend their respective currencies.

Certainly, capital has been exiting emerging market economies. Data from the Institute of International Finance for May showed that emerging markets experienced a combined US$12.3bil of outflows from bonds and stocks last month.

With that sort of global capital outflow, countries such as India, Indonesia, the Philippines and Turkey, have hiked their domestic rates recently.

Data from Lipper, a unit of Thomson Reuters, shows that for the week ending June 6, US-based money market funds saw inflows of nearly US$34.9bil.

It makes sense for investors to be drawn to the US, where the economy is increasingly solid, coupled with higher yields and lower perceived risks.

Hong Kong for example is fighting an intense battle to fend off currency traders. Since April, Hong Kong has spent at least US$9bil defending its peg to the US dollar. Judging by the fact that two more rate hikes are on the way this year, more ammunition is going to be needed.

Hong Kong has the world’s largest per capita foreign exchange reserves – US$434bil more in firepower.

By right, the Hong Kong dollar should be surging. Nonetheless, the currency is sliding because of a massive “carry trade.”

Investors are borrowing cheaply in Hong Kong to buy higher-yielding assets in the US, where 10-year Treasury yields are near 3%.

From a contrarian’s perspective, global funds are now massively under-weighted Asia.

With Asian markets currently trading at 12.3 times forward price earnings ratio, this is a reasonable valuation at this matured stage of the market.

By Tee Lin Say StarBiz

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Penang Forum calls to review Penang mega projects


Penang Forum members paying a courtesy call on Chow, seated at the head of the table, at his office in Komtar.

Revise transport master plan because circumstances have changed

” A new public transport design has to be integrated to encourage walking, cycling and bus uise – Penang Forum”

THE Penang Forum steering committee, a loose coalition of non-political civil society groups, has called on the Pakatan Harapan Penang government to review the Penang Transport Master Plan (PTMP) estimated to cost RM46bil.

It said the Penang government should bear in mind its election manifesto of balancing economic growth with environmental protection and a commitment to improve public transport.

“Given the scale of the funding for this mega project, the state must ensure government procurement produces the best value for taxpayers’ money.

“The awarding process used was based on a Request for Proposal, rather than a true open tender, which did not allow for any meaningful comparison of bid documents as the scope of work was not fixed.

“Hence the award process must also be reviewed and revisited,” the statement read.

The committee also pointed out that the present PTMP was based on the assumption that buses, ferries and a cross-channel bridge were under federal control and there was nothing much the state could do.

“So it did not focus on how these could be improved or expanded. But now that circumstances have changed, the plan needs to be revised,” it said.

The committee also said the planning for equitable public transport should take into consideration the following criteria:

  • Fiscal prudence that should consider cost-effectiveness in construction, operation and maintenance.Detailed financial analysis of different public transport systems must be done and compared. The most cost-effective system should be selected.
  • Other important considerations are efficiency of operation, predictable schedules and systems compatibility.
  • The different components of the transport system must be well connected and integrated, socially inclusive, with a low impact on the built and natural environment.
  • Extensive public consultation at every stage, with plans available for online viewing and download so that more people can view and comment. It must be carried out and the exercise must be open to scrutiny.
  • Independent consultants who are at the forefront of designing equitable, sustainable transport must be engaged to do the review of the plans. They must not be associated with or employed by parties involved in tendering for the project.

The statement also read that the 2016 transport proposal was a mega project put forward by SRS Consortium, the project delivery partner of PTMP, to the Penang government.

“The design and planning fails to meet most of the above criteria.

“The overpriced package includes many components of mega road building that will discourage people from using public transport and undermine the stated goal of increasing public modal share of transport.

“Although public consultations have been held about impacts in specific localities, open scrutiny of the whole design was strongly discouraged,” the statement said.

The committee also said the original PTMP by Halcrow involved public consultation, but the state pressured the consultants to add the undersea tunnel and three highways costing a total of RM6.3bil just before it adopted the plan in 2013.

The SRS proposal costing RM46bil includes a proposal to reclaim 4,500 acres of land (comprising three islands). It departs drastically from the officially adopted 2013 Halcrow masterplan.

“Thus, a thorough, proper and independent review should be carried out to ascertain its suitability, viability and sustainability.

“The massive proposed reclamation will destroy fishing grounds and jeopardise fishing livelihoods and a vital local source of seafood.

“It will be environmentally unsustainable due to expensive maintenance costs required for dredging in the future.

“Promise 10 of the Pakatan manifesto talks of ensuring food security and protecting the welfare of farmers and fishermen.

“Last but not the least, with rapid changes in public transport technology and new trends in info-mobility, it is imperative that any existing plan for public transport should be re-examined.

“A new public transport design has to be integrated to encourage walking, cycling and bus use,” it said.

Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow was earlier reported saying that the state government would leave the decision to review the components of the PTMP to the Federal Government.

He said this was because the proposal was at the Federal level right now, adding that if there was any need to review the project, the Federal Government could make a decision.

He also said the SRS Consortium would be happy to supply the Federal agencies with additional details. – Starmetro

 

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Malaysia scraps MRT3 project, reviews HSR, ECRL mega projects to reduce borrowings


PUTRAJAYA: The Klang Valley mass rapid transit line 3 (MRT 3 or Circle Line) project, reported to cost between RM40bil and RM45bil, will not proceed, says Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

The MRT3 or MRT Circle Line was planned as the third MRT line for the Greater Klang Valley area.

While the MRT1 connects Sungai Buloh and Kajang, the MRT2, which is now under construction, will run from Sungai Buloh to Serdang and Putrajaya.

MRT3 was planned as a loop line to integrate the lines, with most of its stations underground.

He also said the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore High-Speed Rail (HSR) was still being studied, while a review was being done on the East Cost Rail Link (ECRL).

He said Malaysia was open to re-considering its decision on the HSR if Singapore could convince Malaysia to proceed with it.

He said the Cabinet had agreed for the rail project to be scrapped, but it would also depend on discussions with Singapore.

“We want to do this as it has high financial implications. But we will listen to them (if Singapore wants to proceed). They are our good partners,” he told the media after chairing the Cabinet meeting yesterday.

He explained that Malaysia needed to reduce its borrowings, hence the decision to scrap HSR and review other mega projects that cost billions of ringgit.

“We have borrowed too much money. If this country is to avoid bankruptcy, we must learn how to manage our big debts by doing away with projects that are not beneficial to the country,” he added.

Later, at a buka puasa event at Putrajaya International Convention Centre, he said the money spent on the HSR project did not justify the number of jobs it could generate.

“If you are going to spend RM60bil to RM100bil so that thousands of people can work, that’s not very efficient,” he said in response to a Facebook post by former prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak, who defended the HSR.

Najib, who asked the Government not to make “an emotional decision” to scrap the project, said the HSR was projected to create RM650bil in gross national income and 110,000 job opportunities, which could expand to 442,000 jobs by 2069.

On the fate of the ECRL, Dr Mahathir said the project has not been called off and a detailed review was being conducted.

“We haven’t cancelled ECRL. We have spent a lot of money on it and need to look at ways to handle this matter,” he said.

According to recent reports, the actual cost of the ECRL could be more than RM55bil.

Dr Mahathir also said the 11th Malaysia Plan mid-term review would be tabled in Parliament in November along with Budget 2019.

“The review will take into consideration the progress of projects carried out from 2016 to 2018, and the Government’s way forward for the remaining period of between this year and 2020,” he added.

Parliament is expected to start its meeting next month, but Dr Mahathir said the dates had yet to be fixed since the appointment of ministers had not been completed.

On whether the Cabinet had decided on the fate of the National Civics Bureau (BTN), he said the matter was still being studied.

The Prime Minister also said no decision had been made on whether the Department of Islamic Develop­ment (Jakim) would be closed.

 

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From Industrial 4.0 to Finance 4.0


 

MOST people are somewhat aware about the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The first industrial revolution occurred with the rise of steam power and manufacturing using iron and steel. The second revolution started with the assembly line which allowed specialisation of skills, represented by the Ford motor assembly line at the turn of the 20th century.

The third industrial revolution came with Japanese quality controls and use of telecommunication technology.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution, or first called by the Europeans Industry 4.0, is all about the use of artificial intelligence, robotics, genomics and process, creative design and high speed computing capability to revolutionise production, distribution and consumption. Finance is a derivative of the real economy – its purpose is to serve real production. Early finance was all about the finance of trade and governments to engage in war.
It is no coincidence that the first central banks (Sweden and England) were established in the 17th century at the start of the First Industrial Revolution. Industrialisation became much more sophisticated as Finance 2.0 brought the rise of credit and equity markets in the 18th and 19th centuries. Industrialisation and colonisation came about at the same time as the globalisation of banks, stocks and bond markets.

Again, with the invention of first the fax machine, then Internet that speeded up information storage and transmission in the 1980s, finance and industry took a quantum leap into the age of information technology. Finance 3.0 was the age of financial derivatives, in which very complex (and highly leveraged) derivatives became so opaque that investors and regulators realised they became what Warren Buffett called “weapons of mass destruction”. Finance 3.0 stalled in 2007 with the Global Financial Crisis and was only propped up with massive central bank intervention in terms of unconventional monetary policy with historically unprecedented interest rates.

We are now on the verge of Finance 4.0 and it may be useful to explore what it really means.

The common definition of Industry 4.0 is the rise of the Internet of Things, in which cloud computing, artificial intelligence and global connectivity means that cyber-physical systems can interact with each other to produce, distribute and trade across the world in a massively distributed system of production.

But what does Finance 4.0 really mean?

What truly differentiates Finance 4.0 from the earlier version is the arrival of Blockchain or distributed ledger technology. The best way to think about the difference is the architecture of the two different systems.

Finance 3.0 and earlier versions were all about a top-down or hierarchical ledger system, like a pyramid, in which trade and settlements between two parties are settled across a higher ledger.

A simple example is payment from Joe in bank A to Jim in bank B is finally settled across the books of the central bank in local currency. But in international trade and payments, the final settlements (at least more than 60%) are settled in US dollar finally across the ledgers of the Federal Reserve bank system.

Finance 3.0 was not perfect and those who wanted to avoid regulation, taxation or any official oversight basically moved trading and transactions off-balance sheet and also off-shore. This was the “shadow banking” system that financial regulators and central banks conveniently blamed on their failure to see or stop the last global financial crisis.

Although technically the shadow banking system is the non-bank financial system, which would include bond, stock and commodity markets, the bulk of illegal, illicit transactions traditionally was done in cash.

Welcome to the technical innovation called cyber-currencies, which was made possible for peer-to-peer (P2P) transactions across a distributed ledger system (commonly known as blockchain). In architectural terms, this is a bottom-up system which technically can avoid any official oversight. Indeed, cyber-currencies or tokens were invented precisely because the users do not trust the official system.

As the populist philosopher Stephen Bannon said, “central banks are in the business of debasing the currency”. Hence, those who want to avoid the debasement of their savings prefer to deal with either cash or cyber-tokens like bitcoin (pic).

What is happening in the rapidly evolving Finance 4.0 is that as the world moves from a unipolar order to a multi-polar world in which other reserve currencies also contend for trade and store of value, the top-down architecture is fusing (or merging) with a bottom-up architecture in which trade, transactions and stores of value are shifting towards the P2P shadow system.

Why this is taking place is not hard to understand. Post-global financial crisis, the amount of financial regulations have tripled in terms of number of rules and complexity on what the official sector can regulate, which is mostly the banking system. It is therefore not surprising that all the innovation, talent and money are moving to outside the banking system into the asset management industry, which is much more lightly regulated.

No talented banker, however dedicated to the values of banking probity, can resist the temptations of working in asset management, away from the heavily regulated environment where he or she is 24×7 under regulatory internal and external oversight.

Another reason why the cyber-P2P business is flourishing is because the official sector is worried that further regulation would hinder innovation. But those who want to increase the complexity of regulation must remember that for every 50 foot wall, someone will invent a 51 foot ladder.

So competition in the 21st century has already moved from the physical and financial space into cyber-space.

If there is one thing I learnt as a former regulator, it is that if the banks are behind the curve in terms of technology, the regulators are even further behind, since they learn mostly from those whom they regulate. But if financial regulators deal with financial innovation through “regulatory sandboxes” where they allow their regulated banks to experiment in sandboxes, they are treating their regulated institutions as kids in an adult game of ruthless technology.

Time for the official sector to make their stand clear or else Finance 4.0 promises to be very different from the orderly world that they are used to imaging. Nothing says this clearer than a recent survey by the Chartered Financial Analyst Institute, which showed that 54% of institutional investors surveyed and 38% of retail believe that a financial crisis in the next one-three years is likely or very likely.

You have been warned.

– Tan Sri Andrew Sheng writes on global issues from an Asian perspective.

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Malaysia’s RM1.09 trillion debt, 80.3% of GDP demystified


Analysts say new government needs to quickly introduce measures to reduce the country’s liabilities

ASSUMING the government repays its debt by RM1mil a day, it would take Malaysia 2,979 years to pay off its debts.

Malaysia’s new Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad revealed on May 21 that the country’s debt level has breached the RM1 trillion mark during his first address to civil servants.

The statement, which was nothing less than alarming, has since raised concerns among Malaysians on the country’s fiscal sustainability. Bursa Malaysia was hammered for four consecutive days, as investors frantically sold off their stakes.

The benchmark FBM KLCI saw the biggest year-to-date decline on May 23, tumbling by 40.78 points or 2.21% to 1,804.25 points.

Total gains made by the index this year were all wiped out in just four days following Dr Mahathir’s announcement.

The ringgit, which has weakened since early April, continues to decline as concerns on public debt loom.

Big impact: The benchmark FBM KLCI saw the biggest year-to-date decline on May 23, tumbling by 40.78 points or 2.21 to 1,804.25 points.
An economist tells StarBizWeek that Dr Mahathir’s public announcement on the high debt figure is “not helping”, as anxiety intensifies among Malaysians and in the market.

For context, Malaysia’s real gross domestic product (GDP), an indicator of the size of economy, was RM1.35 trillion as at end-2017 – close to the said RM1 trillion debt amount.

Meanwhile, the federal government’s revenue this year is projected at RM239.9bil as per Budget 2018.

Several critics, including Umno Youth deputy chief Khairul Azwan Harun, claim that Dr Mahathir’s statement on the federal government debt was exaggerated and far-fetched.

AmBank Group chief economist Anthony Dass says that although the current scenario shows some signs of similarities to the 1997/98 Asian Financial Crisis, he would not conclude that the current fiscal condition is somewhat similar to the downturn 20 years ago.

At a glance, the “RM1 trillion debt” remark stands in sharp contrast to Bank Negara’s debt tally of RM686.8bil as at end-2017, putting the federal government’s debt-to-GDP ratio at 50.8% – lower than the 55% self-imposed debt limit.

Dr Mahathir refutes this, saying that the national debt-to-GDP ratio has shot up to 65.4%. A day after his announcement, Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng put the ratio at 80.3% of GDP, or about RM1.09 trillion in debt as at end-2017.

Why is there such an obvious difference in the debt amount now that a new government is in place?

Here is where “creative accounting” comes into play.

The lower official debt figures released under the previous Barisan Nasional government had excluded the contingent liabilities and several other major “hidden” debts from the direct liabilities, which amounted to RM686.8bil as at end-2017.

Contingent liabilities, which were released separately prior to this, basically refer to government-guaranteed debt and do not appear on the country’s balance sheet. Examples of contingent liabilities are the loans under the National Higher Education Fund Corp (PTPTN) and certain debt of the controversial 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

As at end-2017, Malaysia’s contingent liabilities stood at RM238bil.

Funding for several government mega-projects such as the mass rapid transit (MRT) projects was also categorised as contingent liabilities. The MRT lines were funded by DanaInfra Nasional Bhd, the government’s special funding vehicle for infrastructure projects.

DanaInfra raises money from the market through sukuk, which are, in turn, guaranteed by the government. The guaranteed amount is classified as a contingent liability.

In the event of less-than-expected revenue collection from the MRT lines moving forward, the government will have to intervene to repay the sukuk holders.

The current ruling government believes that RM199.1bil out of the RM238bil contingent liabilities deserves attention to ensure proper debt repayment.

The 1MDB alone comes with an estimated contingent liability of RM38bil.

High figure: The 1MDB alone comes with an estimated contingent liability of RM38bil. — Reuters
High figure: The 1MDB alone comes with an estimated contingent liability of RM38bil. — Reuters 

On the remaining government guarantees, the Finance Ministry says they have been provided by “entities which are able to service their debts such as Khazanah Nasional Bhd, Tenaga Nasional Bhd and MIDF”.

Apart from contingent liabilities, there are several major “hidden” debts, which do not fall under both direct liabilities and contingent liabilities.

An economist with a leading investment bank in Malaysia calls the debts “off-off-balance sheet” government debt.

These are the future commitments of the federal government to make lease payments for public-private partnership projects such as schools, roads and hospitals.

Examples of such debt would include the debt of Pembinaan PFI Sdn Bhd, a company owned by the Finance Ministry. Pembinaan PFI was established in 2006 under the previous Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi administration to source financing to undertake government construction projects.

According to its latest available financial statement for 2014, Pembinaan PFI held a total debt of RM28.75bil.

Interestingly, at end-2012, the company’s debt was the third highest among all government-owned entities, just behind Petronas (RM152bil) and Khazanah Nasional (RM69bil).

With no independently generated revenue, the interest payments on Pembinaan PFI’s debts would eventually come from the federal government’s coffers.

The Finance Ministry puts the debt under this third category at RM201.4bil.

All together, Malaysia’s debt and liabilities are said to amount to a total of RM1.09 trillion.

Actually, for those in the loop, the different debt categories and total liabilities are not something new.

Lawmakers from Pakatan Harapan, particularly current Bangi MP Ong Kian Ming, have alerted the authorities about the debt figures over that past few years.

Ong is also currently the special officer to the Finance Minister. The layman might ask, what was the former government’s relevance of classifying these debts into separate off-balance sheet items?

The motive is to make sure the national balance sheet looks healthy and lean.

Economists’ take

Many have questioned the new government’s move to lump contingent liabilities and debt obligations with the direct liabilities. It should be noted that as per the standard procedure of credit rating agencies, only the direct liabilities are taken into the calculation of the debt-to-GDP ratio.

In a StarBiz report this year, Moody’s Investors Service sovereign risk group assistant vice-president Anushka Shah said that by carving out certain expenditures off its budget, the government would be able to optimise its expenditure profile and minimise the associated impacts from its spending.

However, she pointed out that Malaysia’s federal government debt burden remains elevated at 51%, relatively higher than the median of other A-rated sovereign states at 41%.

On the country’s contingent liabilities, Anushka described them as “low-risk” at the current level, and added that the government has been prudent and careful in managing the guaranteed debts.

“We find that the government has adopted rigorous selection criteria when it grants the guarantees to the respective entities.

“The companies which have received guarantees from the government are relatively healthy and have strong balance sheet positions,” she said.

Ever since Dr Mahathir shocked the market with the “RM1 trillion debt” remark, the focus among Malaysians has largely centred on the nominal value of the debt.

A greater emphasis should instead be given on “debt sustainability”, which basically refers to the growth of debt against the growth of the economy.

Economists who spoke to StarBizWeek have mixed opinions on the level of seriousness of Malaysia’s public debt problem.

Suhaimi: Malaysia’s debt has risen faster than economic growth.
Suhaimi: Malaysia’s debt has risen faster

than economic growth.

According to Maybank group chief economist Suhaimi Ilias, Malaysia’s debt has risen faster than economic growth over the last 10 years.
“In the past decade, officially published government debt and government-guaranteed debt have risen by 10% and 14.5% per annum, respectively, faster than the nominal GDP growth of 7% per annum, which raises valid sustainability risk.“On the government’s debt service costs relative to the operating expenditure, the ratio was 12.7% as at end-2017 and based on Budget 2018 is projected to rise to 13.2%. It has been rising steadily from 9.5% in 2012.

“There is a 15% cap on this under the administrative fiscal rule, while the 11th Malaysia Plan target is to lower the ratio to 9.8% in 2020. The government is looking at the debt issue from this sustainability perspective in our opinion,” he says.

 

Lee: Malaysia’s rising public debt level warrants close monitoring.
Lee: Malaysia’s rising public debt level

warrants close monitoring.

Meanwhile, Socio-Economic Research Centre (SERC) executive director Lee Heng Guie says that various indicators of debt burden suggest that Malaysia’s rising public debt level warrants close monitoring to contain the long-term risks of fiscal and debt sustainability.

“High levels of government debt over a sustained period will have economic and financial ramifications over the longer term. Rising public debt could crowd out private capital formation and, therefore, productivity growth.

“This occurs through the competition for domestic liquidity, higher interest rates, a shifting of resources away from the private sector or investment in low-impact projects. This situation is made worse if the government wastes borrowed money on unnecessary projects,” he tells StarBizWeek.

In contrast to Suhaimi and Lee, Alliance Bank Malaysia Bhd chief economist Manokaran Mottain points out that Malaysia’s debt sustainability scenario is yet to be a cause for concern.

 

Manokaran: Debt sustainability scenario is yet to be a cause for concern.
Manokaran: Debt sustainability scenario is

yet to be a cause for concern.

This is because debt repayments are made on an annual basis as opposed to a colossal one-off payment of RM1 trillion.

“Malaysia’s economic growth of above 5% is sufficient to cover government debt. As long as the economy is growing while the government is able to service the debt charges, it is not really that alarming.

“Even in the United States, the government debt-to-GDP level exceeds 100% at US$21 trillion against the real GDP of US$18.57 trillion,” he says.

Manokaran adds that while total government debt has risen over the years, Malaysia’s annual debt growth rate has been growing slower in recent years.

Deleveraging Malaysia

The government must now move fast to introduce measures to reduce and manage the country’s debt levels. This is highly crucial in assuring creditors and investors that the country’s fiscal health remains uncompromised.

Given the fact that the world is currently at the tail-end of the 10-year economic cycle, it is timely for the government to focus on its ability to fulfil its debt obligations.

In the event of an economic turmoil, a heavily-indebted country would be adversely affected.

Lim has emphasised the federal government’s commitment to honour all of the country’s debts.

“This new government puts the interest of the people first, and hence, it is necessary to bite the bullet now, work hard to solve our problems, rather than let it explode in our faces at a later date,” he said in a statement earlier.

Economists believe that the government must strictly embark on reforming the national expenditure in carrying out debt consolidation.

This includes cutting down on unnecessary expenditure, plugging leakages in the federal government’s finances and containing public-sector wage bills.

Lee has recommended an overhaul the current pension system, considering the unsustainable current trend.

“On revenue reform, the design of tax policy should be fair and equitable in order to be sustainable.

“The push for a wide and investment-friendly reform to boost potential growth should be expedited, as strong investment and economic growth has a huge effect on enhancing revenue growth and reducing public debt.

“On budget planning and development, an oversight body needs to be set up to ensure better fiscal rules, budgetary processes and closer fiscal monitoring to ensure fiscal discipline,” says Lee.

Manokaran says the new government should consider expenditure cuts through the privatisation and reformation of the numerous government-linked corporations, as well as the reduction in size and budget allocation of the Prime Minister’s Office.

On the national mega-infrastructure projects, Manokaran and Suhaimi say that the renegotiation and review of such projects will be vital in managing future debt growth.

Time will tell whether the government can live up to its promise of reducing the public debt dilemma. Pakatan must now balance its “populist” electoral promises and stellar fiscal management policies.

As for now, the government deserves to be complimented for calling a spade a spade, acknowledging the problem at hand.

By ganeshwaran kana The Star

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