Era of financial vulnerability

The stock market crash in China and around the world shows how developing countries like Malaysia are increasingly vulnerable to financial shocks, including outflows of foreign funds

THE year 2016 started with a big bang, but the kind we would rather avoid. The Chinese stock market plunged for several days, causing panic around the world, with the markets also falling in many countries, East and West.

This is another wake-up call to alert us that finance has become inter-connected, indeed much too inter-connected, globally.

Many developing countries like Malaysia have been drawn into the web of the global financial system in manifold ways, and that has made them more vulnerable to adverse developments and shocks.

We are now in an era of financial vulnerability, which easily turns into vulnerability in the real economy of GDP growth, trade and jobs.

An immediate issue is whether the rout in China’s stock market will affect its real economy, in which case there will be serious effects.

One view is that it would contribute to a “hard landing” as the Chinese economy already has many problems.

Another view, more realistic in my view, is that the spillover to the real economy will not be significant. A paper by Brookings-Tsing­hua Centre shows that the inter-connection between the stock market and the economy is limited in China.

In the United States, half the population own stocks and corporations rely heavily on funds raised in the stock market, but in China less than 7% of urban Chinese invest in the stock market and corporations rely much less than American companies on the stock market to raise funds.

Nevertheless, China’s economy is expected to slow down this year. Other factors also add to a pessimistic outlook for developing countries.

These include continuing weak conditions in Europe and Japan, that may offset the US’ more steady recovery; the expected interest rate rises in the US, which will draw portfolio funds out from developing countries; and weakening of commodity prices.

Already many developing countries are suffering on the trade front. In Malaysia, exports in November 2015 grew only 6.3% from a year earlier. More worrisome, Malaysia’s industrial production, also in November, grew by only 1.8% from a year earlier.

Other Asian countries fared worse. Korea’s exports for the whole of 2015 fell 8%. Taiwan’s exports are also expected to have fallen 10% last year and Singapore’s manufacturing sector declined 6% in the most recent quarter.

China’s exports in December fell 1.4% from a year earlier but imports fell more, by 7.6%, which is bad news for other countries as China has less demand for their exports.

But of equal if not more concern is how, in the financial area, emerging economies like Malaysia have in new ways become more dependent and vulnerable in recent years.

Foreign presence in these countries’ domestic credit, bond, equity and property markets has reached unprecedented high levels, and thus new channels have emerged for the transmission of financial shocks from global boom-bust cycles, according to a South Centre paper by its chief economist Yilmaz Akyuz. (

During a boom, there is a rush by yield-seeing investors to place their global funds in emerging economies. But when perceptions or conditions change, the same funds can exit quickly, often leaving acute problems and crises in their wake.

Malaysia is among the vulnerable countries. Firstly, the fall in the prices of oil (on Jan 12 reaching below US$30 a barrel) and other commodities has affected export earnings.

The balance-of payments current account used to enjoy a huge surplus, but this has been shrinking.

In 2010–13 there were very high inflows of foreign funds into Malay­sia, averaging over 10% of GDP. But by 2015 there was a sharp reversal, with foreign funds flowing out from the equity and bond markets.

Malaysia is vulnerable to large outflows as foreigners in recent years have built up a strong presence in the domestic bond and equity markets. Foreign holdings of bonds (public and private) peaked at RM257bil in July 2014. And the share of foreign holdings in the stock market was 23.5% at the end of 2014, indicating a foreign-holding value then of around RM400bil.

Many billions of ringgit of foreign-owned bond and equity funds have been leaving the country in the past couple of years, especially 2015.

Due partly to this, Malaysia’s foreign reserves have fallen from US$130 bil in September 2014 to US$95.3bil at end-December 2015.

Although the present reserves are adequate to cover imports and short-term external debt, they are also vulnerable to further outflows of foreign-owned funds in equity and bonds.

Debt held by Malaysians is also high compared to other countries, according to another paper by Akyuz. Debt by households was estimated at 86% of GDP in first quarter 2015 by Merrill Lynch. Public debt is near to 55% of GDP (compared to an average 40% for developing countries covered in a McKinsey report). And corporate debt is estimated to be about 90–96% of GDP.

The overall local debt is thus very high, probably exceeding 200% of GDP, one of the highest ratios among developing countries. Thus, the country has financial vulnerabilities at both the external and domestic fronts.

What the country faces is part of a trend among emerging economies that is likely to last for some time. Many other countries are in far worse shape than Malaysia.

In an article last week, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times highlighted the important shift in perception by investors of the prospects for emerging economies, that has resulted in capital flowing out.

Global investors withdrew US$52bil from emerging market equity and bond funds in the third quarter of 2015, the largest quarterly outflow on record. The most important reason for this is the realisation of the deteriorating performance of the emerging economies, according to Wolf.

Thus, developing countries are in for a tough time this year. Of course the vulnerabilities may not translate into actual adverse effects, if global or local conditions improve. But it is better to prepare for the probable difficulties ahead.

By Martin Khor Global Trends

Martin Khor (director@southcen is executive director of the South Centre. The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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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Fitch downgrades Malaysia due to high government debts and spending

Fitchdowngrade Malaysia

PETALING JAYA: Fitch Ratings, after cutting Malaysia’s credit rating outlook to “negative”, sending the stock market and the ringgit reeling, has said it is more likely to downgrade the country’s rating within the next two years on doubts over the Government’s ability to rein in its debt and spending.

The Government, in response to Bloomberg News, rebutted such concerns and said it was committed to fiscal responsibility, stressing that it would rationalise subsidies and broaden the tax base.

It said the economy was fundamentally healthy, with strong growth and foreign currency reserves.

Standard & Poor’s had last week, however, reaffirmed its credit rating on Malaysia and said it might raise sovereign credit ratings if stronger growth and the Government’s effort to reduce spending resulted in lower-than-expected deficits. “With lower deficits, a significant reduction in Government debt is possible,” it said.

It might lower its rating for Malaysia if the Government fails to deliver reform measures to reduce its fiscal deficits and increase the country’s growth prospects.

“These reforms may include implementing the Goods and Services Tax or GST, reducing subsidies, boosting private investments and diversifying the economy,” said S&P.

The downgrade in Malaysia’s rating outlook by Fitch on Tuesday took a toll on the capital markets, and sent the ringgit to a three-year low against the US dollar.

The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KL Composite Index closed 1.25% or 22.46 points lower at 1,772.62, and the ringgit fell to RM3.2425 against the greenback, its lowest since June 30, 2010.

The bond market, where foreign shareholding recently was at an all-time high, also saw yields climb dramatically. The yield for the 10-year tenure for Malaysian Government Securities rose seven basis points yesterday to 4.13%. The yield for the 10-year Government bond has climbed 77 basis points since April 30.

In a conference call yesterday afternoon, Fitch Ratings warned that a downgrade in Malaysia’s credit rating was “more likely than not” over the next 18 to 24 months. It highlighted Malaysia’s public finances as its key issue for the rating weakness.

Its head of Asia-Pacific sovereigns Andrew Colquhoun said over the phone that there was a concern over the Government’s commitment to fiscal consolidation after the May general election (GE).

“It is difficult to see the Government pressing forward with any fiscal reform steps or budget reforms,” he said, adding that the rating would reverse if any action was taken.

CIMB Research, in a note by its head of research Terence Wong and economics research head Lee Heng Guie, said Fitch’s revised outlook on the country was “bad news” for the stock market.

“While we believe there will be a knee-jerk selldown, the average lifespan for a rating outlook is about 18 to 24 months before a downgrade is enforced, giving Malaysia time to prevent that,” the report said.

They said the Fitch downgrade was a warning to Malaysia to improve its macroeconomic management, and was of the opinion that the Government had time to get its house in order.

“We believe the authorities will take the warning seriously and move to address any weaknesses,” they noted.

Both Wong and Lee, however, felt that any weakness in the stock market was an opportunity for investors to accumulate shares.

“The depreciation of the ringgit benefits exporters, such as plantation, rubber glove and semiconductor players, as well as those with foreign currency revenues,” they said.

Meanwhile, Areca Capital chief executive officer Danny Wong told StarBiz that foreign investors might use the downgrade as a reason to exit from Bursa Malaysia.

“There is a concern that the downgrading may affect foreigners to exit Malaysia in a big way. Hence, it created a ‘knee-jerk’ reaction to the market.

“However, I think the impact would be minimal on the equity market but the concern is on the bond market because of the 33% foreign ownership,” he said, adding that the outlook by Fitch was earlier than expected since the 2014 budget is set to be announced in two months’ time.

RAM Holdings Bhd chief economist Dr Yeah Kim Leng said the cut in the outlook by Fitch had rattled the market, but feels the country’s fundamentals such as gross domestic product (GDP) growth, high foreign reserves and current account surplus would soothe worries over any rating concerns.

“I believe the Government will pursue its target to reduce the budget deficit by 4% this year, or at least show a sign of reduction.

“However, Malaysia’s current account balance will narrow further by end-2013 due to a weakening in exports, although a deficit account is unlikely to happen,” he opined.

High debt levels have been a growing concern in recent years in Malaysia, as the Government debt-to-GDP ratio is among the highest in South-East Asia. At 53.5% as at the end of last year, it is higher than the 25% in Indonesia, 51% in the Philippines and 43% in Thailand, noted a report by Bloomberg.

The ratio for Malaysia is almost to the debt ceiling limit of 55%.

Fitch, it its notes accompanying its decision to downgrade Malaysia’s credit outlook, said the country’s budget deficit had widened to 4.7% of GDP in 2012 from 3.8% in 2011, led by a 19% rise in spending on public wages ahead of the May GE.

It believes that it will be difficult for the Government to achieve its 3% deficit target for 2015 without additional consolidation measures.


US fiscal deficit position is cheating American Children

US deficitSo, about that fiscal crisis — the one that would, any day now, turn US into Greece. Greece, I tell you: Never mind.

Over the past few weeks, there has been a remarkable change of position among the deficit scolds who have dominated economic policy debate for more than three years. It’s as if someone sent out a memo saying that the Chicken Little act, with its repeated warnings of a U.S. debt crisis that keeps not happening, has outlived its usefulness. Suddenly, the argument has changed: It’s not about the crisis next month; it’s about the long run, about not cheating our children. The deficit, we’re told, is really a moral issue.

There’s just one problem: The new argument is as bad as the old one. Yes, we are cheating our children, but the deficit has nothing to do with it.

Before I get there, a few words about the sudden switch in arguments.

There has, of course, been no explicit announcement of a change in position. But the signs are everywhere. Pundits who spent years trying to foster a sense of panic over the deficit have begun writing pieces lamenting the likelihood that there won’t be a crisis, after all.

Maybe it wasn’t that significant when President Barack Obama declared that we don’t face any “immediate” debt crisis, but it did represent a change in tone from his previous deficit-hawk rhetoric. And it was startling, indeed, when John Boehner, the speaker of the House, said exactly the same thing a few days later.

What happened? Basically, the numbers refuse to cooperate: Interest rates remain stubbornly low, deficits are declining and even 10-year budget projections basically show a stable fiscal outlook rather than exploding debt.

So talk of a fiscal crisis has subsided. Yet the deficit scolds haven’t given up on their determination to bully the nation into slashing Social Security and Medicare. So they have a new line: We must bring down the deficit right away because it’s “generational warfare,” imposing a crippling burden on the next generation.

What’s wrong with this argument? For one thing, it involves a fundamental misunderstanding of what debt does to the economy.

Contrary to almost everything you read in the papers or see on TV, debt doesn’t directly make our nation poorer; it’s essentially money we owe to ourselves. Deficits would indirectly be making us poorer if they were either leading to big trade deficits, increasing our overseas borrowing, or crowding out investment, reducing future productive capacity. But they aren’t: Trade deficits are down, not up, while business investment has actually recovered fairly strongly from the slump.

And the main reason businesses aren’t investing more is inadequate demand. They’re sitting on lots of cash, despite soaring profits, because there’s no reason to expand capacity when you aren’t selling enough to use the capacity you have. In fact, you can think of deficits mainly as a way to put some of that idle cash to use.

Yet there is, as I said, a lot of truth to the charge that we’re cheating our children. How? By neglecting public investment and failing to provide jobs.

You don’t have to be a civil engineer to realize that America needs more and better infrastructure, but the latest “report card” from the American Society of Civil Engineers — with its tally of deficient dams, bridges, and more, and its overall grade of D+ — still makes startling and depressing reading. And right now, with vast numbers of unemployed construction workers and vast amounts of cash sitting idle, would be a great time to rebuild our infrastructure.

Yet public investment has actually plunged since the slump began.

Or what about investing in our young? We’re cutting back there, too, having laid off hundreds of thousands of schoolteachers and slashed the aid that used to make college affordable for children of less-affluent families.

Last but not least, think of the waste of human potential caused by high unemployment among younger Americans — for example, among recent college graduates who can’t start their careers and will probably never make up the lost ground.

And why are we shortchanging the future so dramatically and inexcusably?

Blame the deficit scolds, who weep crocodile tears over the supposed burden of debt on the next generation, but whose constant inveighing against the risks of government borrowing, by undercutting political support for public investment and job creation, has done far more to cheat our children than deficits ever did.

Fiscal policy is, indeed, a moral issue, and we should be ashamed of what we’re doing to the next generation’s economic prospects. But our sin involves investing too little, not borrowing too much — and the deficit scolds, for all their claims to have our children’s interests at heart, are actually the bad guys in this story.

By Paul Krugman

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How to save when you’re broke?


Saving money is not impossible when you’re in financial dire straits 

SAVING money can be a tall order for a lot of people but it becomes near impossible when you’re broke or financially challenged. Still, it’s not a position you can’t come out of.

Here are some simple steps to follow to help you save despite being broke.

Set up a budget plan

If you’re broke and trying to save money, than it’s best to come up with a budget plan, says Standard Financial Planner Sdn Bhd’s Jeremy Tan.

“If you’re broke, then you need to evaluate what you’re doing wrong.

“Have a budget plan. Look at what assets you have? “Perhaps you could try liquidating some.

“But even before you’re broke, you should have contingency or emergency funds,” he tells StarBizWeek.

Keep working

MyFP Services Sdn Bhd managing director Robert Foo believes that if a person is broke, it’s imperative for one to continue working or seek a new form of employment – as soon as possible.

“If you have a job, then you should continue working.The experience that you already have would be invaluable.

And what happens if you’ve lost your job or unemployed? All is not lost, says Foo.

“Don’t feel hopeless. You’ve got skills and should be able to have contacts that can help you find a new job.

“If you have a job and you feel it’s unstable or that you might lose it, then you should ensure that your resume is with headhunters, to ensure your income position remains as stable as possible.”

Tan also points out that age can be a factor. “Of course if you’re young, you’ll be able to take on multi-tasking jobs. If you’re old, then you might need to go easy on the job load,” he says.

Compare prices

Self-confessed shopaholic PS Tan says that when she’s “a little bit behind on her credit card payments” and needs to cut down on her spending, she decides to be a little bit more “choosy” with her shopping.

“When I know I need to cut down on my spending, I go several hypermarts or supermarkets and compare prices first before eventually purchasing.

“Also, if I have been using items that were expensive, I just choose to buy ones that are cheaper.
Be open to new brands and products,” she says.

Eliminate costs

While trying to save, also try to rid yourself of whatever debts you have.

“If you’re broke, ask yourself if you have debts or not? Find out how you can restructure them,” says Tan.

Tan meanwhile says now would also be a good time to evaluate and consider eliminating the unnecessary financial obligations that one can do without.

“If you have a gym membership for a gym that you’ve not been going to for a long time, or perhaps a year’s subscription for a book or magazine you’ve been hardly reading, just cut it off.”

Live within your means

If you’re broke, than you’re going to need to need to change your lifestyle – immediately!

“If you’re broke, then you’re not going to be able to sustain the lifestyle you’ve been living.

“The fastest way to solve this is to cut down on your expenses,” says Foo.

He reiterates that one could find a part time job or even a second one to curb debts quickly.

Eric Lee (not his real name), a marketing executive who was laid off for six months, says he was forced to cut down on his lavish lifestyle when he had difficulty finding a job.

“I had to do a lot of things differently.

“My car got repossessed and I had to move out from where I was staying because I couldn’t afford the rent.

“I moved in with my parents and also had to rely on public transport to go where ever I needed to, especially for job interviews.

“If I was lucky, sometimes I could drive my parents’ cars.

“When I did get a job, I initially still had to live within my means as I was still unable to stand on my own feet. This meant taking home-cooked meals to work.

“Initially, I also had to use t-shirts from friends as I couldn’t afford new ones.”


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Hubby and wife laying low — no thanks to debtor son

Hapless situation: Lee (right) relating Chan and Yong’s story during the press conference.< Hapless situation: Lee relating Chan and Yong’s story during the press conference.

IPOH: Chan Kwai Woh and Yong Yin Yoke, both in their 70s, have been moving from one budget hotel to another since Dec 17.

The elderly couple is trying to avoid being hounded and threatened by loan sharks from whom their 48-year-old son Voon Jiun had borrowed huge sums of money.

“I want to cut ties with my son for causing us so much trouble, and I request the loan sharks to find him instead of harassing us,” said Chan.

The 73-year-old part-time technician said their home in Taman Cempaka here was splashed with red paint on Dec 15 and Dec 23.

“We lodged a police report after the first incident and moved out without taking much clothes or even our high-blood pressure medicine,” he told a press conference at the office of Perak MCA Public Services and Complaints Bureau chief Datuk Lee Kon Yin here yesterday.

“After the first incident of paint being splashed in our porch we questioned our son about the matter and the next day he disappeared.”

Missing borrower: Voon Jiun has gone into hiding.

Chan and Yong, 70, have four other children but are afraid to stay with them as the loan sharks might also harass their families.

“It is stressful dealing with the loan sharks and we decided it was best to stay outside,” said Chan.

He believes Voon Jiun had fled after borrowing money from the loan sharks. His whereabouts are not known.

Showing photographs of his son, Chan said their relationship had been strained for some time.

“He had been staying for over 20 years in Australia, where he got married and has a 10-year-old daughter.

“However, he returned to Malaysia alone in June,” said Chan, adding that the family does not know what the son does for a living.

Meanwhile, Lee said he would write to the police to speed up the investigation on Chan’s report.

“I will follow them back to their house so that they can take their medication and other items.

“But I have advised them to stay put in their house. If there is any problem they can always contact the police, instead of staying in budget hotels,” he added.

New tax rules create a quandary for lending to family members

CHARGING below market interest gets you in trouble with the taxman or the law against money-lending.

“Neither a borrower nor a lender be”.

This advice by Polonius, the King’s adviser to his son in Shakespeare’s Hamlet remains good advice today.

But good advice, it is said, is least heeded when most needed.

Lending money gives rise to risk of default, a stark reminder of today’s global phenomenon.

At a personal level, it can lead to the loss of a friend, a relative remaining one only by virtue of blood ties.

The term “relative” is defined in our tax law to include a wide network of family members including a nephew, a niece, a cousin and somewhat incredibly “an ancestor or lineal descendant.”

How the latter is to be determined, the law has not made clear, leaving the conundrum perhaps to the wisdom of the courts.

In many cases, loans between family members are below-market loans.

By this is meant that the lender charges either no interest or a rate that is less than the “market rate” also known as the “arm’s length” rate.

This is in breach of the tax law, which requires a loan to a related party including a relative to be at the market rate of interest.

This requirement has been made clear by a recent Government Gazette setting out rules on transfer pricing as the rules do not state that such loans must be in the context of carrying on a business or must be used in a business.

Thus when you make a below market loan to a relative, driven entirely by altruistic reasons and devoid of any business considerations, the tax law treats you as having derived imputed’ income from your borrower and would proceed to levy tax on that imputed income.

This phantom income on which tax is levied equals the market rate you should have charged less the interest you actually charged.

This means that you must report the imputed interest as taxable income in your tax return failing which you will be in default of the tax law.

If you were to consider avoiding this unfavourable tax outcome by being somewhat hard-hearted and charged interest to your relative, then you are in breach of the Moneylenders Act.

The law here precludes the charging of any interest since you are not a licensed moneylender.

A moneylender under this law is any person who “lends a sum of money to a borrower in consideration of a larger sum being repaid to him”.

So this puts you, the lender, setting out to help a financially distressed relative, on the proverbial “horns of a dilemma”.

You are in the untenable position of breaking one or the other law.

This state of affairs seems to run counter to any coherent tax policy objective.

In the United States, the lending of money below market rate historically occurred without tax consequences.

Through a series of court cases over several years culminating in a case in 1984, the court held that the lender’s right to receive interest is a “valuable property right” and where such a right is transferred by way of an interest-free loan, it is in the nature of a gift subject to “gift tax”.

But the point here is that the taxing of the interest-free loan is because of the existence of a gift tax.

We do not have such a tax in Malaysia and taxing imputed interest, as this measure is generally known, between related individuals not conducting business transactions, is a retrograde step.

We had long repealed a similar imputed income provision, which treated a person owning an unoccupied house as having an income source, even where no income exist.

Business related loans follow similar concepts, but here the law is entirely understandable and justified where the intent is to avoid tax.

If company A makes an interest-free loan to its subsidiary which is a tax exempt pioneer company, then this leads to tax results which are not reflective of transactions between commercial parties.

Not charging interest inflates the subsidiary’s tax exempt profits enhancing its capacity to pay tax exempt dividends, without a corresponding tax liability on the lending parent had interest been charged.

Here the existence of a “tax shelter” where one entity has either tax exempt status or a tax loss position, can lead to tax leakage, the reason for the arm’s length rule.

Interest-free business lending between related companies can also lead to anomalous results.

This is a consequence of the divergence between the tax treatment and the new accounting standards for public listed companies.

The taxman will require tax to be imposed on the lender on the imputed market rate interest.

Whereas if such a company lends RM100,000 to its subsidiary interest – free to be repaid in equal instalment over five years and the market interest rate is 10%, the accounts will reflect the lender as having a debt of RM75,816, which is the discounted amount at the inception of the loan.

Over the period of the loan, the borrower will be shown as having paid interest of RM 24,184 which will equal the discount.

Thus the books of both companies will be recorded as if interest had been paid as shown in the table.

Since these are book entries and there are no costs incurred or income earned, they have no tax consequence.

This reflects the economic substance of the loan transaction as distinct from the strict legal substance, the mainstay for tax.

This fundamental difference in concept tends to make attempts at convergence between the accounting and tax treatments particularly problematic.

The more pressing issue is doing away with the taxing of imputed interest on non-business lending between relatives, a measure which seems unjustified.

Kang Beng Hoe is an executive director of TAXAND MALAYSIA Sdn Bhd, a member firm of TAXAND, the first global organisation of independent tax firms. The views expressed do not necessarily represent those of the firm. Readers should seek specific professional advice before acting on the views. Beng Hoe can be contacted at


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