Malaysia’s EU trade negotiations in spotlight

With the end of an agreement granting Malaysia preferential access to the EU market looming, all eyes are on ongoing negotiations between Kuala Lumpur and Brussels aimed at securing a replacement free trade pact.

Malaysia currently benefits from the EU’s generalised system of preferences (GSP) scheme, which provides developing countries with generous tariff reductions on exports. However, the World Bank’s decision to award the South-east Asian state upper-middle-income-nation status will end its eligibility for the lower levies from January 2014.

While EU representatives are confident that a new free trade agreement (FTA) will deepen economic integration between its member states and Malaysia, local business representatives have questioned whether they can remain competitive once the lower tariffs are withdrawn.

Strong bilateral trade

The EU is a major importer of Malaysia’s goods. Figures show its members purchased 13%, or 2.22m tonnes, of the country’s palm oil exports in 2012, and spend more than $1.3bn each year on Malaysian timber. On October 22, the Malaysia External Trade Development Corporation (MATRADE) said it expected total bilateral trade to reach RM120bn ($38.2bn) in 2013. Results so far this year suggest this is an attainable goal, with exports to the EU for the first eight months amounting to RM41bn ($13bn), while imports stood at RM45bn ($14bn).

Susila Devi, the senior director of MATRADE’s Strategic Planning Division, told reporters that Europe offered Malaysia a broad range of business and investment opportunities across the industries. “It also includes information communication technology, chemicals, automotives, renewable energy, logistics, agro food processing, pharmaceuticals and financial services,” she commented.

FTA negotiations

Business leaders, however, have highlighted the significant impact that the end of GSP status is set to have on trade and investment.

The GSP scheme provides duty reductions of up to 66% on sales to the EU. Malaysia’s exports to Europe under the initiative were valued at RM13.5bn ($4.3bn) in 2011, or 17% of its overseas shipments, according to a report published by the EdgeMalaysia in April.

Tan Sri Lee Oi Hian, CEO of Kuala Lumpur Kepong, a Malaysia conglomerate with interests in the palm oil industry, warned in March that without the GSP, the tax rate on some Malaysian oleochemicals heading for the EU would be between 4% and 6%. “We will just not be competitive,” he said at a Global Malaysia Series workshop.

Lee, together with other business leaders, said the impending withdrawal of the GSP scheme heightened the need for the government to secure an FTA with Europe. The loss of the GSP could be “another nail in the coffin” for the local palm oil industry, he said.

The EU and Malaysia first entered into discussions on a FTA in late 2010, with the next round of negotiations scheduled for the fourth quarter of this year. The ambassador and head of the EU delegation to Malaysia, Luc Vandebon, told Bernama in June that if the next round of talks is held before the end of 2013, then “it should be possible to conclude negotiations in late 2014/early 2015”.

The EU delegation’s former ambassador to Malaysia, Vincent Piket, said last year that an FTA would boost the country’s GDP by 8% by 2020.

“The conclusion of the FTA would be a landmark step in the fostering of bilateral trade between the two partners and deepen economic integration,” he said.

Looking long term

FTA supporters say a deal will, over time, increase market access for goods and services, facilitate trade and investment flows, enable mutual recognition of standards and qualifications, and increase joint capacity-building programmes.

However, not all Malaysians feel that an EU trade pact, at least in its current proposed form, is the best path for securing long-term economic growth.

In a report published in late 2012 by the IFRI Centre for Asian Studies, part of a French think tank, author Tham Siew Yean noted that the proposed FTA was in conflict with key interests of Malaysia. Tham raised particular concerns about the impact of intellectual property rules on the pharmaceutical sector.

“A small trading economy such as Malaysia’s is keen to lock in its market access to other countries. … [But] Malaysia’s focus has always been in the ASEAN as well as the wider East Asian market. In this scenario, ASEAN agreements, including Malaysia’s commitments in extra-ASEAN-wide agreements, will hold more weight than an agreement with the EU,” he wrote.

Concerns have been raised that with regional competitors also vying for the EU market, Malaysia could be tempted to negotiate a deal with the union from a position of weakness or sign an agreement lacking transparency. Many Malaysians, it would seem, are keen to avoid landing an unbalanced deal that fails to dovetail with the country’s broader vision for growth.

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Malaysia’s palm oil industry faces tough market

The palm oil industry in Malaysia appears set for an uncertain few months, with a number of factors coming into play over the last quarter of the year that could push already low prices down even further, just at the time when production is about to peak.

As of the end of September, Malaysian palm oil prices were down 6% on the beginning of the year. Moving into October, the commodity was trading at $716 a tonne, with predictions it could fall further in the lead-up to the new year.

Malaysia has seen output rise monthly through to August, and while September’s figures have yet to be released, it is expected that volume will again be up. Some estimates put September’s production at close to 2m tonnes, a sharp jump from the 1.74m tonnes of the month before, which itself represented a 3.6% rise over July. This continued increase in output, which is likely to be maintained for the rest of the year – the high season – could further force down global prices as supply overtakes demand.

Also bearing on palm oil prices is the rising tide of soy oil flowing into the market, with the US soy crop set for a better-than-expected harvest and soybean stocks at higher levels than normal for this time of year. This has pushed soybean prices down to near two-year lows as of early October, a trend that will undercut demand for Malaysian palm oil.

Falling oil prices also set to weigh on sales

Another factor weighing down palm oil sales and pressuring prices is the drop in the cost of conventional crude oil. With oil prices falling, there is less appeal for biofuels in the market, and rising output from Libya combined with concerns over demand in the US as part of the fall-out from the shutdown of government, have pushed oil prices down. Benchmark Brent crude was trading at less than $108 a barrel in early October; WTI crude was lower still, dipping below $102, with analysts predicting a further decline in the weeks ahead as price instability posed by a potential US military strike against Syria recedes.

According to Dorab Mistry, head of vegetable oil trading with Indian conglomerate Godrej Industries, palm oil could fall to a four-year low of $617 a tonne in 2014 if crude oil prices go below the $100-a-barrel mark. This would represent a 13% fall on present prices, Mistry told an industry conference in late September.

“The fundamentals of the oilseed and vegetable oils complex are clearly bearish,” he said.

One factor that could boost sales is the drop in the value of the ringgit, which has retreated almost 9% since May. This has made exports more appealing, at least in some markets, though not in those that, like Malaysia, have been hit by the outflow of funds from developing economies. While the weaker ringgit may boost overseas sales, an easing of local currencies against the dollar has taken place in many of Malaysia’s key markets, such as India where the rupee has fallen by 12% since the beginning of the year. This means that any advantage accrued from the devaluation of the ringgit is offset by similar downward moves elsewhere.

Government plans could drain off excess

While palm oil producers may face difficulties in boosting sales abroad, help may be at hand at home. The government has said it is considering lifting the levels of palm oil added to diesel fuel as a way of boosting domestic demand. Malaysia requires a 5% palm oil additive to diesel; the resulting biofuel accounts for a significant portion of palm oil consumption, with nearly 250,000 tonnes of palm oil/diesel blend consumed in 2012, a figure the state aims to double by 2014. Indonesia recently announced it would be raising its palm oil input to biodiesel from 7.5% to 10% next year. Any similar move by Malaysia would help soak up excess production, though the government has yet to set any timeframe for an increase or how far above the current levels the rise would be.

Further state support came in mid-September, when the government decided to keep taxes on palm oil exports unchanged in October, maintaining the 4.5% tariff that has been in place since March. The decision is expected to help boost overseas sales during the peak harvest season and reduce the risk of a large build-up in stockpiles.

It may not be until well into the new year, when local production tapers off, that prices may start to move upwards to any significant degree, though crop losses due to adverse weather or a sudden jump in crude oil prices could give a boost to Malaysia’s palm oil sales. For the present, it seems the best producers can hope for are steady sales and for prices to remain at current levels.

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Malaysia’s oil and gas services looking farther afield

Companies servicing Malaysia’s oil and gas sector are using the experience and expertise gained during collaborative ventures with foreign firms as a launchpad for overseas expansion.

Four decades of developing solutions for Malaysia’s operational environment, under the state-owned hydrocarbons producer, Petronas, have put local outfits on a solid footing to enter the rapidly expanding global oil services industry.

However, the fast pace of growth has also produced challenges for firms embarking on international expansion, including project delays and equipment shortages, which are taking their toll on margins.

Production on the rise

At home, Malaysia’s oil sector services providers have benefited from Petronas’s efforts to galvanise production in recent years, spearheaded by a $30bn investment aimed at ramping up output, developing new offshore reserves and extending the production life of existing fields.

The country is looking to return oil and condensate production to more than 600,000 barrels per day (bpd) equivalent, having reversed a decline which saw output fall to a 20-year low in 2011 of 569,000 bpd.

Malaysia is also aggressively developing its natural gas resources. The country is now the world’s second-largest liquid natural gas (LNG) exporter behind Qatar. Like most of its oil fields, the majority of Malaysia’s gas reserves are located offshore, offering many growth opportunities for service providers.

With their overseas expansion well on track, key Malaysian firms now rank among the largest serving the international oil and gas sector. SapuraKencana has evolved to become a major provider of support platforms for drilling rigs after expanding its fleet to 24.

Firms eye new ventures

At the end of August, meanwhile, the Malaysian offshore oilfield services company, Bumi Armada, announced it had signed a joint venture agreement with Dutch geo-science specialist, Fugro, to provide well services.

Bumi Armada’s CEO, Hassan Basma, told the press that the initiative marked a new direction for the company, which has, to date, focused on floating production storage and offloading (FPSO), transport and installation, and offshore supply.

“This investment will represent our first foray into the lucrative and expanding subsea market where Bumi Armada intends to make its presence felt. These additional services will contribute to our footprint on a global scale with focus on our core markets,” he said. Bumi Armada will have a 51% stake in the new firm.

State-backed services provider UMW Oil &Gas Corporation is also eyeing expansion, with its plans to launch an initial public offering (IPO), tentatively valued at $850m, already generating considerable interest. The provider is expected to begin taking orders for its offering in October, while a scheduled listing is set to come in the following weeks. The Wall Street Journal reported in mid-September that both J P Morgan and US financial group Fidelity Investments have agreed to be two of eight key institutional investors in the IPO.

Funds raised will likely be used to pay down existing debt and boost capital expenditure for future expansion. A total of 39% of the company’s shares will be offered through the listing.

Offshore drilling fuels demand

Malaysia-based Scomi Group has already extended its reach into Africa, the Caucasus region and Asia, with the firm’s oil services unit underpinning a 13.3% increase in revenue in the quarter ending June 30 and posting profits of $7.3m.
“Strong demand for drilling fluids and drilling waste-management solutions in Malaysia, Thailand, Turkmenistan and West Africa contributed significantly to the group’s financial performance,” the company said in a statement filed with Bursa Malaysia in late August.

The firm’s expansion reflects the heightened activity taking place in the global offshore oil and gas industry. However, the rapid pace of expansion has also put several regional players under pressure, leading to cost overruns and increasing competition for both equipment and manpower, resulting in a squeeze on margins.

Reuters reported that despite winning work, Singapore’s Ezra Holdings posted a 68% fall in profits for the three months ended May 31, due to project delays and cost overruns incurred by its subsea division. SapuraKencana said it faced similar risks, Reuters added.

Operators will be aware of the pitfalls that rapid expansion can produce. However, with exploration and exploitation activities set to increase in the coming years, particularly across the offshore segment, Malaysia’s firms will be well placed to tap into the services that the global oil and gas sector requires.

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Malaysia 2020 targets elusive at current trajectory

Despite a low inflation rate and relatively stable sovereign and corporate balance sheets, Malaysia is set to miss the targets set out in its Vision 2020. As part of a long-term analysis of the South-east Asian country, Oxford Business Group recently contributed an article entitled ‘The Malaysian Quandary’ to local media website FMT, looking at the basis for this assessment and calling into question the private sector’s reliance on the government.

We invite you to read the full article and join a vibrant discussion about the Oxford Business Group view on Malaysia . We encourage you to share the link with others who might be interested.

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Malaysia 2020 targets elusive at current rates

Despite a low inflation rate and relatively stable sovereign and corporate balance sheets, Malaysia is set to miss the targets set out in its Vision 2020. As part of a long-term analysis of the South-east Asian country, Oxford Business Group recently contributed an article entitled ‘The Malaysian Quandary’ to local media website FMT, looking at the basis for this assessment and calling into question the private sector’s reliance on the government.

We welcome you to join a vibrant discussion about the Oxford Business Group view on Malaysia and invite you to share the link with others who might be interested.

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Malaysia 2020 targets elusive at current rates

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Malaysia’s tourism sector targets niche markets

A tourism leader in the region, Malaysia has seen its position challenged in recent years as nearby rivals have stepped up efforts to attract more visitors.

Official statistics show that just over 25m visitors arrived in 2012, a rise of around 300,000 compared to the prior year. Despite this increase, Malaysia saw its ranking fall on the 2012 UN World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) list of most-visited countries, published in August. The country dropped one place on the UNWTO ladder to 10th, being overtaken by Russia.

The sector nonetheless remains a major source of foreign currency earnings, second only to the manufacturing industry, as well as the seventh-largest overall contributor to the national economy. The 2013 World Travel and Tourism Council report noted that tourism employs 1.7m people, or 13.6% of all jobs, when taking into account positions indirectly supported by the industry.

While the 1.3% increase in the number of visitors was a modest improvement on the 0.6% rise recorded in 2011, growth in the market has been slow in comparison to Malaysia’s neighbours. Thailand saw arrivals go up 16% last year, and fast-movers Cambodia and Vietnam posted increases of 24% and 14%, respectively, though both are coming off a far lower base.

In terms of arrivals, Malaysia remains number one in the South-east Asian region, but it faces challenges when it comes to capitalising on arrivals volume. Though it attracted just over half as many visitors, Singapore generated similar revenue from its tourism sector, while Thailand received almost 3m fewer visitors than Malaysia in 2012, but earned 50% more from them, according to UNWTO data.

This suggests that Malaysia needs to do more to encourage greater spending by tourists. The country may also need to look further afield when expanding its client base, with around 75% of all arrivals coming from neighbouring states such as Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand, Brunei and the Philippines, with Singaporeans making up well over one-third of all arrivals.

One of Malaysia’s appeals as a tourism destination for fellow members of the ASEAN bloc is its proximity, Tan Kok Liang, a vice-president of the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents, told the local press on August 6. By not having to endure long-haul flights, ASEAN visitors can easily take short breaks in Malaysia, he said. However, Tan also acknowledged that the predominance of tourists from nearby countries also has a downside.

“Because many of these are still developing countries, tourists’ purchasing power will be lower than those from developed countries,” he said.

One answer to the comparatively low per-capita earnings power of the Malaysian tourism industry is to develop high-spending niche markets. On August 15, Prime Minister Najib Razak told delegates attending an international insurance congress in Kuala Lumpur that such events would become increasingly important for the tourism industry. Najib said inbound business tourist numbers are set to rise from the present level of 1.2m to 2.9m by 2020, with the government’s Malaysia Convention and Exhibition Bureau aiming to have the country recognised as a leading business destination.

Other niche segments that have been targeted under the government’s development programme are medical, spa and wellness tourism, as well as shopping and duty free sales, though regional rivals are also offering similar projects, potentially narrowing the scope for Malaysia to fully capitalise on these markets.

Despite strong government support and a solid improvement in arrivals this year – inbound tourists numbered 6.5m for the first quarter of 2013, compared to 5.5m for the same three months last year – it may be difficult to achieve some of the goals set by the state, which has identified the sector as one of its 12 National Key Economic Areas. Tourism Malaysia, the agency tasked with promoting the country as a travel destination, has targeted 26.8m inbound visitors this year and 28m in 2014, rising to 36m by 2020.

In the shorter term, the slowing of the economy in China – the third-largest source market for Malaysia – could have a negative impact on the sector, both in terms of a reduction in the number of Chinese visitors as well as any knock-on effects on regional economies. Further down the track, the increased competition posed by other south-east Asian nations could also cut into Malaysia’s tourism growth unless it is able to broaden its appeal.

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Malaysia’s real estate prices raise concerns

The property sector in Malaysia has been attracting plenty of attention from foreign investors and could draw in even more. But after a period of strong price growth, new regulations on lending and slower economic expansion may cool the market, leading developers and the government to target projects and investment incentives more carefully.

Malaysia’s real estate market has significant growth potential, according to Singapore-based real estate agent Kenny Tan, the local press reported in July. Tan, a group division director at ERA Realty Network, was reported as saying that Malaysia had particular appeal for Singaporean investors, given high prices on the Singaporean market and Malaysia’s proximity to the city-state – among other competitive advantages.

Iskandar Malaysia, a development region near Johor and adjacent to Singapore across the Strait of Johor, has proved particularly popular with Singaporeans looking for investment properties and second homes. Tan added that property prices in Kuala Lumpur have displayed steadier growth since 2004 than those in Singapore, which have fluctuated.

Tan’s views were echoed in August by Kayseon Yuen, regional president for Malaysia at Hong-Kong-listed Country Garden Holdings, one of China’s biggest property developers. The company’s only solo project outside China is its RM18bn ($5.52bn) Danga Bay project in Iskandar Malaysia. Country Garden entered Malaysia in 2012 in a joint venture with Malaysia Land Properties, with which it is developing high-end townships in Selangor state.

Like many developers in Iskandar Malaysia, Yuen is targeting foreign buyers (who account for 60-70% of home buyers in the development region), particularly from China. He is confident that Malaysia My Second Home, a government programme to promote foreign investment in property, is seeing success in attracting buyers. The right to buy freehold land in Malaysia is particularly attractive for Chinese buyers, as most property in China is leasehold.

Since 2006, Iskandar has attracted RM118.93bn ($36.5bn) in committed investment, making it a leading light for development in Malaysia. But substantial foreign and domestic investment has also come to Kuala Lumpur, the capital, which the government is working to establish as a regional business centre. While it is not yet truly challenging Hong Kong and Singapore as South-east Asia’s business capital, low prices in Kuala Lumpur are helping draw in foreign investors.

However, partly thanks to growing foreign investment, as well as increasing affluence among Malaysians, Kuala Lumpur is not as cheap as it used to be, with prices having more than doubled compared to five years ago, according to local developers. There is concern about occupancy rates at the higher end of the market, and as a result, some developers are moving towards building smaller, more affordable units.

The market has already been cooled to a degree by external factors – firstly a slowdown in the second quarter of the year as investors waited for the results of Malaysia’s general election. While the re-election of the Barisan Nasional government reduced the political risk element that was likely holding back investment, moves by the Bank Negara, the central bank, to tighten property lending conditions are expected to pull back demand. Loans for residential and non-residential properties will now have a maximum tenure of 35 years, down from 45 years.

Significantly, Bank Negara has opted not to raise its benchmark policy rate, which has remained unchanged mid-2011. An increase could have a significant effect on the real estate market, as the majority of mortgages in Malaysia are adjustable rate. A worst-case scenario would see a rise in defaults, leading to a sell-off of distressed property and a decline in prices.

However, that is the pessimistic viewpoint, and Malaysia’s economy is expected to rack up a good pace of growth this year, at around 5.1%, according to the IMF. Even with the world economy still in troubled waters, South-east Asia has been performing well. Squeezing some of the speculation out of the Malaysian real estate market should make it healthier in the long run, even at the cost of price moderation.

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Malaysia: New regulations to boost market for takaful

An overhaul of Malaysia’s Islamic finance regulations is expected to increase take-up of sharia-compliant insurance (takaful) products, although the new rules could encourage smaller operators to join forces with more established rivals.

New legislation came into effect on June 30, along with parallel laws revamping the operations and regulation of the conventional financial sector. The new Islamic Financial Services Act (IFSA) replaces previous legislation enacted over the past 30 years, strengthening regulatory oversight and boosting industry transparency.

According to a statement from Bank Negara, the central bank, the new rules will provide “a comprehensive legal framework that is fully consistent with sharia in all aspects of regulation and supervision”.

Under the new act, religious advisers will be held legally accountable for financial products. They will also be subject to monetary penalties and could face imprisonment if found to be in breach of the laws.

In the takaful sector, the IFSA will require insurers to separate their life and non-life business lines. Firms that hold composite licences will need to divide their operations within five years.

The new rules are expected to help ensure the rights of takaful consumers, setting out disclosure requirements and mandating that insurers provide a minimum level of information to customers at each stage of the contract process.

“The IFSA will lead to greater consumer protection and subsequently greater confidence in takaful,” Mohamed Rafick, CEO of Munich RE Retakaful, told OBG in an interview in mid-July. “It will also hold takaful companies accountable for their pricing strategies by ensuring that risk funds are sustainable.”

The stringent pricing accountability could put pressure on smaller operators in the industry, Rafick added. They could also face challenges in meeting the new higher capital requirements that are specified by the IFSA.

While there are around a dozen takaful operators in the market, the sector is dominated by a few firms that, between them, account for about 90% of the estimated combined $6bn worth of assets held.

Some of the larger players have expressed interest in acquiring smaller outfits in the wake of the new regulations.

In July, Hassan Kamil, group managing director of Syarikat Takaful Malaysia, the second-largest Islamic insurer, told Reuters his company might be in the market to absorb smaller rivals. “If their portfolio is attractive, we could be buying up business,” he said.

However, analysts are confident that the new regulations will help the sector to expand.

Ahmad Rizlan Azman, CEO of Etiqa Takaful, said the improved regulatory environment, alongside growing public understanding of takaful products, would help the sector to develop into 2015 and beyond.

“Recent reports indicate that the Malaysian takaful industry is expected to grow by 20% per annum for the next two years as consumer acceptance grows and regulatory changes provide a stronger and more stable infrastructure for the shariah-compliant insurance industry,” he told a conference in Kuala Lumpur in late June.

However, the takaful sector still lacks the level of consumer acceptance required to underpin strong growth. Many products in the takaful range, as yet, have limited exposure in the Malaysian market. The penetration rate for life takaful stands at 13%, considerably lower than that of conventional life insurance, at 55%.

According to a recent survey commissioned by Swiss Re, about 30% of Muslims in Malaysia have a good understanding of takaful, while 16.5% hold policies. Though this is a far higher rate than in Indonesia, where only 5% of the population were found to be familiar with takaful and 1% choosing to hold the sharia-compliant product, the survey indicates that more work needs to be undertaken to boost penetration rates.

By tightening up the regulatory structure of its takaful segment, Malaysia will further bolster confidence in both the product and the broader Islamic financial sector and may well set the benchmark for other countries seeking to boost accountability and transparency in their own sharia-compliant markets.

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Malaysia: Keeping the economy running

The central bank in Malaysia is keeping an eye on macroeconomic stability at a time when a cooling external environment is putting pressure on growth. While international factors are starting to affect overall economic performance, domestic demand remains relatively robust, supported by consumer spending and public investments.

On July 11, the Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), the central bank, announced it would be maintaining its key policy rate on hold for the 13th consecutive month. The bank kept its benchmark overnight rate at 3%, as analysts surveyed by Bloomberg had expected.

The BNM decision balanced concerns of both a slowdown in the economy and rising personal debt. Malaysia’s year-on-year GDP growth has dropped below 5% for the first time in seven quarters, while household borrowing has been increasing at an annual average 12% for five years.

In a statement, the bank noted that slow global growth had begun to act as a drag on the Malaysian economy, as in other emerging markets, despite healthy domestic demand. Domestic consumption has helped Malaysia and many of its neighbours weather the economic turbulence of recent years, with the rebalancing of the economy helping reduce dependence on exports, which have proved susceptible to slowdowns in Europe and the US.

“For the Malaysian economy, domestic demand has continued to support growth amid the continued moderation in external demand,” the bank said. “The sustained weakness in the external sector may, however, affect the overall growth momentum.”

Even so, the bank retains a positive outlook. It expects private consumption to stay steady, led by income growth and a stable labour market, and capital investment both from domestic-oriented industries and government infrastructure projects to help maintain economic momentum. Malaysia is in the process of rolling out the government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), a wide-ranging package of projects, including infrastructure schemes, designed to boost productivity and increase the private sector’s ability to drive growth.

The BNM is also comfortable with Malaysia’s inflation outlook. Inflation averaged 1.6% in the first five months of the year –low given the rate of economic growth. And while the central bank expects the rate to pick up in the second half of the year, it does not foresee inflation becoming a serious risk factor.

Despite low inflation and slowing growth, the BNM avoided cutting rates, keeping a wary eye on rising debt in an economic climate that has become more volatile in recent months. Malaysia’s experience in the 1997 Asian financial crisis makes policy-makers particularly aware of the need for financial and macroeconomic stability.

In early July, the BNM tightened regulations on lending, cutting the maximum repayment terms on personal loans to 10 years and property loans to 35 years, down from 25 year and 45 years, respectively. Some analysts quoted in the international press suggest that the bank may become more hawkish on interest rates as well towards the end of the year, if growth remains resilient.

Following a period of strong capital flows to emerging markets, there has been a cooling off recently in the wake of signs from the US Federal Reserve that it would not push forward its quantitative easing (QE) policy. QE, a strategy of stimulating the economy through expansion of the monetary base, had boosted inflows to emerging markets as investors sought higher returns than those available in developed economies. Malaysia, with its macroeconomic and political stability and stable growth rate, proved particularly attractive: by February, foreigners held almost half the country’s outstanding sovereign debt.

With QE now likely to be phased out and signs of a slowdown in major emerging markets such as China (a key export market for Malaysia), investor appetite for Malaysian assets are expected to abate. However compared to advanced economies Malaysia along with the rest of South East Asia will continue to enjoy a higher rate of growth thanks to relatively stable domestic demand and investment.

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Malaysia: Auto sector looks to pick up speed

Automotive sales in Malaysia slipped down a gear in the second quarter, with both April and May showing a deceleration in the figures, though experts believe activity in the industry will pick up in the latter half of the year after the government unveils a new policy aimed at reducing vehicle price tags.

On June 18 the Malaysian Automotive Association (MAA) report on May vehicle sales showed a 5.4% drop in roll-outs from dealers’ lots compared to the previous month, which had also seen a decline in sales. The report said there had been a 15% dip in trade year-on-year for May, though 2012 had set the bar high, with record sales of 627,753 units for the full year.

While the April and May figures were down on the corresponding months in 2012, overall sales are up 6.2% for the first five months of the year, with just under 260,000 units sold compared to 244,000 over the same period in 2012. This was thanks to a strong performance in the first quarter, the MAA report said. The association noted that, despite uncertainties in the market, it expected year-end sales to top 640,000 units.

One of the key reasons given by analysts for the easing sales figures is a wait-and-see approach adopted by potential car buyers stemming from a promise made by the government in the lead-up to the recent national elections to reduce vehicle prices by 20-30% over the coming five years. This commitment was repeated by Prime Minister Najib Razak at the end of May, three weeks after the polls closed.

While the government has reiterated its promise to lower vehicle costs, it has not made clear how it will do so. The government has said the price cuts will stem from a revision of the National Automotive Policy (NAP), the blueprint for the direction of the industry first drafted in 2009 and amended last year. The NAP aims to boost competitiveness and liberalise the sector in the lead-up to the ASEAN Economic Community launch in 2015, when most of the region’s tariff borders will be removed.

The revised version of the NAP is due to be released some time in the third quarter, after it is reviewed by the Cabinet, by which time producers and dealers hope there will be more clarity over how the cuts will be achieved. The government is reluctant to reduce its automotive taxes at a time when it is trying to narrow the state deficit to 4% in 2013 from last year’s 4.5%, and down to 3% in 2015.

Trade Minister Mustapa Mohamed said on June 24 it was impossible for the government to cut the automotive excise tax, which brings in RM7bn ($2.18bn) to the Treasury annually.

“Our budget is in deficit,” Mustapa said. “If we sacrifice RM7bn, where are we going to find it? At this point of time, it is not something the government is considering.”

If this position is maintained, it would appear to limit options on how to reduce costs for the consumer, though the NAP may open up new avenues and help stimulate sales when released.

Another reason given for the slowdown has been weaker consumer sentiment, a reflection of concerns the Malaysian economy may be cooling. On June 24 OCBC Bank lowered its forecast for economic growth to 5% for this year, a reduction from its earlier estimate of 5.4%. The bank’s projection was in line with that of other analysts, who have tipped GDP expansion of between 4.5% and 5.5%, down from last year’s 5.6%. If the economy does move towards the lower end of market expectations, this may curb Malaysians’ appetite for new vehicles, at least until the position on new tariffs is made clear.

While there may be some uncertainty hovering over the immediate situation of the sector, a number of foreign manufacturers appear to be taking a positive position on its longer-term prospects. Chinese manufacturer Chery has announced it intends to set up a production plant in Malaysia, targeting both the domestic market and using it as a stepping stone into the region. Japanese rival Mazda has also unveiled plans to spend some $30m to expand its production capacity through acquiring an existing facility and constructing a new factory.

Another seeing improved potential in the Malaysian market is German carmaker BMW, which is targeting a 10% increase in sales in 2013 over last year’s 7000 units. The manufacturer reported in early June that sales for the first four months of the year were up by 5%, with hopes a new release of the Mini Cooper would push them even higher.

Some producers, including local manufacturer Proton, moved to lower the prices on some vehicles, though this can be linked to marketing pressures to increase sales and promotional activity leading into Ramadan, the end of which is traditionally linked with higher consumer spending, Malaysia’s carmakers may overall also adopt a wait and see attitude to pricing until after the NAP is rolled out.

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Malaysia: Auto sector looks to pick up speed

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