Malaysia: Year in Review 2012

It has been another year of good growth for Malaysia, even as the international economic climate has been uncertain. Strong domestic demand, government investment, greater diversification and regional resilience have all played their part.

GDP growth is expected to hit 5% this year or possibly exceed it, according to several analyses. The economy has been supported by higher incomes and accommodative monetary policy, as well as by government spending. Malaysia has been pushing ahead with its Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), which seeks to lift the country to its long-term target of achieving middle-income status by 2020.

To this end, the ETP entails large-scale investments in infrastructure, health and education, as well as interlinked efforts to push key sectors further up the value chain, in order to reduce Malaysia’s reliance on raw material exports and increase skill and income levels.

After talks between Malaysia and Singapore in January, the two countries agreed to strengthen transportation links to benefit bilateral trade and the construction sector. Progress has been made on a $9.7bn mass-transit railway system linking Malaysia’s southern Johor state and Singapore, which is part of a new line that will cut travel times from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore from six hours to 90 minutes.

In May, the international business press reported that AECOM Technology had been awarded the $42m contract for the design and engineering study for the Malaysia-Singapore Rapid Transit System (RTS) link by the relevant Singaporean and Malaysian authorities.

Infrastructure development also entails the expansion, upgrading and diversification of Malaysia’s power-generation capacity. In May, Peter Chin Fah Kui, the minister of energy, green technology and water, announced that Malaysia would increase the proportion of electricity it generated from coal to 44%, up from 30%, and lower the share derived from gas to 46% from 60%.

The government’s desire to lower dependency on gas supply was informed by rising gas prices, and a desire not to pass them on to customers, as well as by a connected gas supply shock in 2011. In May, the government confirmed plans to invest $3bn through state power firm Tenaga Nasional to construct two new hydropower plants and two new coal-fired stations, with a total of more than 2500 MW of installed capacity.

Meanwhile, further generation capacity is needed to support the demands of Malaysia’s manufacturing sector, which has performed well in 2012. Industrial production rose by 4.9% in the first nine months of 2012, according to official data. Manufacturing output rose by 5.2% year-on-year, while the other segments included in industrial production – mining and electricity – grew by 5.9%.

Growth came despite the uncertain global economic climate, which was affected by the eurozone crisis, the US’s debt problems and slowdowns in major emerging markets. However, strong domestic demand has helped manufacturers offset slower exports.

Together, manufacturing and mining contribute 35% of GDP, so the expansion of industry has been key to the economy’s good performance in 2012. Next year seems likely to see similarly healthy levels of GDP growth, as both upside and downside risks from 2012 are likely to continue into 2013. On one hand, the Malaysian economy should continue to benefit from its realignment towards domestic demand, supported by an expected maintenance of low-interest rate policy and the further roll-out of the ETP. The development of value-added industries, as well as service sectors such as tourism, should also help the economy.

On the other hand, Malaysia cannot be immune from international events. A significant worsening in the eurozone, the US, or a “hard landing” slowdown in China would undoubtedly have an impact. The Malaysian general election, due by June 2013, may also create an element of political uncertainty, though it is also spurring government spending. The economy, particularly government finances, remains sensitive to fluctuations in commodity prices, including that of oil.

Observers are split on whether there will be a slowdown, or if the economy can accelerate further. The UK’s Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales sees a drop to 3.8%, and international investment bank Nomura expects a fall to 4.3% from 5.3% in 2012. Manokaran Mottain, the chief economist at Kuala Lumpur-based Alliance Investment Bank, forecasts a slight fall to 5% from the 5.2% he expects this year. The independent Malaysian Institute of Economic Research, however, forecasts a pick-up from 5.1% to 5.6%.

Policy-makers will be keeping a keen eye on the international environment, as Malaysia cannot go it alone. However, next year should see the developed and diversified future economy envisaged by the ETP move closer.

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Malaysia: Year in Review 2012

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Malaysia: Industrial production up

Growth in Malaysia’s industrial production has so far been above expectations, suggesting that the manufacturing sector is supported by domestic expansion and reorientation toward the region even though demand in traditional export markets in the US and Europe look uncertain.

Industrial production grew by 4.9% in the first nine months of 2012, according to official data. Manufacturing output rose by 5.2% year-on-year (y-o-y), while the other indices included in industrial production – mining and electricity – rose by 5.9%.

Within the manufacturing sector, production of non-metallic minerals, as well as basic and fabricated metal products, grew by 17.7% over the first three quarters of the year; petroleum, chemical, rubber and plastics increased by 1.9%; and electrical and electronic (E&E) products by 4.4%.

Manufacturing is a vital economic driver for Malaysia, accounting for 35% of GDP when combined with the mining sector. The sector currently employs around 1.02m people, according to the Department of Statistics. The better than expected figures suggest that the regional economic slowdown is easing, supported by government spending, higher domestic consumption and a favourable interest environment. The manufacturing sector’s performance is particularly impressive, given the impact of the eurozone crisis and the slow recovery in the US, both of which have affected global growth this year. Indeed, Malaysia’s nominal exports fell 2% in the third quarter of 2012, bringing y-o-y GDP growth down to 4.9% from 5.4% in the second quarter.

However, the industrial sector may have received a boost from domestic and regional sales, offsetting broader international effects. The government’s investments in infrastructure, higher transfers to public employees, and inflows of foreign capital from investors seeking a haven from turbulent or slow-growing developed markets, have all played a role in keeping the Malaysian economy moving at an impressive pace.

In November, during a visit to Kuala Lumpur, Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the IMF, said she expected the Malaysian economy to grow by 4-5% this year, in line with the government’s target. Low and steady interest rates have helped in this regard. On November 8, Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM), the central bank, opted to keep its key overnight policy rate at 3%, where it has stood since July 2011, to support expansion. Interest rates are particularly important for the capital-intensive manufacturing sector, making it cheaper for industrial firms to borrow to invest, and easier for them to service existing debt.

However, Lee Heng Guie, the head of economic research at CIMB Investment Bank, sounded a note of caution over a possible slowdown in the fourth quarter, with a slowdown in China adding to the effect on Malaysia’s manufacturers.

Lee said that regional purchasing manager indices (PMI) were still in negative territory, and that Malaysia’s export-oriented electrical and electronics (E&E) segment could be affected by external factors. He added that industrial performance would continue to be linked to the strength of domestic consumption and investment.

Anthony Dass, the chief economist at MIDF Amanah Investment Bank, an Islamic investment and advisory services firm, said he expects the picture to be mixed, with some industrial segments performing better than others. He did suggest, however, that exports of primary industrial products, including chemicals, timber and timber goods, should hold up. Dass added that the construction materials industry would continue to benefit from the government’s investments through its long-term Economic Transformation Programme (ETP).

The ETP is a wide-ranging programme of investment and reform that aims to shift Malaysia’s economy up a gear to achieve the long-anticipated goal of “developed nation status” by 2020. Its impact on the manufacturing sector is significant, as the programme seeks to increase value-added across the economy. In the industrial sector, this entails leveraging Malaysia’s competitive advantages, including its ample natural resources, geographical position and existing strengths in certain segments.

Malaysia is also hoping to develop higher-value, higher-margin business, such as increasing its export of petrochemicals to taper down reliance on crude oil; expanding sectors such as biotechnology and medical equipment; and nurturing high-tech, knowledge-intensive businesses.

“Under the New Economic Model, growth areas that are being targeted in the manufacturing sector include biotechnology, advanced electronics, optics and photonics, renewable energy, aviation, pharmaceuticals and medical devices,” Mustapa Mohamed, the minister of international trade and industry, told OBG.

This cannot be done without capital and expertise, and, as a result, Malaysia is trying to bring in greater foreign investment through agencies such as the Malaysian Investment Development Authority (MIDA). In 2011, 61% of the $18.1bn worth of approved manufacturing projects were foreign, according to the MIDA. The development of value-added industry also goes hand-in-hand with Malaysia’s strong emphasis on improving and expanding its education system.

Malaysian manufacturers have benefitted from the relatively benign domestic climate this year, good news for a country that is rebalancing towards local consumption. The ETP is already having an effect on demand; in the coming years the challenge will be securing the investment that can drive industry up the value chain.

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Malaysia: Industrial production up

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Malaysia: Steady and growing

Despite global uncertainty, Malaysia looks set to achieve its GDP growth target this year, thanks to a benign domestic climate, rising investment and fiscal stimulus.

According to Ahmad Husni Hanadzlah, the second minister of finance, Malaysia is on track to achieve its target of 4.5-5% economic growth for 2012. Husni, who was speaking to reporters on the side lines of a conference on October 16, said that he expected growth to be on the upper side of the target range, despite an expected slowdown in the third quarter.

Growth picked up to 5.4% in the second quarter from 4.7% in the first, but the third-quarter figure is expected to be lower, particularly after disappointing results in August, when exports fell by 4.5% year-on-year – the sharpest drop in three years – and industrial production shrank by 0.7%. The minister attributed the dip to the effects of the global economic environment.

However, Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the governor of the central bank, said that both the third and fourth quarters should show “good growth”, and indeed, the markets seem to agree, with the ringgit lifting in the first two weeks of October. The Malaysian currency has been trending broadly upwards against the dollar since June.

In an interview with the international press in October, Zeti said that she expected growth in 2013 to be “much the same” as this year, barring a deterioration of the world economic climate.

Thus far, Malaysia has performed remarkably well, despite the international uncertainties caused by the eurozone crisis, the US debt crunch and a slowdown in China. According to Zeti, domestic demand and consumption are both growing at 7%, while investment is running at 10%. The stock market hit all-time highs in October.

There are a number of reasons for Malaysia’s strong performance, including relatively high prices for some of the commodities it produces, including crude oil. Low inflation (1.4%) in the year to August has allowed the central bank to keep interest rates on hold for eight successive meetings. Meanwhile, the banking system is stable and well capitalised. Investors looking to shift portfolios towards emerging markets and away from the troubled economies of the EU and the US have alighted on Malaysia, helping to sustain growth. Further quantitative easing in developed economies, including the US, is expected to increase the flow of capital to emerging markets such as Malaysia.

Malaysia is also starting to benefit from the government’s Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), a wide-ranging series of reforms intended to release the economy’s latent potential in the quest to achieve “developed nation status” by 2020. A central aim of the ETP is to strengthen value-added industries and services, raise incomes and reduce the historic reliance on volatile commodity earnings.

While the ETP’s raft of schemes is feeding through into the economy over the long term, there has also been a significant fillip from the 2013 budget, which is already buoying consumer confidence and should help support domestic demand. The budget lays out RM251.6bn ($81.73bn) in spending, including more generous benefits for the poor, bonuses for public sector workers, as well as tax cuts. The largesse is partly linked to next year’s election, in which the ruling Barisan Nasional will face a strong challenge from the opposition.

After the election, however, the government may need to tighten its belt. While the 2013 budget foresees the deficit being reduced from 4.5% to 4% of GDP, this is still quite a high ratio, particularly as it adds to Malaysia’s debt pile, which currently stands at 52.6% of GDP – the highest in Asia after India and Pakistan, according to the international press. Malaysia is being urged to ponder long-term tax reforms to increase income and reduce its dependence on revenues from state oil and gas giant Petronas, which currently provides around 40% of government funds.

Should the global economic situation worsen, Malaysia will have limited scope for further fiscal stimulus without running the risk of undermining stability. Domestic demand has been an important factor in maintaining growth of late, which is a positive development both for the country and its international partners. But as a globalised economy, and an exporter, Malaysia cannot be isolated from the effects of international crises.

Nonetheless, Malaysia’s baseline scenario is continued impressive growth for the remainder of this year and 2013. The country is thus in a fortunate situation compared to much of the world, and it is now in a position to implement the investments and reforms that can keep it on course for its 2020 target.

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Malaysia: A farmer’s market

Recent efforts to upgrade Malaysia’s agricultural sector that include increased incentives for farmers to learn new techniques and adopt advanced technology are expected to lead to greater harvest yields and help meet rising domestic demand for food products.

While the sector contributes around 12% of GDP and provides employment to some 16% of the national workforce, most of this is concentrated in two key segments, palm oil and rubber production. The contribution of the rest of the agricultural sector is estimated at 4%, though its share of employment is higher, as much of Malaysia’s farming is still labour-intensive. At present, the input of the non-oil and rubber farming sectors is approximately $6.5bn a year, but the government wants to see this more than double by 2020 to $16bn.

To achieve this, Malaysia is trying to adopt smarter farming techniques. Agriculture was one of 12 separate National Key Economic Areas (NKEAs) identified under the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), launched in late 2010 as part of the government’s efforts to increase national income to more than $500bn by 2020 and achieve developed nation status. The ETP made a clear distinction between agriculture and the palm oil and rubber industries, which fall under a separate NKEA.

The ETP set out a number of initiatives to boost the sector, including a growing focus on export cash crops (tropical fruits), tapping into the global herbal products market and increasing the usage of advanced technology to improve yields.

Though the government’s master plan for agriculture foresees a doubling of revenue, it only projects a modest increase in employment, with technology replacing labour-intensive practices and a shift in rural employment structures. While it is unlikely that agriculture employment levels will lift substantially over the coming decade, the growing pool of rural labour is expected to be taken up by a rise in food-processing operations, with the value-added component of agriculture seen as one of the segments to record the highest level of expansion.

On April 5, Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy Prime Minister, said it was important for farmers to explore value-added agriculture activities, rather than just limiting themselves to cash-crop production. Farmers should look at venturing into food processing or producing material from by-products to earn extra money, he said during the opening of a fertiliser plant.

“To move forward, farmers must find new opportunities to enable them to earn long-term income,” Muhyiddin said.

In early April, Noh Omar, the minister of agriculture and agro-based industry, stated that the government was trying to create an environment in which farmers become businessmen and view agriculture as an industry, rather than merely growing produce.

“Our role is to facilitate the process and invest in capacity building in order to grow the agri-industry to become a key contributor to the nation’s economic wealth,” he said when speaking with the New Straits Times. “This has created opportunities for farmers to practice high-value agriculture and reach markets at all levels.”

Another opportunity recently unveiled by the government aims to protect local fruit and vegetable growers. In late March, the state announced that as of 2015, farmers’ markets and National Agribusiness Terminal (Teman) outlets will no longer be allowed to sell imported fresh produce.

According to data issued in late March by the Ministry of Agriculture and Agro-based Industry, some 40% of vegetables sold at the Teman outlets – centres set up by the state to market agricultural products – are imported from neighbouring countries.

As most of these vegetables are grown in Malaysia, the move by the government may not encourage the development of new product ranges, but it should help growers by reducing competition and giving them a stable market. A possible downside of the new policy, however, especially if it was extended to restrict fresh food imports beyond the limited scope of the farmers markets and Teman outlets, is that retail prices could be pushed up, as some of Malaysia’s neighbours have lower production and labour costs.

This could be offset to a large degree by improvements in economies of scale and efficiency, with higher production and turnover, as well as technological advances, helping to push down costs. These savings could then be passed on to the consumer.

Over the past 50 years, the Malaysian economy has become far more diverse, moving away from a time when agriculture accounted for 30% of GDP and provided employment for half the workforce.

While the government wants to see agricultural output increase, it is likely that other sectors of the economy will continue to outstrip rural production. By promoting smarter farming, and seeking to supply niche markets, Malaysia will come closer to achieving food security and increasing earnings.

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Malaysia: A farmer’s market

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