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 palm oil industry faces tough market

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Malaysia: Forecasting growth in insurance

The insurance sector is forecast to see substantial growth in the next few years as continued diversification, consolidation and international activity spur rising premiums and uptake of new services. Moderate GDP growth for the rest of the year, however, could pose a challenge to growth as the effects of a weakening global economy trickle down to private consumers.

Gross direct premiums are expected to reach RM14.3bn ($4.48bn) in 2012 and rise to RM17.5bn ($5.49bn) in 2015, according to the Malaysia Rating Corporation (MARC), a full-service ratings agency, which released its forecasts in a research note in June. This represents a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7%, which is likely to outstrip broader economic growth.

MARC expects new business premiums in the life insurance segment to reach RM10.2bn ($3.19bn) this year, rising to RM13bn ($4.08bn) by 2015. The non-life (general) segment is also forecast to grow from RM4.1bn ($1.29bn) in 2012 to RM4.5bn ($1.41bn) in five years’ time.

The agency said that the life insurance market would benefit from rising incomes, as well as increased deployment of “new and innovative products”. General insurance would see growth stimulated by the implementation of mega-projects, leading to greater demand in a number of segments, including workers’ compensation, employer liability, contractor risk and engineering. The medical and personal accident segments will also continue to perform well, MARC said.

Other observers are even more upbeat about the sector’s outlook. In May, the local press reported that the Life Insurance Association of Malaysia (LIAM) said the life sector could grow by 10% in 2012. Growth would be driven by “the large and growing middle-income population in the region with higher levels of disposable income and who are also financially literate,” Donald Joshua Jaganathan, the assistant governor of Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, has said.

The market’s recent growth and promising outlook have led several major international players enter the market. In 2009, the government lifted the ceiling on foreign ownership of insurers to 70% from 49%, allowing greater participation from international firms, which have brought an increased level of dynamism to the industry.

Competition is expected to rise further following the pending auction of the insurance joint venture between the UK’s Aviva and Malaysia’s CIMB Bank. Aviva is selling its 49% share in the local firm as it withdraws from non-core markets, partly to raise cash to offset its exposure to the eurozone crisis. CIMB may also sell a substantial portion of its 51% stake in the venture.

Competition, greater international participation and a new risk-based capital (RBC) framework are also driving consolidation in the industry, as players look to pool resources and capitalise on economies of scale and strategic fits. The RBC regulations require firms to have a minimum 130% of supervisory capital-adequacy ratio (CAR).

According to Matt Harris, the CEO of Chartis Malaysia, the local branch of the international insurer, “RBC implementation helped accelerate the pace of consolidation, with seven mergers and acquisitions taking place in 2011. Many of the local conglomerates took RBC as an opportunity to consolidate. It is widely known that other existing players in the market would entertain potential suitors if approached, so more consolidation is expected.”

Harris told OBG that he expects the sharia-compliant Islamic insurance segment – known as takaful – to continue to grow strongly. In June, the local press reported that Etiqua Insurance & Takaful, the insurance branch of Maybank, the country’s largest bank, has forecast that the family takaful market, which accounted for 80% of the Malaysian takaful segment in 2010, could grow to RM7.2bn ($2.26bn) in two to three years from the current RM4.2bn ($1.32bn).

CAR regulations for the takaful segment similar to those rolled out for conventional insurance are being introduced and are expected to be in effect by the beginning of 2013. While the Malaysian Takaful Association is confident that existing industry players will be able to meet the new requirements, Tunku Dato’ Ya’acob Bin Tunku Tan Sri Abdullah, the CEO of MAA Group (MAAG), which has interests in the takaful sector, told OBG that he expected the new legislation to catalyse mergers and acquisitions in the segment.

According to Abdullah, conventional insurance firms owned by banks have survived better since the CAR regulations were tightened, as the high profits of the banking divisions have funded the increased capital requirements of the insurance business. The insurance divisions, which tend to make a smaller contribution to profits, are not able to meet the significant increase in CAR themselves.

With the insurance market in the process of dynamic change, due to rising demand and regulatory changes that aim both to increase solidity and allow greater international participation, consolidation, diversification and the rise of the takaful segment look set to transform the sector over the coming years.

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Malaysia: Forecasting growth in insurance

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Malaysia: Technology to the fore

With data use growing strongly and existing capacity under pressure, Malaysia’s broadband network is undergoing necessary expansion to keep up with demand. Indeed, as penetration growth slows, improving speeds and service quality have become a priority.

The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the industry regulator, expects household broadband penetration to rise to 65% by the end of 2012, up from 62.9% in 2011, the local press reported on April 16.

Mohamed Sharil Tarmizi, the chairman of the MCMC, stated that broadband growth would be driven by demand for higher internet speed in both the fixed-line and mobile segments. According to Sharil, the market may be nearing saturation, but there remains substantial scope for improving capacity.

Sharil cited the largely state-owned Telekom Malaysia’s UniFi high-speed broadband services as a market leader in strengthening broadband infrastructure. He said that lowering costs and broadening awareness would also support further penetration growth.

Malaysia’s new 2.6-gigahertz (GHz) spectrum for long-term evolution wireless communication (LTE), expected to be introduced in 2013, will be central to efforts to increase capacity. Sharil asserted that the new spectrum would complement those in the lower band, particularly those of 1 GHz and below.

In December 2011, the MCMC allocated spectrum in the 2.6-GHz band to nine companies, including the country’s four GSM operators. The development is expected to help support the expansion of mobile broadband services and ease existing bottlenecks in the system, as well as provide faster connectivity.

LTE comes none too soon, as current networks may be finding it harder to cope with the rapid expansion of data traffic driven by the increasing use of smartphones, tablets and other internet-reliant devices. According to Nitin Bhat, a partner and the head of consulting at Frost & Sullivan, data volumes are doubling every 12 to 15 months.

Sharil has said he expects the rollout of LTE to increase cooperation between operators on sharing infrastructure. He anticipates that some firms will opt to use mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) technology on existing infrastructure, rather than building extensive new network equipment, which is capital-intensive. This would be particularly useful to newcomers to the segment, who lack infrastructure of their own.

By sharing transmission networks, base stations and towers, operators can potentially lower capital and fixed costs, which will allow them to bring down prices to the consumer, strengthen services, or both. Joint investments could also reduce capital risk.

“Infrastructure rationalisation” is a relatively new trend in the competitive Malaysian information and communications technology (ICT) market, but one that could bear fruit.

In 2011, mobile firms Maxis and U Mobile agreed to share the former’s 3G radio access network (RAN), following an announcement in 2011 that Celcom Axiata and DiGi, the country’s other mobile operators, would look to collaborate on networks and infrastructure.

Some analysts have been critical of the decision to award so many players access to the 2.6-GHz spectrum, arguing that it could lead to a fragmented market, with some players under-utilising their allotted capacity, and the more successful finding their limited bandwidth pressured.

However, it is still unclear how many of the operators will actually commence operations in the near future. Overall, the introduction of LTE, with its capabilities for speed and volumes, is an important step forward for the sector.

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Malaysia: Technology to the fore

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