Saturday, October 11, 2008

Facing Up To Recession

Source : The Business Times, October 11, 2008

Government should intervene to keep credit flowing to corporate sector

THIS time last year, with the stock market near its all-time high, the property market booming and the Singapore economy cantering towards a growth rate of 7.5 per cent for 2007, who would have thought we were, in fact, on the cusp of a recession?

Storms don't last forever and Singapore's recession, like so many before it, will pass

But here we are, entering our first technical recession - two consecutive quarters of negative growth - since 2001; the flash estimate for Q3 growth was a worse-than-expected minus 6.3 per cent. We're also in the first quarterly contraction on a year-on- year basis (minus 0.5 per cent) since the time of Sars, in the second quarter of 2003.

It's a sobering reminder of how vulnerable even a fundamentally sound and well-run economy like Singapore can be to global economic headwinds; except that what we're facing now is no mere headwind, but a gale-force storm.

There is nothing Singapore could have done to prevent this. There is not much that any Asian country could have done. And the financial market turbulence we are seeing is only the beginning of a long spell - at least a couple of years - of pain for any economy that depends heavily on doing business with the United States and Europe.

After the current phase of the financial storm subsides - which depends on what the G-7 finance ministers decide to do at their meetings in Washington - the theatre of action will shift to the real economy. The US, Europe and Japan will experience a marked slowdown, if not outright recession, and rising unemployment. The great American consumption machine, in particular, which accounts for more than two-thirds of US GDP, will be reduced to a shadow of its former self.

While the International Monetary Fund still resists calling a global recession - it forecasts 3 per cent global growth next year - that view could change.

But global recession or not, few Asian countries - certainly not those with export-oriented economies - will be spared from the backwash of slowing growth in the major economies. Not even China; while its growth rate will probably still be respectable at around 7-8 per cent, the economy of the coastal provinces, where hundreds of thousands of factories have to depend for their livelihoods on the American consumer, will be devastated. Thousands of SMEs in China have gone bust already this year.

India, for its part, has seen its financial markets ravaged as a result of selloffs by foreign institutional investors; but the real economy - which is still overwhelmingly domestically focused - will be relatively resilient.

But even if China and India boom, they cannot come close to compensating for a US slowdown: a mere 20 per cent reduction in consumption in the US wipes out the equivalent of all of the consumption of China and India combined. Add in a European slowdown as well and the problem is multiplied.

So in the circumstances, what are the policy options for a small open economy like Singapore? The focus would have to be on, first, ensuring that banking functions as normally as possible and businesses keep running.

Right now, banking is not functioning normally; the credit crunch and fear of counterparty risk has spread here too. Despite liquidity injections by the Monetary Authority of Singapore, interbank rates remain elevated. Banks have pulled in their credit lines to even well-run companies. If this continues, layoffs will inevitably rise.

There could well be more financial accidents, or at least strains, in the US and Europe in the months ahead, which suggests local banks will remain unusually risk averse. There is a strong case here for temporary government intervention to keep credit flowing to the corporate sector - whether through direct loans by government agencies such as SPRING (via their several loan schemes, which can be enhanced) or through credit guarantees.

There is a case, too, for an off-budget package of fiscal measures - particularly increases in public spending, as well as help to businesses and vulnerable groups - to cushion the impact of the slowdown. The last budget did not, and could not, see it coming, but it is here. And help can't wait till the next budget. A philosophy of prudent economic management practised over decades has yielded a legacy of fiscal surpluses. It's now time to put them to work.

This crisis is also an opportunity - for example, to ramp up infrastructure, to develop new capabilities through higher outlays on training and retraining, and promote new technologies.

Storms don't last forever and Singapore's recession, like so many before it, will pass. What matters now is how productively and creatively we handle it, and what shape we will be in when the global economy comes back.

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