Saturday, October 11, 2008

S'pore Slips Into Recession, Risks Skewed On Downside

Source : The Business Times, October 11, 2008

Official 2008 growth estimate cut to 3%, but market economists already shaving 2009 forecasts

EVEN with the market primed for recession, the Q3 flash GDP estimates still fell below expectations. And, with no quick rebound in sight, economists are looking ahead at a lean 2009 as well.

The early estimates produced yesterday by the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) show a broad-based sharp slowdown, with the economy contracting not only sequentially as widely expected, but in year-on-year terms too. MTI now expects the economy to grow 'around 3 per cent' in 2008, down from its August forecast of 4-5 per cent.

Based only on July and August data, GDP fell 6.3 per cent in Q3 from Q2 in adjusted, annualised terms. Coming straight after a 5.7 per cent decline in the preceding quarter, this spells a technical recession - Singapore's first since the second half of 2002.

But, against expectations, GDP has also fallen from a year ago in Q3, by 0.5 per cent. The last time the economy went into the red in year-ago terms was in Q2 2003 when GDP fell 1.8 per cent during the Sars outbreak.

Both MTI and the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) - which yesterday eased monetary policy by moving to a neutral stance, from the 'modest and gradual' currency appreciation policy it had maintained since April 2004 - yesterday described the Singapore economy's near-term prospects in plain stark terms.

The external risks remain on the downside as the ongoing financial turmoil has presented 'new uncertainties' for the Singapore economy, MAS says. A more severe global downturn cannot be discounted, and Singapore's economic growth will 'likely remain below its potential rate over the next few quarters', the central bank adds.

A slip into technical recession here had been widely flagged, following months of sluggish manufacturing output due to pharmaceutical peculiarities. But now the precision engineering and chemicals clusters have also slowed because of weaker external demand, MTI says.

The ministry also expects the global financial crisis to take its toll in the months ahead on Singapore's financial services sector, particularly 'sentiment-sensitive' activities such as stocks trading and fund management.

MAS also sees services industries such as the transport-hub and tourism being hit by the global downturn.

As for the construction sector, 'despite a strong pipeline of projects, a shortage of contractors, a tight labour market for engineers and project managers, and longer waiting times for equipment' have delayed the projects, MTI notes.

Market economists share the official concerns - just more bearishly. Most had pared their forecasts of Singapore's 2008 GDP growth well before the latest official revision, and some now cite the risks of the growth falling below 3 per cent - probably between 2.5 and 3.0 per cent, they reckon.

Indeed, OCBC Bank's economists have belatedly cut their 2008 forecast to 2 per cent, and see the economic weakness extending into the first half of 2009.

UBS Investment Bank strategist Nizam Idris said the latest data show the economy to be in 'deep recession', with all the key figures 'well below expectations'.

The Q3 flash figures - which will eventually be updated with the September data - imply that industrial production probably grew modestly by 1-2.5 per cent last month, economists estimate. Any lower and the final Q3 GDP figure could well be worse than the already weak flash figures, United Overseas Bank's economists note. And, short of a strong pharma rebound soon, the manufacturing slump could extend into Q1 2009, they add.

Nanyang Technological University economist Choy Keen Meng notes wryly that his 'worse-case scenario' forecasts issued in March - of US recession and Singapore growing 3 per cent in 2008 - are coming true.

But he expects some recovery in year-on-year GDP growth to 3-4 per cent in Q4, partly on account of a low base in Q4 2007.

'Sluggish growth of 2-3 per cent is expected in the first half of next year. If the financial turmoil can be brought under control by then, we might be lucky to see a gradual recovery beginning in the second half. All in all, the economic outlook for 2009 is not looking good. GDP growth is likely to come in at about 4 per cent or even lower, barring a protracted global economic slump.'

Others such as Standard Chartered Bank economist Alvin Liew recently halved his 2009 growth forecast for Singapore to 2 per cent.

One silver lining, perhaps, amid the gloom and doom: Inflationary pressures will ease. MAS sees Singapore's headline inflation rate falling to 2.5-3.5 per cent in 2009, from 6-7 per cent this year. Not fast enough, says Stanchart's Mr Liew, pointing out that Singapore's 'historical comfort zone' for inflation is just 1-2 per cent.

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