Saturday, September 6, 2008

Mortgage Rates Still At Rock Bottom

Source : The Straits Times, Sep 6, 2008

HOMEBUYERS and sellers, hit by the recent market malaise, have at least one comforting constant in a market plagued by uncertainty - low interest rates.

Despite various economic woes - inflation, volatile oil prices, slowing economic growth - Singapore's banks are continuing to offer rock-bottom mortgages.

The latest to reaffirm Singapore's low interest rate home loans environment was Malayan Banking (Maybank), which yesterday launched a new three-year variable home loan that offers a low interest rate of 1.68 per cent a year for the first year.

Still, after that, the rates increase to 2.48 per cent for the second year and 2.88 per cent in the third.

Maybank's new package followed two other home loan launches by Standard Chartered Bank (Stanchart) and HSBC.

Both offer competitive interest rates, albeit through slightly more creative housing loans that are pegged to the Singapore Interbank Offered Rate (Sibor).

Stanchart's MortgageOne Sibor is priced at 0.9 per cent a year above the three-month Sibor for the first three years.

It comes with a unique offset feature that allows customers to use the interest earned on their deposits to reduce the interest payable on their home loans.

HSBC's latest Sibor-pegged home loan comes with a progressive interest rate reduction feature - the first of its kind here.

On top of the prevailing three-month Sibor rate, customers pay an additional interest of 0.75 per cent in the first year. The rates fall to Sibor plus 0.65 per cent in the second and, from the third year onwards, Sibor plus 0.55 per cent.

With interest rates so low, many home owners naturally consider refinancing their home loans with packages that are pegged to a faltering Sibor.

DBS Bank head of deposits and secured lending Koh Kar Siong said Sibor-pegged loans offer customers more transparency and also allow them to enjoy lower interest rates in the current market environment.

Mr Gregory Chan, OCBC Bank's head of secured lending, agreed. He said OCBC customers preferred home loans pegged to market rates because these are 'more transparent and bear greater significance for consumers during uncertain times'.

Top-Tier London Homes Still Hot; Wider Market Cools

Source : The Business Times, September 6, 2008

(London)-LONDON'S housing market may be cooling, but not when it comes to 10-bedroom mansions with designer interiors, indoor swimming pools and private gardens in the capital's most sought-after neighbourhoods.

Demand for these homes - known as the 'super-prime' or even 'uber-prime' slice of the market and typically priced upwards of £20 million (S$50.7 million) - is still far ahead of supply. And, fuelled by oil and commodity prices, which are adding to the wealth of emerging market millionaires, the appetite is showing no sign of slowing under the weight of the credit crunch that is crippling average homeowners, lenders and businesses.

Eliza Leigh, a partner at estate agent Knight Frank, said that the company in early July launched a flat for Grosvenor, the firm which manages the Duke of Westminster's property estate.

'In the first 48 hours, we generated 18 viewings for a property with a £25 million guide price,' she said. 'We achieved that by close of business on Tuesday, having launched at 9am on Monday, and that purchaser exchanged contracts by Friday.'

Analysts expect UK house prices to tumble at least 20 per cent from their peak as a decade-long boom turns to bust. The majority of agents say that business has ground to a halt and even the so-called 'prime' market - roughly, homes between around £pounds;1 million and £pounds;10 million - has slowed as once spendthrift bankers and executives draw back.

But 'super-prime' is blossoming, helped by London's enduring popularity and - critically - by a lack of properties at the very top end. There are few coveted addresses and even fewer families moving out. Reuters

Maybank Launches Two Home-Loan Promotions

Source : The Business Times, September 6, 2008

MAYBANK Singapore has launched two home-loan promotions, including a variable-rate loan that charges just 1.68 per cent interest in the first year. The interest payable on the three-year variable-rate mortgage rises to 2.48 per cent in the second year and 2.88 per cent in the third year, before adjusting to the bank's full board rate - now 3.75 per cent - for the fourth and subsequent years.

The rates for the first three years are based on the current level of the board rate less a discount, and would vary if the board rate were to change. Maybank introduced a single board rate for all its home loans in Singapore in February last year and has not changed it so far.

Maybank is also offering a four-year fixed-rate home-loan package starting at 2.28 per cent for the first year and rising to 2.88 per cent in the second year, 3.38 per cent in the third year and 3.88 per cent in the fourth year, before adjusting to the board rate.

The rates for the first four years are fixed and would not vary even if the bank were to change the board rate.

The promotional rates for both the variable and fixed-rate packages are available for a 'limited period', Maybank said. They apply to HDB and private property loans and are available to new home buyers or those who want to refinance their existing home loans.

Helen Neo, head of consumer banking at Maybank Singapore, said the promotional offers are to mark the 48th anniversary of the bank's presence in Singapore, its largest overseas market. It has 22 branches island-wide. 'We are proud to have made Singapore our home for 48 years now,' she said. Two weeks ago, Standard Chartered Bank launched a home loan package priced at 0.8 percentage points above the three-month Singapore interbank offered rate (Sibor) on the first business day of the month at the start of the loan, for the first three years.

The package also allows customers to link their other accounts with the bank and use the interest earned on their deposits to offset the interest payable on their home loan. The three-month Sibor on Sept 1 was 1.25 per cent. In July, HSBC introduced a home-loan package also pegged to the three-month Sibor but with an interest rate spread that falls after the first year.

The spread is 0.75 percentage points above the Sibor in the first year, 0.65 points in the second year and 0.55 points subsequently.

Recession: US May Dodge Bullet But Europe May Be Hit

Source : The Business Times, September 6, 2008

THE global outlook is pretty dismal, to be sure, but Conference Board president Gail Fosler does have a spot of 'good' news: the US economy is stabilising, with no recession in sight.

MS FOSLER : This is really a period of rolling adjustment that goes from sector to sector that will keep the US growth rate low

But make no mistake: with GDP growth forecast at 1.6 per cent for 2008 and 1.3 per cent next year, the US economy will remain stagnant for the foreseeable future, she told a Singapore audience yesterday.

And outside the US, the risks of a sharp global downturn have risen, with China, in particular, seeing 'one of the most pronounced slowdowns', she said.

Since the beginning of the year, New York-based Conference Board - a business research organisation of which Ms Fosler had been chief economist since 1989, and is now president - had taken a 'fairly firm but controversial' position that the US was not in a recessionary environment, slowdown notwithstanding.

But the US will be in a 'relatively slow growth mode for the foreseeable future'. The Conference Board's forecasts see the American economy growing under one per cent for at least three quarters through early 2009.

The opening speaker at the CapitaLand International Forum, Ms Fosler said the sharp US slowdown and recessionary risks are, in her opinion, not due primarily to the credit crisis nor even the loss of housing equity.

'The spiking of gasoline prices has exerted pressure on consumer incomes,' she noted. And with oil prices, and hence gasoline prices, beginning to ease, chances are consumer sentiment will improve, she said.

People are probably surprised that the US economy has managed to maintain growth through the period of housing turbulence, she said. And that's in part because its 'obviously manifest structural weaknesses in the financial and housing sectors' have been offset by 'advanced structural strengths in the business sector', she said.

'So the US is being carried, in some sense, by a structural productivity or momentum that is actually helping to sustain output and income' - even while the turmoil in the housing and financial services sectors eroded employment and other economic numbers, Ms Fosler added.

But the chickens coming home to roost are sort of doing it one at a time, she said. So while the housing woes may be bottoming out, and it looks like the financial challenges may be '75 per cent through', now the tax and manufacturing sectors are starting to weaken, she said. 'So this period is really a period of rolling adjustment that goes from sector to sector that will keep the US growth rate low, in the 1-2 per cent range, for the foreseeable future,' she said. And 1-2 per cent in the US context 'feels like recession even if it's not technically a recession'.

But the Conference Board's global indicators are signalling even sharper slowdown elsewhere, she pointed out. The Euroland indicator, for example, is moving towards recession. And Europe, in some ways, is in somewhat greater peril because, unlike the US, it doesn't quite have a productivity ballast. 'Part of the weakness we see in the US and Europe is becoming a global phenomenon that is moving from country to country' - sequentially, she said.

Europe's housing sector is 'actually falling as fast as the US housing sector', and the slump is now taking place in Australia, Ms Fosler noted.

Overall, the global economy is headed into a permanently high inflation environment. But it's in China that perhaps the slowdown is 'more significant than conventionally recognised' , she said.

'You've seen the first significant erosion in business confidence in China since the Asian financial crisis.' This is also reflected in the willingness of Chinese officials to reverse a lot of their policies put in place earlier to restrain the booming economy, she noted.

UK Economic Downturn Not As Bad As The 90s: Union

Source : The Straits Times, September 6, 2008

LONDON - The economic downturn in Britain is 'nowhere near' as bad as the early 1990s recession, but the government must do more to help if it is to stand any chance of staying in power, the Trades Union Congress said on Saturday.

With polls suggesting the ruling Labour party could face defeat in the next election due by 2010, unions are wary of kicking up too much controversy before a political conference season which could decide Prime Minister Gordon Brown's fate. -- PHOTO: ASSOCIATED PRESS

Britain's unions descend on the seaside city of Brighton this weekend, angry about sub-inflation pay deals in the sprawling public sector and worried about the impact on families of rising living costs and an economic slowdown.

However, with polls suggesting the ruling Labour party could face defeat in the next election due by 2010, unions are wary of kicking up too much controversy before a political conference season which could decide Prime Minister Gordon Brown's fate.

'There's clearly a danger that we could go into a recession,' Brendan Barber, head of the umbrella TUC group, told reporters in London.

'(But) in terms of what the economy means for ordinary people, clearly at the moment we are nowhere near the scale of the difficulties that we had during the period of the most recent Conservative government,' he said, referring to the early 1990s downturn.

Britain's economy failed to expand in the second quarter and is now expected to shrink as the housing market slump gathers pace, unemployment rises and consumer confidence crumbles.

Mr Brown, hardly a year into the job, has faced calls to resign from within his own party in part because the government's handling of the economic slowdown has brought his leadership credentials, and Labour's ability to govern, into question.

His much-vaunted economic rescue package launched this week has failed to impress analysts who say there is actually very little room in the public finances to stimulate the economy.

While Mr Brown appears to have ruled out a one-off cash gift to help families cope with soaring utility bills, he has raised the level at which taxes must be paid when buying a home.

'I think they need to do more. That will come through very strongly during the Congress,' Mr Barber said, arguing that Labour needed to show it was on the public's side and taking decisive action to support hard-working households during the downturn.

'If that isn't achieved by the government then they risk badly losing public and electoral support,' he said.

Mr Barber warned that Britain could also be hit by more strikes over public sector pay, highlighting the civil service and teachers among those still disgruntled by their pay deals.

'We will potentially see industrial action,' he said, suggesting the government could consider altering its self-imposed limits on public debt to help finance higher salaries in the public service.

'What makes sense in today's world is to use government funding to help keep the economy moving rather than being locked down by that limit,' he said. -- REUTERS

Is The Financial Crisis Over? Not So Fast

Source : The Business Times, September 6, 2008

CERNOBBIO (Italy) - Oil prices are down, the dollar is up, and US growth and exports have perked up a little. So is the global financial crisis winding down anytime soon? Top economists and business leaders meeting on Friday at an Italian lakeside resort found plenty to discuss but little to agree on.

Peter Sutherland, chairman of British oil company BP Plc, predicted global economic conditions will remain difficult for some time - but will eventually recover due to growth in China and the rest of Asia.

Mr Sutherland, who is also chairman of London-based Goldman Sachs International, said equity markets would regain strength over time, but acknowledged it was impossible to tell exactly when that would occur.

'I expect a continued period of difficulty because of lower growth, higher inflation and credit markets - but like everything it will pass,' he told The Associated Press on the sidelines of the Ambrosetti Forum at the Villa d'Este on Italy's Lake Como.

Few were willing to make predictions on the record, but in private conversations there was a clear sense of optimism that by end of 2009 the bad debt traced largely to the US sub-prime crisis will have worked its way out of the system and that global financial markets will have stabilized.

Jim O'Neill, Goldman Sachs' head of global economic research, said he believes the credit crisis was largely a problem for the United States - as well as Britain and Spain - and that it amounted to an inevitable correction after years of debt-fuelled demand and deficit spending.

'If you're thinking truly globally, you have to think very differently from what we've been brought up on,' he told AP. 'The problem is very US-centric... It is conceivable that this is a structural shift and going forward the US will see a very different evolution in its growth.'

Mr O'Neill - widely credited with the fashionable acronym BRIC to signify the rapidly emerging Brazil, Russia, India and China - noted that those economies were performing well and the global economy was expected to grow at almost 4 per cent over the next year.

And with economies so interlocked, he argued, those countries should be accorded a more prominent place in global governance, regardless of concerns about democratic credentials - for example by including them in a rejiggered Group of Eight, which currently includes Russia but not the other three.

'If I believed that the Chinese consumer was about to collapse I would have a completely different view,' he added.

Others at the off-the-record conference expressed scepticism that Chinese consumers could take the place of the Americans anytime soon.

Another issue that occupied delegates was whether the recent rally in the US dollar was just a blip or a new trend that could trouble rising exports which have to date helped stave off recession.

The dollar has rallied more than 10 per cent against the euro and sterling in recent weeks, largely due to fears of an economic slowdown in Europe. Friday afternoon, the euro traded at US$1.4281 and the British pound was quoted at US$1.7673.

Delegates clashed over whether the current inflationary uptick in the United States and some European nations was a long-term threat.

Others voiced concern at what they see as a populist tendency toward protectionism emerging during the current US election campaign, particularly on the side of the Democrats.

Some argued that lower oil prices - crude oil has retreated from July's record high above US$147 a barrel to around US$106 now - and a bust in the commodity boom would have a deflationary effect.

But Jacob Frenkel, vice chairman of insurance and financial services giant American International Group, argued that with real interest rates - the central bank rate minus inflation - near negative territory in the US and other major economies, greater inflation was a major concern.

'If you look down the road another year or two it's very likely that you'll see higher interest rates,' he told AP - a development which, in the United States, might suppress already anaemic consumer spending as well as exports.

The annual gathering at Lake Como is the first since the credit crunch dried up money markets late last summer, leading to turbulence on other financial markets and putting major economies like the United States and several European countries, including Britain, on the path to recession.

Billed as a 'mini-Davos' after the annual conference held in Switzerland, the event is being attended by leaders including President Giorgio Napolitano of Italy, President Shimon Peres of Israel, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and US Vice President Dick Cheney. -- AP

Sentosa To Review Transport Links In Time For IR

Source : The Straits Times, Sep 6, 2008

New chief also plans to create fresh masterplan and ensure smooth opening for attractions

THE new chief of Sentosa said the resort island is evaluating its transport network to make sure it can handle the hordes of visitors expected to accompany the opening of its integrated resort (IR) in 2010.

Mr Mike Barclay said the island's cable cars, buses, skytrains and roads would be examined to ensure they can accommodate up to 15 million people a year.

Sentosa's new chief Mr Barclay with visitors (from right) Mitchel Toh, eight; Clara Sim, seven; and Ms Chan Pye Lin, 37. -- ST PHOTO: SAMUEL HE

He said: 'The opening of the IR will bring many challenges for areas like infrastructure. We must make sure we can handle the capacity.'

Mr Barclay, who became Sentosa's chief last month, was speaking for the first time about his outlook for the island. Along with re-evaluating the transport grid, Mr Barclay hopes to create a new 10-year masterplan and see several new beach attractions open next year.

When it opens in the first quarter of 2010, Resorts World at Sentosa is expected to more than double the six million people who visit the area annually. It will include attractions such as Asia's first Universal Studio and a Marine Life Park with whale sharks.

Two weeks into the job, the 41-year-old said he is unable to give more concrete plans on what he intends to do. He took over from Mr Darrell Metzger, who quit last April.

However, Mr Barclay said he wants to 'enrich a very good model that we have here'.

His short-term goal is to make sure four new attractions slated to open on Siloso Beach by next year do so smoothly.

The beach will have a new zipline, a sky diving simulator and a machine that creates waves up to 3m high for surfers. It is also expected to feature a watersports centre that will have food and beverage outlets as well as various sea sports.

Mr Barclay is also working on a new 10-year masterplan for the development of the island after the last masterplan spearheaded by his predecessor was completed earlier this year. Mr Metzger was credited with turning around the island's fortunes, reviving lagging visitor numbers and lacklustre attractions.

The new masterplan is expected to be up by the end of the year. Mr Barclay said: 'It is an exciting time ahead for us.'

However, one hotel project that was supposed to have opened on the island this year has stalled. The $45 million Palawan Beach Resort by NTUC Club is back on the drawing board amid rocketing land construction costs.

The 200-room resort was announced three years ago as a high-end hotel for the working class.

A NTUC Club spokesman said it is 'reviewing the concept and plans of the resort' to ensure that it will 'serve our social mission to provide an affordable social and recreational facility for our members and the masses'.