BY EILEEN NG
Published: 9 June 2014 | Updated: 9 June 2014 1:39 AM
Malaysia's public debt-to-GDP ratio has been hovering at an all-time high of more than 50% since 2010 because of large fiscal deficits incurred when an aggressive stimulus package was launched to bolster the country’s economy during the global financial crisis. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, June 9, 2014.
Malaysia risks seeing its economy contract and losing its global market share in key export sectors if it fails to tackle its high levels of public and rising external debts, a United Kingdom-based economist has warned.
Sarah Fowler from Oxford Economics said while the nation's shrinking current account surplus was not a major concern as it was expected to stay in excess in the next few years, there are worries over Malaysia's capital account due to rising external debt, which has shot up close to 40% of its gross domestic product (GDP) in recent years.
The country's public debt-to-GDP ratio has been hovering at an all-time high of more than 50% since 2010 because of large fiscal deficits incurred when an aggressive stimulus package was launched to bolster the country’s economy during the global financial crisis.
"Addressing the concerns would enable Malaysia to achieve a higher growth path, reaching a higher per capita income sooner. We expect the economy to grow by just more than 4% over the next five years but if the concerns were addressed growth could exceed 4.5%," she told The Malaysian Insider in an email.
Fowler, who produced a report on "Why Malaysia is now a more risky prospect than Indonesia" which was highlighted by global financial news site Bloomberg's columnist William Pesek last week, used 17 indicators to develop a scorecard to assess emerging market vulnerability to external economic and financial shocks.
Among the indicators are capital inflows, external financing, the current account and budget balances, credit markets and the economy.
"Our scorecard assesses Malaysia as a more vulnerable economy than Indonesia, Thailand or India," she wrote in her report.
Touching on external debt, Fowler had reported that non-foreign direct investment capital inflows averaged 6.6% of GDP a year between 2009 and 2012, the highest in their sample of 13 emerging markets and more than Indonesia's average of 2.2%.
"More than half of all portfolio investment in Malaysia went into debt securities between 2010 and 2012, up from close to a third between 2005 and 2009.”
She had also noted in her report that the short-term component of external debt was also increasing, which is risky as it requires repaying or rolling over earlier.
Short-term debt as a share of GDP reached 15.2% by the end of last year, up from 10% in 2007. In contrast, India’s and Indonesia’s short-term debt accounted for less than 5% of their GDP.
Overall, external indebtedness in Malaysia is low relative to exports, however, which means that funding the debt may not be a problem.
But Malaysia has an unusually open economy; exports are equivalent to more than 80% of GDP, lower only than in Singapore and Hong Kong.
On public debt, Fowler said although Putrajaya has reduced its fiscal deficit as a share of GDP from 6.5% in 2009 to 3% last year, there was a need to continue to manage the public finances carefully to trim the deficit further.
This, she said, could be done by broadening the tax revenue base in order to try and raise revenues.
"Public debt has risen in recent years and reducing this would be good because money that currently has to be spent paying the interest on the debt could be spent in more productive areas."
However, Fowler expects the public debt to GDP ratio to remain above 50% for the next five years, saying Indonesia’s, Thailand‘s and Korea's public debts amount to no more than a third of their respective GDP.
Fowler is not the first person to sound the alarm bells on Malaysia's economy.
In October last year, financial analyst Jesse Colombo warned that Malaysia's economic bubble will burst after China's economy takes a tumble and global and local interest rates continue to rise.
Writing in Forbes online magazine, Colombo said: "Malaysia’s bubble will most likely pop when China’s economic bubble pops and/or as global and local interest rates continue to rise, which are what caused the country’s credit and asset bubble in the first place.
"The resumption of the US Federal Reserve’s QE taper plans may put pressure on Malaysia’s financial markets in the near future. Malaysia’s rapidly deteriorating current account surplus due to weaker exports is another worrisome development.” – June 9, 2014.
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