Bleak exports haunt S-E Asia braced for Trump

The Philippines is anticipated to post the strongest growth of any major Asian economy next year, building on a solid run in recent years.
The Philippines is anticipated to post the strongest growth of any major Asian economy next year, building on a solid run in recent years.PHOTO: REUTERS

Prospects for South-east Asia's exports - which have powered growth for decades - are looking bleak.

With global growth under pressure and the United States threatening to turn more protectionist under President-elect Donald Trump, the outlook for the export-dependent region is faltering.

Countries that are poised to handle the downturn best next year are those with growing consumer populations.

The Philippines is anticipated to post the strongest growth of any major Asian economy next year, building on a solid run in recent years.

"The Philippine economy starts 2017 from a position of strength and can better withstand the impact of rising external risks than most other countries in Asia," Nomura Holdings said.

"Domestic demand should remain the overarching driver, particularly investment spending, which we still expect to rise and offset the negative contribution from net exports."

Vietnam, a low-cost producer, is one of the few economies in Asia still posting export growth.

Foreign direct investment from China and elsewhere should keep driving output but relatively high inflation, a large budget deficit and low foreign reserves remain a concern, said Oxford Economics economist Beatrice Tanjangco.

Indonesia, which has the largest population in South-east Asia, is expected to benefit from any recovery in commodity prices after its mineral and natural gas producers took hits in recent years.

Capital outflows are a concern after the prospect of higher rates in the US recently triggered a sell- off in Indonesian bond markets, and this may curtail options for the central bank if growth falters, United Overseas Bank (UOB) said.

Malaysia's economic growth has eased this year amid weaker exports and slower government spending, with the ringgit the worst-performing Asian currency this year.

Trade with the US is highly vulnerable to any possible turn towards protectionism as 74 per cent of its exports are machinery and transport equipment that the US may produce at home, HSBC Holdings said.

Malaysia's firms are also closely linked with Chinese exporters selling products to the US, it added.

Thailand is similarly exposed to the US market as it sells higher value-added products than neighbours like Vietnam.

Like Malaysia, it is expected to hold a general election next year and has been affected by political uncertainty which is capping domestic spending.

The extended mourning period for a year following the death of King Bhumibol Adulyadej "is likely to depress consumer sentiment and put a lid on consumer spending in 4Q16 and 1Q17", Morgan Stanley said.

Singapore is anticipated to post the slowest economic growth of any country in the region, after its economy contracted in the third quarter of this year from the previous three months.

"Faced with the onset of poorer economic prospects and job market, weaker consumer confidence had resulted in a collective 'tightening your belt' situation among residents," UOB said.

"We hope that this does not start the vicious cycle where lower investments today result in lower potential GDP growth in the next period."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 29, 2016, with the headline 'Bleak exports haunt S-E Asia braced for Trump'. Print Edition | Subscribe