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News analysis

Weak trade numbers point to tough days ahead

Steep decline a sign of worsening prospects and growing risk of technical recession

The Singapore economy has already suffered a deluge of bad news this year, but it seems there will be more to come.

Yesterday's trade numbers were not just a sign of an increasingly lacklustre outlook, they also hinted at a growing risk of a technical recession.

Singapore's non-oil domestic exports sank 15.6 per cent last month from a year earlier, according to IE Singapore data yesterday. This was the steepest yearly decline since February 2013 and far worse than economists' expectations of a 12.3 per cent fall.

 

The weak performance was due in part to an especially strong showing in the corresponding month last year.

But it also left little doubt that 2016 will be a tough year for Singapore. Prospects have worsened since the start of the year amid fresh slides in global oil prices, pessimism about China, and uncertainties in developed markets like Europe and Japan.

The latest statistics put in clearer context a move by the central bank last Thursday to stop the Singapore dollar from rising further against a basket of key currencies.

Market watchers were taken by surprise when the Monetary Authority of Singapore deployed a weapon it had typically used only when the country was in recession.

After all, flash estimates from the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MTI) showed the economy expanded 1.8 per cent in the first quarter, compared with the same period a year ago - a modest rate for sure, but hardly recessionary.

However, the growth momentum is slowing. The MTI data showed that growth was zero per cent for the January to March quarter, compared with the previous three months.

This data is subject to revision, which means finalised numbers released next month could very well show a quarter-on-quarter contraction in economic growth.

Citi economist Kit Wei Zheng said the central bank's move and yesterday's data point to further economic stagnation - or even mild recession - over the next one to two quarters on weaker growth in export-dependent sectors.

This, combined with weak first-quarter data, puts Singapore at growing risk of sinking into a technical recession, defined as two consecutive quarters of decline in economic output.

Mr Kit expects government growth forecasts for this year to be shaved to 1 per cent to 2 per cent, down from the current 1 per cent to 3 per cent, once data for the first half of the year is available.

Meanwhile, ANZ economists Weiwen Ng and Glenn Maguire said that the MAS might take action again at its next policy review in October if the outlook does not pick up.

All in all, the signs point to more rough seas ahead.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'News analysis Weak trade numbers point to tough days ahead'. Print Edition | Subscribe