Economic Affairs

Budget 2016: Is focus too long term?

This year's Budget is targeted at long-term 'industry transformation'. Is the Government ignoring current business ills?

In the weeks leading up to Budget 2016, the Business Desk of The Straits Times did a series of in-depth reports on the state of the economy.

The conclusion? Singapore's economy was not in a good place.

Some sectors such as healthcare and biomedical are doing well but others such as finance and business services are facing uncertain times. Transport engineering is in far more barren territory, experiencing a full-on recession.

In the last three months of last year, the biomedical manufacturing cluster grew 4.5 per cent, led by medical technology, which rose 33 per cent, compared with the same period in 2014.

In contrast, marine and offshore engineering contracted by 25 per cent, with demand for oil rigs hammered by falling oil prices.

So there was much anticipation from business leaders ahead of Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat's Budget speech on March 24. They hoped in particular that he would take a closer look at the short-term challenges for firms. He did give some attention to this, but it was mostly done with a light touch.

Tax rebates were enhanced for the year, while financing options were boosted for small and medium enterprises. He also said that higher government expenditure should give a fiscal boost to the economy over the next year or so.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MIEL

Despite the risks that are clear and present, it is unclear if things will really take a sudden turn for the worse. This means a wait-and-see approach makes sense, which is exactly what Mr Heng has done.

But apart from that, there was no big-bang stimulus package to stave off the slowdown. Instead, the Budget reserved its bang for longer-term measures to get companies to restructure, or in the Budget's parlance, for industrial transformation.

This approach has been criticised by some quarters in the private sector.

DBS chief executive Piyush Gupta, in a piece for The Straits Times, praised the Budget for its measured approach to transforming the economy but wondered if the Government was underestimating the risks to growth in the immediate term.

Mr Inderjit Singh, a former MP, said in no uncertain terms that the Government appeared to have grossly underestimated the risks to companies today.

"The immediate issues facing companies, such as cost competitiveness, a drop in demand, drying up of credit and availability of manpower, seem to have been ignored.

"The Government may think the economy is not in such a bad shape yet and expects further decline before it steps in. This is a gross underestimation of the real situation our companies, especially SMEs (small- and medium-sized enterprises) are facing."

TOUGH ENVIRONMENT

To be fair, Mr Heng did acknowledge that economic conditions will be challenging for firms this year.

Firms are facing slower growth, higher costs and finding it more difficult to get financing. There will be more retrenchments and those laid off may take longer to find a job.

On top of that, the external environment looks poor and will hurt Singapore's externally oriented sectors such as manufacturing, which went through a torrid time last year.

But he cautioned against taking too pessimistic a view lest it becomes self-fulfilling. Expansion will be uneven but there are still pockets of growth, such as in infocommunications and medical technology.

Singapore grew at 2.1 per cent last year, a pace that is slow but not unexpected, given the volatile external environment and the restructuring that the economy is undergoing.

This year, the economy is expected to grow by between 1 per cent and 3 per cent, not that far off last year's pace.

In short, Singapore is not in dire straits, and certainly nowhere close to the last recession in 2009.

"Some have asked for a repeat of support measures we saw in 2009. But that was when the economy was already in deep recession, and facing huge uncertainty. For now, while the outlook is soft, the Ministry of Trade and Industry expects positive growth in 2016," said Mr Heng.

But there is some reason to believe that the risks of much slower growth could be higher than initially thought. There have been some improvements in manufacturing across Asia, said HSBC economist Frederic Neumann, noting that several countries' purchasing managers' indexes had improved last month.

But it is still too early to tell if the long manufacturing winter is thawing. Professor Nouriel Roubini, a professor of economics at New York University's Stern School of Business, believes the reverse is true - that any growth experienced so far is indicative of a weak global economy rather than a recovering one.

"What actual growth we've seen has been anaemic, below its potential as a painful process of deleveraging has been under way, first in the US, then in Europe and now in emerging markets, to stabilise and reduce high levels of private and public debts and deficits," he wrote in Time magazine.

Then there is the spectre of deflation, a situation where the general price level falls, which is looming large in many developed economies. In a deflationary environment, individuals hold back on spending because they believe prices will fall. This then leads to a cycle of falling demand and further falling prices, as has been the case with Japan for the past few decades.

This fear has prompted many central banks in Europe and Japan to institute negative interest rates - charging banks for keeping cash in deposits with the central banks - with a view to stimulating the economy.

Even the United States Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen did not rule out negative rates to spur growth and inflation, given the weak environment. The Fed has, in fact, also decided to delay raising rates, something it seemed intent on doing last December.

POLICY LEVERS

Despite the risks that are clear and present, it is unclear if things will really take a sudden turn for the worse. This means a wait-and-see approach makes sense, which is exactly what Mr Heng has done.

And even if the economy does deteriorate quickly, the Government does not, as a first line of defence, need to turn to fiscal measures to address the short-term issues.

For one, as Nominated MP Randolph Tan noted in the Budget debate on Monday, the Government has built a number of extra policy levers it could use to stimulate the economy in the short term. One is the foreign manpower policies and levies that were built up over the past five years. Last year, the Government delayed raising levies in acknowledgement of the slowing economy.

This year, Mr Heng also said there would be deferments for levy increases for the marine and process sectors, which have been hurt most by the global slowdown.

If things take a turn for the worse, other foreign manpower levers in other specific sectors could also be relaxed, noted Professor Tan.

"In this manner, the Government is expanding the application of the system of levies as a policy instrument, allowing it to evolve into what could eventually become a very powerful tool for managing the labour market, one more amenable to fine-tuning according to the degree and area of weakness in the economy," he said.

Then there is monetary policy which can be used to tweak the Singapore dollar and help balance concerns between inflation and growth.

So far, economists do not expect the Monetary Authority of Singapore to change its stance in the upcoming monetary policy statement later this month but, should a recession become a distinct possibility, the stance could quickly change.

A risk of recession could lead to a weaker Singdollar, which would boost exports.There are also the property cooling measures, which many private sector developers have been lobbying to be lifted.

The Government has been steadfastly resisting these calls, noting that it is still not yet time to lift the measures. Mr Heng, in his Budget speech, said that "based on the price level and current market conditions, our assessment is that it is premature to relax these measures".

But should an external negative shock shake the economy, measures such as the Additional Buyer's Stamp Duty, which has been singled out as one of the main factors for the weak property market, can easily be lifted.

Finally, there is also no stopping the Government from tapping its balance sheet, or even its reserves, to help companies stay afloat and preserve jobs, as it did with the Jobs Credit Scheme in 2009.

In January 2009, when it was clear the global economy was heading into a tailspin, the Government sought the President's approval to take out $4.9 billion from past reserves to fund two one-off measures to boost the economy - the Jobs Credit Scheme and the Special Risk-Sharing Initiative.

So yes, the Government has not quite addressed the situation of a slowing economy in the short term in a big way just yet.

But if Mr Heng needed to, there are plenty of options left in his bag that could help counteract the effects of a sharp slowdown.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 06, 2016, with the headline 'Budget 2016: Is focus too long term?'. Print Edition | Subscribe