Singapore's small construction firms likely to face debt woes

Curbs on property speculation may worsen their already tight liquidity

Singapore's small construction firms are likely to face more difficulties repaying debt as a clampdown on property speculation worsens their already tight liquidity.

The island's economy grew at a slower pace in the second quarter than initially projected as construction plunged.

Singapore increased stamp duties for developers in July, and also tightened borrowing limits for individuals taking up their first housing loan, after property prices jumped this year.

Any slowdown in demand for homes is likely to hurt the construction sector, which accounted for 12.3 per cent of Singapore's employment last year. Small domestic construction firms are especially vulnerable because they face issues including thin margins, according to EY.

Many of the firms are probably affected by rising interest rates on their borrowings, while delays in collections from customers "would result in tight liquidity and potential difficulties in repaying their loans", according to Ms Angela Ee, a partner at EY.

Cracks were already emerging prior to the curbs. Singapore-listed Ryobi Kiso Holdings, which specialises in piling, said in June that its subsidiary was unable to meet repayment obligations.

Property developers are likely to squeeze construction firms in an attempt to maintain margins, resulting in "headwinds", according to Mr Simon Jong, head of fixed income research at DBS Group Holdings. Bigger developers often contract out projects to smaller construction companies in Singapore.

Any slowdown in demand for homes is likely to hurt the construction sector, which accounted for 12.3 per cent of Singapore's employment last year. Small domestic construction firms are especially vulnerable because they face issues including thin margins.

The property curbs have already hurt the bonds of smaller Singapore developers. Oxley Holdings' notes due in 2021 have slumped 9.4 US cents on the dollar this year to 90.5 US cents, according to Bloomberg-compiled prices.

Bonds sold by Singapore-listed Chip Eng Seng Corp, which built the tallest public housing project in Singapore, The Pinnacle @ Duxton, have also declined. Its debt due in 2022 has fallen 6.4 cents this year to 96 cents on the Singapore dollar.

An executive at Chip Eng Seng declined to comment.

An external spokesman for Oxley Group was not immediately able to comment.

"Singapore developers with higher leverage may have less room to manoeuvre, in case they cannot sell their units," said OCBC credit research analyst Wong Hong Wei, speaking generally. "I think the Singapore bond market looks shut out for a number of high-yield property companies unless they pay up significantly."

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 12, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore's small construction firms likely to face debt woes'. Print Edition | Subscribe