For Singapore, a new normal

The upshot of China's woes is that Singapore will have to adjust to a structurally slower rate of growth in its largest trading partner, as well as more volatility ahead, analysts say.

China's economic growth for the whole of last year is expected to have cooled to its slowest pace in a quarter of a century - 6.9 per cent, down from 7.3 per cent in 2014.

And many market watchers expect that growth in the world's second largest economy will moderate further as it moves to a new model of growth - driven by domestic demand instead of exports and investment. The weak Chinese currency - down more than 5 per cent against the greenback since August - may also drive the global economy closer to a recession, as China's purchasing power deteriorates every time the currency is devalued.

Here, the one industry that could be directly affected is tourism.

In the first 10 months of last year, 1.78 million Chinese visited Singapore, the second largest group after Indonesians. But some hospitality firms are already worried about the impact the Chinese slowdown could have on their business here.

Golden Travel Service estimates that there will be a 10 per cent drop in its Chinese market business for the upcoming Chinese New Year period. "Many of them are adopting a wait-and-see attitude, partly because of the slowdown in the (Chinese) economy, partly because of the government," says Madam Lin Dengli, founder and chairman of the travel agency, referring to the anti-corruption crackdown.

"Many Chinese officials might have taken their families on overseas trips during the Chinese New Year holidays in the past. But nowadays, they're all afraid to take overseas holidays due to their positions," she says.

The falling yuan may also mean less spending by tourists here, say analysts.

LOCAL OIL AND GAS FIRMS HITWeaker Chinese demand for oil has also hurt local offshore oil and gas companies such as Sembcorp Marine and Ezra, which have seen their profit levels and share prices dive over the past year.

The falling yuan could also hurt demand for Singapore exports, especially since Chinese firms are also increasingly sourcing from within the mainland.

This has hit Singapore as well as its Asean neighbours as China is a major market for regional exports, notes CIMB Private Bank economist Song Seng Wun. "For Singapore, it's also about how well Asean as a whole is doing and growth in (Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore and the Philippines) has been down over the last two years. China is also important to the whole region," he adds.

Singapore companies which trade with China usually use the US dollar instead of the yuan, but the weaker yuan is a concern for emerging markets that compete directly with China in exports. This is because these other emerging economies, such as Brazil and Indonesia, may also devalue their currencies to keep their exports competitive.

Still, most economists believe China's economy faces a prolonged and gradual loss of momentum rather than a sharp slowdown. Despite turmoil in the stock and currency markets, there is little evidence that conditions in China have deteriorated dramatically in recent weeks. Indeed, DBS economist Irvin Seah says exporters here should not count on a rebound or return to record levels of growth in China.

Singapore will have to get used to weaker Chinese demand, which means companies will have to streamline business processes and continuously look for new ways to add value overseas.

"That's a more sustainable long-term strategy, rather than hoping for demand to pick up," he adds.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 17, 2016, with the headline For Singapore, a new normal. Subscribe