Malaysia Q4 growth picks up to 4.5%, thanks to exports and domestic demand

Malaysia's landmark Petronas Twin Towers and other commercial buildings are seen from the KL Tower observation deck in Kuala Lumpur.
Malaysia's landmark Petronas Twin Towers and other commercial buildings are seen from the KL Tower observation deck in Kuala Lumpur.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (REUTERS) - Malaysia's economy grew 4.5 per cent in the fourth quarter from a year earlier, ending a year of tepid growth on a stronger note helped by solid exports and resilient domestic demand.

Fourth-quarter growth was driven by private sector spending and manufacturing and services sectors, the central bank said on Thursday (Feb 16).

Growth matched the median forecast of 4.5 per cent in a Reuters poll, and topped the third quarter's 4.3 per cent.

But full-year 2016 growth slowed to 4.2 per cent, compared to 5.0 per cent in 2015 and the lowest annual figure since the economy contracted in 2009.

Malaysia "continued to gain momentum" in the final quarter, Capital Economics said, "but against a backdrop of lacklustre external demand, high household debt and limited scope for additional policy support, we doubt growth will pick up further."

Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) said domestic demand will remain the key driver of growth.

In October-December, domestic demand "expanded at a more moderate pace, as the improvement in private consumption and investment activity was more than offset by the decline in public expenditure," the central bank said.

BNM said that Malaysia's current account surplus widened to RM12.2 billion (S$3.89 billion) in the fourth quarter, from RM6 billion in the third quarter.

Prime Minister Najib Razak is looking to reverse Malaysia's weak economy, hit over the last two years by slumping global oil and gas prices. The leader, whose popularity has been hurt by a scandal involving state-owned fund 1MDB, is preparing for a tough election that needs to be held by August 2018.

The central bank said the currency ringgit, which has taken a beating over the past two years, began to stabilise towards the end of the fourth quarter amid higher stability in the global financial markets.

"The depreciation was driven mainly by portfolio investment outflows from emerging economies amid uncertainties arising from the outcome of the US presidential elections," the bank said.

In 2016, the ringgit weakened 2.7 per cent against the US dollar. This year, it has strengthened 0.8 per cent.

DBS, in a note ahead of Thursday's GDP data, said domestic growth is likely to remain resilient and external demand improve, so "there will be less room for further monetary easing" by BNM and its overnight policy rate is expected to remain 3.0 per cent for the rest of 2017.