In Focus
ECONOMY | Staff Reporter, Singapore

Singapore's disciplined plan for economic resurgence

The fourth quarter of 2016 saw manufacturing bounce back, and signs point to the surge spilling over into the first half of 2017.

When the latest Singapore Budget was presented by Finance Minister Heng Swee Keat, it included a $2.4b allocation to implement strategies to transform the economy for the future, and showed the government’s resolve to bear short-term pain to reap long-term gain.

The plan is clear: Just survive through the global headwinds and limping domestic demand that analysts believe will persist in 2017, and wait for the country’s economic restructuring investments to slowly lift its sagging sails. Band-aid measures include frontloading $700m in public infrastructure projects, which should help reduce domestic sluggishness, as well as continued support for troubled sectors like marine and offshore.

Singapore faces a rough year, especially if US trade protectionism gathers full steam. Edward Lee, head, ASEAN economic research at Standard Chartered, foresees a risk that the US government will impose tariffs on Chinese imports, which can set off a debilitating domino effect on the Singapore economy.

“Since his election campaign, Trump has been vocal about punishing China for what he has called currency manipulation and unfair trade practices,” says Lee. “We believe that in such a circumstance, China could retaliate with similar measures, targetting US exports to China and restricting their access to China’s services sector.”

Implications for Singapore
If the two major powers enter into a heated trade war, global economic growth should decelerate and dash Singapore’s efforts to recover from its slump. A fall in economic growth in the US and China will translate to a fall in demand for goods and services. This will pull down Singaporean exports to both nations, which combined account for roughly 24% of non-oil domestic exports. Singapore also stands to lose its competitive edge following a more protectionist trade stance from the US.

“Should the US impose tariffs across imports from all nations, there would be a direct negative impact on Singapore as our exports to the US becomes more expensive and less competitive,” warns Lee. He also cites the French elections as well as Brexit developments as potential risks that could lead to global weakness, and hurt Singapore’s small and trade-dependent economy.

Chia Shuhui, senior Asia analyst at BMI Research, reckons that a potential rise in trade protectionism is one of the most pertinent threats to Singapore’s economy this year. The country also needs to be wary of the Chinese economy’s acute slowdown.

“We maintain a slightly negative view on the Singapore economy in the near term due to external and domestic headwinds,” says Chia of his country forecast for 2017. “The slowing Chinese economy will weigh on Singapore’s exports, whilst the domestic restructuring process will result in a fall in near-term productivity as firms adjust.”

The local focus
Singapore has recognised the need to shift from an economic engine heavily dependent on foreign labour to one powered by globally competitive domestic companies employing skilled local workers. As such, the Singapore government continues to spend more resources fast-tracking its economic restructuring than stimulating domestic activity. Over the next four years, $2.4b of the national budget will be spent on the Committee for the Future Economy initiatives ranging from nurturing corporate innovation to retraining employees.

“A considerable proportion of the budget was dedicated to addressing Singapore’s long-term economic growth prospects including ensuring connectivity, encouraging innovation, and the continual development of skills, and measures have been laid out in the budget to achieve these aims,” says Chia. “These measures will help shift the economy towards one that is driven by productivity and knowledge-based gains instead of foreign labour.”

Still, there has been an effort to ease the transition. Lee notes that for short-term support of the economy, one of the measures in the Singapore Budget entailed bringing forward $700m of public infrastructure projects. “The front-loading of these projects will likely support near-term growth and is in line with the government’s vision to build for the long term,” he says. “Some other measures in the budget include deferring of the previously proposed foreign worker levy for the subdued marine and process sectors to reduce cost pressures.”

Sectors to watch out for
Lee reckons the construction as well as the information and communications sectors will likely benefit the most in 2017, the former from the surge of infrastructure projects and the latter from increased government funding support for companies that innovate and digitise.

As for the manufacturing sector, Lee believes this year will be a “tale of two halves.” The fourth quarter of 2016 saw manufacturing – especially the electronics sector – bounce back, and signs point to the surge spilling over into the first half of 2017. But he expressed reservations that the recovering demand for electronics will be sustained.

“We are wary that the current pick-up in electronics manufacturing and exports is on the back of one-off hardware replacement due to operating system upgrades, as the demand within electronics does not seem broad-based,” says Lee. “Integrated chips have led the pick-up in production and exports but demand for other component parts remains soft.” Manufacturing – along with other externally-oriented sectors like transport and wholesale trade – will also likely encounter challenges stemming from potential protectionist policies and a subdued global environment.

Mohamed Faiz Nagutha, ASEAN economist at Bank of America Merrill Lynch, holds a more sanguine outlook following the 2016 yearend surge, revising their 2017 GDP forecast to 2.1% from 1.4% previously. The new forecasts are still at the lower end of the government’s medium-term potential estimate of 2%-3%, but they are above the midpoint of the official 2017 forecast of 1%-3%, with the economist citing positive catalysts like brighter near-term prospects for the electronics sector and the slightly stimulatory budget.

“Despite improvement, divergence will be the key theme,” he says. “The divergent profiles in terms of both industries and expenditure components are expected to persist into 2017.”

Bleak outlook for others
Nagutha explains that from an industry perspective, the uplift comes largely from manufacturing, recovering in the last couple of months of 2016 after lagging behind regional peers for much of the year. But the outlook is rather bleak for the marine and offshore engineering and services sectors.

Meanwhile, from an expenditure perspective, Nagutha says healthy external demand is at odds with flagging domestic demand. Exports are expected to grow stronger, but private consumption and investment are forecast to remain frail in 2017 given a softening labour market and continuously weak business sentiment, especially amongst services firms. In the fourth quarter of 2016, the unemployment rate was at 3.2%, the highest level since 2010, whilst job creation in the same period came in at its lowest since 2003. 

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