There is a curious logic going in the market and I am guilty of it myself. I only realized of my contradictory views only after I read a view claiming deflation encourages consumption spending (Austrians…) and asked myself a few questions about inflation/deflation.

To properly highlight what I see as a contradiction, answer the following question: does inflation discourage consumption and spending?

Keep your answer in mind.

Now, answer the next question: does deflation encourage consumption and spending?

The two questions are deeply connected with each other. They are the two sides of the same coin.

If you answered yes for the first question, your next answer should be yes if you’re consistent.

If you answered no for the first, you should answer no in the next.

I had answered the first question in the affirmative: yes, inflation discourages consumption. That I think is the market view in Malaysia right now. Ask economists in the financial sector and that would likely be the answer.

When I asked myself the second question, I immediately answered no when if I was consistent, I should answer yes. The answer no is probably the monetarist in me screaming, “what kind of question is that?” It is a reflex and it does not even go through my brain.

To address the two questions, I assume wages do not change. It is a simplification to make the analysis clearer. Adding wages will not change the analysis much but only complicates the explanation. Besides, you can always rely on wage-price spiral logic to control for wages although, with stickiness especially in times of deflation, it does present a problem. But that appears off-tangent for this entry of mine today.

So, with that out of the way, the yes answer is relatively easy to justify:

  1. If inflation is the reality, then you would feel poorer. You could afford to buy fewer things.
  2. If deflation is the reality, then you would feel richer. You could afford to buy more.

But it is not that simple. The set of answers (inflation discourages spending, deflation encourages it) is only applicable for one-time game/statics. For a more dynamic situation, the answer would be the reversed:

  1. If inflation is the reality and you know inflation would remain in the foreseeable future, then it makes sense to consume now. You know that if you do not and you save it instead, the real value of your savings will diminish no thanks to rising price levels. In an inflationary environment, savers get screwed. Sure, that does depend on the interest rate on savings but inflation is still bad for savers. It is the complete opposite for spenders. In inflationary times, it is better to spend. In Malaysia, you are already losing out if you save in a fixed deposit, if the consumer price index as the benchmark of inflation. Interest rate on 12-month deposit is 3.15% in February. Yields on one-year government bond is 3.05%. Compared that to about 3.5% YoY CPI inflation in the same month. It is a bad time to save. If you do want to save and make sure your real savings do not diminish, you have to reach out for the yields, investing in some mutual funds or even go straight to the stock market.
  2. The reverse is true for deflationary environment. You know prices are falling down and the rational thing to do is to delay your consumption to later and later so that the prices of whatever you will be consuming get cheaper. You should prefer to save because with each day prices fall, your savings will become more valuable. Deflation is really good for savers but bad for spenders. Such situation depresses spending as people prefer to save.

My problem here is that I have accidentally mixed the two views (half one-time view and half repeated game view) together and I think the Malaysian consensus has done the same too. I do not think professional economists would think deflation is good for consumption growth. I think I am right to say that there is some consensus among economists, at least in the financial service circles in Malaysia, that the rising inflation now, more or less meaning the rising cost of living, is hurting private consumption. At my work, we have a propriety index that suggests discretionary spending is growing slower and the slowdown is coinciding with the subsidy cuts that are causing the rising domestic inflation. Bank Negara Malaysia, the monetary authority, has incorporated weaker domestic demand into its 2014 projection too. It is hard to think of anything else that is causing the weaker consumption. You could say it is caused by the government fiscal consolidation but that is exactly being operationalized through the subsidy cuts, mostly.

I see the contradiction but I have trouble reconciling them.

And I think this is a serious contradiction. These are not policy entrepreneurs-lobbyists with limited training in economics. These economists know their economics and the contradiction exists. Why?

Is there something that I missed?

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Further reading maybe:

The Euro area inflation came lower than expected in March and this has raised concerns about deflation (or “lowflation” as labelled by the IMF). In today’s Financial Times, Jurgen Stark, a former ECB board member argues that deflation or low inflation is not a problem. One of his arguments is that there are benefits for low inflation, in particular:

“It is likely we are living in an extended period of price stability. This is good news. It boosts real disposable income and will eventually support private consumption.” [Antonio Fatas. The Price is Wrong. April 14 2014]

There is an old wooden Buddhist monastery in Inwa. And inside it is a library-school.

A library in a monastery. By Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 2.0

I am not particularly warm to the Kajang move but it had its significance. I write in the past tense because Anwar Ibrahim is not in the equation anymore after the court overturned his 2012 acquittal. I disagree with the court’s decision but that is arguably a matter of opinion. What is a fact is that the many commentaries dedicated to Kajang in the past weeks were rendered irrelevant by it. The so-called Kajang move itself has been turned into pretty much nothing but a chance at practicing soaring rhetoric.

The political maneuvering was dubbed by pro-Kajang members of Pakatan Rakyat as the road to Putrajaya. It is now a road to nowhere. Kajang now solves none of the problem the Anwar Ibrahim candidacy was supposed to solve. The balance of power remains substantively unchanged, except maybe the Selangor water deal, which pro-Kajang PKR members have received quite uncomfortably. As an outsider, it appears to me that it is all status quo all over again after all the huff and puff.

Wan Azizah, the president of PKR and the wife of Anwar Ibrahim, is now the candidate for Kajang, versus MCA’s candidate Chew Mei Fun. For Chew, it is an exercise in futility. Chew, like her party, is a spent force, sent out to be slaughtered, except perhaps to assess how unpopular MCA is.

Maybe there will be some good to someone after all. Maybe Umno can look back at Kajang sometime in the future and then demand more seats for themselves at the expense of MCA. Poor MCA but they deserve it through and through.

Wan Azizah, PKR and Pakatan Rakyat as a whole will likely win. It is hard to imagine how they would lose the by-election. PKR won the state seat with a huge majority in 2013. I think the only credible third option was Zaid Ibrahim. Not that I think he would win but he is more tolerable than almost anybody from MCA.

I have a hard time imagining Pakatan Rakyat supporters — not necessarily members — who angered by the Kajang move would vote for Barisan Nasional. Just because they— and I— are angry at Anwar Ibrahim and possibly Rafizi Ramli as the identified mastermind of the whole maneuvering, does not make Barisan Nasional more attractive as a choice. I am angry at PKR specifically, but I have not forgotten the excesses, the corruption and the arrogance of Barisan Nasional. Should I add stupidity as well?

People like me are trapped between Pakatan Rakyat… and Pakatan Rakyat. So I do feel a serious sense of disenfranchisement. The world is not about me, I know, but that does not mean I like being used and taken for granted. I think that is how PKR specifically has done while making its Kajang move.

At a dinner not too long ago, a Pakatan Rakyat Member of Parliament asked me how I would vote if I was a voter in Kajang. I said I would not go out and vote. I could say that without much regret because it was a hypothetical situation. I do not get to vote in Kajang.

With the appellate court’s curiously rushed decision, Pakatan Rakyat will turn the Kajang move into a referendum against the Barisan Nasional. Wan Azizah being the wife will also mean the sympathy card is in play.

When the court decision was made that Friday, it was impossible to claim the tears she shed were for dramatic purpose. What Anwar Ibrahim is facing is nothing short of injustice. When I learned the judgment, something inside me boiled into anger.

Let us not think those who sneer at the Kajang move would like injustice done to the former deputy prime minister. An injustice remains an injustice but it does not make one wrong any better. If two wrongs make a right, then I would question our moral standards.

So, it will be a successful referendum.

But then again, every by-election is a referendum. One too many — let us not forget that other by-election in Sarawak — and it trivializes the very word, degrading the democratic practice to the level of Akademi Fantasi-American Idol. We go to great lengths to vote for nothing substantive.

That indeed is how I see the whole episode. Look it up in an English dictionary. Under the F section, there is an entry for the word “farce.”

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
First published in The Malay Mail on March 22 2014.

I am sure all of us are hoping for the best for Flight MH370. I have a friend on that flight who attended the Malay College with me long ago. I cannot say I was very close to him, neither can I say having him on that plane makes me more invested in the whole mystery, but I do hope he is alright nevertheless.

The relatives of the victims deserve our sympathy whatever the fate of the airplane. But as I scan the news on the television, in the papers and online, I wonder if some of us are overdoing it.

Politicians and their spouses are visiting the victims’ relatives. I am skeptical of the purpose of their visits.

Some are directly participating in the rescue effort and they are ministers directly involved in the effort to find the missing plane. Having the Transport Minister Hishammuddin Hussein meeting and consoling the relatives is appropriate. He is communicating the government’s effort to the families, however confusing the messages can be now. The Prime Minister visiting is okay too because, after all, he is head of the government.

As for the others, I think it is all about showing faces and making sure everyone else knows that you care, regardless of sincerity. It is about reaping some political brownie points more than anything else.

I do not fully blame the politicians for doing it. Societal expectations can also be at play here. Whether you care or not, you just have to go, as if it is a public duty to show up. If you do not go, you risk being labeled as uncaring and callous.

I have seen on the internet of such accusation being thrown at politicians who are busy with other businesses. That is an unfair accusation, as if life stops with MH370, as if nothing else matters in comparison to MH370. I thought Praba Ganesan made the point well earlier this week about how we do not live in a mutually exclusive world where we need to choose only one matter to focus on (although, I have to add, the timing of Pakatan Rakyat’s convention was truly unfortunate).[1]

BN politicians have been visiting the relatives of the victims. This creates pressure for Pakatan Rakyat politicians to make the same visits. BN members and supporters have accused their political rivals of trying to take advantage of the tragedy, citing the attempt for the visit. I think if those BN supporters are honest, especially given what happened on Friday and later on Monday, BN is really no different.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved

[1] — Hundreds of families worldwide are hopeful even if not expectant, as Flight MH370 continues to stay missing. My thoughts are with the families, and I extend my support to the thousands who make up the multinational search and rescue teams. Today, the column looks at the other major developments in the country and intends to comment on them. They matter, even if they are wholly separate from the tragedy which leaves serious question marks over the fate of 239 passengers and crew members. [If you have a moment, the other things. Praba Ganesan The Malay Mail Online. March 13 2014]

The sun was setting and I was late. I was the only foreigner on the boat crossing the river from Inwa to the other side. As I was making myself comfortable on the boat, a local came on with his bicycle.

I thought, the man and his bicycle would make a nice photo. This turned out to be one of my favorite photographs from my trip to Burma.

Boats by the Dubai Creek. By Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons 2.0

Inwa or Ava used to be the capital of various competing Burma kingdoms but in 1839, an earthquake struck the region. Inwa was abandoned for Amarapura soon after and now, it is a sleepy village. Judging by the surrounding, the main economic activities are agriculture and tourism. There is not much else there.

I just felt a need to update my old post on household income distribution I put up back in 2012.

Here are the distributions (the categories are based on households’ monthly income. A household is roughly defined as a family of four, with two working adults):

household income distribution

You could see some improvement from 2009 to 2012, but it is really hard to see from here whether that improvement was due to secular factors, or just that the base was bad (due to cyclical factors). I suspect it was largely cyclical. The year 2009 after all was a recession year. I detest measuring almost anything starting from 2009 for almost every purpose.

I could compare both years to an older dataset to determine if there had been substantial improvement. I think I will do it later. And probably, control for inflation too.

I obtained all data from the Department of Statistics’ Household Income Survey, 2009 and 2012.

I had to do some data manipulation here because the 2012 data has fewer income categories than the last one.  This affected income categories from RM5,000 to RM10,000 the most. I had to average out the older categories and fit it into the new ones as used in the 2012 survey so that I could make an easy comparison.

I have to add, I am quite disappointed that the Statistics Department abolished the old categories and even lumped some categories together, like the categories for those making above RM10,000 per month. It makes the distribution a bit unnatural.

More importantly, there is a loss of information, although I am sure the Department of Statistics has it. It is just that they are just not sharing it publicly. You can see the relative richness of the 2009 survey below compared to the 2012 edition (the red bar below is the 2009 median):

Income distribution of Malaysian household from Household Income Survey, 2009, the Department of Statistics

The Big Mac Index is one of those funky things in the world of economics that a lot of people think they know about it, but they actually do not. The New Straits Times on Saturday featured the  Index in a big way to show that Malaysia has the third cheapest Big Mac in the world.[1] Unfortunately for the newspaper, in doing so, it proves to the world that they do not know what the Index is about. And they did that in a grand style, by putting it on the front page.

The Big Mac Index by the Economist does have a list of Big Mac prices from a number of countries. But the point of the list is not to aid burger hunters searching for the cheapest Big Mac in the world. Rather, the point is to give the readers a feel of how overvalued or undervalued a currency is, typically against the US dollar (these days, the Economist has introduced multiple other reference currencies).

The Index is designed to demonstrate a theory called the purchasing power parity. The PPP, although not exactly the Law of One Price, pretty much operates on the same logic the Law of One Price operates. If the PPP holds in the world of Big Macs, then all Big Macs would cost the same. When there is divergence in prices between two… national… burgers, then it suggests that either one or the other is overvalued or undervalued.

So, if Malaysia does have the third cheapest Big Mac in the Index, what the Index is telling you is that the ringgit is the third most undervalued currency in the Index (against the US dollar, the reference currency).

The NST seized on the word cheapest to give an idea that it is cheap to live in Malaysia. “Malaysia has been ranked one of the cheapest places in the world to purchase a Big Mac,” goes the very, very bad article. In a companion article that is equally awful:

Independent economic macro-analyst Prof Dr Hoo Ke Ping said while it was true that some might find prices of food items to have risen somewhat, Malaysians should be thankful that they can still enjoy relatively cheap meals compared with other countries.

He said the Big Mac index was proof that essential items in the country were still relatively cheaper than other countries.

“Although some prices of food items, petrol and electricity have gone up, our prices are still cheap.”

Hoo said it was a misconception that prices of essential items had gone up, adding the speculation was sensationalised, over-hyped and not fully defined. [Big Mac index an accurate indicator. New Straits Times. February 15 2014]

You get the idea what the NST is trying to say. It is really a propaganda hack and not actual news. NST itself has no understanding of the Index, much less of the PPP. It does not care about the economic rationale behind the Index. NST is only forcing the economics to fit into the paper’s preferred narrative, which is horribly flawed.

As for the professor, I present to you, a big chart of the monthly YoY changes of all of the major components of the consumer price index throughout 2013:

big ass chart

Please do not tell me that the prices of essential goods have not gone up (no, I am not referring to the alcohol and tobacco component although I do understand, those are essential items for some people. For the majority, look at the rising food and more jarringly, transport inflation).

Now, it may or it may not be cheap to live in Malaysia but using the Index to demonstrate that is just not the way.

To make that argument on living cost, you need to make at least one more step and that is to find the income of the median Malaysian. From there, you can calculate just how many burgers that Malaysian can buy with his or her salary. Compare that to the same metric in another country and only then you can say whether it is cheap to live in Malaysia.

The way the reporter writes it, it is cheap to live in Malaysia if you earn in stronger currencies like the US dollar, which is true and you can definitely know that from the Index.

But most Malaysians do not earn in dollar. That fact really makes the NST’s argument irrelevant.

Finally:

Accountant Muhammad Aiman Sofian said lower salary levels in Malaysia meant that the ratio of expenses to income was smaller compared with other countries. [Big Mac index an accurate indicator. New Straits Times. February 15 2014]

You have got to be kidding me… that just goes against empirical evidences from all around the world.

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[1] — KUALA LUMPUR: MALAYSIA has been ranked one of the cheapest places in the world to purchase a Big Mac, according to The Economist.

The British news magazine’s annual “Big Mac” Index, which gauges if global currencies are at their correct level, has ranked Malaysia third behind India and South Africa as the cheapest place in the world to purchase the McDonald’s signature burger.

“The price paid for a Big Mac in Malaysia is RM7.40, which is equivalent to US$2.23 when converted using the global exchange rates.

“This amount is lower when compared with the actual price of a Big Mac that is sold in the United States for US$4.62, indicating a 50 per cent difference.

“In other words, the Big Mac sold in Malaysia is half the price of the same burger sold in the US,” the magazine revealed.[Malaysia is 3rd cheapest place to buy a Big Mac. New Straits Times. February 15 2014]

I was optimistic that the 4Q13 GDP figures would be strong. I was betting on export recovery while mindful that other components, mostly consumption growth, might slow down.

Indeed export growth recovered. But trade surplus was not as strong I thought it would. Still, the prospect of Malaysia experiencing a trade deficit is unlikely. The trade surplus was strong enough for me to say, hey, there would be no twin deficits for Malaysia, no siree.

So, I missed by full-year growth by about 18 basis points. I projected 4.9% growth (well, more like 4.86%) for 2013 but actual growth came at 4.7% (4.68% really).

While the 5.1% YoY for the quarter was still good, especially given the first two quarters had about 3% YoY only, this is one of those quarters which I find growth confusing.

I looked at the numbers and I saw consumption growth slowed, gross fixed capital formation growth slowed, government spending growth slowed and trade balance growth slowed too. I think the exports growth is the only real good news around, but clearly it was not strong enough to make overall growth accelerate.

Now, with every one of those major components had their quarterly YoY growth slowed, what could possible make the overall GDP numbers grew faster?

Inventories had a role in it.

You could see the contribution of all the GDP components to the 5.1% growth below. For the investment contribution, it is the fixed capital formation, which includes inventories:

20140213 4Q13 GDP contribution to growth

I am not so sure how I feel about that.

I was going through old photos today and I found this: the Anzac Bridge.

DSC_1722

I used to go to this spot quite often, because I lived nearby. I have lived in several places in this world and I think it is hard to beat Glebe in Sydney. I would wake up every day and every time walked out of the house, there, the Harbo(u)r Bridge would greet me. And the Anzac Bridge too. And that lazy black cat just down the road.

I have read in the media of allegation that the weaker ringgit is contributing to the rising inflation in Malaysia.[1]

The allegation makes sense. If Malaysia imports stuff, which the country does, and if the ringgit gets weaker, which it has (at least against several currencies and namely the US dollar), a weaker ringgit should contribute to domestic inflation. In the absence of data, I would support the idea of weaker currency is contributing to inflation.

Except, I am not entirely convinced by the data. In fact, the data is possibly telling me something to the opposite.

I have done some modeling in the past and it is hard to get a relationship between currency and inflation. At least, my modeling skills are not there yet, I would suppose. Even if I ignore all those econometric tests which the models failed, the effect of currency fluctuation under normal times, as I remember from those models, are so small that I would rather ignore them.

But here is something that does not rely on my econometrics. It is more straight forward in answering whether a weaker ringgit is contributing to domestic inflation. There are two possible proofs dismissing the role of the weaker ringgit.

The first is the producer price index (PPI) for imports. Crazily enough, it is still deflating and it has been deflating since January 2013 at the very least:

20140211PPIImportsDecember

One would expect, if the weaker ringgit was contributing to domestic inflation, the PPI for imports would increase and from there, the PPI inflation would somehow transmit to the consumers, affecting the CPI. I have not modeled this but the result for the a priori expectation that one needs to make the assumption that the weaker ringgit is contributing to domestic inflation is not going well here.

The second involves the import value and import volume growth. I have not thought of this thoroughly but if a weaker currency is contributing to domestic inflation, I would expect faster growth on import value than import volume growth. But in December, total import value (the one you see often in the press) rose 14.8% YoY. Volume grew 15.1% YoY. That means imports really are getting cheaper, corroborating the signal from the PPI imports.

So, is the depreciating ringgit contributing to the rising domestic inflation?

No. On the contrary, imports are a counteracting factor against inflation.

Again, this is just a preliminary thought that I just had. If my thinking holds, then I do not think the weaker ringgit is contributing to domestic inflation. At least not yet.

Right now, it seems, the rising CPI inflation in Malaysia is all caused subsidy cuts and domestic demand.

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[1] — A weakening ringgit currency, which is down 1.5 per cent since the start of the year and at five-month lows against the dollar, could add to upward pressure on prices through more expensive imports, and reinforce the case for raising interest rates. [Malaysia inflation jumps as government feels heat over living costs. Reuters. The Malay Mail Online. January 22 2014]

274 pages