The term austerity is gaining currency in some Malaysian circles. The press and several brokers have mentioned it to describe what they think the Malaysian government is doing in light of various renegotiation or cancellation of megaprojects.

Austerity is a sexy term to pull in some eyeballs but really, I think the term has been used rather loosely to a point that it is inaccurate enough and starts to lose its meaning.

So what is austerity? How do we define austerity?

The first pass-definition should be an overall cut in absolute government spending. In other words, austerity happens when the government runs contractionary fiscal policy. A slowdown in government spending growth itself is insufficient to qualify as austerity. It has to be a cut in spending itself.

The refining factor to work with the first-pass definition is a significant tax hike that discourages spending and contributes to economic contraction. For those with knowledge in macroeconomics, I am thinking of a simple shift to the left in the IS curve in the IS-LM framework, which results in economic contraction.

Yet another refining definition is if these two contractionary policies – reduced government spending, higher tax or both – happen during a period of economic contraction. In tighter language, austerity is when fiscal policy works pro-cyclically during a downturn.

In Malaysia so far, that has not happened. Neither fiscal policy and the economy are in contractionary mode. Public data shows January-August government spending increased by 6.1% this year versus the same period last year. For the May-August period, government spending rose 1.1% YoY. From GDP perspective, public investment and spending rose in the first half of 2018 versus the first half of 2017. Meanwhile, the economy expanded 5.8% and 4.9% in both nominal and real terms in the first half of 2018 versus the same period last year.

And we must not forget, Malaysians received a significant tax cut in the form of 3-month tax holiday and the replacement of value-added consumption tax GST with the less burdensome production tax SST.

Meanwhile, the government has made public statements that Malaysia is not embarking on any austerity program, although it has committed itself to cleaning up its accounts due to years of off-budget abuses and opaque dealings.

Under this situation of continuing economic growth, public spending expansion and the absence of a tax hike, I think it is clear there is no austerity in place.

The truth is, many of the renegotiation and cancellation do not lead to absolute cuts. Rather, the changes are there to make way for other spending that are aimed to be more productive than, for instance, merely servicing overpriced debt for financially and economically unsustainable megaprojects negotiated incompetently by the previous corrupt government.

What is happening is a reallocation of resources. Not absolute cuts. Definitely not austerity.

One Response to “[2875] There is no austerity in Malaysia”

  1. […] [2875] There is no austerity in Malaysia […]

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