The 2019 first quarter GDP will be out on May 16. Since we live in an age of trigger warning, let us play the game first:
How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy expand in 1Q19 from a year ago?
- Slower than 3.6% (17%, 4 Votes)
- 3.6% - 4.0% (26%, 6 Votes)
- 4.1% - 4.5% (30%, 7 Votes)
- 4.6% - 5.0% (26%, 6 Votes)
- 5.1% - 5.5% (0%, 0 Votes)
- Faster than 5.5% (0%, 0 Votes)
Total Voters: 23
The consensus views are that growth for the quarter will be weak, possibly in the lower half of the 4.0%-5.0% range. Some are even betting on something lower. There are at least two justifications for the pessimism.
One, industrial production grew only 2.7% YoY during the quarter, largely due to contraction in mining production. Supply disruption continued to bedevil the sector after a major incident in Sabah last year. Manufacturing did largely okay, except in February. This leads us to the second factor.
Exports. Exports plunged quite drastically in February and a bit in March. While some of it had to do with supply constraints in the mining sector, manufactured goods exports also dropped, which indicated weakness in external demand. The country until recently had benefited from the trade war through trade diversion and business relocation. This could be seen from FDI and trade data. But prolonged and wider trade war would slow the expansion of global trade volume, possibly to a point where trade diversion would not overcome effects from slower trade growth. If the February and March export trend continues (exports for the quarter was down and in fact, so did export volume) in the second quarter, that might indicate we have reached that point where positive trade relocation factor is giving way to volume growth slowdown. The the escalating China and the US trade conflict is very likely the one major contributing factor to Bank Negara Malaysia cutting its policy rate by 25 basis point rate last week.
These two trends could hit the domestic economy in terms of employment. But so far, employment statistics have been going strong. It has not budged from 3.3% and anecdotally, there has been no story of widespread layoffs caused by weakened domestic and external demand. There were layoffs, but those appear directly induced by government policy, not demand per se. For instance, the non-renewal of contracts for political appointees and other politically-linked projects, which are not quite demand-driven.
There are complaints of economic slowdown among the public and in the media for awhile now, but again, that has not quite affected employment statistics by one bit. This makes the slowdown in the past few quarters puzzling to me. A pure supply-driven slowdown could explain this and there were supply problems. It is also possible that firms are hoarding labor supply, with a view of better economic performance in the near future.
From pure GDP growth statistics perspective, there might be some good news. Net exports might be doing better, or more accurately, external demand is doing better than domestic demand. Export volume index fell 2.2% YoY for the first quarter; import volume dropped 3.1%. The usual goods exports decreased 0.7% versus import drop of 2.5%. This could boost the GDP growth up by way of net exports, even if it is just math at work. If the actual GDP growth does surprise the market on the upside, I think it would come from here.
The downside is, the import volume drop suggests private consumption growth had slowed down. After all, imports are just a reflection of domestic demand. But to be honest, the consumption growth in the past several quarters have been extraordinarily high due to the changes in the tax regime. Such growth should decelerate and we would only see a “normal” growth rate for consumption in the fourth quarter of this year once the tax factor has been equalized across the relevant period (This of course is purely from year-on-year perspective and this is where quarter-on-quarter calculation offers a quicker and a better way of measuring changes).
As for government spending, it should be on the recovery mode and I think the worst should be behind us (or nearby, if it is not behind). As for gross fixed capital formation, I would want to say the same thing, but I really do not know.