When the economy first began to tumble down in 2008, those within the government were eager to point out that weakened external demand caused it. The financial crisis that began in the United States hurt global trade. Being a highly trade-dependent economy, there was no escaping for Malaysia. To put the blame on those in the government was unfair and wrong.
Now that the economy is rebounding in a spectacular fashion, those within the government are eager to claim credit for it. Perhaps, way too much credit.
Although it is arguable that the stimulus spending did contribute to the encouraging 10.1 per cent year-on-year growth of GDP — controversial claim but let us leave it at that — it is likely that the growth was mostly due to the same external factor that caused the recession in the first place. Contribution by the stimulus package was probably very pale compared to contribution from external demand.
It helps to rewind back to 2008 and 2009 when it all began. We need to understand that the cause of the recession was the drop in international trade, as far as Malaysia and other trade-dependent countries were concerned.
Furthermore, it is crucial to remember that not all of the RM67 billion of the stimulus package announced was actual spending. For instance, some came in form of guarantees. This lessens the potential impact of the stimulus, unlike what the proponents would like to believe. When they speak of the stimulus, they almost always speak as if the whole RM67 billion was direct spending, which is not true.
Even if all of the RM67 billion were in form of direct spending, it would still not counter the effect of falling trade volume. The spending did very little to reverse the fall. At best, one could claim that it cushioned the impact of the recession.
Here is a digression. Fiscal stimulus proponents argued earlier that it was a cushion. It was not much of a cushion, as we all saw. Their narrative has changed. They now claim that it aids recovery. Funny how the story changes, is it not?
The reverse in trade trend was so great that it created a great chasm in any graph. No government spending could overcome that chasm. The fact that the country entered a recession despite what Prime Minister Najib Razak called unprecedented spending is proof enough.
Toward the end of 2009 and in the first quarter of 2010, world trade recovered as spectacularly as it had fallen during the so-called Great Recession. For high trade intensity countries like Malaysia, it was extremely good news simply because it signals normalization.
Nothing more. This is a crucial point. The 10.1 per cent is merely a sign of normalization rather a sign of actual rapid growth, in the bigger picture. More than that, it is about the normalization of trade.
The big picture is this: The big growth numbers in high trade dependent countries that suffered significant contraction — be it in Malaysia, Singapore or Taiwan — are due to base effect rather than proof of excellent economic management skill of the countries with respect to growth. That chasm in the graph allows base effect to take a prominent role in exciting growth.
What is base effect?
Consider a person investing RM100 in a fund for two years. At the end of the first year, suppose the fund makes a loss of 50 per cent and hence, the person has only RM50 now. At the end of second year, the fund makes a return of 100 per cent and hence, the person has RM100 again.
Notice that the person, after two years, makes no profits or loss. Yet, the person makes a staggering 100 per cent return in the second year, if the second year is taken in isolation. That 100 per cent return is only impressive if the full context is unaccounted for.
Consider the case of Malaysia for the past two years. The year-on-year growth for the first quarter of 2009 was terrible: -6.2 per cent. The year-on-year growth for 2010 was magnificent: 10.1 per cent. What does two-year growth from the first quarter of 2008 look like?
A mere 3.2 per cent.
If one takes a ten-year horizon, then one will realize the mediocre contribution of the first quarter of 2010 to the Malaysian economy compared to other years. Take an even longer view and January, February and March of 2010 become insignificant points.
The reason for its insignificance is that base effect is temporary.
This story is repeatable in other Asian countries badly affected by the recession. Singapore suffered 11.5 per cent contraction in the first quarter of 2009. In the first quarter of 2010, it registered 15.5 per cent growth. Taiwan contracted 10.2 per cent. It grew 13.2 per cent later. These are extraordinary numbers caused by extraordinary circumstances, not by extraordinary government.
The story of able administrators becomes weaker and weaker as more and more countries with high trade intensity — which Malaysia is one of — exhibit the same pattern of growth. There must be a reason why multiple countries that share similar characteristic with Malaysia are showing great growth.
That reason is base effect. It comfortably explains the phenomenon to a large degree.
Are you still unconvinced about the centrality of base effect?
Take Thailand. Despite all of its troubles, it is expected to achieve stellar growth of 8.9 per cent in the first quarter. It contracted 7.1 per cent a year earlier. It is hard to believe that the growth in Thailand was due to good economic management by the government. Base effect is able to explain it rather well.
Supporters and proponent of fiscal stimulus maybe unconvinced by the base effect argument. They may insist on multiplier effect from two previous stimulus packages. Unfortunately for them, increased trade dominates the celebrated statistics of the first quarter. This increased trade drives the base effect.
And what about the multiplier from trade? Surely, the benefits of trade spill to other sector of the economy.
If somebody or something deserves to take credit for exciting the economy, it is world trade. It is consumers of the world. It is not the government or the fiscal stimulus.
Lastly, the second and third quarter of 2009 registered lower levels of GDP compared to the respective quarters a year earlier for Malaysia. That means the base effect will likely disappear only in the fourth quarter of 2010. Opportunity for spectacular growth will diminish soon enough.
For his administration claim credit — or for somebody to credit the administration — for the performance of the economy, before the base effect peters out, especially as early as the first quarter, is premature.
First published in The Malaysian Insider on May 24 2010.