[2919] Supply-side recovery and demand-side recovery

Despite the deep second quarter GDP contraction for Malaysia, monthly data suggests the economic situation is sitting somewhere between “becoming less bad” and improving. The new monthly GDP (April, May and June 2020) estimates shared by the Department of Statistics suggest the recesssion is becoming less bad from year-on-year perspective (it is impossible to independently verify the Department’s assessment because the monthly series is not available publicly). Industrial data suggests production is returning to pre-crisis level. Unemployment rate is coming off its peak but it is important to state that there is still a long way to go toward pre-crisis average.

The improvement has led to the narrative that we are recovering fast.

But as mentioned before, there are two types of shock at play in this recesssion: supply shock and demand shock. So when we talk of recovery, I think it is important to note that we need to complete two recoveries before we can confidently claim we have come out of the overall economic crisis.

At the moment, we can safely say we are recovering from the supply-side crisis. Some damage has done to the economy from the supply perspective but if things continue to proceed as it is, the overall industrial production would return to its pre-crisis level in the coming months. Somewhat full recovery from the supply-side would likely be possible once the partial domestick lockdown is removed, with the borders opened. The earliest that would happen is likely January 1 2021. Full recovery will depend on our major trading partners aboard, some of which are not doing too well.

In contrast, I think it is much more difficult to say whether we are recovering from the demand-shock, with some statistics possibly becoming unrealiable (a question of quality versus quantity, like the one besetting the unemployment rate calculation). This is where we should turn our attention to now.

To graphically represent that I am thinking about the two shocks, I have produced a chart.

The solid blue region represents the GDP (output), with Point 100 indicating the maximum production under normal times for convenience’s sake. There are 11 time periods from 0 to 10. Period 0 is pre-crisis. For each time period, output depends on two shocks: supply (pink) and demand (yellow).

From the chart at time Period 1, I am showing the GDP contracting due to a massive sudden supply shock. But beginning Period 2, the supply shock begins to be removed from the equation and as a result, the GDP is improving rapidly (for Malaysia, that comes in the form of successfully addressing the Covid-19 infection and lifting the full lockdown). But the supply shock simultaneously generates a demand shock. But the latter shock is more persistent than the supply shock, lasting longer in the following time periods. Our supply shock has a mechanical feeling to it. You know what is going on and if the supply shock gets removed, things would rapid go back to normal. But the demand transmission is more complex and this lies the danger of believing in a V-shape recovery.

One point I want to highlight: while the supply-driven GDP contraction is much, much bigger than the demand-linked contraction, under normal times, such demand-contraction would be considered as serious (with the superlarge numbers we have seen during the Covid-19 crisis, it is easy to lose track of “normal” perspective).

The next critical points for demand-side will be end of moratorium on September 30, and December 31 when the wage subsidy program will expire. I think these two measures have prevented the supply-shock from fully being translated into a demand-shock. The end of the two measures would remove the barriers. Those dates would likely negatively affect income level and unemployment, which would translate to spending.

So, as a summary: the so-called rapid recovery is largely due to the supply shock removal (both successfully addresssing Covid-19 infection and lifting the full lockdown). And it is unclear yet to me if we have begun to undo the demand shock. At the very best, we have only partially delayed it.

Economics WDYT

[2918] Guess the 2Q20 Malaysian GDP growth

We are back and tomorrow, the Department of Statistics Malaysia will be releasing the second quarter GDP figures. Without further ado…

How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy expand in 2Q20 from a year ago?

  • Grew by more than 0% (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Contracted by 0.1%-2.5% (9%, 2 Votes)
  • Contracted by 2.6%-5.0% (13%, 3 Votes)
  • Contracted by 5.1%-7.5% (17%, 4 Votes)
  • Contracted by 7.5%-10.0% (22%, 5 Votes)
  • Contracted by 10.1%-12.5% (17%, 4 Votes)
  • Contracted by more than 12.5% (22%, 5 Votes)

Total Voters: 23

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And… what. A. Ride. It. Has. Been. Politics. Economics.

The result is… there is no doubt the second quarter GDP figures will be terrible with a capital T. The question now will be by how much, and for how long.

The problem for the past perhaps 6-7 months has been the unreliability of statistics. Many statistical causal relationships depend on stable correlation. The supply-side shock has changed those relationships and there is a good risk those relationships are broken for good. In the aftermath of the 1990s Asian Financial Crisis for instance, economic growth rate has slowed in the decades after. This recession, the worst since forever, could do the same for various macroseries.

That, I think is how important the past months have been to Malaysian economics.

Now to the statistics.

Industrial production had taken a blow for the whole quarter. However in June, it was almost back up to pre-shock level. Almost, although I feel it is unclear whether a big chuck of the back-to-normal is due to old production lines coming back up, or some sectors overperforming. Or just factories trying to make up lost time (or just goddamn rubber gloves… joking). I write so because mining (with its perpetual supply disruption; investment is needed there to upgrades those facilities) and electricity production are not there yet. But for manufacturing, it shot up quite strongly. But overall, they are bad numbers, and increasingly less.

Similar observations for exports and imports. Both June exports and imports had jumped from May, but for imports, it has not returned to pre-crisis level yet. Not close at all. Imports are important numbers because it is a proxy to consumption and weak June imports suggest domestic consumption will remain weak going into the third quarter. Retained imports mirrored overall import figure: meaning a majority of imports recovery, if it could be called as such, was due to re-exporting activities.

As for inflation, I do not know what it shows with respect to demand. With fuel prices down so much, I think inflation is a bit of a whack as a signal. Core inflation also is not very helpful, which suggests it needs to be improved. For what it is worth, inflation is in negative territory, but I would not call it deflation.

Unemployment rate is another iffy indicator. It has surged, but in June, like other figures, it has become less bad by a margin. But as somebody on social media mentioned, the composition of unemployment might be different now, with more lower quality employment coming in. I would quote him directly I suppose because the way he put it is more eloquent than me (translated roughly):

Unemployed pilots, engineers and other professionals working as food deliverers should not be considered as employed. [@The_Eddie. Twitter. August 11 2020]

Here is where underemployment figure would shed light on the matter. DOSM did report it once several months back in the form of working fewer than 30 hours per week. But we need more regular reporting on that front.

So, until tomorrow…

Economics Science & technology Society

[2917] Urban life will not go away with WFH and digital technology

Last week, I participated in a discussion panel on urban poverty and urbanization. Over the course of the session, a fellow discussant highlighted the potential of working-from-home phenomenon in reducing the need for urban centers.

I am unsure if I could agree with the suggestion.

First off, such decentralization is possible. It is not out of this world. The COVID-19 pandemic has prompted discussions on living away from cities. We could work from everywhere now. Some have even thought perhaps it is time to go rural altogether. There is a logic behind it.

Beyond the panel, there is a rethinking about high-density area. As it goes, maybe we should spread it out a little to make our society more resilient against future outbreaks. WFH is one of the ways that could be achieved. We can work remotely, and therefore we do not need a place in the city. Ditch the city, the slogan might sound.

If pandemic is the only thing to worry about, sure. Decentralizing the population into many smaller low-density towns would be the way forward.

But cities are not just about working culture, and pandemic is not the only thing that concerns us.

If I remember my lesson back in university, there is such a thing as agglomeration. If enough companies—and indeed people—gathered together, they would enjoy some kind of economies of scale in more than one way.

In terms of services, the more people there are in a place, the cheaper it is to deliver those services. This is relevant to both public and private services. Think of mass transit, or better city trains. Super-expensive to build and operate. Having it in Kuala Lumpur might make sense with its 2 million-4 million people depending on the definition used to define the city along with its satellites. Less so in smaller cities such as Kuantan that does not even hit one million population mark. Malacca Town with its low population city has a monorail, but we all know it is a bad, expensive joke.

And it is not just mass transit. Think about utilities. Think of roads or better in these days of interconnectivity, fiber optics network. It is cheaper to lay the cable for city use, like in Kuching, than in the interior of Sarawak. Indeed, communication tower is generally the preferred cheaper method of expanding internet services into rural areas.

There are plenty of examples across many sectors. Cost consideration alone make cities capable of providing services rural areas struggle to provide.

Large population is also a theme central to growth theory. As one growth theory puts it, beyond capital accumulation and technological progress, population growth is really the ultimate driver of growth. With population, comes new ideas. Edmund Phelps long ago wrote the following that pretty much summarizes mainstream growth theory:

One can hardly imagine, I think, how poor we would be today were it not for the rapid population growth of the past to which we owe the enormous number of technological advances enjoyed today… If I could re-do the history of the world, halving population size each year from the beginning of time on some random basis, I would not do it for fear of losing Mozart in the process. [Edmund Phelps. Population Increase. Canadian Journal of Economics. August 1968. Page 511-512]

To put it simply, technological progress itself is a function of population growth.

Good stuff tend to be created when people congregate in a place. New observation, innovation, idea exchange and all that happen more often among large population located in a dense area than in a sparsely populated space. The residents of large cities also make sophisticated demands arising from urban life. Without these demands, nobody would think of the solution and no progress would be made.

There might be an optimal population size. But for Malaysian cities, I think we could make it denser. I prefer denser cities not just because of the factors mentioned above and more, but also because the toll sprawls exert on the environment. Big cities tend to share resources better.

Finally, it is true that the pandemic lockdown has proven that we have the technology to work from home.

But it also proves we do not enjoy being stuck at home.

We do not just live within the space of our four walls. It is the culture, the connections and the values that matter as well. We yearn society. I yearn the city.

Many options available in the cities are available on the internet not because online services are taking over those services previously provided physically. Rather, the internet accommodates the provision of those services. It does not make cities irrelevant. Ultimately, those very services are made possible by cities.

Economics Politics & government

[2916] Change must lead to greater political stability

Early on during the Pakatan Harapan government, a majority of market investors were concerned about Malaysia’s policy direction. The magnitude of political change Malaysia experienced in 2018 undoubtedly brought uncertainty. Such uncertainty needed to be addressed. To allay those concerns, the Ministry of Finance then frequently engaged with representatives from various funds invested in Malaysia.

A great deal of these funds were fixed income investors. So, they were concerned with the state of public finance. What will the government’s spending priority be? What will the projected deficit level be? How is tax collection with the GST abolished? How is the health of the banking system? How is the government facing the trade war between China and the US?

Such questions were easy to answer because the storyline was clear and plans were in place. Data was available and progress updates could be shared easily. Close engagement and high transparency level alleviated a great deal uncertainty in the market.

One concern was difficult to handle however. Mahathir had promised to handover power to Anwar Ibrahim. But the transition date was blurry. “When?” they asked.

“When” was an important question. Transition could mean, and likely would mean, policy change. And with it, investment rationale.

However the Ministry answered it, they could not be convinced and some of them were the biggest funds in the world.

Regardless whether they believed the transition plan, they were in the opinion that Malaysia could focus better on the economy if it had addressed its political uncertainty. Specifically, the trade war was once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Malaysia to move up the value chain and gain from the reorienting global supply chain. Yet to the investors, political transition was distracting Malaysia from the task at hand.

Unfortunately, the level of political uncertainty in the country has worsened since then.

Muhyiddin’s supporters claimed formation of the Perikatan Nasional government would calm the politics down. We now know such claim is patently false. The faintest rumors would cause our collective heart to skip a beat.

It has become so bad that policymaking is grinding to a halt. Measures needed to mitigate the ongoing recession have been weak and late. Meanwhile, unemployment rate is shooting up and it will rise further. The result: we as Malaysians are experiencing more economic pain than necessary.

Not enough has been done. Continued inadequate and untimely government response will have long-term repercussions on the prosperity of the country. Remember, Malaysia has never fully recovered from the Asian Financial Crisis. Our growth since has been slower than before. This current crisis if not handled well would reduce the pace of our growth further.

Malaysia needs political stability to address the recession well. At the rate things are going, Perikatan Nasional is incapable for providing that stability.

Pakatan Harapan sees an opportunity to retake the power it won in 2018. If it succeed, could PH provide the much needed stability?

In order to answer the question confidently in the affirmative, I think PH will need to avoid having to face the transition question all over again. Either let their candidate be the PM until the next election (presumably in 2023), or ideally, do away with the transition plan altogether.

Economics Education

[2915] Temporarily lowering labor force growth through massive government-funded tertiary education program

I do not think Malaysia has done enough in stabilizing our labor market. Policies introduced so far are inadequate in size, and have been implemented so late that its effectiveness is suspect. Each progress report by the Ministry of Finance feels irrelevant because even if all the measures recorded 100% implementation, it would still be insufficient. And the most relevant existing government countermeasures are progressing slowly.

We need to do much, much more to address the big problem we face in the labor market.

Our problem is massive unemployment

We are staring at a high likelihood of mass unemployment happening unlike anything we have seen in the recent past.

In 1998, the worst recession Malaysia has ever experienced yet, unemployment rate rose by about 70 basis points from 2.5% to 3.2%. For 2020, Bank Negara expected it to increase by about 60 basis point to 4.0%. But the projection was made well before anybody had an idea the lockdown would last more than 2 weeks. Hence, the central bank’s official view as recorded in its 2019 Annual Report is dated and any projection should be worse than what was published earlier.

Based on early indication from an unrepresentative survey by the Department of Statistics done later in late March, naïve extrapolation suggests unemployment rate could rise significantly higher. So much higher that mentioning the possible level of unemployment feels unreal. Yet, it is June now and the lockdown is still in effect though with looser restrictions.

The heightened risk of massive unemployment was the reason why we needed a much, much bigger wage subsidy program earlier. But we have failed to do so and the time for that has come and passed.

The bigger the hole, the more radical we need to be

The result: we now have a bigger hole to fill. We as a society are and will be experiencing more pain than necessary.

This comes to a minor point I want to make: the bigger the hole we need to fill, the more radical our policy response will need to be. And we have let the hole grew bigger unnecessarily due to political maneuvering and ministerial inexperience during a time of economic crisis. Make no mistake: the learning curve during crisis for a newbie will always be too steep that the optimal response will be almost impossible.

Passing the job hoarding stage

We have passed the job hoarding stage. Pass here refers to leaving the stage behind, and not in the “with-flying-colors” sense. We failed. We have failed to protect a huge number of jobs through a bigger and timelier wage subsidy program.

There is still some value to having wage subsidies. But the damage has been done and wage subsidy efficacy is weak at this point. You cannot subsidize jobs that have been lost.

We now have to move on and focus on other policies. Job creation programs are the obvious ones. There are other policies that could be implemented but I think the less obvious would be to move people out of the labor market temporarily. Call it the workforce reduction program if you like.

Brief explanation of jargons

To understand the need for workforce reduction program, one has to understand the way labor statistics works at the macro level. I promise, this will not be too technical as I myself am uninterested in explaining the technicalities.

Unemployment rate is the number of unemployed people over the labor force.

Meanwhile, the labor force is the sum of all those with a job or actively looking for a job. Those who are actively looking for a job and at the same time without a job are classified as unemployed.

The crucial part is that, the definition of the labor force does not include everybody. The too young and the too old are excluded. Those unemployed and not looking for jobs are excluded. Students are not part of the labor force. Technically, military personnel are not counted. You can argue whether these people should be included or not, but the point is, there are people outside of the labor force however you slice and dice the problem.

Here, I would like to focus on students in the tertiary level.

Minimizing unemployment given the crisis

We want to minimize the unemployment rate. To do so, we could increase the number of employed relative to the labor force to outpace the growth of the overall labor force. In common parlance, job creation. But creating more jobs is easier said than done.

Alternatively, we could reduce the labor force growth temporarily and then return the labor taken off from the equation back at a time when the labor market is healthier in a year or two years down the road. I think might be easier.

(I feel the need to say that both job creation and labor force reduction exercise are not mutually exclusive)

Massive expansion of tertiary education opportunities

This is my (radical?) policy proposal to help fill the hole.

I think one of the better ways to reduce labor force growth temporarily is for the government to embark on a massive publicly-funded program to get unemployed Malaysians and those suffering a high unemployment risk to go back to school. Specifically, enroll those interested in programs offered by public universities.

This program should include diploma, bachelor’s and graduate degrees. I think less for doctorate, and more for masters and below. PhDs generally serve a different purpose and the number of PhD placing in the country for a year is so low that it probably means nothing to the objective of reducing the labor force growth temporarily. This means we could give ourselves between roughly between 6 months and 2 years to repair the labor market.

I think for people wanting a second same-level degree could be given a chance to join the program.

Participants of the program could receive a reasonable stipend above minimum wage.

Other factors

While the objective of the program is to reduce the labor force temporarily, it has other factors at play:

  • Taking a portion of workers off the labor market helps balance bargaining power between workers and employers. At a time when there are a lot of workers looking for jobs and few job opening, workers are at a disadvantage.
  • The program would need massive funding into our universities, which itself could create more jobs, be it teaching assistants, lecturers or whatever positions there are associated with universities. In order words, pushing unemployed Malaysians or Malaysians at risk of unemployment could be job creating too. In any case, our universities are underfunded especially since the mid-2010s and this is a chance to address the problem.