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 History & heritage

[2910] Few lessons from post-war 1940s Malayan supply-side crisis

We are experiencing a supply-side crisis. The lockdown is inducing labor shortage, and it has the potential of exerting lasting damage on the economy if not handled properly.

It seems to me that the last time Malaysia or any of its components had a supply crisis was in the 1940s during World War II and during the immediate post-war period. Productions of various kinds were devastated, leaving many without jobs and forced into subsistence. The war not only destroyed productive capacity, but also suppressed demand.

The end of the war brought demand back up quickly. Unlike demand however, production took time to get back to speed. Wars had destroyed all the equipment, and killed off many that worked at the mines, plantations, factories and shops. Rebuilding those and reemploying the workers took time.

That meant massive unemployment in the meantime.

Massive unemployment also meant employers had great bargaining power: wage growth was weak if any. Faced with unemployment, weak wage growth and spiking prices, social discontent was prevalent. This was one of many reasons the communist movement gained sympathy among the masses: industrial sabotage became a norm which worsened efforts to restore production.

There are a few lessons to take from the economics of post-war 1940s. Disrupted supply chain in the form of business failures and labor shedding took time to recover, and could not move as fast as demand. When demand returned with supply failing to do the same, that demand went unfulfilled. This led to massive shortages and subsequently, massive inflation. Never mind the social issues and the complex 1940s political situation.

In this sense, the negative economic effects of the war lasted beyond the war.

Coming back to today, our mines, plantations, shops, offices and other facilities obviously do not suffer similar war devastation. And the social reality is different and undeniably more stable though racial tension that originated from the war continues to linger.

But our current supply-side crisis, now lengthened to 4 weeks, is heightening the risk of business failures and job loss. That means reduced potential and once the crisis is over and demand back up, that reduced potential means shortages and significantly higher inflation, and higher prolonged unemployment. Growth could be depressed for some time until the potential returns to its pre-crisis period. The negative economic effects of this supply-side crisis would last beyond the actual crisis.

This is why we need to protect the potential now. Prevent business failures. Protect jobs. This is so that once the crisis is done, we could press on the demand paddle right away without having to wait for some time to repair the supply transmission. We do not have to suffer a lasting effect of this crisis.

Economics WDYT

[2822] Guess Malaysia’s 1Q16 GDP growth

I have been slacking off a little bit. My models have not been updated as frequently as it should. Reason is, one fine March day, something wiped the models out. Electrons arranged neatly disintegrated into disorder, destroying the microfoundations (heh!) of my models.

I have backup files, but updating them is a tedious exercise.

So, my projections, especially on quarterly basis might be off for now.

Nonetheless, it does not take much effort to look into the latest data.

And I cannot find much stuff to celebrate.

The full industrial production index for the first quarter is not out yet but for February, production grew only 3.9% YoY. Remember, 2016 is a leap year and in essence, people produced more this year compared to the last just because of the extra day. So normalized growth will be lower than that. At the same time, with all the heatwave going on, I think we also need to discount electricity production spike. It is very likely the electricity generated mostly went into cooling purposes instead of for manufacturing. My electricity bill spiked by about 100% in March. Some of my friends had it worse.

February 2016

I am unsure how much the electricity generation surge is due to mining growth recovery (is it a recovery?) however. I can run a regression model I suppose, but meh. Looking at the lines alone can tell you much about the correlation.

The new core inflation published by the Department of Statistics appears stable, suggesting consumption growth might be stable too. But who knows. With the way economy is going, there might be enough slack that increased economic activities would not affect inflation much. Import expansion for the quarter was uninspiring as well, pointing to the possibility that the economy did not go far enough toward fulfilling its potential. Stable (and low?) inflation and weak import growth mean weak consumption growth.

Export growth is also not convincing by the way.

Government spending growth might be hurting. For most of the first quarter, Brent prices were below $40 per barrel and the government really wanted to cut its deficit still. Things might be better in 2Q16, but not before as far as public expenditure is concerned.

In the end, I think growth might be about the same as the last one. Might be slightly slower too for all I know. In 4Q15, the Malaysian RGDP grew 4.5% YoY.

Maybe you know better?

The Department of Statistics will release Malaysia’s GDP figures on Friday, May 13.

How fast do you think did the Malaysian economy grow in 1Q16 from a year ago?

  • 3.0% or slower (8%, 1 Votes)
  • 3.1%-3.5% (8%, 1 Votes)
  • 3.6%-4.0% (23%, 3 Votes)
  • 4.1%-4.5% (54%, 7 Votes)
  • 4.6%-5.0% (8%, 1 Votes)
  • 5.1%-5.5% (0%, 0 Votes)
  • Faster than 5.5% (0%, 0 Votes)

Total Voters: 13

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[2767] Deflation is coming to Malaysia. Is it bad?

January inflation clocked at only 1.0% from a year ago while in December it was 2.7%. That was a pretty drastic slowdown that I bet someone will cry deflation wolf somewhere soon.

The cause of the slackening is easy to explain. It is unambiguously due to the drop in retail petrol and diesel prices. RON95 fuel price, the most popular fuel in Malaysia by far, in January dropped from MYR2.26 per liter to MYR1.91 in December. Diesel went down 30 sen to MYR1.93 per liter in the same period. In January 2014, RON95 was MYR2.10 per liter.

At this rate, Malaysia might be seeing actual deflation this month. In February, both RON95 and diesel went down further to MYR1.70 per liter. The drop in yearly terms in February 2015 is greater than that seen in January because in February 2014, RON95 was MYR2.10 still. In January 2015, it fell 9% YoY. In February 2015, it decreased 19% YoY.

In fact, on monthly terms, we are already in deflation. This is not your monthly, seasonal price fluctuation that people usually ignore and say, ah, it is nothing. This is a clear deflation.

Is this deflation something to worry about?

No. I do not think so.

Deflation these days connotes bad news. Japan and Europe are trying hard to avoid deflation. In Singapore, deflation played a role in convincing the monetary authority there to loosen up its forex policy, which is their monetary policy. And the last time Malaysia had a deflation, it was during the 2009 recession.

But not all deflation are the same.

In Japan and Europe and Singapore today, and Malaysia in 2009, deflation came about from reduced economic activities. There was less demand and so, price pressure was weak and that pulled prices down. It was demand-driven. In fact, we really are worrying about demand rather than price itself. Price changes — inflation or deflation — are usually a symptom of something else.

Unlike in 2009, the (possible) February deflation would be supply-driven. The weakening in prices has been supply-driven in the sense that technological improvement — all the talk about shale mining that is turning the US into the world’s largest oil producer — has created oil glut in the market.

I do not worry because this is the same pressure that forced computer prices down over the decades. It is a kind of pressure that makes a typical person feels richer because he or she could now buy something else with the same amount of money and still afford the same quantity of fuel or more. Or save them. I do not see a price-wage spiraling down out of control here. The price deflation does not make them feel poorer because the deflation does not come about from them losing them job or suffering a pay cut. There are news of some retrenchment in the oil and gas sector but the size is small so far, as far as I know and besides, the sector is not the biggest contributor to the Malaysian economy. Indeed, the biggest sector, electronics, is having swell of a time and being ignored by the press.

I also do not worry about deflation because fuel is not something a typical consumer can live without for too long. Deflation can be disastrous to the economy in the sense that people would stop buying or postpone their purchases until prices fall further to stabilize at some low prices. But with fuel, I do not think you can do that to the point it would adversely affect growth. Fuel is an essential good and you just have to use them, especially in a society that is so dependent on combustion-type vehicles. If you do wait out, then you might not be able to drive or get to somewhere at all. You just need them and you will keep buying it even when you know prices are falling.

More importantly, the postponement of purchase is dangerous to growth especially when consumers do not know when prices would bottom out. So, they keep holding back and then not making purchases at all. This can be particularly devastating for fixed assets like homes and durable goods. In the case fuel prices, it does appear prices have bottomed out, especially since the prices used for the determination of petrol prices in Malaysia is lagged by a month, as I have explained previously. If global crude prices hold at the current level at about $60 per barrel compared to $45 in mid-January, it is very likely that retail petrol prices will be higher in March next month. So, a February deflation will be temporary. This also means people would line up at the gas stations at the end of this month preempting the loophole that comes with Malaysia’s imperfect dirty float system. So, instead of being encouraged to postpone purchases, they will hoard them instead.

Before I end, I am not saying there is no problem with demand. I still worry that consumption growth is slowing despite the surprisingly strong expansion last quarter. But the possible deflation in February is very much driven by the supply-side, and not demand.

So, do not worry about the deflation.

Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved Mohd Hafiz Noor Shams. Some rights reserved
p/s — I am tempted to say yet another reason why I was not worried about deflation, but decided the argument is problematic. That argument goes: core inflation is still more than 50 basis points above headline inflation. Since core inflation is more reflective of demand, and since it strips fuel away and therefore free from supply-driven inflation/deflation seen in January, it suggests demand is going well. But I checked the data from 2008-2009 and core inflation was somewhat healthy despite the fact there was a recession. This probably shows core inflation is an imperfect measurement of demand change.

I am putting it at the postscript to catalog my own thoughts on the matter and revisit it later.


[2732] One-time versus repeated-game views on inflation and consumption

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?

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