October 24, 2016
SINGAPORE — During Singapore’s full moon festival last month, employer John Kong was focused more on cost-cutting than celebrating.
Not sending his clients traditional mooncake gift packages saved him S$14,000, and his 60 workers at building materials supplier M Metal Pte Ltd didn’t get a pay rise either.
Having grown at a break-neck pace that transformed what half a century ago was a seedy colonial port into an Asian Manhattan, Singapore is now bracing for a prolonged period of low growth, darkening the outlook for the city-state’s deeply indebted firms.
“When you talk to building infrastructure groups, it sounds depressing,” said Mr Kong, who faces a 10-15 per cent sales drop this year, the firm’s first in its five-year history.
“Everyone seems to be asking ‘what’s going to happen to me in three months?’ Companies are not getting the orders, there are fixed overheads, so the first thing they do is slash marketing budgets and the next thing is they cut the number of people.”
As a regional centre for trade, oil services and wealth management, Singapore’s US$300 billion (S$418 billion) economy punches above its weight and serves as a barometer for Asia’s other export dependent economies.
China’s slowdown has hit the city-state’s manufacturers and shippers, the slump in commodity markets is weighing on its oil and gas sector, while a rise in bad debts and a regulatory crackdown has hurt its financial services industry.
The result: Earnings forecasts for Singapore-listed companies are falling at among the fastest rates in the world.
Projections for next year’s net income have come off by 4 per cent on average over the past three months versus a 0.2 per cent fall for the rest of Asia Pacific, according to data from Thomson Reuters.
Companies are also struggling with debt burdens that have ballooned since the financial crisis, even as bottom lines have shrunk.
While net incomes are down almost 40 per cent since June 2008, net debt has more than doubled, according to Thomson Reuters data, as commodity markets boomed and companies took advantage of cheap credit.
Analysts have cut earnings projections for the likes of commodity firms Wilmar International and Noble, and offshore marine heavyweights Sembcorp Marine and Ezion Holdings.
The profitability and asset quality of banks such as top lenders DBS Group Holdings and Oversea Chinese Banking Corp have also come under pressure because of their loans to those troubled sectors.
In addition, the spillover from a money laundering scandal involving Malaysia’s state fund 1MDB has weighed on the financial industry, with banks forced to spend hefty sums on compliance, which is not generating revenue. And a tax amnesty in neighbouring Indonesia has triggered large outflows from the wealth management industry.
[What exactly is the impact of "wealth" flowing out? In the current low-interest, low investment returns climate, what is the point of having private banking clients? Oh, so the banks can fleece them.]
The problems extend beyond larger listed companies.
The head of the Association of Small and Medium Enterprises, which represents 12,000 companies, says firms are not expecting a swift recovery like that which followed the financial crisis.
“This is not ‘08-’09, it’s not a V-shape. It’s a sustained, deep-end plateau,” said president Kurt Wee. “Industrial support industries or building contractors and oil and gas are very badly affected and that has a broad based effect on everything else on the ground.”
Economists say the deteriorating earnings outlook raises the prospect that Singapore’s economy performs worse than policymakers expect, requiring further fiscal or monetary stimulus.
The central bank has prepared investors for a protracted period of subdued growth, unexpectedly introducing forward guidance in its latest policy statement.
The government is “prepared to consider introducing a range of contingency measures, which could include broad-based as well as sector-specific measures”, Mr Lim Hng Kiang, Singapore’s minister for trade and industry told parliament.
Data earlier this month showed a shock 4.1 per cent contraction in the third quarter.
To be sure, Singapore is better placed than many to weather a slowdown. It is one of the most politically stable countries in the world, with hefty reserves and a top ranking in the World Bank’s ease of doing business index.
Even so, Singapore is showing signs its first recession in seven years is likely.
Entire floors at central shopping malls are empty, tourists are cutting spending and some property developers are taking on projects at a loss to keep business going.
A Mastercard survey showed Singapore posted one of the biggest drops in consumer confidence among 17 Asia-Pacific nations in the first half of 2016, notching up its lowest reading since June 2009.
Key factors dragging it down were perceptions about the quality of life, regular income and employment.
Ms Jessica, a 39-year-old who only gave her first name and recently lost her job as an audit supervisor, can relate.
“I’ve definitely cut down on spending,” she said as she left a job fair.
“I explain to my kids that we can’t buy things as often as before because of the poor economy and thankfully they understand.”