The rout on the Malaysian ringgit is propping up a sector beset by problems, delegates at a conference in Kuala Lumpur have heard.
The ringgit has plunged over the last 12 months to its lowest point against the dollar since the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s. It has lost 20% of its value this year, and is the chief concern among the trade sector in the country.
However, it is having an impact on the country’s exports in value terms, with the IMF forecasting 15.1% export growth this year, combining goods and services. While this may be the highest growth figure since 2004, it is slightly misleading.
The oil and gas crisis coupled with the drop in value of goods, traceable to the ringgit’s plunge, leads Focus Economics to forecast a 6.4% drop in exports in value terms in 2015. That said, the problem would surely be exacerbated had the ringgit maintained a higher value.
“It’s certainly a huge help,” said Rajiv Biswas of IHS at GTR Malaysia Trade and Export Finance conference. “But that’s a buffer mechanism against global headwinds. Without the falling ringgit, exports would have been hurt. Local exports in US dollar terms are down a lot, but translated into ringgit terms they’re not so bad. If the renminbi is devalued again we could see another round of devaluation across emerging market currencies, and that might be a step too far for Malaysia.”
The economy is viewed as being in slightly ruder health than its Indonesian neighbour, given the relative diversity of its exports (although the commodity slump has still hit it hard) and the high level of Malaysian investment overseas, comparable to Indonesia.
This dollar investment may help shelter it from some of the impact of the US Federal Reserve’s imminent rate hike, but not all. Malaysia has a high number of corporates leveraged in US dollar and a large amount of foreign ownership of assets and companies, all of which could expect to suffer from a rise in interest rate.
These fears were borne out in this week’s budget, which said little about trade or exports, but emphasised Najib Razak, the Malaysian Prime Minister’s, fiscally conservatism.
“The Malaysian government remains committed to keeping the budget deficit in check, despite the fall in oil prices which has hit fiscal revenues hard. This has left the government with little scope to boost spending and support growth. In its latest budget, which was announced last Friday, the government has announced it is targeting a fiscal deficit of 3.1% of GDP in 2016, slightly down from an expected 3.2% in 2015 and 3.4% in 2014,” says Krystal Tan, Asia economist at Capital Economics.
She adds: “The government’s continued commitment to fiscal discipline should provide a welcome boost to investor sentiment towards Malaysia, which has suffered recently because of ongoing corruption allegations against the government, as well as the slump in commodity prices, which has led to a collapse in the ringgit.”