Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Malaysia: RM28 Billion Stimulus

The Prime Minister announced yesterday a RM28 billion stimulus package:

- RM20 billion to be invested in ValueCap to support undervalued shares
- RM4.5 billion for integrated development of hotel and theme park in Desaru Coast
- RM2 billion for a working capital guaranteed scheme for small and medium enterprises
- RM1.1 billion to enhance Muzium Negara, National Monument, Perdana Lake Gardens
- RM1 billion more to Domestic Investment Strategic Fund under 11MP
- RM80 million for health tourism promotion campaign in selected markets

- Asking international and local Malaysian companies to repatriate their profits and reinvest at home.
- Restructuring and rescheduling the loans of SMEs.
- Import duty exemption given to an additional 90 tariff lines including consumable spare parts and research apparatus used in manufacturing companies.

 1. If we take the view that a soaring stock market does not necessarily mean a bubbly real economy, whereas a sore stock market may indicate a sick economy, then we think that trying to boost the stock market is merely trying to produce a sign of well-being without taking a good look at the cause of the problem.

It is indeed exasperating that time and time again, the government tries to pander to the stock market all the time whenever there is a little sign of trouble.

I think we should tax the stock market, a specific transaction tax, first to discourage speculators and second to collect money for times like this when the government feels to urge to give a resemblance of helpfulness.

This attempt to shore up the stock market reflects very small and narrow economic thinking.

If we remove this RM20 billion stimulus, we are left with RM8 billion.

2. The next big chunk is a tourism development by Khazanah for RM4.5 billion. This is a one-off project. The RM1.1 billion refurbishment of tourism sites. This is the usual maintenance cost.

The depreciated ringgit is good for tourism and the thinking seems to be that it is good to encourage tourism. Does it imply that the ringgit to stay weak forever? You mean the government does not any idea of how to revive the economy or how to make the economy regain its vibrancy again?

Well, seriously, one small project does not an economy of RM330 billion make.

3. The rest are just sprinklings of stardusts all over the place to try to make the economy glitter.

If we take this to be the maiden outing of the Special Economic Committee, we may forgive it for being polite and demure. For the SEC to do any real good to the economy, as John Lennon's Aunty Mimi said to him on the release of the Beatles' first single "Love Me Do," "you've got to do better than this."

Monday, September 14, 2015

Malaysia: Post-Capitalism

I am rather unused to my current stream of consciousness that is plaguing me like mad about the very sorry state of this would-have-been great country of ours, our cultural diversity promising to be an example of the how the modern world could live with Islam as a major component, while we have many prominent and titled personalities sitting with the PM thinking of how to pick the brains of the not so prominent and not so titled individuals who have been putting up with incompetents in our daily lives. This is not supposed to be a rant.

I do not think that this time round, we can solve our economic problems like we did in the aftermath of 1997. Then, it was long-term investment funded by short-term capital, the mega projects instituted on the expectation that the economy was then on a quantum leap, and the opportunities affording the political boys to among the corporate leaders. The financial fallout put the political boys in a financial disaster and they just had to be rescued, if the political leadership of the day had to survive. That was prompted and expeditiously done.

Today, the problem is a more serious one, not that it is a direct home-made one because it is substantially not the case. It lies in that great global structural change that I had written earlier about.

But it is not enough that (a) we wish oil can go back to US$100, for it may instead go to US$20, some say; (b) we do not raise interest rates; (c) we do not impose capital controls, and this is what the market fears and unless this fear is removed, the ringgit will remain weak; (d) we remove the GST for we have already built in the inflationary expectations into the system and removing GST or zerorising it will not reverse prices, as official institutional inefficiency has already infested the private sector.

At the same time, we have GLCs that are monopolising and politicising the economy, maybe as desired, but certainly not without economic costs. Privatising those assets will be a step in the right direction but whether that will help or not would really depend on how it is privatised, or whether it will be put for greater efficiency.

We have to restructure the national economy and put it onto a proper footing for the future.

We all know that the information technology has now completely changed the world, and it has indeed. Social information is now creating a life on its own, and people are connected to create their own virtual world which they now enact in real life. Segments of society want to send out their messages and they do that enmass on foot. They idealise in their virtual world and they want the real world to be frictionless and instantaneous as well. They want sharp drastic and significant changes to society and life because they want the opportunity to create their own world. As not everyone will come to a consensus, it is likely that upheavals of all kinds will take shape for display in the social media. We are having a more versatile and more volatile society, and we would expect the authorities, those whom society has delegated some of our powers to, to be able to know how to maintain law and order in such a messy environment. The authorities have done well so far, and their continued ability to maintain public restrain and disciplined is important and critical.

Economically, however, we have the two superpowers - the US and China - sucking all the resources from the rest of the world. The QE has introduced this global inflation which is precisely the best way to siphon off resources. China has used its cheap labour to monopolise all labour-dependent activities such that global wages have been driven down to near zero, creating a standard of living among the labouring class at par with those in China. This is where Bangladesh and Indochina workers come to Malaysia to ensure absolute joblessness among working Malaysians at home. With this happening in the underbelly of the national economy, it is not unrelated an issue that Malaysians on both sides of the social divide are coming out to show their discontent. To have the red shirts pitching the yellow shirts and all the other demonstration of public strength and power is not but a reflection of the deep sense of insecurity that everybody is feeling about the state of the nation.

The government knows that the information system is basic to the new Malaysian economy of the future. That ICT backbone must therefore be competitive and efficient. But Malaysians are paying huge fees every months for a quality of IT service that cannot be said to be adequate for the present, and hence worse for the future. Monopoly and collusion are the killers. These big IT firms can make their huge profits to satisfy their shareholders but they are doing a disservice to the general public and the future of the nation.

A nation that is competing with the rest of the world on a fraction of its strength and capability is not living up to the full potential of its people. This creates discontent and hence a potential political disaster for the incumbent government. But a new government coming in will not do better either. Because we have not laid the future of our nation for our young to conquer. We must not allow old men who have past their prime to dictate the future; they have already done their damage in the past. Malaysia must really push all Malaysian youngsters to the forefront. The opposition which once was young is now not young any more. Their is a need for a third force to rise. The rising in the streets, in that one instant, is a good sign that the young is still keen and interested in the future of this country. This enthusiasm must be grasp as an opportunity to built the new Malaysia, instead of killing it and pushing everybody into the underground where only those with political might can show their emotions.

The future is the world of social media propagated information, no matter we like it or not. It may be utter true or false, but it is the reality. We act on perception, and confirm on facts. We do not act on facts, as it is always too late. Facts are for justice, not future.

The social media is all about inclusiveness, and the government has been talking about inclusiveness since day one. This is the way to go. Just accept it.

The government should promote current technology and expose it to society at large, so that society can innovate among itself to create a new way of life. New technologies, for them to be game-changers, must be disruptive to the existing way of doing things, to the existing system, to the status quo. The technology is challenging the way the government is run, how the government operates. The public service cannot be sleeping anymore, and its only communication with the general public cannot be as a bully and ticking off the people. Technology should be used to make redundant or bypass little napoleons whose incompetence and inaction is a scourge to our future. New technology should be used to interface by the government with the people in their daily dealings with the state, leaving face to face only as a matter last resort. But before full automation can take place, the systems must be tested to work efficiently. Almost all systems imposed by the civil service has become a bane on society. Competence is a rare commodity in our whole of highly educated people.

How can we allow incompetence to be so pervasive across our society? Is it our social experiment gone wrong?

I think the PM should ask those whom he has appointed to come out with their own individual recommendations of what should be done to improve the future of our nation. Those individual recommendations should be made public so that we know which one is competent and which one is just our usual titled prominent people pretending to be experts. Then ask for the feedback of society, so that you can which recommendation is favoured. You have listened in private to your advisers on the implementation of the GST and this has not gone down well. If any of your advisers in the SEC is no good, get new ones to come in. You don't have to be stuck with old men with old ideas. You should ask young people want they want for their future to set your policy direction.

This is as such as problem of our times as it is a problem of our own doing. We have to tackle both.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Great Haze Has Descended

A great haze has descended upon the whole country
At first a sprinkle of dust here, a dose of fudge there
But slowly the fog grows thick obscuring the reality
We cannot see far, the smell of the ashes hangs in the air.

They say it was due to a few hot spots not here but over there
A normal phenomenon in this part of the world, this time of the year
They say we must bear while they try to do something and persuade
Not that they know what to do and we know we must wait and wait.

But this is not a spot of fire in a small little place in an isolated incident
This is a great big fire of an open matter lit under an entire nation
The heat is getting stronger and stronger and we cannot bear any more
We give out a cry, a jolly big cry, they smile and give us back terrifying roar.

A great haze has descended upon the whole country
We cannot see the future clear but we can smell the aweful fear
Let there be more smoke and haze until we cannot gather
We may have no future but at least let us be alive together.

Monday, September 7, 2015

State Of Malaysia

With the wise men of the newly formed Special Economic Committee now deliberating on the state of the Malaysian economy and possibly on the future of our economy, I thought I will put in my two rapidly depreciating sen (not only in the international exchange market but also in domestic purchasing power) on what the state of the economy is right now.

1. Managing Expectations. I am amazed at how spoilt most of us can be, especially when we think about our success or failure. We tend to attribute all our successes to ourselves, and all our failures to others. When things turn out badly, we look for scapegoats. I was having a tough time in the last two decades trying to talk youngsters out of their cleverness in thinking they are millionaires just because they dabble in property investments, nay, speculations. Of course, I have to behave humbly in their mighty presence as I am only a poor wage earner. The question is whether the banks will now take legal actions to demand repayments by over-geared loan defaulters, be they in property, shares or credit cards. Everybody in the system seems to be holding together their house of cards. The spanner in the works will be a higher interest rate which will do some of the trick, but a stricter loan control which will really be the killer.

Politicians are always in a dilemma about bad news but sometimes bad news can be good. Good policy markers will always suggest that after a bout of good times, things may be going overboard and it may be good idea to start calming expectations down a bit to tell market players that, well, things can go the other way as well. Usually, politicians will like to postpone the day of reckoning until the problem of ballooning egos sets in. Then, the economy will simply implode.

Economic implosion is a natural phenomenon like a volcano eruption or an earthquake. It will happen, whether you like it or not. The last big one was in 1997 and Malaysia went around in search of Jews to blame. This time round, the shit hasn't quite hit the fan yet but the cracks are already showing and they are sizeable cracks. Even if the depreciating is a global thing, the old drop is a global thing, the high inflation is a global thing, the soft economy is a global thing. Look at China.

But China is running an admirable economic policy. China is slowing down the economy because the economy had run away on a single track to Timbuktu. China was building whole cities where no one lives. China was installing concrete blocks on perfectly good farm lands. China was covered in smog. China was killing itself. China did what was necessary, policy wise.

China fought corruption because it was corruption that led to economic excesses which led to unprecedented richness and arrogance without much sweat or effort. China was fighting a corrupt old regime which had used its political power to convert into economic power through real estate speculation. Without loosing itself from the grip of the old regime in the economy, the new regime cannot have a free hand to run the economy from export oriented to domestic consumption.

The current China regime of course made its own mistake. Just like any economy which runs to the problem of shoring up their GDP growth number, the tendency is always to push the money supply and in the process pump up the assets market, once again. This time, it is the equities market that responded for one complete year before the balloon burst. Boils grow even in an economy when things heat up.

The trick in economic policy is really to keep the temperature of the economy at a lukewarm level so that there is always monetary reward for effort and material discomfort for those who do not put in the effort. It is an economy bad shape when those who work hard are struggling to make ends meet and those who blow hot and cold in the political area with all kinds of nonsense make the most money through hot air.

A credit crunch with a higher interest rate is the necessary bitter medicine for the end of a prolonged party of excesses. Not all the villains will die, and as usual many of the good people will suffer. It may the harsh really that we cannot run away from. I wish things will not have to come to this end, but I think it is a bit too late to wish for only good things.

2. Exports. It is incredible how everybody is now an economic expert with the internet in one's finger tip all the time (or any other subject matter, for that matter, no matter the subject). With the fallen currency, ministers start talking about how this is good for exports like tourism. We are not talking about a currency that is always weak, but a currency that has been weakened. I do not think that tourists go to a destination because it is cheap. Tourists go to places where it is safe and they can have a good time. They have already saved up for the whole year to travel. So do we really wish for the currency to strengthen again and hence lose all the tourists again?

The other fear that we should have over the weak ringgit is that this great country that we have built up with concrete in the cities can all be foreign owned. Wait till the credit crunch ones, and the local speculators have to unload their assets onto the market and since the locals will most be the victims this time, the foreigners will be called in to help save the market value. Or we should let the market prices fall on real estate so that locals on low incomes can afford to buy very decent and prestigious properties.

3. Imports. A weak currency can also be used as a tool to restructure the economy into a higher value added one. The strategy Taiwan used in the 1950s to transform itself from an agriculture to a manufacturing economy was to devalue its currency by half. This made imported machinery expensive and all the graduates started to specialise in machine tooling and they ended up with a very specialised SME sector in manufacturing. Today, Taiwan continues to be innovative, no matter how quirky some of their innovations may be.

Because of the structure of our economy pillared by real estate speculation and massive consumption financed by a high household debt, we have become an economy that is soft in the belly. Our houses are no more built by our own people, our food are no more cooked by ourselves, and we are all busy looking for handouts through the social media and encouraged by some mistaken government policy of helping the poor with upfront cash. Our manufacturing backbone may no longer be there anymore.

4. Concluding Remarks. Whatever the official GDP numbers, I think the economy is in recession. People are already fighting for survival in the streets, either violently through robbery and other crime, or peacefully through demonstrations of their frustrations. It may be a bed of roses, but the people are being pricked by the thorns and are bleeding. Politicians and policymakers are probably the best paid in the nation, and they may be living in a separate strata from the common lot. But the common lot will want improvement which may not forthcoming any time in the coming future. Have we seen the storm, or are we just feeling the calm before the real one comes.

Brace yourselves, hold on to your cash.