Malaysia’s profligacy could hurt during crisis, says ex-MIER chief
KUALA LUMPUR, May 10 — Malaysia’s lack of fiscal self-control could push up its borrowing costs and limit its ability to respond to a global economic crisis, said the former chief of one of Asia’s top economic think tanks.
Prof Datuk Mohd Ariff Abdul Kareem, who formerly headed the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) and is now with the Global University of Islamic Finance, said there were signs the country’s credit ratings were under pressure, and without a budget surplus, Malaysia could find itself short of options during times of crisis.
He also noted that the country has grown accustomed to debt, and reported budget deficits in 47 years but surpluses in only seven.
“Malaysia lacks fiscal discipline,” said Mohd Ariff at the launch of an economic report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (UN Escap).
“It (Malaysia) is so used to having fiscal deficits. If there is a global crisis, Malaysia is not equipped to handle it. There is no space. If there is a surplus, there is a large space.”
He said that part of the problem was that the government’s operational expenditure was “over the roof”.
“The government needs to raise tax revenue and reign in expenditure,” he said. “There are already signs the country’s credit ratings are under pressure.”
A drop in Malaysia’s sovereign grade by credit ratings agencies would make it more expensive for the country to raise money.
Mohd Ariff said, however, that the country was not on the verge of bankruptcy although its debt-to-GDP ratio of nearly 54 per cent was just under its 55 per cent limit.
“The debt is largely domestic and less vulnerable to external shocks,” he said.
He warned, however, that the ratio could shoot up to 100 per cent by 2020 if present overspending is not reversed.
The Najib administration had pledged to trim the chronic federal budget deficit as part of fiscal reforms to make the country more competitive.
The Budget deficit was cut from seven per cent in 2009 to five per cent last year.
The government aims to reduce the deficit further, to 4.7 per cent this year.
UN Escap said today that Malaysia is looking at slower growth as regional economies take a hit from the deterioration of the global economic environment, particularly in Europe.
It added that the world was in the second stage of the global financial crisis, with a sharp deterioration in the economic conditions largely due to the euro zone debt crisis and uncertain US economy.
The commission estimated that a sovereign debt default in Europe or the breakup of the euro zone monetary union would result in a new world crisis that could lead to a total export loss of US$390 billion over 2012-2013 and reduce Asia-Pacific growth by 1.3 per cent.
The agency projected a growth rate of 4.5 per cent for Malaysia this year, compared to 5.1 per cent last year and 7.2 per cent in 2010.