Wednesday, November 26, 2008

A primer on subprime (4 of 5): What we can do

It's a given Malaysians will suffer too in this global slowdown. Anyone suggesting Malaysia will be unaffected is living in dreamland. All of us – government, businesses and employees – have to contribute to mitigate the pain:
  1. Government in the next few months has to spend to cushion the local economy and protect society's poorest;
  2. In the longer-term economic policy has to be reevaluated to attract investment, both local and foreign;
  3. Businesses and employees must use the breathing space afforded by the government handouts to improve efficiency and productivity.

Like most things, these are easier said than done. Unfortunately, government fiscal options are limited. We had already been running Budget deficits for the past 12 years, through the good times. In fact, the deficit for this year, 2008, will hit 4.8%, higher than the 3.6% initially forecast, even with record high oil and crude palm oil prices. Next year, in 2009, there will be a lot less government revenue with oil prices down by more than half and lower corporate and income tax collections.

Fortunately, and ironically, there has been plenty of fat in the system. Most would agree that there is tremendous leakage when the Barisan government spends money. Cut out the fat, and spend what we have on projects with the maximum impact on the local economy – so small scale grassroots projects please. Mega projects with high foreign input costs should be carried out only if truly necessary.

Besides the short-term spending, the Barisan Nasional government must reconsider its economic policies. The government has been increasing its role in the economy over the years. The federal budget has increased 57% over the last three years! That is not healthy. Sustainable economic growth is always private sector-led.

The amount of capital investments in Malaysia is very low poor. We were the only Asean nation to record net capital outflows last year . And if foreign exchange rates are any indicator, we are considered a worse risk than Thailand, where quite literally there was blood in the streets. The ringgit has depreciated against the baht in the past year.

Now is the time to ask the hard questions and implement the solutions. Why is investment lagging in Malaysia? Why has the perception of our country deteriorated so much? We were once seen as close to Singapore in terms of stability and prospects; we are now compared with lesser peers.

Create a conducive environment for private sector investment. And don't just focus on the foreigners. Remember the locals too. There are many Malaysian millionaires and billionaires with cash to spare. What will it take to get them to put it back into the Malaysian economy?

As for what businesses and individuals can do, Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam said, “Be lean and mean.” Time was short and he was closing the discussion at the open forum on The Global Financial Crisis and its Implications on Malaysia. Elaborating on his behalf, we should all be looking at ourselves and asking how we earn our income. No-one owes us a living, and in my working life, my guiding philosophy was “My employer must consider me good value.” That's the only way to job security, no matter what you do. If you're a businessman, it's “My customer must find me good value.” I'm not saying cut prices – there is a difference in price and value, which can be the subject of another blog – I'm suggesting there's also substantial room for customer service, productivity and efficiency improvement in Malaysia.

For those lucky enough to have spare cash, I personally believe this is a buying opportunity . Traditional financial theory says markets are efficient. My experience is that markets are made up of people. These people may be smart, may be very highly qualified, may be very intelligent but they are humans with very human emotions. There will be periods of euphoria and periods of pessimism.

We are entering a period of pessimism. I had drinks with a friend recently. He used to be a happy punter in the stock market. Conversation turned to personal portfolios and I recommended a stock at 1.5x P/E. His first reaction – what will earnings be next year? I said, even if earnings go down by half, the stock would be at 3x P/E. But still he wasn’t convinced – and this was a guy happily buying in the bull market when P/Es were well in the teens or 20s.

It won't be an easy ride. Warren Buffet last month said, "…. the leaks are now turning into a gusher. In the near term, unemployment will rise, business activity will falter and headlines will continue to be scary … ..…… Let me be clear on one point: I can’t predict the short-term movements of the stock market.”

But he added, “…fears regarding the long-term prosperity of the nation’s many sound companies make no sense. These businesses will indeed suffer earnings hiccups, as they always have. But most major companies will be setting new profit records 5, 10 and 20 years from now..”

The plunge in share prices has been indiscriminate. Prices of shares in good, and bad, companies are cheap. Hunker down for tough times, do your homework, find companies you’re comfortable with and put your spare cash in the stock market. “Be fearful when others are greedy, and be greedy when others are fearful.”

It will be hard to maintain equanimity in the coming months. News flow will be more negative than positive. Tan Sri Ramon at the forum reminded us that economic cycles come and go. He's seen 6 in his lifetime. We will survive this; the good times will roll again, and I’m sure we’ll see another crisis after that.

Finally, on Sunday: Who's to blame?

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