Saturday, February 28, 2009

GDP growth decelerated sharply in 4Q08

As anticipated, by nearly everyone else except the BN government, economic (GDP) growth plunged in the last 3 months of 2008. Just 0.1% growth was reported. The jaded analyst in me is suspicious of this number, which just made it to positive territory. My prediction: Sometime in the near future, this number will be revised down and be in negative territory.

BN still has its head-in-the-sand. While it is flip-flopping on toll rate hikes and still predicting growth this year in 2009, those of us who work at real businesses instead of relying on government handouts know that recession is more likely.

Which makes the impending stimulus plan very crucial. Planned and executed well, it will help buffer Malaysians against this global economic downturn. But what happened to the first RM7bn stimulus in the first place? As an interested reader put it, “Can we as rakyat ask the government to table in parliament all the details of the projects that have benefited from the allocation. for example, if it is a bridge project, please name the description of the bridge, the location, the person awarded to, the contract sum, the contract period and henceforth ...”

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Call on the Works and Finance Ministers for a Toll-free North-South Expressway by 2016 and to save taxpayers’ RM14 billion

I joined our MPs Tony Pua (PJ Utara), Teo Nie Ching (Serdang) and Lim Lip Eng (Segambut) at a press conference this morning to publicise our proposal:

“The DAP Ops RESTORE (Restructure Toll Rates & Equity) Team would like to congratulate the Works Minister for first having declassified most of the highway toll concession agreements, and followed up with the removal of two toll plazas at the New Pantai Expressway (NPE) and the Sungei Besi Highway in the past two weeks.

We call upon the Works Minister to declare the compensation promised to these concessionaires for the abolition of the toll, for if the compensation involved is equivalent to the toll that would have been collected, then the joy for Malaysians will be shortlived.

In addition and more importantly, DAP Ops RESTORE Team calls upon both the Works and Finance Ministers to make the entire North-South Highway and its related concessions such as the ELITE, Butterworth-Kulim (BKE) and the Second Link Highways under PLUS Expressways Berhad completely toll free by 2016.

Following our team's consultations to date with legal experts, investment bankers as well as the general public, we have developed a comprehensive, practicable and creative programme to return the highways to the people at the least possible cost, and shortest possible time without compromising the integrity of the financial markets.

Our proposal will:

1) Impose no further increase in North-South Highway toll rates.
For example, a return KL-Penang journey will remain at RM86.60 today instead of RM115.30 in 2015 and RM168.80 by 2030.

2) Create RM14 billion savings for Malaysians from 2009-2015
This will be the amount saved either (i) by Malaysians using the highway because of no further toll rate increases or (ii) in terms of compensation which would have to be paid by the Government to PLUS Expressways.

3) Continue to collect toll only until 2015

4) Incur no additional cost for the Malaysian Government or Malaysian tax-payers

Background information:

1) PLUS is listed on Bursa Malaysia at a price of RM2.88 per share and a market capitalisation of RM14.4 billion (24th February).

2) The Government of Malaysia, via Khazanah owns 65% of PLUS.

3) PLUS has outstanding net debt amounting to RM8.5 billion.

We call upon the Government to take the following actions:

1. The Government should make a General Offer (GO) to acquire all minority shareholders of PLUS with a generous 15% premium at RM3.30 per share, costing RM5.25 billion thus ensuring that minority shareholders are protected.

2. The cost of acquisition, added to the RM8.5 billion net debt of PLUS will amount to RM13.75 billion.

3. This cost will be funded by issuing Malaysian Government Securities (MGS) at 3% interest (or less), costing RM413 million per annum. Total repayment will amount to RM16.2 billion over 6 years.

4. At the same time, PLUS should generate at least RM20b in net positive cashflow the 6 years to 2015 without further toll rate hikes and assuming a conservative 3% pa traffic growth.

5. Therefore by 2015, the government can completely repay the MGS and still have RM3.8 billion excess which could be used to build a better public transportation system throughout the country.

Not only will the execution of the above proposal bring joy to all Malaysians with a toll-free North South Expressway, the exercise will fit perfectly with the upcoming “mini-Budget” by the Finance Minister:

  • RM14 billion saved by Malaysian consumers will reduce the cost of living for the average Malaysian in times of economic difficulties we face today.
  • RM14 billion saved will also redirect expenditure to other more productive sectors of our economy by increasing domestic consumer demand.
  • The reduced toll rates and its subsequent abolition will substantially reduce the cost of doing business in Malaysia, increase logistical efficiencies and ultimately make Malaysian companies more globally competitive.
  • Best of all, the plan will stimulate demand and make available substantial funds for public infrastructure development without the Government having to increase the precarious budget deficit further.
Hence, the DAP Ops RESTORE Team would like to reiterate our call to both the Finance and Works Minister to include the above proposal in the proposed mini-budget set to be announced by the Finance Minister on the 10th March for the benefit of the Government and all Malaysians.”

Keen readers will note the toll-free target is now earlier at 2016 instead of 2020. The main difference between this and the proposal we presented at the public forum is we now assume 3% pa traffic growth, compared to zero before.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Is the BN government taking a bigger chunk of your monthly pay?

Received from an accountant, which I am publishing verbatim as it sounds credible. Any other readers have similar experiences?

“The Inland Revenue Board (IRB) has issued a revised STD (Schedular Tax Deduction) table for the year 2009 and requested all the employers to follow the new table. The deductions under the new table are about 15 to 20% higher than the old table even though there is a tax reduction for 2009 (to confirm).

A lady from the IRB customer hotline explained that the previous table has assumed a 20% "discount" based on tax relief that tax payers may have, e.g. parents' medical fee, book and computer purchases, life insurance/EPF, etc. The new table is based on your gross pay less EPF (not sure whether they are using 9% or 11%).

However, there is an option for the EMPLOYEE to calculate his or her own monthly payment based on the tax relief applicable. For instance, if you have paid for your parents' medical fee of RM500 in Jan, you can fill in a form called Borang TP1 with your deduction of RM500 and submit to your employer, so that you will get relevant deduction and a smaller STD when you next get your pay.

You can also calculate your monthly tax deduction easily with Kalkulator PCB given in the IRB website. I did mine and deduction according to the new STD table is 18.5% higher than what it should be. Another call to the hotline has confirmed that the table would be higher as it assumed "average" (whatever it means) tax relief/allowances. I followed on to ask if it is the employees' right to ask the employer to use the correct deduction, the answer (after checking with her colleague) was no. Employers have the rights to follow the new table figures and there is nothing the IRB can help if they refuse to use your calculation.

I have heard pleasant and unpleasant stories about IRB refunds. My own experience was that IRB has given me 2 cheques for refund over the past 3 years and I have no idea how they come out with the amounts. I wrote to them as well as to Pemudah and I still haven't received any reply for more than 2 years! (Chi-Chang’s experience: I have yet to receive a refund cheque from the IRB for the past few years)

Although self declaration of tax for individual has already been in place for a few years now, I doubt many tax payers are aware of this change. If all employers were to disallow employees' calculation, effectively all hardworking Malaysia tax payers will be having a pay cut now without knowing when they will get their rightful tax refund from IRB."

Thursday, February 19, 2009

How we can achieve toll-free PLUS by 2020

The DAP's 'Can We Have Our Highways Back' public forum in Petaling Jaya last night was well-attended. 120 or so people signed in, the crowd looked a little larger and most stayed until the late evening end to share their views and hear MPs Lim Kit Siang, Teo Nie Ching and Tony Pua, constitutional lawyer Tommy Thomas and I.

The older generation (me included!) may remember Kit Siang being detained under the ISA in 1987, partly for his strenuous efforts opposing the inflated and opaque manner in which the North-South Highway privatisation concession was awarded. It's 20 years down the line, Kit Siang has been proven right – the toll these 'piratisations', not just highways, but also water and IPPs, have inflicted on Malaysians is unbearable.

Now, the DAP younger generation MPs like Tony and Nie Ching are leading the battle. If we don't sort out this toll mess, your grandchildren will still be paying toll. PLUS was supposed to have been toll-free by 2018. But because the BN government slowed down the pace of toll rate hikes (the initial agreement called for 22% pa for the first nine years!), tolling has been extended to 2038.

Slowing down the toll rate hikes just delays the problem. The issue is the original toll rates granted were too expensive anyway. For example, a return KL-Penang trip now costs RM86.60. by 2014, a return trip to Penang would cost RM115.30, up 33% from RM86.60 today. By 2020 it would be RM140! Do you expect you pay to go up at the same rate? I'll bet that by 2014, public outcry will force the BN government to defer toll rate increases and further extend the concession period. Either that or pay huge sums in compensation.

The BN government claims nationalising the highways is too expensive. Not true. Here's how it can work with PLUS as an example:
1)Market capitalisation of PLUS: RM15bn (at RM3.00, when I did the study. Share price is actually lower now at around RM2.70).
2)Government, via Khazanah, holds 65%. Value of 35% minority shareholders is RM5.25bn (at RM3.00). Offer a 10% premium to market price = RM6bn total.
3)PLUS has RM8.5bn net debt. Government also buys these over so total acquisition cost = RM14.5bn (6+8.5).
4)The government issues RM14.5bn of 10-year Malaysian Government Securities (MGS) to fund this. The yield (interest rate) on such MGS was 3.1% as of early Feb 09. Annual interest cost on the RM14.5bn = RM450m pa. So, over 10 years, the government has to pay back the RM14.5bn principal + RM4.5bn interest = RM20bn.
5)PLUS generated RM1.73bn operating cash flow last year. Assuming no traffic growth, and NO further toll rate hikes, it would generate RM17.3bn in total over 10 years. Throw in some traffic growth and operating efficiencies and there should be enough to cover the RM20bn principal and interest payments on the MGS.
6)In 10 years, 2019, the MGS is fully repaid. PLUS can be toll-free by 2020!
7)What's outstanding: The value of the government's 65% stake. The market value (at RM3.00) is RM9.75bn, but the government's actual cost is much lower. I estimate RM812m, based on 65% of the shareholders capital. The government can write this off. It's less than RM1bn – what's it compared to, say, losses at Klang port? Or the savings now that petrol is no longer subsidised.

Note: Eye-catching headline aside, I don't countenance a toll-free PLUS. It is a good principle that users should pay for the service they use. But the toll rate can be much lower and fairer, to cover recurring maintenance and any upgrade costs.
A Mandarin-language forum on this matter will be held at 8pm, Wed 25 Feb at Dewan Serbaguna MBSJ, Jalan Besar, Sri Kembangan.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

EPF – where's my dividend?

The Employees Provident Fund (EPF) and mainstream media has been ominously quiet on this subject. Last year, the dividend was announced on 22 Jan, and the year before on 5 Feb 07. We're well into February now, listed companies are already actively reporting results for the year-ended Dec 08 but there's still no news from EPF. I actually popped by the Jalan Gasing, PJ, EPF office but the staff members there couldn't tell me when either. For the record, we received 5.8% for 2007 and 5.15% for 2006. Being unemployed now, I'm looking forward to the dividend to grow my account balance.

Over to EPF. I hope no news is good news ...

Friday, February 13, 2009

Electricity tariffs down – another RM3.5bn pa wasted

One week after BN's deeply unpopular move to wrest control of Perak comes a crowd-pleasing reduction in power and gas tariffs. You might be happy to hear your monthly electricity bill will be cheaper, but don't let the BN fool you. You got a mere few crumbs. Politically-connected and influential entrepreneurs got far more, all at the expense of our long-term future.

Let's take a look at the power tariff cuts first, The average tariff reduction was 3.7%, but the biggest winners were industrial users who will see their bills come down by 5%. Commercial users benefit from a 2.7% average cut while domestic consumers, ie you and I, bring up the rear with a 2.4% reduction.

It is thanks to Petronas that we will enjoy the lower power bills. It is now charging the power sector RM10.70/mmBTU for the gas used to produce electricity, down 25% from RM14.31. Petronas also instituted a deeper 32% cut in the gas price to industrial users – it is now down to RM15.00 from RM22.06/mmBTU.

I'll reiterate here that I am against blanket cheap power and fuel. Across-the-board tariff cuts benefit even those who don't need or deserve the support.

Consider one beneficiary: Top Glove, the world's largest glove maker. Its chairman Tan Sri Lim Wee Chai reportedly said the company will pass on most of the savings to its customers ie foreigners! On top of that, he maintained the company's 15-20% profit growth target for the year. So, even without the cut in gas prices, Top Glove was already expecting 20% profit growth. Does it need or deserve a fuel subsidy? Bear in mind half its workers are foreigners too! All we have done here is reduce Petronas's income, and made some foreigners richer.
(The Edge 13 Feb 09, pg 8)

Elsewhere, investment analysts have been busy upgrading their profit forecasts for steel and cement producers, by as much as 30%. There had been no hint in the past that these steel and cement producers were in danger of going under. Investment analysts were still maintaining profit forecasts for these groups. And now I've been proven right – the cheaper power does not flow through to Malaysian workers, it goes to increased profits.

I estimate the gas price cuts cost Petronas RM3.5bn pa. Rather than enriching entrepreneurs in low-value added low-margin industries, this sum could be better deployed enhancing Malaysia's competitiveness. Here are two alternatives:
1)Set up a fund to pay allowances to and retrain c. 80,000 retrenched workers (assuming RM9,000 retraining cost per worker and RM3,000 allowance per month for the worker for one year). The multiplier effects of this across the economy will be so much higher. People will be willing to maintain consumption if they know there is still some sort of safety net should they be retrenched.
2)Set up a body to help manufacturers and industrialists improve their energy efficiency. Funds can be provided for one-time purchases of energy efficient equipment.

As it stands now, this power cut reduction is another example of poorly thought policy, spending our scarce resources inefficiently. An average 3.7% tariff cut does not make a big difference to any one user. The Associated Chinese Chambers of Commerce and Industry Malaysia has itself pointed this out, saying “.. it is a dismal reduction ...”

Plugging leakages at the BN government itself and reducing the cost of doing business should lead to similar savings. But BN is busy politicking and entertaining double-crossers and politicians with outstanding corruption charges.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Perak imbroglio another indictment of Barisan's poor ethics

I was about to post a blog on stimulus packages, the inept delivery of even the modest RM7bn initial stimulus announced last year and how we can emulate some of what Singapore proposed in its Budget for 2009. But the turn of events in Perak makes this moot.

The Barisan Nasional (BN) is quite clearly still focused on politicking and seeking to wrest, by hook or by crook, what the people don't want it to have – the right to govern in 5 states in Malaysia. Rather than using its vast majority in Parliament – just 8 seats short of 2/3rds! - and all the resources it controls as Federal government to help Malaysia navigate this global economic storm, it is still politicking, nearly one year after the general elections.

Some would blame Anwar and PKR for starting this cross-over nonsense. I agree, and it is also the DAP stand, that individual cross-overs are unethical and a betrayal of the will of the people. In our political system, we vote for the party as well as the individual.

The mainstream media is trotting out comments by various “experts” justifying party-hopping. Their logic is it can be OK for MPs and assemblymen to hop because it is difficult to tell what exactly the people voted for – whether the individual or the party.

Against this argument, I have one simple question: Would these cross-over reps have been elected had they stood as independent candidates? Highly unlikely. Therefore, if they had truly lost faith in their respective parties, the honourable thing to do is to resign, join the new party and seek re-election again.

Right now one could be forgiven for casting aspersions on their motivations for hopping. We might be able to accept the hopping if they gave good, clear reasons why they chose to hop. What has changed in PKR and DAP between then and now to cause them to revisit their allegiances? Are they privy to bad practices that we, the rakyat, do not know about? In that case, it is incumbent upon them to bring these to light. But there have been no such statements.

Also, consider the willingness of BN to accept two assemblymen with pending corruption charges. What signal does this send?

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Air Asia says: We'll take your money, even if we chuck you off the plane

I recently booked an Air Asia flight/holiday. The email confirmation sent by Air Asia did not carry sufficient details. You know Air Asia imposes a variety of charges. Air Asia's marketing speak calls it 'consumer choice' – you pay only for what you want. I think there's a fine-line between consumer choice and price gouging which Air Asia has crossed, but that's a different story.

Anyway, I went to Air Asia' Terms and Conditions of Carriage to see if check-in luggage was also a 'consumer choice' item or already included in the fare.

That's when I came across this very unfair clause:

6.1.3 Unavailability of Seat: There is a chance a seat may not be available for you on your flight even if your booking is confirmed. This is due to the common practice in the airline industry of overbooking. In the event of such unavailability of seat, we shall at our option, either:
* carry you at the earliest opportunity on another of our scheduled services on which space is available without additional charge and, where necessary, extend the validity of your booking; or
* should you choose to travel at another time, retain the value of your fare in a credit account for your future travel provided that you must re-book within three (3) months therefrom.”

Yes, overbooking is a common airline practice. But common airline practice, in the event that they do have to off-load passengers is to 1) ask for volunteers; 2) compensate the volunteers via cash payments and seat upgrades on the next available flight or3) even cash payments on top of full refunds of their airfares.

Air Asia's terms are extremely unfair. You, the customer who has already paid, will not get the flight you want. On top of that, you can't even get a refund! It's Air Asia's choice to put you on a later flight (too bad if it means the meeting you were going for would have already ended) or give you credit for another flight, which is valid for only 3 months! (too bad if you can't get leave again). No cash refund for you, even though it is Air Asia that is not delivering on its contractual obligation.

OK, some will say, if you hate it that much, then don't fly Air Asia. You have a choice not to fly Air Asia. But there are also grounds for government to step in here and legislate in the event businesses take undue advantage of small consumers. I remember an Unfair Contract Terms Act in the UK governing this. Any lawyers here to add more colour on this subject?