Monday, November 13, 2017

Chart of the Week: Don’t Bet On Real Trade Growth

It was a good run, but Malaysia’s trade growth numbers will “normalise” within the next couple of months (RM millions):

01_trade

However, this is partly a price phenomenon (index numbers; 2010=100):

02_vol_val

On the import side, it’s food, fuel, and edible oils and fats; on the export side, fuel and electronics. Import volume, like imports overall, appear to have plateaued, but there’s still some export volume upside, which is still fairly broad-based.

Two conclusions: Despite the steady increase in export volume, I think this runup is at an end – there’s a lot of volatility in the sub-indices, which means that this increase is hiding a lot of movement underneath. The price trends are mostly oil & gas related. Trade volume in the rest of East Asia has also plateaued, so most of the double-digit growth we’re still seeing across the region is simply from the low base last year. That implies growth rates will gradually drop to “normal” levels, which means something in the low single digits again, as the base shifts to the higher numbers seen earlier this year.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Taxing Land

I’ve been meaning to highlight this, but better late than never (excerpt):

Faster Growth Begins With a Land Tax in U.S. Cities
This would lower land costs, encouraging affordable housing and more density.
By Noah Smith

…In cities, especially large metropolises like New York and tech hubs like San Francisco, the land under a building is often worth a lot more than the buildings itself. When a city gets denser or more desirable, lucky landowners reap windfalls as land prices appreciate. But these windfalls aren’t just unfair -- they raise both rents and housing prices, pushing potential new residents out of a city and choking off its growth.

So it makes sense to tax the value of land. A land-value tax, or LVT, is like a property tax, but with a deduction for the value of buildings and other improvements. The tax would reduce land prices and increase the incentive to build more, which in turn will help drive down rents, making a city more affordable. And because land is a fixed quantity, taxing it doesn’t shrink the economy like taxes on wages and capital sometimes do. Also, since you’re taxing a windfall, it’s hard for landowners to argue that the tax isn’t fair. The money raised with a land-value tax can be spent building affordable housing for the poor.

Therefore, a land-value tax is an efficient and fair way to take a city that now works only for lucky prosperous landowners, and turn it into a place where the working class can afford to make a decent life….

…In the U.S., Pennsylvania is the LVT trailblazer. More than a dozen cities in that state use split-rate taxation -- one tax on land value, and a lower rate on improvements, such as buildings. Some of these experiments, like the one in Altoona, have failed, probably due to ineffective implementation and businesses’ failure to understand the novel tax structure.

But in Pittsburgh, a large city where valuable locations are scarce, the tax has been a success….

BNM Watch: The Countdown Has Started

Yesterday’s MPC statement is about as clear a statement of intent as you can get from a central bank (excerpt; emphasis added):

Monetary Policy Statement

...At the current level of the OPR, the stance of monetary policy remains accommodative. Given the strength of the global and domestic macroeconomic conditions, the Monetary Policy Committee may consider reviewing the current degree of monetary accommodation. This is to ensure the sustainability of the growth prospects of the Malaysian economy....

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Thoughts on Alternative Budget 2018

So, I’ve finally sat down to read through Pakatan Harapan’s alternative budget for 2018. There are some good ideas here, and a fair share of bad ones, but no more than expected. The numbers are bonkers, but I expected that since this is more a political manifesto than a real fiscal document. I’ll give most of it a pass except the more egregious ones, and like many, I note that some of the policy objectives and prescriptions are contradictory. At least one proposal has me upset, but I’ll leave that for the very last.

Can the (overall) numbers be achieved? I’d say yes. If the government really wanted to, they could go with a balanced budget tomorrow. But I think it would involve as much cutting the provision of public goods and services, as it would be some putative “savings'” from reducing corruption and improving governance. I’m sceptical that there’s that much savings to be had from that source.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Thoughts on Budget 2018

I missed most of the Budget speech this year, having just landed from an overseas trip. That and jet lag meant I’m late in catching up on things, and today’s the first day I’m comfortable enough with the numbers and the anmouncements to actually comment on them. I’ll have something more to say about the opposition’s alternative budget(s) later.

First up, on the economic forecasts (2017: 5.2%-5.7%; 2018: 5.0%-5.5%). They’re eminently achievable, especially with the high frequency data coming in. The numbers continue to surprise on the upside, though some of that is coming from the low base we had last year. Even if we see just trend growth for the rest of 2017 and into 2018, the forecasts should bear out.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Effective Exchange Rate Indexes: September 2017 Update

The NEER and REER page has been updated, as has the Google Docs version.

Summary

September was a turnaround month for the Ringgit. The year on year changes are still negative, but all six indices posted gains on the month, and the best positive performance since May-17. Capital inflows were apparently the main reason. The Broad Nominal index rose 1.26%, while the Broad Real index rose 1.04%.

On a bilateral basis, the Ringgit rose against 14 out of 15 currencies. The biggest gains were against the JPY (+2.66%), the INR (+2.49%), the KRW (+1.86%), the USD (+1.72%), and the PHP (+1.70%). The only drop recorded was against the GBP (-1.22%).

01_indexes

Changelog:

  1. Indexes have been updated to September 2017
  2. CPI deflators and forecasts have been updated for August/September 2017

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Central Banks Can’t Go Bankrupt

Continuing on the FX theme and the recent RCI, something’s puzzled me for quite a few years. Why did BNM and/or the government decide to “amortise” the FX losses, rather than take them on BNM’s balance sheet at once?

For the uninitiated, BNM’s losses of approximately RM31.4b in the early 1990s were progressively “written-off” on a gradual basis over a period of 10 years beginning in 1993. My memory on this is a bit hazy, but my understanding was that the losses were carried as memo items, and periodically written off against the Bank’s annual profits (and euphemistically carried as “deferred expenditure” on the asset side of the Bank’s balance sheet).

The main effect of this clever piece of accounting, or boondoggle depending on your perspective, is that it preserved the illusion that BNM’s equity base remained in the black. Writing off the lossses at one go would have wiped out BNM’s equity and accumulated reserves (not to be confused with FX reserves) of about RM13.6b (at the end of 1991), resulting in the central bank being technically insolvent, or more vulgarly, bankrupt.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

Chart of the Week: Valuing the Ringgit

I’ve done this exercise once before (see here), but this way is probably a lot more intuitive for most people. The TL:DR version – the Ringgit is undervalued, but not by much:

01_usdmyr

The chart above has the USDMYR exchange rate on the right, and the Fed’s USD broad nominal effective exchange rate on the left, from 2005 to the present. The correlation is very close – better than 95%. In other words, almost all the variation in the MYR exchange rate has come from movements in the USD rather than factors idiosyncratic to the MYR.

I won’t say that the gaps between the lines are good measures of the MYR’s over- or under-valuation, but they are indicative. In the MYR’s recent history, there’s been two episodes of obvious misalignment, roughly from mid-2015 to early-2016, and from the end of 2016 to the present.

The first you can probably call the 1MDB effect, and just like in my previous exercise, you can say it was indeed a factor in pushing down the MYR. However, the effect was short-lived, again roughly coinciding with the sale of Edra Energy.So to the idea that 1MDB, and Malaysian governance generally, has any bearing on the Ringgit exchange rate: please go away. You’re not relevant anymore.

The second coincided with the US elections and probably more pertinently, BNM’s reaction to the change in global capital flows it triggered. I’d call this the fear-of-capital-controls effect. It’s still persisting, and I’d call it a roughly 5% deviation from where the MYR should be (around RM4.00 to the USD).

The bottom line is: Yes, the Ringgit is undervalued, but probably not as much as people think.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Historical Revisionism: The MYR and SGD in the 1980s

I came across this a couple of weeks ago, but didn’t have time to address it then (excerpt):

A kleptocracy premium for the ringgit
P Gunasegaram

A QUESTION OF BUSINESS | Without a doubt the ringgit is historically rather weak even if the economy still continues to grow at a relatively healthy pace – the latest figures show a good growth of 5.8% for the second quarter of the year….

…So why does the ringgit remain weak, trading at levels which are weaker than at the height of the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis? What is it that is happening that keeps the ringgit level depressed? Perhaps it is due to a risk premium on the ringgit following the emergence of kleptocracy (re: 1MDB where as much as RM40 billion could be at risk, as thieves dip their fingers into money borrowed by a government company via bond issues) or apprehension over the ongoing spate of mega projects (re: the RM55 billion East Coast Rail Link whose cost may go to over RM100 billion….

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Housing, Inflation and the Cost of Living

I came across a couple of really good articles over the last couple of days on the subject of housing, inflation and GDP that I wanted to share (jump to the end for a summary of both articles).

First, the treatment of housing in the construction of the Consumer Price Index, which is commonly used to measure inflation (excerpt):

Headline inflation measures shouldn’t ignore costs of home ownership
Mojmir Hampl, Tomas Havranek 12 September 2017

Statistical offices of many countries measure the costs of home ownership by computing imputed rents, which are then included in headline inflation measures. This is the case for the US, Japan, and Switzerland, among others. In contrast, the harmonised index of consumer prices (HICP) – the EU’s most important inflation statistic – excludes owner-occupied housing, for the technical reason that imputed transactions are inconsistent with the definition of the HICP, and a more complex approach based on net acquisitions would be required (Eurostat 2012, 2013).….

…Because house purchases involve a substantial investment component, their inclusion in headline inflation makes many statisticians uneasy. Conceptually, however, homes are a special case of durable goods, because they provide a claim on a stream of future services. Cecchetti (2007), for example, showed the long-term capital gain from home ownership is very small….

Friday, September 8, 2017

Effective Exchange Rate Indexes: August 2017 Update

The NEER and REER page has been updated, as has the Google Docs version.

Summary

August was not a good month for the Ringgit, with drops posted across all six indices. Most of the losses were due to safe haven buying of the JPY and EUR, along with skepticism over the trajectory of US policy, both fiscal and monetary. The result was a -1.21% mom decline in the Narrow Nominal Index and a –1.17% drop in the Real Narrow Index.

On a bilateral basis it was a mixed bag, with gains recorded against 7 out of 15 currencies. The biggest drops were against the EUR (-2.31%), the JPY (-2.21%), the CNY (-1.42%), the AUD (-1.30%), and the THB (-1.26%). The largest gains were against the PHP (+0.84%) and the GBP (+0.47%).

01_indexes

Changelog:

  1. Indexes have been updated to August 2017
  2. CPI deflators and forecasts have been updated for July/August 2017
  3. Trade weights have been updated to 2Q2017, which entails revisions for Mar-Jul 2017

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Guys, This Argument Is A Total Waste Of Time

YB Rafizi Ramli is claiming that income tax collection has exceeded the rate of growth of the economy (excerpt, emphasis added):

PENINGKATAN KUTIPAN CUKAI PENDAPATAN SEJAK DATO’ SERI NAJIB MENJADI PM SUDAH PUN TINGGI, SEKARANG LHDN TERUS KEJAR RAKYAT

…Maknanya, dalam tahun 2017 ini pentadbiran Dato’ Seri Najib dijangka akan mengutip hampir sekali ganda lebih banyak cukai pendapatan (pada jumlah RM112 bilion) berbanding kutipan tujuh tahun lalu iaitu 2010 semasa beliau mula-mula menjadi Perdana Menteri (pada jumlah RM60.3 bilion).

Malah, kenaikan purata tahunan sepanjang tempoh 2010 ke 2017 (disebut cumulative annual growth rate atau CAGR) adalah 11%, iaitu kadar bertambahnya kutipan cukai tahunan secara purata di antara 2010 ke 2017 sebanyak 11% setiap tahun….

…1. Pertumbuhan ekonomi negara hanyalah sekitar 5% sahaja dalam tempoh yang sama. Jika ekonomi tumbuh hanya 5%, maknanya rakyat tidak merasa kenaikan gaji yang mendadak dan peniaga juga tidak merasa keuntungan yang mendadak yang membolehkan LHDN mengutip cukai yang lebih tinggi