Report: Singapore a Clear Leader Amidst Rising Debt Levels Across the Region

The return to growth in the Eurozone and stronger expansion in the US will offer ASEAN nations space to enact necessary economic and social reforms, according to the latest report from ICAEW.


However, rising debt levels remains a concern for foreign investors across the region, with the exception of Singapore. The developed nation continues to benefit from its sound financial strategies and strong accounts, as ASEAN members look into initiatives to further strengthen international trade and investment links.


The ICAEW report Economic Insight: South East Asia is produced by Cebr, ICAEW’s partner and economic forecaster. Commissioned by ICAEW, the report provides its 140,000 members with a current snapshot of the region’s economic performance.


The report undertakes a quarterly review of South East Asian economies, with a focus on the five largest countries; Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and Thailand.


According to the report, the increase in Eurozone and US demand for ASEAN exports will help offset lower demand from China and Japan. While the nascent recovery will not dramatically increase ASEAN export levels, it will help ease the drag on export growth the region has been feeling over the past few years.


The establishment of the ASEAN Economic Community will also encourage free trade and improve competition, and should therefore lead to countries becoming more efficient and productive – meaning another boost to export growth over the coming years.


The report however warns that rising debt levels in South East Asian countries like Malaysia and the Philippines present a concern.


“High debt levels are usually viewed negatively by investors, regardless of the underlying state of the country’s economic health," said Douglas McWilliams, ICAEW Chief Economist and Executive Chairman of Cebr.  "If investors’ fears of losing their returns become strong enough to cause large increases in the cost of borrowing, then those expectations will become self-fulfilling."


McWilliams notes that the cost of servicing and repaying a high level of debt would have significant implications for future government spending, investment and household consumption. It would also make countries less attractive to foreign investors.


“Singapore, however, stands out from the crowd,” he adds. “The country’s sound financial strategies have reaped high capital balance, current account surpluses and low yields on investment compared to its neighbours, spurring net capital outflows. Singapore will continue to benefit significantly from increased demand for its services and goods, as the global economy improves over the coming years.”


The report also warns that if Janet Yellen, incoming Chair of the US Federal reserves, is less eager than expected to maintain a loose monetary policy, investors may overreact. In ASEAN, this could result in selling assets, including domestic ASEAN currencies.


The resulting currency depreciation would almost certainly weaken investor confidence, affecting external financing and investments, and rapidly transforming the credit environment in the region. Such an outcome would have a significant impact on countries – particularly Indonesia and Thailand – that have experienced high capital inflows since the financial crisis.


“ASEAN central banks have steadily increased their reserves over the previous decade, which should allow them to weather currency depreciations," said Mark Billington, Regional Director, ICAEW South East Asia. These measures were implemented after the ASEAN Financial Crisis, which saw unexpectedly high capital outflows take governments by surprise, and will help the regional governments react better to global volatility."


Billington notes that sound management of public finances will be fundamental, and should ensure that countries are able to take advantage of opportunities for growth and manage the expectations of overseas investors.

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