Weak consumption clouds impending ASEAN integration

May 15, 2015 08:49
Indonesia, the biggest ASEAN economy, is grappling with reduced government spending and flat consumer demand. Photo: Reuters

Multinational companies are having buyer's remorse after betting on Southeast Asia's three biggest economies on expectations of a long consumption boom.

Those hopes are unraveling as consumers in Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia grapple with rising household debt, sluggish wage growth and political uncertainties, according to the Financial Times.

Urbanisation and a growing middle class are expected to continue to drive long-term thirst for goods from cars to refridgerators in the 10-country Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) but the dream of miracle growth now comes with conditions attached.

“Corporate executives were rubbing their hands because of spending in ASEAN,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC.

“In the long term, that may well hold, but this soft patch in household spending is likely to stay for quite a while.”

Indonesia’s economy — the bloc's largest — slowed to its worst pace of annual growth in more than five years in the first quarter, weighed down in part by a fall in government spending and flat consumer demand.

Thailand, the region’s second biggest economy, has seen consumer confidence steadily decline alongside rising household debt.

Malaysia, No. 3 in ASEAN, is hampered by weakening manufacturing wage growth and credit card spending.

Global winds are buffeting this region of more than half a billion people, due to launch a single market later this year.

Spending in ASEAN is normalising after a post-financial crisis binge while member states are also hit by the economic slowdown in China, a crucial trading partner.

“Consumption downturns in ASEAN are cyclical,” said Anthony Nafte, a senior Asia economist at CLSA brokerage in Hong Kong.

“But there are aggravating factors in individual economies.”

One big drag on consumer spending is rising household debt in countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.

Rural income has also been falling sharply in some areas because of depressed prices for commodities grown there such as rubber and rice.

Earnings in Thailand’s countryside fell 12.5 per cent year on year in the first quarter, according to CLSA.

Cars have been one of the worst affected consumer sectors in the region, with sales tumbling 12.1 per cent year on year in March in Indonesia — the seventh straight fall.

In Thailand, the industry has been hard hit by the end of generous government tax breaks on new purchases.

Kevin Kwek, a senior analyst at Bernstein Research in Singapore, said Indonesia is suffering a “temporary fallback”, whereas in Thailand the decline is more serious because its population is aging and the proportion of wage earners falling.

Political nervousness has also damped consumer appetites for high-value goods.

Thailand is still in flux after last year’s military coup while Indonesian President Joko Widodo is grappling to assert his authority. Malaysia’s government has faced a scandal over a debt-loaded national development fund.

While the Southeast Asia spending juggernaut has not stalled either by region or sector, it has certainly slowed: the question now is how much and for how long.

“This has temporarily pulled the brakes on consumption,” says Rahul Bajoria, a Singapore-based regional economist with Barclays.

“But I think the trend can revive again.”

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