DUBLIN — Most East Asian countries “innovate less than would be expected given their per capita income levels” and could therefore struggle to sustain recent economic growth, according to the World Bank. Countries in the region are dogged by “insufficient staff skills and limited financing options,” the bank said in a report published late Tuesday, with firms often seeming wary of investing in innovation because “policies and institutions are often not aligned with firms’ capabilities and needs.” Lower-than-expected innovation could lead to questions about “whether the region’s past model of development can continue to deliver rapid growth and poverty reduction,” the bank said.
KUALA LUMPUR — The International Monetary Fund (IMF) believes Asia’s fast-growing economies will “come to a standstill” due to the coronavirus pandemic, faring worse than during the 2008-9 global financial crisis or the 1997-98 Asian crash. The region will experience zero growth for the first time since the 1960s, said Chang Yong Rhee, director of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, who forecast that the economic impact of the pandemic will be “severe, across the board, and unprecedented.” Speaking during a press conference live-streamed from Washington, Rhee said Asia faces “a crisis like no other” due to the pandemic, which has killed over 136,000 people worldwide and prompted governments to impose lockdowns that have hampered commerce. “Containment measures are severely affecting economies,” Rhee said.
KUALA LUMPUR — Countries across East Asia and the Pacific face recession and rising poverty as economies grind to a halt due to the deadly coronavirus pandemic. In a report published on Tuesday, the World Bank warned that “significant economic pain seems unavoidable” across what was one of the world’s fastest-growing regions before the outbreak, which has killed almost 38,000 people worldwide. Though East Asia’s developing economies expanded at an estimated 5.8 per cent in 2019, some countries were already struggling with the knock-on effects of the China-United States trade war before the virus emerged in China in late 2019. Now, according to the bank, a possible 2.8 per cent region-wide contraction looms should a sustained pandemic force lengthy lockdowns and constrict business worldwide.
PHNOM PENH — Asian governments appear increasingly reluctant to implement the kind of pro-business reforms that could help offset slowing economic growth and other debilitating impacts of the US-China trade war. The World Bank’s latest “Doing Business” survey, a comparative global index of countries’ business environments previously known as “Ease of Doing Business”, shows the number of “business climate-enhancing” reforms implemented in East Asia and the Pacific fell by a quarter over the 12 months through May this year compared with the previous year. Referring to the region, the World Bank’s survey said “the overall pace of reforms slowed.” The Doing Business survey released last week compiles 11 criteria ranging from electricity access to labor market rules that it sees as crucial to the commercial success of small and medium-sized enterprises. The survey does not take into account wider issues such as national financial systems, macroeconomic policies or perceptions of political stability.
JAKARTA — As alcohol consumption rises across Asia, Indonesians, including local Catholics, appear to be oblivious to the region’s growing taste for a tipple, but Catholics elsewhere in Asia appear to be drinking more as incomes rise. New research published by The Lancet medical journal suggests Asia is the world’s booze growth market, as consumption is either leveling off or dropping in most other places. The report found that from 1990-2017, consumption increased by 104 percent across Southeast Asia and 54 percent in Western Pacific, going by to geographical regions designated by the World Health Organization (WHO). Some 79 percent of Indonesians are teetotalers, down from 84 percent in 1990, the data showed. This compares to over 90 percent of people who abstain from drinking for life in Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Pakistan, where Catholic charity Caritas has been working to help those young people who do fall prey to drug and alcohol addiction. “Muslim countries consume way less alcohol (than non-Muslim nations), and consequently (they have) substantially less of a problem drinking,” said Dr Jürgen Rehm from the University of Toronto, one of the authors of the report.
JAKARTA — As oil prices fluctuate and markets brace for the impact of the end of a US sanctions waiver on fuel purchases from Iran, Asia’s energy companies are making deals closer to home as bigger global players pull away from the region. Southeast Asia has already seen up to US$2.8 billion in mergers and acquisition (M&A) deals so far this year, according to Wood Mackenzie, a United Kingdom-based consultancy. Those deals have been led by US-based Murphy Oil selling its Malaysia operations to PTTEP, a subsidiary of Thailand’s national energy company, for $2.1 billion. Wood Mackenzie predicts that up to $14 billion of energy assets could change hands in the region this year if, as expected, more M&A deals like the Murphy-PTTEP deal are completed. Big deals such as the Murphy-PTTEP sale represent a significant jump, given that a typical Southeast Asian oil and gas M&A deal over the past five years has been worth a mere $111.6 million, according to S&P Global Market Intelligence data. Total annual energy deal values in Asia have ranged between $5.4 billion and $8.7 billion in the past four years, according to Wood Mackenzie data. Wood Mackenzie’s Andrew Harwood said that he expects buyers to be “Southeast Asian NOCs [national oil companies] and smaller regional players” with back-up from “some of the mid-tier IOCs [international oil companies] that retain Southeast Asian ambitions.”
JAKARTA — As hundreds of millions of Asians enjoy higher living standards in the move from lower to middle class, a warning of the trend’s sustainability came this month from Europe, where middle class expansion has stalled. The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), a Paris-based club that includes most of the world’s wealthiest nations, reported that many of its member states have “seen their standard of living stagnate or decline, while higher income groups have continued to accumulate income and wealth.” The middle class crisis in the West means disappointment for those who hoped that standards of living would continue to improve, as was the case for their forbears during the four or five decades after World II. But more recent times have seen the top 10% of earners’ share of total wealth rocket to nearly half the national average — findings contained in a new OECD report, Under Pressure: The Squeezed Middle Class, that in turn paints a grim picture for the third of member state populations described as “economically vulnerable.”
SINGAPORE — U.S. President Donald Trump announced that he would hold a second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Vietnam on Feb. 27-28. “Our hostages have come home, nuclear testing has stopped, and there has not been a missile launch in more than 15 months. If I had not been elected president of the United States, we would right now, in my opinion, be in a major war with North Korea,” Trump said in his State of the Union address in Washington late Tuesday. “Much work remains to be done, but my relationship with Kim Jong Un is a good one.” Vietnam, which opened up its economy under Doi Moi reforms in the 1980s, has also been touted by the U.S. as a possible model for Pyongyang to follow. The country emerged as a likely host after Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited last July, shortly after the first Trump-Kim summit in Singapore. Pompeo lauded the “once-unimaginable prosperity and partnership” between Vietnam and the U.S., before turning to North Korea.
Government debt in emerging Asian economies hit 50% of gross domestic product in the third quarter of last year, according to estimates by the Institute of International Finance, in a trend that suggests a regional shift away from fiscal conservatism. “Entering a financial crisis with a weak fiscal position worsens the depth and duration of the ensuing recession, particularly in emerging-market economies, because fiscal policy tends to be procyclical in these cases,” said Vitor Gaspar, director of the International Monetary Fund’s Fiscal Affairs Department. While government debt in emerging Asia is creeping up, it remains low compared with Japan’s 223.1% of GDP and 100.8% in the U.S. “The relatively low public debt gives the region more buffer against a potential global downturn, enabling policymakers to use expansionary fiscal policy to support demand,” said Frederic Neumann, co-head of Asian economic research at HSBC.
JAKARTA/SINGAPORE — A year ago two young female migrant workers in Indonesia, including 26 year old Indonesian Siti Nurbaya, were cast at the center of an international murder mystery when they were arrested by police for their alleged role in the audacious, Le Carré-esque assassination by poisoning of Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which was carried out despite the usual bustling morning crowd at Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. Preying on the women’s perceived vulnerability as relatively-poor migrant workers at the margins of society, defense lawyers contend that North Korean agents duped their clients into unwittingly carrying out the murder by bluffing they were being recruited for a series of made for TV pranks. As the trial of Nurbaya and her alleged accomplice from Vietnam rolled on last month in Shah Alam near Kuala Lumpur, another case was emerging that highlighted the perils facing migrants in Malaysia. Adelina Sao died in a Penang hospital on February 11 after she was found with head injuries and infected wounds on her limbs, succumbing after two years in Malaysia as one of around 400,000 foreign maids working in the country.