A few months ago, in one of our posts, we highlighted that Malaysia could be facing a credit downgrade due to poor fiscal discipline on the part of the government, which still does not have the political gumption to cut back on a raft of populist policies that helped it win the last general elections (held in May 2013) with an unconvincing margin.
Ratings agency Fitch did not mince its words when it stated flatly that 'Malaysia's public finances are its key rating weakness', while revising the outlook for Malaysia to Negative from Stable a few days ago.
Is this the beginning of the slippery slide down to a credit downgrade?
While we certainly do not have a crystal ball, we can try to make a few predictions and informed guesses based on current global trends and directions.
Malaysia's over-reliance on oil-and-gas (O&G) revenues to finance expansionary budgets will most certainly come under pressure from the new developments in shale extraction techniques, which will have a profound impact on global energy dynamics. It certainly will not be business as usual for the OPEC and other petroleum-producing countries - even Saudi Arabia is feeling the heat; what more for Malaysia?
From this perspective, it is worrying to note that Malaysia still sees conventional oil-and-gas and vast PETRONAS (Malaysia's state-owned O&G company; incidentally also its only Fortune 500 firm) capital expenditure as the key driver of the economy and supplier of government funds, under the ambitious Economic Transformation Programme which aims to break the country out of the middle-income trap. To this point, there is a joke that goes - Malaysia is like a Harry Potter tale - when the going gets tough, there is always the PETRONAS (Patronus for Harry) spell. However, with the shale revolution, there may come a day when even the all powerful PETRONAS may not be able to save the day for Malaysia.
A lot, thus, will have to hinge on the government having the political will to cut subsidies and widen its tax base through implementing the long-delayed Goods and Services Tax, besides charting new growth trajectories for the economy beyond a reliance on natural resources, and spending prudently to build capacity and competitiveness for the future instead of on ever-ballooning operational expenditures. As it is, the Malaysian economy is facing significant headwinds from increased competition, falling exports, low crude palm oil prices, and a massive brain drain.
The PETRONAS spell won't be able to fix this mess in an instant - only a return to good and accountable governance, and a focus on building long-term competitiveness will. It is also not wise to rely on one spell alone, as any Harry Potter fan will tell you.