Jomo: Whither the Malaysian economy ?


October 17, 2017

Jomo: Whither the Malaysian economy under Najib Razak?

http://www.malaysiakini.com

Image result for Finance Minister Najib Razak and the National Debt
Malaysia’s Worst Finance Minister Najib Razak–Fiscal Mess, Heavily in Debt and Lowest Reserves in Asia.

This interview with economist Jomo Kwame Sundaram, former Assistant Secretary-General for Economic Development at the United Nations, was conducted in August for publication in the run-up to the country’s next Budget for 2018 due to be announced next Friday.

Developed country status

Question: Malaysia is close to achieving developed country status and is growing at a reasonable pace. Why are you concerned then?

Jomo: Becoming a developed country involves much more than achieving high-income status. But even by reducing ‘developed country’ status to becoming a ‘high-income’ country, we are not quite there unless we resort to statistical manipulation, e.g., by using 2013 exchange rates, or by ignoring about a third of the labour force who are ‘undocumented’ foreign workers.

For example, the ringgit declined from RM3.2 against the US dollar in 2014 to almost RM4.5 before recovering to the current RM4.2! But then we continue to use the old exchange rate or purchasing power parity (PPP) to pretend that we are almost there. The only people we are cheating is ourselves.

Also, if we continue to grossly underestimate the number of foreign workers in the country, then the denominator for calculating per capita income goes down. Similarly, by excluding the lowest paid foreign workers, income inequality has been declining when their inclusion may give a different picture. Thus, we can reach supposed high-income status more quickly if we pretend there are only one or two million foreign workers, when even the minister admitted last year to about 6.7 million!

Seven million, mainly undocumented foreign workers in Malaysia comes to over a third of the country’s total labour force. Many of them work and live in far worse conditions than the worst-off Malaysian workers. We are thus dependent on a huge underclass, largely foreign, whom we are in denial about.

New Economic Model

What do you think of Prime Minister Najib Razak’s New Economic Model?

Jomo: Let us be clear about this. The New Economic Model, or NEM, is really a wish-list of economic reforms desired from an essentially neo-liberal perspective. That does not mean it is all good or all bad. It contains some desirable reforms, long overdue due to the accumulation of excessive, sometimes contradictory regulations and policies.

 

Although the NEM made many promises and raised expectations, most observers would now agree that it has rung quite hollow in terms of implementation despite its promising rhetoric. As we all know, the NEM was dropped soon after it was announced for political reasons, and has never been the new policy framework it was expected to be.

Turning to actual policy initiatives, to the current administration’s credit, it accepted the minimum wage policy and BR1M (Bantuan Malaysia 1Malaysia) idea, both long demanded by civil society organisations, and supported by many, mainly opposition parties. The minimum wage policy has probably been far more important than BR1M in improving conditions for low-income earners.

Premature deindustrialisation

The contribution of manufacturing to growth and employment has been declining in this century. Yet, you seem to be nostalgic for industrialisation when the leadership wants to move to tertiary activities.

Jomo: Sadly, instead of acknowledging the problem, ‘premature deindustrialisation’ is being cited as proof of Malaysia being developed although services currently account for most job retrenchments.

Indeed, Malaysia has been deindustrialising far too early, even before developing diverse serious industrial capacities and capabilities beyond refining palm oil and so on. We have abandoned the past emphasis on industrialisation, but have not progressed sufficiently to more sophisticated, higher value-added industries.

In Japan, South Korea and China, policies to nurture industrialists and other entrepreneurs to become internationally competitive, enabled these countries to grow, industrialise and transform themselves very rapidly.

We are suffering great illusions if we think we can leapfrog the industrial stage and go straight to services. We should not try to emulate Hong Kong because we are a different type of economy. Even Singapore has not gone the Hong Kong way and continues to try to progress up the value chain in terms of industrial technology.

We need to stop blindly following policies espoused by international institutions. GST (Goods and Services Tax) is a variant of value-added taxation, long promoted by the IMF (International Monetary Fund). To accelerate progress, we need to develop better understanding of the Malaysian economy – of its real strengths and potential, rather than assuming that the current mantra in Washington is correct, let alone relevant.

Middle-income trap

According to the World Bank and others, Malaysia is stuck in a middle-income trap. The argument is that the NEM as well as financial services development are needed to get out of it.

Jomo: The idea of a ‘middle-income trap’ is due to Latin American and other countries uncritically following Washington Consensus prescriptions promoted by the Bank and the IMF. The promise is that following their prescriptions would lead to development.

Key elements of our own ‘middle-income trap’ are actually of our own making, e.g., by giving up so quickly on industrialisation. The prescriptions imagine we can somehow leap-frog to accelerate development without making needed reforms.

 

The NEM and current official development discourse emphasise modern services, especially financial services, for future growth. But why would investors want to come here rather than, say, Singapore? If they want lower costs, there are other locations.

To offer tax breaks or loopholes, or to make Malaysia a tax haven, the question again is why come here rather than Singapore.

And how much has the national economy really benefited from the Labuan International Offshore Financial Centre? Do we need to keep making the same errors?

Looking at other international financial centres, it is not clear that it will be a net plus for the country, and provide the basis for sustainable development suitable for an economy like ours. Remember, we are no Hong Kong.

Historically, we have been heavily dependent on foreign direct investment, not for want of capital, but for access to markets, technology and expertise. To make matters worse, over the last decade, foreign investors have taken a growing share in publicly listed companies, helped by the falling ringgit in recent years.

Arguably, foreign ownership of the Malaysian economy has never been as high since the 1970s. As large corporations are increasingly dominant, they have often crowded out small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and other Malaysian firms.

Macroeconomic management

In his recent book, Dr Bruce Gale (author of ‘Economic Reform In Malaysia: The Contribution Of Najibnomics’) has praised current macroeconomic management.

Jomo: Well, Gale is a political consultant and needs to ‘cari makan’. He is not a serious macroeconomist the last time I checked, but should nonetheless be taken seriously because he reminds us that well-managed ‘public relations’ influence market and public sentiment, including credit and other ratings. He heaps praise on ‘conventional wisdom’ which remains very influential, even if wrong.

Gale’s book reminds us that ‘creative accounting’, involving the transfer of debt and liabilities to state-owned enterprises or government-linked companies, has enabled the government to limit the growth of mainly ringgit-denominated federal government debt by rapidly expanding federal government-guaranteed ‘contingent liabilities’.

His defence and justification for GST ring quite hollow as his premise is that the middle class has been evading income tax, whereas it is mainly the rich who have successfully done so, whether legally or otherwise.

Although he has been writing on Malaysia for over three decades, he appears to have selective amnesia, only giving credit to the prime minister and his late father, whom no one would grudge, while ignoring other prime ministers and finance ministers, in line with the new official narrative.

Malaysians worse off?

Earlier, you acknowledged that Malaysian economic growth has continued, albeit at a lower rate, over the last two decades. Yet, you also argue that Malaysians may have become worse off in recent years. That sounds contradictory.

Jomo: Moderate economic growth has continued since the 1997-1998 financial crisis. More recently, this has been partly due to foreign financial inflows, helped by unconventional monetary policies in OECD economies.

Between 2012 and 2014, most people, especially low-income earners, became better off, thanks to the introduction of the minimum wage, continued ‘full employment’ and higher commodity prices.

Since then, commodity prices have fallen, unemployment has been rising (especially for youth), the GST was introduced, and consumer confidence has fallen lower than during the 1997-1998 or 2008-2009 financial crises.

However, consumer sentiment in Malaysia has been negative for some time according to CLSA and MIER (Malaysian Institute of Economic Research). Indeed, according to Nielsen, the international polling company, it has been poor since 2013, and is now the lowest in Southeast Asia.

Food prices have generally continued rising, as transport charges – for tolls, trains, etc. – have been increasing again, with floating petrol prices. Meanwhile, lower commodity prices and climate change have reduced many farm incomes.

Official unemployment has gone up from 2.9% in 2014 to 3.5% in 2016, still commendably low, although there are concerns about high youth unemployment, especially among the tertiary educated.

Retrenchments have been worst for services, casting doubt on future employment prospects as the authorities rely increasingly on services for growth and jobs. With unemployment low, but rising, wage growth has slowed after the initial introduction of the minimum wage, while real incomes have been hit by higher prices and taxes.

Wage depression

You seem to imply that Malaysian wages have been artificially lowered.

Jomo: Malaysians, in general, have higher incomes now than before. However, official numbers are misleading as we do not account for the massive presence and contribution of foreign labour, especially undocumented immigrant workers.

Their status has also served to depress wages for low-income Malaysian workers. Not surprisingly then, labour’s share of national income has gone down relatively.

This decline is not due to declining labour productivity, even if that may be the case. After all, higher labour productivity does not automatically raise workers’ incomes. Prevailing low wages retard technical change which would, in turn, raise productivity.

Thus, the unofficial low wage policy stands in the way of labour-saving innovation, such as mechanical harvesting, so necessary for development. We need a medium-term development strategy far less reliant on cheap foreign labour.

Consequently, wages and living conditions are too low, especially in agriculture. And even smallholder agriculture has been neglected by officialdom in Malaysia for some time, especially after Pak Lah’s (Abdullah Ahmad Badawi’s administration.

Fighting a jihad against middlemen was not only thinly disguised misinformed and misguided stunt intended to score ‘ethno-populist’ points, but also irrelevant to addressing contemporary challenges.

Shifting tax burden

How have recent tax reforms affected Malaysian households?

Jomo: Following the introduction of the GST in April 2015, tax revenue from households increased from RM42 billion in 2014 to RM67 billion in 2016, with GST more than doubling the contribution of indirect tax from RM17 billion to RM39 billion.

At the same time, income tax revenue has risen modestly from RM24 billion in 2014 to RM28 billion in 2016. On average, Malaysian households paid taxes of RM5,600 each, more than ever before.

Meanwhile, government subsidies and assistance have declined, falling from RM43 billion in 2013 to RM25 billion in 2016, with most food price subsidies removed between 2013 and 2016.

Inflation numbers

Official inflation numbers are low. Why does the public doubt official inflation numbers?

Jomo: There are many reasons why the public doubts official inflation numbers, but perhaps most importantly for the country’s open economy, the ringgit exchange rate dropped from RM3.2/USD to RM4.5/USD before recovering to RM4.2 recently.

People presume that a decline in the international value of the ringgit by about a quarter must surely have inflationary consequences.

The GST of 6% has been imposed since April 2015, directly affecting about half of household spending, with up to a fifth more indirectly affected. Again, this is expected to have affected the cost of living.

Price subsidies for sugar, rice, flour and cooking oil have been removed since 2013, raising prices by 14% to 31%. Meanwhile, transport – including fuel and toll – prices have risen on several fronts.

Hence, you can understand why people are sceptical.

Transformasi Nasional 2050 (TN50)

After announcing and then abandoning the New Economic Model, there is now much ado about an economic transformation agenda for 2050.

Jomo: The TN50 exercise has been broadly consultative, involving young people, which surely is a good thing. Unfortunately, as with BR1M, it has been used to mobilise political support for the regime before the forthcoming elections rather than open up a more inclusive debate about where the country is headed.

The conversation should be about where the country should go and how to get there. It is still unclear to what extent we are going beyond the usual feel-good, futuristic sounding clichés, but this should open up an important debate to give serious consideration to actually achieving the transformation.

 

The country is presently mired in a political crisis that has paralysed effective economic policymaking. Malaysia desperately needs a legitimate and consultative leadership to implement bold measures to take the country forward.

Many people in the country know what ails the economy, but we do not have the open discussion needed to really tackle the challenges the nation faces. For example, a free and independent media will not only improve the quality of public discourse, but also the legitimacy and acceptability of resulting public policy.

Yesterday: Jomo in defence of honest, constructive criticism

Planning for success in Cambodia


October 14, 2017

Planning for success in Cambodia

by Jayant Menon

https://blogs.adb.org/blog/planning-success-cambodia

Weak human capital is arguably the biggest challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status.
Weak human capital is arguably the biggest challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status.

Cambodia recently made the transition from a low income to a lower middle-income country, according to the World Bank’s rankings.

This is good news, but it poses a question: Does Cambodia need to rethink its model of export-driven economic growth, as preferential access for its exports to developed countries is gradually reduced or as aid flows diminish? Not necessarily, at least for now. But it should start preparing immediately.

Cambodia still has least developed country or LDC status as defined by the United Nations, and will likely retain its trade privileges for a while yet. But it will likely transition out of LDC status by around 2030 if it maintains current growth rates. With adequate advance planning, Cambodia can avoid being a victim of its own success when it does so.

That means stronger efforts to improve the tax collection mechanism, and curbing tax avoidance and evasion. Strengthening institutions to improve tax collection, and creating a culture where businesses and citizenry feel an obligation to contribute towards the provision of public goods and services, can take years, so it needs to start now.

Weak human capital is top challenge for Cambodia to reach middle-income status

Image result for samdech techo hun sen

Cambodia also needs to expand the tax base, and hasten the move from direct to indirect sources of tax collection, while reducing its reliance on trade taxes. These initiatives are essential to mobilize domestic resources to fund development, given that overseas development aid and concessional financing will wane as the country gets more prosperous.

Cambodia also has several domestic obstacles to overcome, not only to prepare for a transition to upper middle income status, but to speed up that journey.

Arguably the most important challenge is weak human capital, as well as a skills mismatch. To fix this requires a much greater investment in education – not only in vocational or higher education but also at primary and secondary school. The enormity of the task that lies ahead is underscored by the World Economic Forum’s Global Human Capital Report 2017, that placed Cambodia at the bottom of the list in ASEAN.

The goal is making sure all Cambodians have at least 10 years of schooling, forming the basic building block for a much more productive workforce. Then we can talk about specialized vocational or tertiary education, and matching employee skills to employer needs.

At this stage, and based on interviews with Japanese firms operating in the Phnom Penh Special Economic Zone (PPSEZ), what employers are seeking is not necessarily “trained” labor, but “trainable” labor, as skills required are quite job-specific and usually provided on-site.

Agriculture to remain backbone of Cambodia’s economy

Other challenges include the elevated cost of electricity, one of the highest in Asia. Apart from the skills constraint, the cost and unreliable supply of power is the other key factor limiting industry’s progression up the value chain from simple assembly to production of parts and components. If the former is labor intensive, the latter is energy-intensive, and remains uneconomical at current tariffs.

Image result for Durian and Fruits of Cambodia

Agriculture, however, will remain the backbone of the country’s economy for years to come, and during the transition to the next income bracket. Most Cambodians continue to be employed in this sector – either directly or indirectly.

To further reduce poverty and inequality, the agriculture sector must become more productive. To do this requires better irrigation systems, more fertilizer usage, and easier access to high-yielding varieties of crops. The size of farms and variety of their produce should also be enhanced to exploit economies of scale and scope, respectively. Land reform will be essential here.

Image result for Beautiful Cambodian Landscape

 

Another option is to pursue agro-processing to raise value-addition. Agro-processing combines agriculture and manufacturing. We can see this in products like pepper, cassava or coffee, which add value along the supply chain and boost economic returns.

Cambodia is making good progress towards upper middle-income status by diversifying its economy. There is a lot of new investment from Japanese firms in the PPSEZ that is plugging it into regional supply chains for the first time.  This trend will only continue to grow in the future, creating good jobs for more of the workforce.

Cambodia must plan carefully to preserve economic gains for next generation

While agriculture will remain important for some time yet, there is no denying the long-term trend decline in its share of economic output, and the increasing shares of services and manufacturing. These structural transformations will require reskilling of the labor force to reduce adjustment costs and unemployment.

The challenges in the labor market extend further, however, and involve demographic transitions in a young population seeking productive employment; the much-vaunted demographic dividend will only be realized if the jobs are there to be filled.

These structural changes will also result in rising urbanization as rural-urban migration increases. This must be managed by better town planning to prevent urban slums and create livable cities. One only needs to look at how Phnom Penh’s infrastructure has been stretched over recent years to appreciate the magnitude and importance of this challenge.

Cambodia’s socio-economic achievements since the early 1990s peace settlement have been remarkable. But success brings with it new challenges.If Cambodia plans carefully for graduation from LDC status, it would ensure that the hard-won economic gains are preserved for the next generation.

The Guardian view on the IMF’s message: Yes, tax the super-rich


October 13, 2017

The Guardian view on the IMF’s message: Yes, tax the super-rich

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/oct/12/the-guardian-view-on-the-imfs-message-yes-tax-the-super-rich

Image result for The IMF

The International Monetary Fund has been on quite a journey from the days when it was seen as the provisional wing of the Washington consensus, an ideology that promoted the false idea that growth was turbo-charged by scrapping welfare policies and pursuing privatisations.

These days the IMF is less likely to harp on about the joys of liberalised capital flows than it is to warn of the dangers of ever-greater inequality. The Fund’s latest – and welcome – foray into the realms of progressive economics came this week when it used its half-yearly fiscal monitor – normally a dry-as-dust publication – to make the case for higher taxes on the super-rich. Make no mistake, this is a significant moment.

Image result for Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan

What a striking contrast–Reagan -Thatcher and May-Trump

For almost 40 years, since the arrival of Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street and Ronald Reagan in the White House, the economic orthodoxy on taxation has been that higher taxes for the 1% are self-defeating. Soaking the rich, it was said, would punish initiative and lead to lower levels of innovation, less investment, weaker growth and, therefore, reduced revenue for the state. As last week’s Conservative party conference showed, this line of argument is still popular. Minister after minister took to the stage to warn that Jeremy Corbyn’s tax plans would lead to a 1970s-style brain drain.

The IMF agrees that a return to the income tax levels seen in Britain during the 1970s would have an impact on growth. But that was when the top rate of income tax was 83%, and Mr Corbyn’s plans are far more modest. Indeed, it is a sign of how difficult it has become to have a grown-up debate about tax that Labour’s call for a 50% tax band on those earning more than £123,000 and a 45% rate for those earning more than £80,000 should be seen as confiscatory. The IMF’s analysis does something to redress the balance, making two important points.

First, it says that tax systems should have become more progressive in recent years in order to help offset growing inequality but rather have been becoming less progressive. Second, it finds no evidence for the argument that attempts to make the rich pay more tax would lead to lower growth. There is nothing especially surprising about either of the conclusions: in fact, the real surprise is that it has taken so long for the penny to drop. Growth rates have not picked up as taxes have been cut for the top 1%. On the contrary, they are much weaker than they were in the immediate postwar decades when the rich could expect to pay at least half their incomes – and often substantially more than half – to the taxman. If trickle-down theory worked, there would be a strong correlation between countries with low marginal tax rates for the rich and growth. There is no such correlation and, as the IMF rightly concludes, “there would appear to be scope for increasing the progressivity of income taxation without significantly hurting growth for countries wishing to enhance income redistribution”.

With a nod to the work of the French economist Thomas Piketty, the fiscal monitor also says countries should consider wealth taxes for the rich, to be levied on land and property. The IMF’s findings on tax provide ample and welcome political cover for Mr Corbyn and John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, as they seek to convince voters that Labour’s tax plans are not just equitable but also economically workable.

Image result for Trump's Tax Plan

 

Image result for Trump's Tax Plan

 

By contrast, the study challenges Donald Trump to rethink tax plans that would give an average tax cut of more than $200,000 a year for someone earning more than $900,000. The response from the US administration was predictable: mind your own business. The IMF is not naive. It knows it is one thing to make the case for higher taxes on the rich but another thing altogether to get governments to implement them, because better-off individuals have more political clout. The IMF has demolished the argument that what is good for the super-rich is good for the rest of us, but don’t expect the top 1% to give up without a fight.

 

Malaysia: 2018 National Budget–Need for Greater Fiscal Discipline


October 5, 2017

Malaysia: 2018 National Budget–Need for Greater Fiscal Discipline

by T K Chua@www.freemalaysiatoday.com

Image result for Najib as Finance Minister

 

In a couple of weeks, the 2018 national budget will be revealed and a peek into the options and challenges awaiting us, is in order.

Beware of Off-Budget Agencies

FIRST, the budget is not what it used to be. Increasingly there are expenditures and commitments outside the purview of the budget but their impact may eventually impinge on government finance. These are off-budget agencies of which the revenues, expenditures and debts should be tabulated and presented as addendum to the budget.

Keep Budget Deficits under Control

SECOND, in all likelihood, the 2018 budget will be another year of deficits. This means there will be new borrowings or sales of government assets to finance the deficit. New borrowings mean more accumulated debts and more debt service charges going forward. When more is provided for debt service charges, less will be available for other operating expenditures.

THIRD, most government revenue has almost reached its limits unless income and expenditure continue to grow. In recent times, the government has been relentless in its enforcement efforts to extract the maximum from individuals and business establishments. Similarly, the implementation of the GST is in full swing. It is doubtful that the government will be able to cover more loopholes and tax leakages/avoidance cases or to increase further the GST rates at this stage.

If revenues are limited, the government will not be able to offer new expenditure programmes unless it incurs more borrowing and debt.

FOURTH, most expenditure programmes are “locked in”, stifling the government’s ability to look at the new impetus. The government’s commitments toward BR1M, civil service salaries and benefits, pensions, and debt service charges will continue to grow. This will leave little room for the budget to meet new challenges lurking in the horizon.

Watch the Expenditure Side of Things

FIFTH, the government has looked at the revenue side by introducing new taxes and by enforcing stricter compliance of existing taxes. However, this trend can’t go on forever. It is time to look at the expenditure side of things.

The annual audit report has given more than sufficient information on wastage, inefficiency and abuse of government allocations and expenditures. Sometimes corruption is due to allocations being too lavishly handed out. If government departments and agencies have too much money, the tendency is to be careless with the expenditures.

 

MALAYSIA ‘SCREWED UP’ BY WORST FINANCE MINISTER NAJIB – RESERVES THE LOWEST IN ASIA THAT MoF UNABLE TO PAY EVEN US$600 MILLION DEBT?

Who is the de facto Minister of Finance– Najib Razak or Handbag Rosmah Mansor? How did she spend the funds  allocated for her signature project Permata?

Stringent and optimal budget allocations do not have to affect output or service to the people, as was commonly claimed. We only need those responsible to work harder and be more careful with the money.

The National Budget is not a Mundane or routine exercise

I think it would be a big mistake if we continue to look at the budget formulation as a mundane or routine exercise. Some of the trends are obviously unsustainable. Even if we start to reverse or correct the trends now, it may take us many years to restore sustainability.

TK Chua is an FMT reader.

‘Minister of Finance Inc’ – A Political Economist’s Study of Minister of Finance Incorporated and GLICs in Malaysia–Terence Gomez


September 30, 2017

‘Minister of Finance Inc’ A Political Economist’s Study of Minister of Finance Incorporated and GLICs in Malaysia–Terence Gomez

by M Krishnamoorthy @www.malaysiakini.com

 

Dr. Terence Gomez, in his latest book, “Minister of Finance Incorporated: Ownership and Control of Corporate Malaysia”, traces the government’s role in the corporate sector. He provides an assessment of Malaysia’s new political economy, with a focus on ownership and control of the corporate sector.

Gomez, who is a Professor of Political Economy at Universiti Malaya, is also the author of “Politics in Business: UMNO’s Corporate Investments”, a pioneering publication in 1990, which traced how UMNO secured a huge equity interest in Malaysia’s corporate sector.

 

In “Minister of Finance Incorporated”, Gomez (photo above) and his team of researchers offer another pioneering assessment of Malaysia’s corporate sector, though their focus is now government-linked investment companies (GLICs), a type of state enterprise that has long prevailed in the economy but has not been analysed.

Gomez argues that corporate power is now concentrated in these GLICs that are ultimately controlled by the Minister of Finance. Interestingly, Gomez admits that these GLICs are well-managed by highly qualified professionals, though these people can be subservient to the dictates of the Minister of Finance.

By focusing on the GLICs, “Minister of Finance Incorporated” ignites interesting debates about the role of the government in the economy, an issue that requires thoughtful consideration given their dominant presence in the corporate sector. Through in-depth research, novel insights are provided into this question of government ownership and control of corporate Malaysia.

This review is presented as a question-and-answer dialogue with the author, to draw attention to this study’s major findings. Much of what is outlined below is from this book.

The Interview

Professor Gomez, in your latest book, “Minister of Finance Incorporated”, what are your major findings?

Malaysia’s political economy has undergone a major transition since the 1990s that has escaped public attention.

Corporate power has shifted from UMNO and well-connected businessmen to the government. Huge business groups controlled by the government have emerged, seen in the dominance that a mere seven GLICs have over the corporate sector.

During this transition, one extraordinary outcome was the removal of UMNO, its members and the business associates of party leaders as owners of publicly-listed government-linked companies (GLCs).

 

UMNO now has direct equity ownership of only one quoted company, the media-based Utusan Melayu, while no UMNO member figures as a major corporate player.

UMNO’s absence from the corporate sector has major implications. The power nexus involving politics and business has fundamentally shifted at the federal level.

If this political-business nexus once involved numerous powerful UMNO politicians who had enormous influence over the corporate sector, economic power is now concentrated in the Office of the Minister of Finance.

Who are the GLICs?

Seven institutions have been classified by the government as GLICs. These are the Minister of Finance Incorporated (MoF Inc), the government’s holding company, which participates actively in corporate manoeuvres and owns a diverse range of firms known as government-linked companies (GLCs).

The sovereign wealth fund, Khazanah Nasional Berhad, is policy-based and implements major plans, including venturing abroad to support the government’s business internationalisation effort.

 

 

The investment trust fund, Permodalan Nasional (PNB, or National Equity Corporation), is portfolio-oriented, though with a policy agenda to redistribute wealth more equitably between the nation’s ethnic groups.

Two savings-cum-pension-based funds, the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) and the Kumpulan Wang Persaraan Diperbadankan (KWAP, or Retirement Fund Incorporated), are portfolio-based with an equity interest in a vast number of companies.

Lembaga Tabung Angkatan Tentera (LTAT, or Armed Forces Fund Board) is also a savings-cum-pension-based fund but is active in the management and development of large businesses in various sectors.

 

 

Lembaga Tabung Haji (LTH, or Pilgrims Fund Board), though portfolio-based, has an organic form of enterprise development, active in the development of Islamic-based products and services.

How are these GLICs owned and controlled?

The Ministry of Finance sits at the apex of a complex business group structure comprising its holding company, MoF Inc, as well as other GLICs, quoted GLCs and a huge number of unquoted private firms.

MoF Inc is the “super-entity”, given its enormous influence over the corporate sector through its substantial ownership and control of the other GLICs and the financial sector, comprising Malaysia’s leading commercial banks. Through its ownership of these commercial banks, the government can control the economy indirectly by acting as a lender to private firms.

However, MoF Inc’s vast network of business interactions constitutes only one part of the government’s complex system of control over the corporate sector. State governments have a similarly sizeable interest in the corporate sector.

In this system, the Board of Directors are important. Directorships function as a primary avenue through which the government can dictate decision-making within GLICs and GLCs.

Our comparison of ownership and directorate patterns in 1996 (prior to the 1997 currency crisis) and 2013 revealed a new phenomenon.

 

Only a small number of UMNO members remain as directors of these government-owned enterprises. These findings are particularly astonishing as Umno remains a party riddled with money politics, patronage and rent-seeking.

How did Malaysia get to this point?

Three major events have contributed to these transitions where the Prime Minister and GLICs have emerged as economic powerhouses. The first was the implementation of the New Economic Policy (NEP) in 1971, which allowed these enterprises to gradually acquire a major presence in the corporate sector.

The involvement of the GLICs in the corporate sector diminished with the active promotion of privatisation from the mid-1980s. With this spate of privatisations, major enterprises fell under the ownership and control of UMNO and well-connected businesspeople.

The second defining event was the 1997 currency crisis and the momentous intra-elite political feuding that ensued the following year. The GLICs’ bailout of ailing well-connected companies and their takeover of firms associated with ousted Umno leaders led to their re-emergence as major actors in the corporate sector.

 

The third defining moment was when reform of the GLICs and GLCs was initiated by Dr. Mahathir Mohamad in the late 1990s, though actively implemented by Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (photo) from 2003. Najib Abdul Razak continued these reforms when he took office in 2009 as Prime Minister.

The current concentration of economic power in the office of the Prime Minister is particularly salient because when Najib took office in 2009 he voiced his intention to transfer GLCs to the private sector, arguing that the private sector should function as the primary engine of growth.

Unlike Mahathir, Najib appeared personally uninterested in business as a government tool for economic and corporate development when he came to power. Najib, however, soon came to realise the significant economic influence that the GLICs have over the corporate sector.

Why was this type of corporate control structure created?

This complex system of ownership and control of the corporate sector is not one that was designed or envisioned by ruling elites.

In fact, since the 1980s, all Prime Ministers – Mahathir, Abdullah and Najib – have persistently advocated privatisation of the GLCs on the assumption that these enterprises would function far more effectively and productively if under private ownership.

Even when the NEP was conceived, the plan was to transfer corporate equity acquired by the GLICs to bumiputeras, in order to redistribute wealth more equitably among the ethnic groups.

When Mahathir’s vision of creating business groups led by corporate captains was dismantled by the 1997 currency crisis, the GLICs and GLCs were deployed to bail out well-connected ailing, debt-ridden enterprises.

 

When a bitter feud ensued between Mahathir and his Minister of Finance, Anwar Ibrahim, over these bailouts, Anwar was ousted from public office and his business allies lost control of their corporate assets.

When a similar feud ensued between Mahathir and Daim Zainuddin, Anwar’s replacement as minister of finance, companies controlled by his allies and UMNO were channelled to the GLICs. Having had persistent feuds with his trusted allies who he had appointed as Minister of Finance, prime minister Mahathir then took charge of this ministry.

The new structure of Malaysia’s political economy has also arisen out of the need for the UMNO President to reduce the influence of party warlords.

UMNO’s major businesses now under the GLICs include media companies that own the major newspapers, The New Straits Times and Berita Harian, as well as TV3, the party’s cooperative KUB, the huge construction-based UEM Group, the hotel-based Faber Group (now UEM Adgenta) and the Bank of Commerce, now a part of Malaysia’s third largest banking enterprise, CIMB Group. Control of these companies ultimately falls under MoF Inc.

If UMNO members once had many sources of patronage, what is the situation now?

UMNO members now have only one source if they wish to obtain access to federal government-generated economic concessions. This is profoundly problematic in terms of public governance as the minister of finance concurrently holds the position of prime minister, a situation that does not prevail in democracies.

In this governance structure, there is the possibility of checks and balances being deeply undermined, opening space for abuse of power that can have serious implications on the economy and the corporate sector.

Who is accountable for the running of the companies?

The board of directors of these companies are accountable. While most of these directors are professionals who manage the GLCs in a productive manner, since they are appointed by the minister of finance, they can be compelled to follow his dictates.

There are also serious concerns in some GLICs. In LTH, a number of its directors, including its chairperson, are UMNO members who are elected representatives but hold no position in government. LTAT is led by Lodin Kamaruddin (photo), a longstanding close business associate of Prime Minister Najib.

 

There is sufficient evidence that these GLICs could be vulnerable to political interference unless sufficient oversight measures and institutional reforms are introduced to ensure they are well-insulated from such abuse.

In the boards of directors of the GLICs and GLCs, what has also increased is the number of former bureaucrats. These ex-civil servants, like the professional elite, have no political influence. However, they also appear to function as mere figureheads.

The most influential decision-makers are the chairpersons of these boards and the managing directors who, when necessary, take the cue from the Minister of Finance, further indicating his overwhelming influence over the corporate sector.

There is evidence of “inner circles” among the GLICs. One inner circle revolves around Nor Mohamad Yakcop, until recently the deputy chairperson of Khazanah. Professional managers groomed by him lead the GLICs and GLCs.

An inner circle is also evident in the media sector. An obscure private firm, Gabungan Kesturi, controls the leading media enterprise, Media Prima, along with PNB.

The directors and shareholders of Gabungan Kesturi are Shahril Ridza Ridzuan and Abdul Rahman Ahmad, both groomed by Nor Mohamad. Shahril is the CEO of EPF, which also owns a huge interest in Media Prima. Rahman was appointed the CEO of PNB in 2016.

The use of private companies like Gabungan Kesturi obscures the identity of the ultimate shareholder, the Minister of Finance, as well as the extent of the state’s control over major media companies.

Did our leaders groom and place executives in GLICs for their vested interests?

Daim Zainuddin (photo) groomed and placed professionals he had trained as executives and owners of companies associated with UMNO.

 

A similar practice of grooming young professionals as executives and CEOs emerged in the late 1990s after well-connected firms came under the control of the GLICs. Professionals trained by Nor Mohamed took over the management of these enterprises.

However, while Nor Mohamad and Daim groomed and placed professionals in control of major quoted enterprises, their reasons for doing so differed.

As Minister of Finance, Daim, also UMNO’s Treasurer and a longstanding businessperson, appeared intent on securing enormous control over the corporate sector to serve his vested business interests. The professional-managerial team groomed by Nor Mohamed was not necessarily trained to manage the GLICs and GLCs.

What are the possible repercussions of this ownership and control mechanism?

Through this pyramiding system, with the Minister of Finance at the apex, the GLICs and GLCs can be subjected to considerable abuse. This pyramiding system allows the minister to secure numerous political and business benefits from the GLICs and GLCs, as well as abuse them.

It is noteworthy that MoF Inc has ownership and control of controversial companies such as 1MDB and the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC).

The GLIC-based business groups have control over companies through majority equity ownership, which accords them significant voting rights. This has serious implications for minority shareholders, and the economy, in the event of abuse of the companies.

Our study noted that the EPF appears to have been forced to take control of RHB Capital from a firm linked with the former Chief Minister (and now Governor) of Sarawak, Abdul Taib Mahmud (photo above ). This financial institution has long been an enterprise that has come under the control of a number of well-connected people and GLCs.

Politics evidently matters, influencing how these enterprises are run. Policies also matter as they shape the different ways in which these institutions are managed.

There can be a link to between politics and policies, especially redistributive policies and enterprise development strategies when determining how these enterprises are employed.

After his party fared badly in the 2013 General Election, Najib announced that contracts and other concessions would be channeled through GLICs and GLCs to bumiputeras, justified by his new ethnically-based affirmative action policy that targeted this ethnic group. This was evidently to consolidate the political support of this ethnic community. 

What reforms are required to deal with this issue?

These powerful GLICs are a clear manifestation of high concentration of corporate ownership in the state. This concentration of corporate wealth is justifiable only if GLICs are managed in an accountable and transparent manner.

Inevitably, to inspire confidence among private investors, political reforms are imperative to enforce stringent institutional checks and balances by independent oversight institutions.

 

The technocratic professional elite at the epicentre of this GLIC-GLC network can remain, but must be subjected to close scrutiny by parliamentary action committees led by the Opposition. And the Prime Minister cannot also serve as the Finance Minister since it is an obvious case of conflict of interest.

A New Way to study Economics


September 13, 2017

A New Way to study Economics

by John Cassidy

https://www.newyorker.com

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Dealing with Unemployment,Inequality, and  Poverty

With the new school year starting, there is good news for incoming students of economics—and anybody else who wants to learn about issues like inequality, globalization, and the most efficient ways to tackle climate change. A group of economists from both sides of the Atlantic, part of a project called CORE Econ, has put together a new introductory economics curriculum, one that is modern, comprehensive, and freely available online.

In this country, many colleges encourage Econ 101 students to buy (or rent) expensive textbooks, which can cost up to three hundred dollars, or even more for some hardcover editions. The CORE curriculum includes a lengthy e-book titled “The Economy,” lecture slides, and quizzes to test understanding. Some of the material has already been used successfully at colleges like University College London and Sciences Po, in Paris.

The project is a collaborative effort that emerged after the world financial crisis of 2008–9, and the ensuing Great Recession, when many students (and teachers) complained that existing textbooks didn’t do a good job of explaining what was happening. In many countries, groups of students demanded an overhaul in how economics was taught, with less emphasis on free-market doctrines and more emphasis on real-world problems.

Traditional, wallet-busting introductory textbooks do cover topics like pollution, rising inequality, and speculative busts. But in many cases this material comes after lengthy explanations of more traditional topics: supply-and-demand curves, consumer preferences, the theory of the firm, gains from trade, and the efficiency properties of atomized, competitive markets. In his highly popular “Principles of Economics,” Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw begins by listing a set of ten basic principles, which include “Rational people think at the margin,” “Trade can make everybody better off,” and “Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.”

The CORE approach isn’t particularly radical. (Students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere.) But it treats perfectly competitive markets as special cases rather than the norm, trying to incorporate from the very beginning the progress economists have made during the past forty years or so in analyzing more complex situations: when firms have some monopoly power; people aren’t fully rational; a lot of key information is privately held; and the gains generated by trade, innovation, and finance are distributed very unevenly. The CORE curriculum also takes economic history seriously.

The e-book begins with a discussion of inequality. One of first things students learn is that, in 2014, the “90/10 ratio”—the average income of the richest ten per cent of households divided by the average income of the poorest ten per cent—was 5.4 in Norway, sixteen in the United States, and a hundred and forty-five in Botswana. Then comes a discussion of how to measure standards of living, and a section on the famous “hockey stick” graph, which shows how these standards have risen exponentially since the industrial revolution.

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The text stresses that technical progress is the primary force driving economic growth. Citing the Yale economist William Nordhaus’s famous study of the development of electric lighting, it illustrates how standard economic statistics, such as the gross domestic product, sometimes fail to fully account for this progress. Befitting a twenty-first-century text, sections devoted to the causes and consequences of technological innovation recur throughout the e-book, and the information economy receives its own chapter. So do globalization, the environment, and economic cataclysms, such as the Depression and the global financial crisis.

Given the breadth of its coverage, the CORE curriculum may be challenging to some students, but it takes advantage of being a native online product. (In Britain, a paperback version of the e-book is also available.) The presentation features lots of graphs and charts, and, in some cases, students can download data sets to create their own. The quizzes are interactive, and the presentation is enlivened by potted biographies of famous dead economists (Smith, Keynes, etc.) as well as video interviews with eminent living ones, such as Thomas Piketty.

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Unlike most textbooks, the CORE e-book was produced by a large team of collaborators. More than twenty economists from both sides of the Atlantic and from India, Colombia, Chile, and Turkey contributed to it. (Two of them, Suresh Naidu and Rajiv Sethi, teach at Columbia and Barnard, respectively.) The coördinators of the project were Wendy Carlin, of University College London, Sam Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute, and Margaret Stevens, of Oxford University. The Institute for New Economic Thinking provided some funding to help get things off the ground.

The members of the CORE team deserve credit for responding to the critics of economics without pandering to them. They have produced a careful but engrossing curriculum that will hopefully draw more young people into economics, and encourage them to continue their studies. (At University College London, students who took the CORE course did better in subsequent economics classes than earlier cohorts who took a more traditional introductory course.)

But the CORE material isn’t just for incoming students. It will also reward the attention of general readers and people who think they are already reasonably conversant with economics. (Personal testimony: Having gone through some of the material in detail, I think I might finally understand the Malthusian model and how to calculate bank leverage ratios!) All this, and the price can’t be beat.