Friday, September 19, 2008

Hard hit by U.S. meltdown



Saturday September 20, 2008

The turmoil is hitting Singapore like a tonne of bricks at a time when the financial centre is already in the midst of an economic slowdown and super-high inflation.

MY PARENTS have been affected by my failure - my heavy losses in the stock market during the past year. Every night I am having nightmares,” one trader recently wrote.

His S$30,000 (RM72,700) savings meant to be a deposit for a flat evaporated during the downturn, particularly in recent weeks when shares went into a tailspin.
Anxious crowd: Policyholders gathering at an AIA branch in Singapore on Thursday to check on their policies after hearing news that AIA’s US parent company AIG was facing bankruptcy. — AFP

“My loss is beyond my means, it is very painful and I don’t know what my future is,” said the lower-middle -class bachelor.

“I had to strive to rebuild my life or else I would have committed suicide.”

He is one of a growing number of people here who are hard hit by the current US banking meltdown, which has reached Singapore.

At the same time, hundreds of anxious insurance holders have been flocking to the head-office of .

They wanted to cancel their policies, even if it meant losing in investment and coverage. That the US government is providing US$85bil (RM295bil) bailout to AIG did not stop the crowd.

The Monetary Authority of Singa­pore has appealed for calm among holders of its two million policies.

It also acted to protect customers of another US institution, Lehman Brothers, which declared bankruptcy by curtailing its operations here. It cannot remit funds to third parties without approval.

These days being a world banking hub is beginning to look like a great idea turned sour for Singapore, particularly its investment in foreign banks, as the citizens are finding out.

The US meltdown is hitting this financial centre like a tonne of bricks at a time when it is already in the midst of an economic slowdown and super-high inflation.

To be sure, the years of excesses of Wall Street have not been allowed to intrude into the financial district in Shenton Way, which remains tightly-regulated. The impact, however, is touching the lives of many people.

“The trouble is it’s all imported; no Singaporean bank is a casualty,” said an official.

Some Singaporeans are, of course, hit worse than others, but collectively the damage is far more serious here than in other cities in the region.

Ironically, it is due to success in becoming a wealthy financial centre.

The world’s top banks and brokerages have set up their regional offices here. Now their future remains under a cloud.

And when world banking is in turmoil, Singapore’s economy is shaken up.

This sector will go through a general lull, if not decline, which will result in an exodus of foreign executives.

Lehman Brothers’ operations in Singapore came to a halt on Monday, a day after it went into bankruptcy. The jobs of its 270 staff members may disappear.

This, and the bailout of AIG and other large US corporations, are sending shock waves throughout the financial industry.

The many professionals in Singa­pore €“ foreigners and Singaporeans €“ are deeply concerned about their jobs.

“It’s quite worrying,” one executive told a TV reporter.

“We don’t know who will be the next target.”

Any exodus of these highly-paid executives will aggravate an already poor property market, especially in office and residential rentals.

It may retard Singapore’s growth as a banking hub, at least until stability returns.

During the past 10 years, it has made financial services one of its four strategic pillars for growth.

Many of its global investments are in Western and Asian banks, which have set up operations here.

In addition, tens of billions of Temasek Holdings and GIC (Govern­ment Investment Corporation) money have gone into these investments.

They couldn’t have been worse timed. Their values have been decimated.

For Mr and Mrs Singapore, these are worrying times as the economic downturn begins to bite.

The worst appears to be the stock market, where many Singaporeans are invested. The index shares have fallen by 30% in the past year, but many other shares are down by as much as 50% to 60%.

Some life savings have been wiped out. Tens of thousands are groaning under the weight of large losses.

Other recent headlines, which are dealing fresh blows to Singaporeans, included the following:

> Government data confirms that high inflation is eating into wage gains; average real earnings have fallen by 4% between April and June;

> Private home sales slumped 81% in August compared to a year ago, dropping from 1,723 to 320 units (partly affected by the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival);

> Retail sales fell for the first time in four months as car sales slumped (by 8%) and consumers bought fewer luxury goods, mobile phones and computers; and

> Despite the price of oil falling by a third, the government controversially raised buses and train fares by four cents (10 sen), adding to the high inflation.

The US crisis may trigger off a glo­bal recession, including Singapore.

However, the city has a protective shield: its large reserves of US$300bil (RM1tril) built up over the years and sound economic fundamentals.

If not for these, Singapore could be overwhelmed.

But the ordinary people are a different story. With their real salaries down, they are vulnerable to any sustained unemployment and the relentless price increases.

With half an eye on the 2011 election, the government is taking precautions. It will change the laws to allow it to dip into investment returns of the country’s reserves to offset rising costs of public services.

It’s seen as a positive move, but also one that serves as a warning that life can get worse for the people.

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