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7th February 2015

Singapore Economy

Budgets that built a nation

Singapore's first post-Independence Budget was delivered in December 1965, as the country grasped its national purse strings for the first time. Fiona Chan and Marissa Lee chart the story of Singapore's growth and prosperity through 50 years of annual Budget statements.

Source: Straits Times / Insight

Since 1965, Singapore’s annual revenue and spending have grown tenfold. But even as the economy powered from Third World to First, the Government was always careful to balance its Budgets.

BARELY four months after Singapore was abruptly turfed out of the Malaysia federation, the new nation's first Finance Minister rose in Parliament on Dec 13, 1965, to deliver its inaugural Budget.

On the face of it, it was an unenviable task. Newly independent Singapore faced stiff economic challenges: despite having no natural resources and no more hinterland, it had to create jobs and better housing for its citizens, which required policies enabling trade and industrialisation.

Yet, in a speech that lasted for an hour and 20 minutes, Mr Lim Kim San revealed that Singapore was well-placed financially to face its uncertain future.

Its official foreign reserves were 15 times its external debt - "a position which is strong by any international standard", he said.

Although it had been only six years since the island obtained full self-government in 1959, this was due to "prudent budgeting and careful allocation of resources" in that time.

External debt stood at 59 million Malaya and British Borneo dollars - the currency Singapore shared with Malaya, Brunei, North Borneo Sarawak and Riau at that time - while foreign reserves were more than 15 times that, at M$914.7 million.

Fifty years later, as Singapore prepares for its Golden Jubilee Budget on Feb 23, this financial fortitude has not wavered.

The country has gone from Third World nation to First World metropolis - with per capita gross domestic product (GDP) shooting up from just $1,734 in 1966 to more than $69,000 in 2013 - and has done so without running large deficits or incurring external debts.

Its coffers bulge with decades of budget surpluses - the result of 50 years of judicious Budgets, as well as revenue from land sales and some income from investing the national reserves.

The latter two are not included in the yearly budget position presented to Parliament.

Yet ask any Singaporean what they expect in the upcoming Budget, and few will mention these economic intricacies.

Rather, many view it as a lottery of sorts where they might get goodies such as one-off cash payouts, depending on the "lucky" target group each year.

In the 1980s, taxpayers and companies cheered a series of tax cuts, while in the last decade, the Budget has been generous to low-wage workers and the needy in particular.

"The focus of the man in the street tends to be on what the Budget presents immediately, whether goodies or specific policy announcements," says former Nominated MP Laurence Lien, chairman of the Lien Foundation and previously director of governance and investment at the Finance Ministry.

Role of the Budget

BUT that is to ignore the big picture, as Mr Lien notes.

Over the last 50 years, the initiatives unveiled during the annual Budgets have driven Singapore's economic development and formed the cornerstone for its success in many other areas.

In the early years after Independence, most spending was earmarked for bread-and-butter issues essential to economic survival, such as job creation, and developing the infrastructure for a self-sufficient nation.

"Unemployment has always been the central economic problem of Singapore," said then Finance Minister Goh Keng Swee in his 1967 Budget speech.

He pushed for industrialisation to step up a gear from the easygoing "shoes and ships and sealing wax" phase to the deliberate selection of high-growth, labour-intensive industries such as engineering and metal fabrication.

Funds were also set aside in those early Budgets to seed the institutions Singaporeans take for granted today.

In 1972, Mr Hon Sui Sen allocated $10 million to develop Sentosa as a tourist attraction. In 1979, Mr Goh Chok Tong, standing in to deliver the Budget for Mr Hon, gave $393 million to develop Changi Airport and roads.

With manufacturing and tourism powering growth in the 1970s, the emphasis in the 1980s shifted towards upgrading the economy over the longer term.

More was spent to grow research and development, expand the services sector and raise productivity - strategies that remain relevant today.

The Budget purse was also used to keep the economy vibrant amid slowing workforce growth over the years. Baby-making incentives swelled, as finance ministers tried to get parents to have more children and to have them earlier.

Meanwhile, several Budgets told the story of a struggle to balance allowing more foreign workers in to spur growth, and avoiding over-reliance on them.

In 1970, Dr Goh outlined Singapore's "open-door policy", which would "ensure rapid growth right from the start". A decade later,

Mr Goh Chok Tong highlighted the need for skilled professionals, including from abroad, to develop Singapore into a modern industrial economy.

But by 1982, Dr Tony Tan Keng Yam - who is now President - was saying Singapore aimed "to free ourselves from reliance on foreign labour by the end of this decade" - mainly by keeping more women and seniors at work and raising productivity.

Yet the need for foreign workers did not disappear. In 1990, Dr Richard Hu decided to allow them to work in more sectors, including retail and banking.

Walking the tightrope continues till today, with the most recent Budgets heading in the direction of tightening the tap once again and lifting domestic productivity.

Another consistent theme has been the steady reduction in income taxes over the last 50 years, as Singapore sought to improve its competitiveness and provide a friendly environment for companies and workers.

In 1978, Mr Hon started the ball rolling by changing the personal income tax brackets so that the top rate of 55 per cent affected much fewer people. A series of tax cuts, for both companies and individuals, followed over the decades.

To balance out the lower income taxes, Dr Hu announced the Goods and Services Tax (GST) in 1993. It started at 3 per cent and has risen to 7 per cent today.

The Budget today

RECENT Budgets, though, may be unrecognisable to the pioneer finance ministers.

Under a new generation of leaders, the Budgets have become less about the hard numbers and what the economy needs, and more about a softer approach to what people want.

"In the earlier years, our Budgets tended to focus on the economic developments and infrastructure building," says MP (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) Liang Eng Hwa, who sits on the Government Parliamentary Committee for Finance and Trade and Industry.

"In more recent years, emphasis has shifted towards more social development and people's well-being."

Citizens' demands are very different now from 50 years ago, notes Bank of America Merrill Lynch economist Chua Hak Bin.

"The earlier generation was just happy with a job," he says.

"Today's generation has more aspirations, about the education, jobs and wages they expect."

He adds that the Budget has become more responsive to social needs, for instance in spending more on expanding public transport and housing.

Building health-care infrastructure, rewarding pioneers and planning ahead for an ageing population are some recent Budget policies that "go beyond dollars and cents", agrees OCBC economist Selena Ling.

Another big shift has been in the area of social transfers.

The thinking that dominated the first four decades was that everyone should take responsibility for their own livelihood.

In 1974, Mr Hon had laid out this guiding principle, saying subsidies provided by higher earners would encourage more freeloading "passengers".

This position has evolved since then. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, who was Finance Minister from 2001 to 2007, gave Economic Restructuring Shares to all Singaporeans in 2002 to help them adjust to changes in the economy.

Recent moves to top up the incomes of lower-wage workers - through schemes such as Workfare in 2007 and the Wage Credit Scheme in 2013 - also mark a "quantum leap", says Ms Ling.

"In the past, that whole concept of direct cash transfers, even if tied to wages, was never done before," she says. The proactive policies in this area have helped bring about a "meaningful" reduction in income inequality.

The Government has also changed the way it uses public funds - being more careful to save some income on the reserves for a rainy day, yet willing to open the reserves umbrella when it pours, as it did during the 2009 recession.

Finance Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam asked to tap Singapore's formidable reserves for the first time, in offering a massive $20.5 billion package to save jobs and companies amid the onset of a global recession.

The state is also freer with its chequebook for worthwhile causes, such as a recent multi-year programme to support lower- and middle-income Singaporeans.

"Previously, the priority was to save for a rainy day. Now there's more willingness to say 'Okay, this is worthwhile', even if it's not a rainy day," Ms Ling says.

Some things stay the same

STILL, there are many core principles that have not changed in Budget speeches over the years. One is the emphasis on careful spending, which has been reiterated by every finance minister.

Another steadfast philosophy is self-reliance, not just for individuals but for the nation as a whole.

In 1965, Mr Lim said Singapore could tap external loans but should not over-rely on them.

Singapore's aim was "more trade, not more aid", he said. "By this, we retain our freedom of action and self-respect."

The third Budget constant is the undying belief in a better future for Singapore - a note on which many Budget speeches have ended.

Back in 1965, Mr Lim had concluded his Budget speech by saying that "Singapore has never before failed to seize any opportunity for its advancement".

"I am sure they will not let slip this golden opportunity to build themselves into a great and prosperous nation, a spur for like-minded neighbours to achieve for themselves."

His words set the tone for 50 years of prudent Singapore Budgets, which helped build a nation that can well afford to celebrate its economic success today.

-By Fiona Chan & Marissa Lee

Going beyond the 'global city' paradigm

Singapore should strive to be a unique regional city.

Source: Business Times / Opinion

After independence in 1965, Singapore's government embarked on a development strategy of manufacturing for export to the world market, a major part of the new nation's transformation from a South-east Asian regional port-city to a "global city". A relative abundance of labour gave Singapore a resource-based comparative advantage in the export of labour-intensive goods and services - chiefly electronics assembly offshored by multinationals such as Texas Instruments and Hitachi, and shipbuilding and repair undertaken by government-linked companies such as Keppel and Sembawang.

-By Linda Lim           

Singapore Real Estate

Sengkang EC site bid lowest since 2011

Sim Lian's $158m offer may mean cheaper units amid similar projects 

Source: Straits Times / Money

THE successful tender for an executive condominium (EC) site in Sengkang is likely to heat up the competition for buyers, given the number of similar projects that have sprung up in the area.

A bid of $157.8 million - or $280 per sq ft (psf) per plot ratio (ppr) from developer Sim Lian Group for an Anchorvale Crescent plot was accepted on Thursday, potentially pricing the new project well below neighbouring ECs, consultants said.

The site can yield 525 homes.

The top offer beat only two other contenders and was the lowest tabled for an EC site since July 2011 - a reflection of the cautious mood among developers amid weakening market conditions.

Market watchers noted that the tender's results were released about 12 working days after the bidding closed, a departure from the usual practice of five days.

Mr Nicholas Mak, executive director at SLP International, reckoned that the 1.75ha plot site's reserve price, which is kept secret, could have been adjusted to reflect the bidders' assessment of the site's value.

The Housing Board said yesterday: "It is not solely based on the tender price meeting the reserve bid price for state land."

Factors like compliance with tender specifications are also considered, it noted.

There have been 13 EC developments - or 7,149 units - launched in Punggol and Sengkang since 2010. Sales at recently launched projects have been tepid, with The Amore in Edgedale Plains moving about 80 of 378 units at its opening last month.

At Bellewaters, an EC also in Anchorvale Crescent, 195 of 651 units have been sold since its launch in November.

The break-even price for the Sim Lian project is expected to be between $600 and $660 psf, said analysts, which gives the developer room to "undercut" selling prices of nearby ECs.

Sim Lian's bid was 24 per cent lower than the $367 psf ppr that developer SingHaiyi paid for a neighbouring site which will accommodate The Vales EC.

Qingjian Realty shelled out $331 psf ppr for its Bellewaters EC site - 18 per cent higher than Sim Lian's bid.

Mr Ong Teck Hui, national director of research and consultancy at JLL, said: "If EC buyers think that a nearby new project could come onto the market at lower prices, they might prefer to wait... This could slow the sales of other EC projects that are being actively marketed."

Mr Mak said of SingHaiyi and Qingjian Realty: "The other two developers would be very worried." Demand for ECs in Punggol and Sengkang, he added, could have already been met and it could take some time for the market to absorb the unsold units.

Based on the break-even price, Sim Lian could price its units between $700 and $750 psf.

Units at Bellewaters and The Terrace have sold for an average of about $810 psf.

Mr Ong Kah Seng, director of R'ST Research, noted that values of ECs in the vicinity could be hit "slightly", as developers might have to cut prices to beat the competition from existing projects.

Since 2010, average prices of ECs have crept up from $700 psf and peaked at a high of $800 psf last year, as competition for EC sites shored up land values.

But Mr Mak pointed out that Thursday's tender could be a harbinger of more bids sinking below the $300 psf ppr mark. A tender for a Woodlands Avenue 12 EC site will close next Thursday, while a plot in Choa Chu Kang Avenue 5 will hit the market in May.

-By Cheryl Ong

High-speed rail terminal site may be named soon

Source: Straits Times / Top of The News

THE site of the Singapore-Kuala Lumpur high-speed rail (HSR) terminus in Singapore could be announced as early as the first quarter of this year.

According to a statement by the National Development Ministry, the 11th Malaysia-Singapore Joint Ministerial Committee for Iskandar Malaysia - which met yesterday in Putrajaya - "looks forward to Singapore's announcement of the HSR terminus at the upcoming Leaders' Retreat".

No date for the Leaders' Retreat was given but past retreats have been in February, April and May. So news of where the station will be could be out in the next few weeks or months.

Singapore had shortlisted Tuas West, Jurong East and the city centre as possible sites, but seems most in favour of Jurong East. The Malaysians, however, are said to be rooting for a city location.

Dr George Caldwell, 90, a medical practitioner who studied transport engineering, reckoned a city stop made the most sense: "Everybody wants to get from city centre to city centre. It doesn't make sense to stop in Jurong or Tuas and spend another 40 minutes getting into town."

While high-speed rail systems around the world often link city centres, Singapore is said to baulk at the cost and work involved because of the dense development in the Central Business District and the criss-crossing MRT tunnels and utilities underground.

There are other obstacles that need to be overcome, such as how much each country should pay for the project.

"Several sub-work groups have been tasked to look into the technical intricacies of the rail system that would be adopted, as well as the operating and financing models," said the statement.

Even the number of stations may be a sticking point. Malaysia has announced seven stops, namely Kuala Lumpur, Putrajaya, Seremban, Ayer Keroh, Muar, Batu Pahat and Nusajaya. But The Straits Times understands there are concerns that Singapore might end up subsidising these stations.

Meanwhile, the joint ministerial committee said the quota for cross-border bus services has been raised from the current 16 to 20. Both sides are also reviewing new landing points to enhance the cross-border bus network.

On the MRT extension to Johor Baru, the second phase of a joint engineering study "will begin after the terminus location in JB has been determined". There will also be automated clearance for both rider and pillion at all motorcycle counters at the Singapore checkpoints by the end of next year.

-By Christopher Tan, Senior Transport Correspondent

SingHaiyi's Q3 hit by absence of development revenue

Source: Business Times / Companies & Markets

Singhaiyi Group posted a 36.7 per cent drop in earnings for its fiscal third quarter in the absence of year-ago development sales, but rental income was stable. The property development group also explained its new plans for a San Francisco project. The group's net profit for the three months to December 2014 was S$2.5 million, or 0.086 Singapore cent per share. For the first nine months, net profit fell 57.4 per cent to S$5.3 million, or 0.188 Singapore cent.

-By Kenneth Lim            

A-HTrust's Q3 DPS down

Source: Business Times / Companies & Markets

Ascendas Hospitality Trust (A-HTrust) on Friday posted a 19.3 per cent drop in distribution per stapled security (DPS) to 1.3 Singapore cents for its third quarter ended Dec 31, compared to 1.61 cents a year ago. This was because distributable income fell due to the costs incurred in the unwinding of the AUD/SGD cross-currency swaps, as well as the continued weakening of the Australian dollar and Japanese yen against the Singapore dollar.

-By Lee Meixian

CDL Hospitality Trusts

Source: Straits Times / Money

  • Broker:UOB KayHian
  • Call:Buy
  • Target price: $2

We expect 2015 to be a better year for the Reit with the reopening of Claymore Link, contributions from newly acquired Japan properties and expected stabilisation of Singapore hotel revenue per available room in the second quarter of 2015, driven by the SEA Games and positive spillover surrounding SG50 celebrations. The stock is offering an attractive forward yield of 6.4 to 6.5 per cent.

28 business pioneers win awards

Source: Business Times / Companies & Markets

It was a night to honour Chinese business pioneers for their entrepreneurial spirit and contributions to the Singapore economy. Hailing from a range of trades and industries, 28 individuals were presented the SG50 Outstanding Chinese Business Pioneers Awards by the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce & Industry (SCCCI) at a gala dinner at the Ritz Carlton on Friday evening. Many of the winners, aged 66 to 91, are household names.

-By Prisca Ang

Views, Reviews & Forum

Short-term leasing has its benefits

Source: Straits Times / Forum Letters

IN HER letter ("Potential ill effects of short-term leasing", Wednesday), Ms Beatrice Tang wrote that landlords do not have the means or expertise to verify the reliability of short-term guests, and could end up housing illegal immigrants, or worse, criminals and terrorists.

But what about hotels and hostels?

All they want to see is the page of your passport that has your photo and name on it.

I have been an active short-term host for three years and I have received many people into my home.

They come from many countries and from all walks of life, including policemen, teachers, architects, graphic illustrators, start-up techies and students.

The very few incidents involving bad behaviour of short-term guests all arise from the fact that the host is not living in the same premises.

When the lodging is a private room, as opposed to the entire home or apartment, bad behaviour is very much minimised.

Ms Tang also said that "cities that legitimise short-term leases experience a shrinkage in the supply of affordable rental properties".

I doubt this will happen in Singapore, and even if it did, most Singaporeans own their homes and will be unaffected.

In fact, if the Urban Redevelopment Authority does legitimise short-term rentals, Singaporeans would gain because if they were looking for a tenant for their second home and could not find a long-term one, this would be a great stop-gap solution.

-By Biance Sandra Overree (Ms)

Global Economy & Global Real Estate

Revel Sale Closing at Risk as Creditor Wins Appeal

Source: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Revel AC Inc., the bankrupt Atlantic City, New Jersey, casino owner, may not be able to close on its $95.4 million sale by a Feb. 9 deadline after an appeals court sided with one of its creditors and blocked a provision of the deal.

Revel already has seen one buyer walk away, and its current suitor, Florida real estate developer Glenn Straub, can take his offer off the table if the deal isn’t closed by Monday, scuttling hope that Revel will be revived anytime soon.

“It’s been very difficult to sell this property, there is little room for further concessions,” said Jason N. Zakia, a lawyer for Revel, said at a hearing Friday before the U.S. Court of Appeals in Philadelphia. The risk to Revel if the sale is put on hold is “that this potentially valuable asset turns into cavernous hole,” he said.

Brookfield Property Partners LP won Revel’s bankruptcy auction with a $110 million offer only to back out, leaving the casino owner scrambling back to Straub’s Polo North Country Club Inc. to salvage that deal.

If the sale falls through, Revel may be hard pressed to find another company wiling to roll the dice on the property. That would be another setback for Atlantic City.

The New Jersey seaside resort town saw four of its 12 casino’s close last year as part of its rapid decline, which has caused Republican Governor Chris Christie to call in restructuring experts including Kevyn Orr, the man who led Detroit through its bankruptcy.

A three-judge panel of the appeals court ruled Friday in favor of Revel’s night club owner, overturning a lower court’s decision to allow the sale to proceed over the creditor’s challenge.

Revel creditor IDEA Boardwalk LLC, the owner of the HQ night club at the resort, sought a review of a ruling last month by a federal judge in Camden, New Jersey, who refused to block the deal. IDEA claimed the terms of the deal would strip them of property rights in which they invested $16 million, according to court filings.

It isn’t fair to let the sale to go forward and allow the buyer to evict IDEA after it invested in the property, only to see another company benefit from that investment, Jeffrey A. Cooper, a lawyer for the club owner, told the judges at a hearing Friday.

Straub has said he needs a clean slate, free from liens, contracts and leases, to resurrect Revel as either a resort with casino, a water-park or a university. The developer said if there are interruptions or changes to the sales terms he could leave Revel jilted once more.

Stuart Moskovitz, a lawyer representing Straub, had no immediate comment on the ruling. John K. Cunningham, a lawyer for Revel, also didn’t respond immediately to phone and e-mail messages.

Last month, Standard & Poor’s rating agency and Moody’s Investors Service both cut Atlantic City’s credit rating to junk. Casino revenue fell to $2.5 billion last year from a high of $5.2 billion in 2006, as new venues in Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and New York lure away it customers.

Revel, which opened in April 2012 at a cost of $2.4 billion, was the first new Atlantic City casino since 2003. The bankruptcy, its second, and subsequent closing last September erased more than 3,000 jobs.

The bankruptcy is In re Revel AC Inc., 14-bk-22654, U.S. Bankruptcy Court, District of New Jersey (Camden). The Appellate case is In re IDEA Boardwalk LLC v. Revel AC Inc., 15-1253, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit (Philadelphia).

-By Michael Bathon

U.S. REITs Slide Most Since September After Jobs Report

Source: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- U.S. real estate investment trusts fell the most since September after a strong employment report renewed speculation that the Federal Reserve will boost interest rates in the first half of this year.

The 166-company Bloomberg REIT index fell 2.8 percent Friday, the biggest drop since Sept. 12. Owners of single-tenant buildings and health-care real estate led the decline.

A Labor Department report showing the biggest job gains in 17 years sent Treasury yields surging Friday on expectations of higher interest rates. Rising rates make it more expensive for REITs to borrow money, which may hurt their ability to buy property and develop real estate. Higher Treasury yields also reduce the appeal of the stocks’ dividend yields.

“As the spread narrows, REITs look a little less attractive than Treasuries,” said David Auerbach, an institutional REIT trader at Esposito Securities LLC in Dallas.

The 10-year Treasury yield rose to 1.96 percent from 1.82 percent yesterday. The dividend yield on the Bloomberg REIT index is about 3.4 percent.

The Bloomberg single-tenant REIT index sank 4.2 percent Friday, while the health-care REIT gauge fell 4.1 percent. Those types of landlords tend to be viewed as bond-like investments because they typically have tenants with long leases.

-By Brian Louis

Consumer Borrowing in U.S. Increases as Credit-Card Use Picks Up

Source: Bloomberg

(Bloomberg) -- Consumer borrowing in the U.S. climbed in December as Americans boosted their credit-card use by the most in eight months.

The $14.8 billion increase in total credit, or an annualized 5.4 percent, followed a revised $13.5 billion advance in November, Federal Reserve figures showed Friday in Washington. For all of 2014, borrowing increased 6.9 percent after 6 percent a year earlier.

An improving job market and cheaper gasoline gave consumers the impetus to spend during the holiday-shopping season, allowing fourth-quarter household purchases to rise at the fastest clip in almost nine years. A separate report Friday showed employers added more jobs than forecast last month and wages picked up.

The median forecast of 34 economists called for a $15 billion advance in borrowing in January. Estimates ranged from increases of $12 billion to $22 billion. The report doesn’t track mortgages, home-equity lines of credit, or other real estate-backed debt.

Revolving debt, including credit-card balances, increased $5.8 billion in December after a $945 million decline the prior month.

Non-revolving credit, which includes car and education loans, rose $9 billion in December, the smallest gain since February 2012, after advancing $14.4 billion in the previous month. Autos sold at a seasonally adjusted 16.8 million, down from 17.1 million in November, according to data from Ward’s Automotive Group.

Federal lending to consumers, which mostly entails school tuitions, increased by $5.1 billion before seasonal adjustments, after rising $5.8 billion in November.

Non-Revolving Loans

Student loans in the fourth quarter increased to $1.32 trillion from $1.31 trillion in the prior three months. Borrowing for the purchase of motor vehicles rose to $955.5 billion last quarter after $943.8 billion from July through September.

Payrolls climbed 257,000 in January, capping the biggest three-month gain in 17 years, according to a Labor Department data on Friday. Upward revisions to the previous two months added 147,000 more jobs than initially reported.

Wages increased by the most since 2008. Sustained gains in employment and a pickup in wages are creating a virtuous cycle as Americans spend newfound incomes on goods and services.

-By Bloomberg News

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