Budget 2021 – Great expectations


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LAST Friday, the Finance Minister tabled what is now known as Malaysia’s largest-ever budget.

The excellently-crafted and well-written budget was presented in a couple of hours and after it was presented, the social media, mainstream media, economists, consulting firms and investment banking strategists gave their views on the measures, especially those related to taxes, incentives or grants.

Now that Budget 2021 has been tabled, lawmakers will debate on the merits and vote on it. Having covered budgets for more than two decades, the devil is in the details and this year is not an exception.

Let’s look at the gross domestic product (GDP) estimate first. The government expects GDP growth for 2020 to contract by 4.5% and for next year, it is estimated to grow by between 6.5% and 7.5% in real terms. For the economy to close the year with the projected contraction, the second half of 2020 has a very small room to contract by only 0.7% as the economy shrank 8.3% in the first half.

This is a tall order as economic data remains largely weak as seen in several indicators, which include the industrial production index as well as the poor reading in the retail sub-segment.

With almost the entire nation under the conditional movement control order, economic growth, if any, will be challenging.

Meanwhile, in nominal terms, the government expects GDP growth to be -4.7% this year and to rise significantly by almost 9% in 2021, as inflation is expected to return with a reading of 2.5%, mainly due to the low base effect from 2020.

Perhaps when the Bank Negara releases the third quarter GDP data on Friday, we can then assess if the full year GDP assumption still holds water or otherwise.

For 2021, the government expects GDP growth to be driven by domestic demand, in particular growth from private consumption while the external sector may post some drag as imports are forecast to grow even faster than exports.

On the supply side, the government expects the services and manufacturing sectors, which account for 80% of the economy, to grow by 7% each while construction is expected to bounce back with a near 14% leap in 2021 after the forecast drop of 18.7% this year. From here, we can observe that one of the key drivers of the economy next year is public investment, as the government has bumped up development expenditure to the tune of RM69bil for 2021 from the adjusted figure of RM50bil this year (which was previously forecast to be at RM56bil).

The government’s total expenditure is now broken into three main buckets – other than operating expenditure and development expenditure, we now have a new line item called the Covid-19 Fund with an allocation of RM38bil this year and RM17bil next year.

In essence, since the pandemic outbreak, the government has introduced various economic stimulus packages under its Prihatin package series and the Penjana package, which in total amounted to RM305bil, while the actual direct fiscal injection totaled RM55bil.

However, under the Temporary Measures for Government Financing (Coronavirus Disease 2019) Act, the Parliament had only approved a ceiling of RM45bil for the fund and hence the Minister has proposed, taking into consideration the nation’s need up to 2022, an amendment that will be tabled to raise the fund to RM65bil, an increase of RM20bil.

This increase that was mentioned in the budget speech is meant for the RM10bil Kita Prihatin package, additional assistance for people’s well-being, as well as to secure the supply of the much-needed vaccine. The table above summarises the government’s revenue projection for this year and the next.The expected revenue for the second half of the year and into 2021 will be challenging for the government, given the level it had achieved in the first half. As it is, the second half forecast is 23.3% higher than the first half.

In addition, for 2021, revenue and expenditure are expected to increase by 4.2% and 4.3% respectively, which will likely be tough given the tax breaks that the government is proposing, in particular, company income tax (CITA) and personal direct taxes.

Based on government’s estimate, taxes from the two sources are expected to fall by 6.8% and 7.2% this year but will bounce back strongly in 2021 with a growth of 8.8% and 18.2% respectively.Interestingly, the 2021 forecast for CITA and personal direct taxes at RM64.6bil and RM42.4bil is higher than 2019’s figure by 1.3% and 9.7% respectively.

As for expenditure, as total federal government debt stood at RM874.3bil mark or 60.7% of GDP as at end of September 2020, the government’s Debt Service Charges (DSC) too have deteriorated.

From an estimated level of 15.4% of GDP this year, DSC is expected to drop further to 16.5% in 2021, mainly driven by 11.6% increase in absolute DSC to RM39bil.

Although both the DSC ratio in 2020 and 2021 will be higher than the self-imposed fiscal limit ratio of 15%, it is hoped that by beyond 2021, this ratio will be brought under control when the economy is expected to expand further.

All in, Budget 2021 measures are holistic and inclusive for all levels of society and have been cleverly crafted to address the challenges faced by Malaysians, especially those severely impacted by Covid-19.The government has largely listened to the voices of hope in addressing the pandemic world.

Having said that, the expected government’s revenue and GDP projections are rather optimistic, resulting in a much lower budget deficit figure while the forecast government tax revenues too are on the high side. While the DSC has now surpassed the self-imposed ceiling, the government’s debt to GDP ratio is expected to remain elevated for at least this year and in 2021.It is important for the lawmakers to approve this budget as the government has taken steps in keeping the economy going.

While there are some shortcomings in the terms of budget allocations, it is hoped that this can be ironed out during the parliamentary debate stage and all lawmakers come to an consensus to approve the gigantic budget.

Pankaj C. Kumar is a long-time investment analyst. Views expressed here are his own.

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