NEWS ANALYSIS

June reopening can't save Singapore's Q2 GDP, economists warn

Most private-sector analysts are tipping a median double-digit contraction for the period

Singapore

SINGAPORE'S economy was likely a washout in the second quarter, with most private-sector analysts tipping a median double-digit contraction.

Even the earlier-than-expected economic reopening on June 19 will not offer enough rebound to move the needle for the April-to-June period; and how much of full-year gross domestic product (GDP) can be salvaged is still up in the air, watchers said.

Q2 GDP flash estimates are set to be released on Tuesday, based largely on data from April and May, although the figures may be revised as more data is available.

Economists anticipate the Q2 GDP to fall by a median of 11.3 per cent year on year, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. This decrease is slightly milder than the 11.8 per cent fall predicted by the same analysts in a survey in end-May.

But the quarter's showing would still be much worse than the first three months, when the GDP turned negative for the first time in a decade with a contraction of 0.7 per cent.

While the economy may have already bottomed out, United Overseas Bank economist Barnabas Gan warned in a report on July 9 that even this faint hope still relies on avoiding "an exacerbation of Covid-19 concerns and further tightening of social restrictions" in the second half.

Businesses deemed non-essential were shuttered for weeks in April and May in a bid to contain the deadly coronavirus epidemic, and the economic reopening has been staggered.

To be sure, the reopening prompted Maybank Kim Eng senior economist Chua Hak Bin to revise his Q2 estimates up a smidgen: from a 20 per cent drop, to 19 per cent.

That's as some watchers thought that Singapore would not re-enter the second phase of its three-stage reopening until end-June or early July.

So the earlier timeline for businesses to reopen "may help provide a lift to growth late June", he told The Business Times, citing consumers' hasty return to shops and eateries.

Dr Chua's forecast is the gloomiest among the fraternity of economists tracked by Bloomberg.

Others are more cautiously upbeat, with DBS' Irvin Seah pencilling in an 8 per cent contraction, while ANZ's Khoon Goh is looking at 10.3 per cent.

Yet even the optimists have a streak of Eeyore in them. Prakash Sakpal, Asia senior economist at ING, thinks that GDP will shrink by 9.2 per cent for the quarter, adding: "The risk to this forecast is clearly on the downside."

Despite the pent-up consumer demand that was recently unleashed, Mr Sakpal noted that the circuit breaker already took a significant toll on domestic demand, as it "spanned almost the entire second quarter".

Singapore retail sales plunged in May, the latest month on record, to their lowest level since 1986, while non-oil domestic exports finally ran out of steam that month and posted their first monthly drop this year.

Even external trade, which has cushioned some of the blow, is not regarded as enough to win the day.

Citi's Kit Wei Zheng and Ang Kai Wei wrote: "While manufacturing has fared relatively better because of semiconductors and pharma, almost all of the other services indicators are deeply in negative territory."

Their below-consensus prediction is for a 15 per cent year-on-year drop in GDP in Q2.

And even if the economy can only head upwards, the road to recovery is marred by everything from a likely spike in local unemployment, to rising geopolitical tensions and the continued coronavirus pandemic.

Said Mr Gan: "Singapore's output gap to-date remains in negative territory, suggesting that the economy is still growing below potential."

Meanwhile, the Citi team "anticipates a slow and uneven recovery", which could take Singapore to a full-year contraction of 8.5 per cent.

That would be worse than the 4 per cent to 7 per cent recession range put out by the Ministry of Trade and Industry in May - though the official forecast could be cut again on Tuesday.

On the whole, private economists expect the Singapore economy to shrink by a median 5.7 per cent for the full year, according to Bloomberg.