Sailing into the storm

Sailing into the storm

A storm blows in the economic waters ahead, but a good map, a nimble craft and a well-stocked pantry can help guide a company to safer shores, business veterans told BT.

"The outlook is uncertain," said Bill Bowman, senior director for accounting, financial reporting, tax and internal control at Infineon Technologies Asia-Pacific.

"My personal take is people need to take a longer term view and not panic."

The macroeconomic concerns that plagued the world in the second half of 2011 have not gone away so far in 2012.

Europe continues to teeter near the brink as Greece remains crippled by debt.

Other peripheral nations on the continent such as Spain, Portugal and Italy are still looking on nervously, worried about whether the Greek problems will grow into a contagion, and if that happens, who will be next.

"The worry is that obviously recession or slowdown in Europe puts this pressure on one or two countries leaving, which will create more uncertainty, although I think businesses are more prepared for that likelihood now," said Song Seng Wun, regional economist at CIMB Research.

The United States is showing just enough economic growth to allay fears of a recession for now, Europe notwithstanding, but stubbornly high unemployment and the threat of a fiscal cliff in 2013 temper any kind of optimism for the year ahead.

"The US economy is actually quite robust and resilient," said Chaly Mah, chief executive of Deloitte Asia-Pacific.

"There are some challenges about their fiscal cliff, which will kick in at the end of this year after the US elections, but everybody believes that once the new president is put in place, they'll figure out a way to manage that fiscal cliff."

In Asia, worries about a slowdown seem to have come to bear.

China's still respectable pace of economic growth has nevertheless slowed more than expected.

Singapore's economic data paint a lacklustre picture for 2012 and heading into 2013 even as the country faces rising costs.

And in China, Hong Kong and Singapore, asset prices spark concerns of bubbles.

"We can see there's a slowdown, there's no dispute about that," said Richard Eu, chief executive of traditional Chinese medicine retailer Eu Yan Sang. "At the same time, we don't see costs coming down, so this is the big challenge for us. It's been happening probably since the end of last year until now."

But for all that has happened, it is the fog that lies ahead that is proving to be challenging for businesses.

"There are tough headwinds which are buffeting us, and that has basically created a bit of uncertainty," Mr Song said. "Of course, some businesses will thrive in the more difficult environment, and some will do better in downturns, but obviously a lot more do better in an upturn."

In what is already shaping up to be a tough year, the next 12 months are not expected to get much better when the consensus optimistic scenario appears to be "more of the same".

"The best-case scenario is more of the same that we've seen this year," Mr Song said. "The means China hanging on to 7.5 per cent growth, Singapore about 2 per cent, the rest of Asean about 4-5 per cent."

For him, the worst-case scenario is if the metaphorical can that Europe has been kicking down the road for the past few years finally exacts a toll.

"The worst case obviously is the case that the can finally cracks," Mr Song said. "That a new round of worries in the US sends it back into recessionary territory."

In Asia, one concern is the continued accommodative stance of central banks.

The Federal Reserve this month announced a new, aggressive quantitative easing policy targeted at mortgage debt, shortly after the European Central Bank revealed its own debt-buying strategy.

But while those measures could spur economic activity in the US and Europe, they will also keep interest rates depressed for a longer period of time. And that could fuel an asset bubble in Asia, Mr Mah said.

"The problem I have with QE3 is with more printing of money and putting more money in the system, the interest rate is expected to be very low for the next few years," Mr Mah said.

"And with the low interest rate environment, you've seen what happens to the real estate sector in Hong Kong and Singapore. So my concern with QE3 is it may have the unintended consequence of asset inflation in Asia."

He added that if real estate prices continue to climb in Asia and the global economy begins to pick up, perhaps in three or four years' time, conditions could be ripe for the asset bubble to collapse at that time.

Europe remains the biggest wildcard, with the fate of Greece and the euro expected to have wide ramifications around the world.

While Mr Mah relayed market views that Europe could be in a recession for most of 2013, he saw the risk of an all-out disaster on that front as remote.

He noted that Europe is the largest trading partner for China and the US, so both countries could be willing to offer aid if push comes to shove.

"While there's going to be a short-term 2012 or 2013 recessionary environment in Europe, the view is Europe will not fall apart because there's just too much at stake."

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