Oil plunge: More pain than gain for Asia

For many Asian nations, the steady decline in oil prices these past two years has been a boon, trimming budget deficits and helping retail businesses by putting more money in the hands of consumers who had to pay less at the pump.

They may have had too much of a good thing.

With oil below US$30 a barrel, producer nations are having to second-guess long-term spending budgets made during the years when oil had soared to US$135 or higher. This means curbing public expenditure, particularly on infrastructure.

Meanwhile, oil companies are firing people, or looking for mergers to gain the efficiencies to stay afloat.

No region is more affected than the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), which includes Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain and Qatar.

Oman has told its refiners to get rid of foreign staff before they start trimming locals. In Dubai, the vice-chairman of its biggest bank and No. 1 landlord told the city's developers that it is time for them to rethink their budgets.

Mr Hesham Al Qassim, chief executive officer of the state's Wasl Asset Management and vice-chairman of Dubai's largest lender, Emirates NBD, said: "Those who are mindful of the reality around them will manage, but those who stretch themselves with billions' worth of projects won't."

What does this mean for the rest of Asia, which supplied the manpower on which the Gulf boom in construction and services was built? A looming drop in remittances portends, with vicious impact on some economies, and moderate-to-strong effects on several others.

Asian nations figure among the top 10 remittance receivers globally, led by India, which gets about US$70 billion (S$100 billion), and China, which gets about US$60 billion. The Philippines is in third place, with about US$26 billion, and further down the list are Pakistan, Bangladesh and Vietnam.

But a whole host of other nations are receivers as well, including Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Indonesia and Nepal. In Nepal, a fifth of the economy is remittance-based.

The Gulf region is among the world's principal sources of remittances, hosting some 29 million foreign workers, who collectively sent home an estimated US$100 billion in 2014.

As long as oil stayed above US$50 a barrel, the pain was bearable for the GCC states, which were making windfall gains in oil's go-go years. But those days are not coming back soon, especially with more oil coming into the market, now that Iran is back in the mainstream.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia, the most powerful of the Gulf states, could burn through its financial reserves in five years, the International Monetary Fund suggested in November last year.

The impact is uneven, no doubt, and not every Asian nation needs to feel the pain. For instance, in India - the top receiver of remittances - the maximum impact will be felt in the southern state of Kerala.

Every second family in the state, it is said, has a relative in the Gulf states, driven there by the lack of employment opportunities at home. Of the nearly seven million Indians in the Gulf, about two million are from Kerala alone.

Likewise, the Philippines, another huge supplier of service staff to the Gulf, stands to see its remittances trimmed even as the United States, the principal source of such funds for the South-east Asian nation, looks strong for the moment.

Gulf money flows, which count for a fifth of the flows into the Philippines, were rising up to 2014. But data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) showed the growth of funds flow from the Middle East slowing 7 per cent to US$3.56 billion from January to August last year, compared with the year-ago period.

At oil's current levels, the decline could be even faster. Analysts note that government services and construction are the components of Gulf economies most strongly associated with remittance flows.

A sharp decline here, or the introduction of a special tax on remittances - a proposal that is gaining currency in some Gulf states - could dent the remittances further.

"Major economies in the Gulf region have been caught off guard, and their finances are going to come under severe pressure," the Indian industry group Assocham said last week.

"Besides, fresh investment in the energy sector has come to a halt, leaving a negative spin-off impact on a host of sectors like construction, tourism, real estate, banking and finance," it added.

For now, this is not the most vexing of the headaches Asia is facing. But it is a significant one and worth watching.

Thousands of out-of-work people suddenly facing an uncertain future is not the stuff of reassurance for any government.

This article was first published on Jan 20, 2016.
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