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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Singapore in worst-ever recession after Q4 slump

SINGAPORE, Jan 21 - Singapore's economy shrank the most on record in the last quarter of 2008 and the government forecast a 5 percent contraction this year and a possible fall in consumer prices, which may prompt a one-off currency devaluation.

A government declaration that the economy was suffering its worst ever recession and official forecasts of a continued slump suggested to analysts the central bank could push down the centre of the trading band for the Singapore dollar, effectively devaluing it to help the key export sector.

The grim figures, largely a reflection of Singapore's exposure to the slump in global trade, also pave the way for an expansionary budget on Thursday as the government scrambles to shelter the economy from the worst global financial crisis in decades.

"The Singapore economy is going through its sharpest, deepest and most protracted recession," the Trade Ministry's Second Permanent Secretary Ravi Menon told journalists.

Government data showed gross domestic product shrank in the fourth quarter at a deeper-than-expected and seasonally adjusted rate of 16.9 percent, the biggest fall on record and the third consecutive quarterly contraction. Provisional figures had reported a 12.5 percent slump.

From a year earlier, gross domestic product fell 3.7 percent.

That left 2008 growth at just 1.2 percent, an abrupt turnaround from a 7.7 percent expansion in 2007 when the stock market <.FTSTI>, financial services and property prices were booming.

The government downgraded its view of the economy for the second time in just three weeks, reflecting the rapid deterioration in the global economy that has seen much of the developed world slip into recession.

Singapore now sees GDP falling between 2 percent and 5 percent this year, which would be the worst performance on record, with consumer prices flat to down 1 percent.

"The official acknowledgement of deflation risks keeps alive a strong possibility that an eventual downward band re-centring could be on the cards in April," said Kit Wei Zheng at Citigroup, adding it could also restore some cost competitiveness.

However, the central bank said on Wednesday its monetary policy stance was intact after it moved to zero appreciation for the currency in October to counter the global financial crisis.

It said it had no plans to review policy before a scheduled meeting in April.

Singapore manages monetary policy by adjusting the value of its currency in a secret trade-weighted band.

A sustained slide in prices can be damaging for an economy if it leads to a fall in demand as buyers hold back from making purchases in anticipation of yet lower prices.

However, Prakriti Sofat, an economist at HSBC, said in a note that the risk of sustained deflation in Singapore was remote since consumer prices would fall as the boost from high food and other commodity prices drops out of the annual price comparison.

The Singapore dollar fell to 1-� month low of 1.512 against the U.S. dollar after the GDP data, compared with 1.51 before the data.

It was trading at 1.5044 at 0516 GMT. The central bank said it saw no reason for a persistent weakening of the currency after it fell from a record high in July.

For key central bank and government quotes [ID:nSP422528]

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"I'm bearish for the Singapore dollar," said Irene Cheung, currency strategist at Royal Bank of Scotland in Singapore.

"I expect monetary policy to remain accommodative -- they should have recentred the band earlier, but they might still do it -- the sooner the better."

The government expects non-oil domestic exports, which make up around 70 percent of the Southeast Asian city-state's economy, to shrink 9 percent to 11 percent this year, while total trade, which includes entreport activities, may plunge 17-19 percent.

Its manufacturing industry contracted by 10.7 percent in the fourth quarter from the previous year, while services industries recorded no growth. Financial services in Southeast Asia's banking capital fell 1.8 percent.

Singapore last reported three straight quarters of economic contraction in 2001 after the dotcom bubble burst in the United States, badly hurting the island's big electronics sector.

Reflecting the downturn in Singapore, sales of watches and jewellery, popular tourist buys, have fallen. German fashion label Hugo Boss has a 50 percent sale on its suits this month and a night club is offering beer for a dollar to entice customers.

Economists expect the government to unveil fiscal stimulus measures on Thursday in its annual budget and a senior government minister said this week it might tap its multi-billion-dollar reserves for the first time to tackle the slump.

Stimulus measures could include infrastructure spending, tax rebates, training and targeted help for the poor.

"The results show the further deterioration from the global downturn and Singapore is hardly immune from it. I believe there will be emphasis for fiscal measures for the Singapore budget tomorrow, stimulus measures and bolstering for a safety net," said David Cohen of Action Economics. (Additional reporting by Kevin Lim and Saeed Azhar; Editing by Neil Fullick)

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