Should people spend more and worry less? — Jamari Mohtar and Farhan Kamarulzaman

JULY 6 — As the recovery movement control order (RMCO) introduced on June 10 allowed some relaxation measures to kick in, consumer spending which is expected to get a healthy boost, is still seen by analysts as lackadaisical based on the negative projection of the retail sector in the months ahead.

The first quarter of this year’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) saw private consumption growth decelerating to 6.7 per cent from 8.1 per cent in the fourth quarter of 2019. The prognosis for the second quarter’s consumer spending also looks bleak based on analysts’ expectation.

In April the Malaysian Retail Associations reported the sales value of wholesale and retail trade has plunged to -36.6 per cent, and we would not want the figure to be negative again for the entire year.

Also, the Malaysian Institute of Economic Research (MIER) released the consumer sentiment index — from 82.3 in 4Q19 to 51.1 in 1Q20.

As we head into the third quarter, it is essential to note that higher consumer spending — defined as individuals or families purchasing goods and services — is crucially needed as consumption is one of the engines of growth for the economy, especially in time of recession which the Covid-19 pandemic is expected to generate.

Hence, this is the time the rakyat play a vital role by spending more, as the government puts money in their pockets through the Prihatin stimulus in the form of the Bantuan Sara Hidup for the  B40 segment of the population and Bantuan Prihatin Nasional (also for the B40 and some segments of the M40). 

According to economists, the average propensity to consume is the greatest among the low and lower-middle income, and it is in this regard that these two groups have a national duty to perform to help the nation by spending and consuming.

Failing to perform this duty will end up with the Malaysian economy being caught in a liquidity trap where pump-priming of the economy via putting monies into the pockets of the rakyats will not have any effect on spending.

This clearly shows the implementation of the MCO during the Covid-19 pandemic was a spectacular success that it had left an indelible mark on our behaviour as a consumer, which in turn, has affected the economy when the rakyat feel wary and less confident in going out, forcing them to spend less while stifling economic growth in the country.

Hence, Minister of Economic Affairs in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Sri Mustapa Mohamed, succinctly lamented traffic jams and crowded malls are theoretically leading to higher consumer spending, but real economic activity has yet to catch up.

This could be due to the reluctance of people to spend as they may be overshadowed by fears, lack of confidence, and also being too cautious about going out and spending their money during this difficult time.

We are so used and adept at facing the paradox of life and livelihood during the MCO that we forget that in the RMCO, another paradox is awaiting us — that of lives and spending.

Or it could be changed in the living conditions of the rakyat during MCO where the effect of job loss and loss in income continue to bedevil their mind that when the RMCO was introduced, this still has a powerful and lingering effect on their spending patterns that they prefer to save rather than spend, leading to the paradox of livelihood and saving.

Finally, it could be just a matter of the government-mandated Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), which increase people’s difficulty in spending their money on purchasing goods and services in shopping malls and elsewhere.

Realising this, the government had relaxed further the SOPs when Senior Minister for Security and Minister of Defence Datuk Sri Ismail Sabri Yaakob announced theme parks, including water parks, are permitted to operate, and the temperature screening will only be tested once at the entrance to malls and hotels, easing some economic processes and improve consumer spending.

It is hoped these relaxation measures can be customised for the tourism industry that is hard hit by the pandemic that people are even not confident to go out and enjoy domestic tour sites that will help to revive the tourism sector.

A report by JP Morgan is quite telling when it stated that the longer the period during which social distancing measures are needed, and the longer the period of reduced travel to restrict the transfer of the infection, the higher will be the impact on corporate earnings.

Besides, Rakuten Insight’s survey on Malaysia in May also revealed 88 per cent of respondents aged 35 to 44 said they would continue to buy goods online even when businesses are open and social distancing measures are lifted.

This raises the question of whether the gloom and doom report on the retail sector takes into account the increased digital retail sales transaction that may be just more than offset the drastic drop in physical retail sales because there is no breakdown between the figures on physical retail sales and digital retail sales.

In our conversation with Apple Store managers at some of KL shopping malls, we were told the sales of iPhone 11 boomed drastically during the MCO that most stores had their iPhone out of stock.

But here’s the interesting thing, all the sales went digital because of the MCO. A roaring business for iPhone and the Grab delivery guys where these store managers used for the delivery of their iPhone to their customers.

The purchase of online products should also be highlighted as a step towards digitalisation and deemed secure and straightforward.

Yet the government’s relaxation measures aimed at helping companies to operate normally would probably be futile if citizens are still hesitant to visit the physical stores because expensive malls and megamalls are reduced to a gigantic showroom.

*Jamari Mohtar and Farhan Kamarulzaman are part of the research team at EMIR Research, an independent think tank focused on strategic policy recommendations based on rigorous research.

**This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

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