Singaporeans not as wealthy as GDP figures suggest

Singaporeans not as wealthy as GDP figures suggest

Tuesday, 04 February, 2014, 5:57am

Jake van der Kamp

HK performs better than the Lion City on the basis of personal consumption expenditure

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… the average growth of Singapore’s gross domestic product and GDP per capita has outperformed Hong Kong’s over the last 45 years. Its GDP was only half that of Hong Kong more than 20 years ago. Today the Lion City’s GDP is slightly ahead and GDP per capita is 25 per cent higher than in Hong Kong.

Letters to the editor,
SCMP, February 2

 

OK, let’s play games with GDP numbers as these are what Singapore bureaucrats love to play and as the numbers are not quite what they seem.

We shall start by conceding the headline figures. Yes, as of the latest statistical releases, GDP at prevailing rates of exchange runs at an annual rate of about US$52,000 per person of the total population in Singapore and US$37,000 in Hong Kong, which puts Singapore about 40 per cent ahead, not just 25 per cent.

The point about GDP, however, is that it is meant to be a measure of wealth. It does not mean much to you unless it represents wealth that finds its way into your hands, that is, unless it takes the form of a component of GDP called personal consumption expenditure.

I now refer you to the first chart. In Singapore, personal consumption expenditure has steadily fallen over the years as a percentage of GDP and, at 35 per cent, is now barely half of what it is in Hong Kong. This is an oddity characteristic of a startup economy, not of a wealthy town like Singapore.

But it means that, on the basis of our money-in-your-hands measure, Hong Kong at US$24,000 per capita still outranks Singapore at US$21,000.

The second chart gives you a clue as to why the two economies are so different on this measure. Industrial investment in Singapore, always predominantly foreign, has become even more so in recent years, accounting for an average of about 80 per cent of total investment over the past 10 years. I do not have the equivalent figures for Hong Kong but, at a rough guess, the foreign-local ratio would be the reverse.

This foreign investment in Singapore has in turn produced a huge trade surplus in both goods and services. Over recent years, it has run at about 30 per cent of GDP. And most of this money goes right back out again to pay foreigners for all the confidence they have shown in Singapore by investing in it so heavily.

In short, Singapore’s high GDP numbers are mostly an anomaly created by very generous industrial concessions to foreigners. They do not really reflect domestic wealth.

In another way, however, these GDP measures of Hong Kong and Singapore do not mean much as a yardstick of the comparative efficiency of either system. The fact is both are parasite economies feeding off much larger neighbours, the mainland in Hong Kong’s case and Indonesia and Malaysia in Singapore’s. They are both wealthy because they perform services that their neighbours cannot or, for reasons of policy, will not perform.

All that their relative state of wealth really tells you is one has fewer scruples than the other about how low it is willing to go. On this measure, I definitely rate Singapore as the more successful.

 

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (www.heroinnovator.com), the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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