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Najib Plans Unpopular Steps as Ringgit, Bonds Jump Pre-Budget

Oct. 25 (Bloomberg) -- Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said he’s prepared to take unpopular steps to put the economy on a path to sustainable growth ahead of his budget speech today.

Yields on 10-year government bonds dropped to a three-month low and the ringgit climbed for a fourth week on optimism Najib will rein in spending, further cut state subsidies and introduce a goods and services tax. Fitch Ratings reduced the outlook on the Southeast Asian nation’s investment-grade rating to negative in July, citing rising debt and a lack of budgetary reform, prompting the prime minister to raise fuel prices.

“The government will do what is right for our economy,” Najib said in an e-mailed statement yesterday, without providing details. “Some measures may not be popular now, but over the medium term what is good for the economy is also good for the people.”

The yield on the 3.48 percent notes due in 2023 declined one basis point today and 13 basis points this week to 3.60 percent as of 11:29 a.m. in Kuala Lumpur, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. That’s the lowest level since July 8. The ringgit appreciated 0.4 percent to 3.1486 per dollar and climbed 0.2 percent from Oct. 18. It reached 3.1413 on Oct. 18, the strongest since June.

The FTSE Bursa Malaysia KLCI index of shares retreated 0.2 percent to 1,814.56 after closing at a record high of 1,818.93 yesterday.

“Investors have been buying Malaysian stocks because economic growth has been fairly stable and the market is expecting the budget to contain measures to further spur growth,” Ang Kok Heng, who helps manage $428 million as chief investment officer at Phillip Capital Management Sdn. in Kuala Lumpur, said in an interview yesterday. “The Malaysian market has been advancing in line with global equities.”

Fuel Prices

Najib, who is also finance minister, increased fuel prices for the first time since 2010 in September and has said he’d delay some public projects. The country has run annual budget shortfalls each year starting 1998. The nation’s proportion of debt to gross domestic product of 53 percent is the highest among Southeast Asia’s biggest economies, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

Malaysia will probably implement an initial 4 percent goods and services tax that will generate 20.5 billion ringgit ($6.5 billion), or as much as 14 percent of total tax revenue, in the first year, according to an Oct. 16 report from DBS Group Holdings Ltd. The government earlier planned to introduce the tax by 2011.

“The market is expecting Najib to announce further measures to cut the fiscal deficit,” Wong Chee Seng, a currency strategist at Ambank Group in Kuala Lumpur, said yesterday. “This is the main driver for the ringgit’s strength.”

Goods Tax

Fiscal consolidation will be good for Malaysia’s economic growth, Wee Choon Teo, a foreign-exchange analyst at Nomura Singapore Ltd., said in an interview yesterday. Any action to rationalize subsidies and implement a goods and services tax will be taken positively by the market, he said.

The government must fulfill its pledges to the people while avoiding populist measures that undermine economic stability, said Najib, whose coalition was re-elected in May.

“We cannot control what happens abroad, but we can work to strengthen the domestic resilience of our economy,” said the prime minister yesterday, pointing to the recent global financial crisis.

Debt Swaps

Malaysia’s GDP is forecast to increase 4.5 percent to 5 percent this year, after climbing 5.6 percent in 2012, according to an Aug. 21 statement from the central bank. Policy makers have kept borrowing costs at 3 percent since May 2011 to spur growth in Southeast Asia’s third-largest economy.

One-month implied volatility in the ringgit, a measure of expected moves in the exchange rate used to price options, rose six basis points, or 0.06 percentage point, to 8.31 percent today, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. The gauge dropped 25 basis points from a week ago.

“The ringgit is likely to strengthen in a knee-jerk reaction to the budget announcement,” Ho Woei Chen, Singapore-based economist at United Overseas Bank Ltd., said in an interview. “Any rise probably will not be sustainable given that focus may return to quantitative easing tapering concerns.”

The lender forecasts the ringgit will weaken to 3.28 per dollar by year-end. That compares with the median estimate for 3.24 in a Bloomberg survey of 36 analysts.

Deficit Target

Malaysia is rated A- by Fitch, the fourth-lowest investment grade. The cost to insure Malaysia’s sovereign debt for five years using credit-default swaps dropped to 110 this month from 131.5 on Sept. 30, CMA prices show. That’s down from the year’s high of 157 in August.

Moody’s Investors Service said last month the budget deficit may exceed 4 percent of GDP this year, warning the government’s fiscal targets will become “increasingly out of reach” without additional measures to contain it. The shortfall was 4.5 percent in 2012, while Najib is seeking to cut it to 3 percent by 2015 and to balance the budget by 2020.

A government report today may show consumer prices rose 2.5 percent in September from a year earlier, compared with 1.9 percent in August, according to the median forecast of 17 economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. That would be the fastest since January 2012.

To contact the reporters on this story: Barry Porter in Kuala Lumpur at bporter10@bloomberg.net; Elffie Chew in Kuala Lumpur at echew16@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: James Regan at jregan19@bloomberg.net; Stephanie Phang at sphang@bloomberg.net

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