Singapore GDP contracts sharply, in warning for virus-hit global economy

Singapore's economy, a bellwether for trade-reliant Asian countries, has suffered its worst contraction since the 2008 global financial crisis, as the coronavirus pandemic escalates

Martin Abbugao / AFP
March 26, 2020
Singapore GDP contracts sharply, in warning for virus-hit global economy
Commercial buildings in the central business district in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Singapore’s economy suffered its biggest contraction during the first quarter of 2020 since the 2008 financial crisis as the coronavirus pandemic escalated, data showed on Thursday, serving as an ominous sign of the devastation being inflicted on the global economy.

The export-reliant financial hub – one of the world’s most open economies and which is viewed as a barometer for the health of global trade – is now heading for a deep recession this year after shrinking 2.2% on-year in January-March.

“COVID-19 is like an economic tsunami hitting Singapore’s shores,” said Selena Ling, head of research and strategy at the city-state’s OCBC Bank.

Singapore is one of the first economies to report growth data since the virus outbreak began, and the dismal figures add to signs the world is heading for a deep, painful recession with more than three billion people now under lockdown.

Governments and central banks around the world have been unleashing unprecedented measures to battle the fallout from the pandemic, with US Senate leaders agreeing on a $2 trillion deal for the hard-hit American economy. 

Markets have been in a tailspin as the pandemic accelerates, with more than 20,000 deaths reported worldwide, and all eyes are on data to be released in the US later Thursday expected to show a surge in people applying for jobless benefits. 

The Singapore economy’s 2.2% contraction was the worst quarterly, on-year figure since 2009 during the financial crisis, the last time the city-state was plunged into recession.

Compared with the previous quarter, GDP fell 10.6%, as all sectors of the economy were battered, according to advance estimates released by the trade ministry.

The city-state, a travel hub and financial centre, is typically among the first countries to be hit during global crises because of its small and open economy, with ripples then spreading to other export-reliant Asian nations.

Singapore’s latest growth data “is like the canary in the mineshaft, and warns of further economic pain to come for other Asian economies”, said OCBC Bank’s Ling.

The trade ministry further lowered its GDP forecast for this year, and said it expects the economy to shrink between 1.0 and 4.0%.

“As the global COVID-19 situation is still evolving rapidly, there remains a significant degree of uncertainty over the severity and duration of the global outbreak, and the trajectory of the global economic recovery once the outbreak has been contained,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The balance of risks, however, is tilted to the downside.”

Even before the virus outbreak, Singapore’s economy was already being hammered by the US-China trade war.

Singapore normally gives advance estimates before the quarter ends, but the figures do not cover the full period, meaning the revised reading – which will be released later – may be even worse.

Like many other places, Singapore has taken steps to contain the pandemic, including banning all foreign arrivals and closing bars and other entertainment venues. 

But it has reported a relatively low number of cases – 631 infections, with two deaths – and has held off imposing a total lockdown so far.

The government has won praise for its response to the outbreak, although the city is now seeing a surge in imported cases as Singaporeans and residents return from other hard-hit countries.

© Agence France-Presse

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