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Malaysia’s prescient prime minister

SY with Dr M Sep 2018

malaysian premier tun dr mahathir mohamad with endau analytics

 

Malaysia’s seventh prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad is in the global spotlight this week as world leaders gather for the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

Read his full speech to the assembly here.

It’s a somewhat surreal turn of events for the 93-year-old, having retired 15 years ago as one of Asia’s longest serving leaders. When Malaysians voted for a new government on May 9, Dr Mahathir was ushered in as the country’s new leader.

In selling the “new Malaysia”, where corruption is not to be condoned, incompetence unacceptable and constructive criticism welcomed, Dr Mahathir is telling the world that Malaysians want a country that “will speak its mind on what is right and what is wrong, without fear or favour”.

However here at home in Malaysia, the reformation is easier said than done. This week there have been fierce criticisms – from both sides of the political divide – over the Federal Court’s judgment allowing the government to sue individuals for defamation.

But we digress…

Aviation aficionado

There have been many not so endearing words in the past four decades that people have used to disparage Dr Mahathir. Amongst them were: cunning, destructive, dictator, maverick, racist, recalcitrant, ruthless… the list goes on.

We’d like to add another (not disparaging) word to this list – aficionado.

More specifically: aviation aficionado.

Before he left for the UK and the US this week, Dr Mahathir invited us and our colleagues and other partners in the industry to his office at Putrajaya to discuss a topic that is close to his heart: the airline industry.

The prime minister is someone who has a very deep and keen interest in aviation, with a commercial and technical understanding of the business that will put some airline CEOs to shame.

We were initially given just half an hour for the meeting, but such was his attentiveness and curiosity and zest for the industry that our conversation lasted 100 minutes – over three times the allotted time!

This was not lost on one of his aides who jokingly pointed out the PM gave the head of a neighbouring country less than 30 minutes.

In a nutshell, Dr Mahathir wanted to know more about Malaysia’s aviation industry and in particular, Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB).

We discussed several wide-ranging issues related to the national flag carrier that coincidentally, had posted a MYR812 million loss in financial year 2017. In fact MAB has registered almost MYR2.4 billion losses in the three years since it was restructured (2015-17) at a cost of MYR6 billion to the government.

Not one to mince words, the premier was visibly dismayed and asked for recommendations and suggestions on how to resolve the problems.

This is, after all, a man who not only knew the differences between various types of commercial and private jet aircraft, but surprised us with his intimate knowledge of airline economics.

For example, we talked about the rising cost of fuel and borrowing. He probed about debts, queried about payments for personnel and sought suggestions on what would be the optimum network system or which aircraft would best suit MAB.

He regaled us with his airline experience from the past, how he had helped shaped the national airline into a world-class carrier that spanned all continents (he regrets Latin America and South Africa are no longer on the MAB network). He even knew, at the top of his head, how many crew changes were required on certain intercontinental flights.

Tun M E2 - h

the premier expressing his delight accepting a token of our appreciation in the form of an aircraft model

“MAS can go very wrong”

Needless to say, the prime minister pays very close attention to Malaysia’s aviation industry.

He had been a vocal critic of MAB and its stakeholder Khazanah Nasional for many years. In this 2014 post Dr Mahathir provided a scathing critique of the privatization of the flag carrier and reiterated it again during our conversation.

And in late 2014 the premier, who has an uncanny ability to visualize and anticipate future events, bluntly called Malaysians “stupid” and unable to run an airline (other than to run it to the ground), following MAB’s decision to appoint its first foreign CEO.

chedet on MAS privatisation

excerpts from dr mahathir’s blog post in 2014

During the dialogue the prime minister also encouraged us to look into ways to improve the aviation landscape in Malaysia, by exploring all avenues to upgrade the industry, including airports, maintenance, repair & overhaul (MRO), and to develop ideas that would revive the national airline.

His view of aviation is one that is pivotal to Malaysia’s economy and GDP (about 3.5%) and therefore, always in need of innovation and investments.

The PM’s parting shot: scrutinise the local airlines, don’t be afraid to speak out, keep him updated and we shall meet again in the near future.

 

 

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Massive losses at Malaysia Airlines, again

MH A350XWB

a malaysia airlines a350xwb taking off from toulouse. pic/airbus

 

Flag carrier Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB) has a special gift for Malaysians celebrating Malaysia Day on 16 September; and we’re not talking about this video it has just released.

To all Malaysians out there… drum roll please… MAB lost a staggering MYR812 million (USD196 million) for the financial year 2017 (see below), adding to the MYR439 million and MYR1.13 billion losses in 2016 and 2015, respectively. Yes, Malaysians, that’s your money gone down the drain. Again.

MAB losses 2017

The airline – which received a MYR6 billion bailout from Khazanah Nasional in 2014 – has now accumulated total losses of nearly MYR2.4 billion in the last three years since it was delisted end-2014. It filed its 2017 financial statement only in August.

In an interview with The Edge on 8 September, the airline’s CEO spun a sexy story that MAB doesn’t need more money from the government but he cleverly omitted one key point: the MYR812 million losses in 2017.

He also failed to mention that by 2022, MAB would need to come up with a MYR5 billion payment for a Sukuk bond the company issued in 2012. How will MAB pay for this?

Of course, there’s the possibility that the CEO – who is on a three-year contract – will no longer be around in 2022 and whoever replaces him then (or earlier) will face the daunting task of raising the MYR5 billion.

He said: “I am here to turn around the airline, to make it efficient and hopefully profitable.” Hopefully? Turning an airline around isn’t as simple as turning an aircraft around, Captain… And the national carrier isn’t paying you a couple of million a year to be hopeful.

In July this year MAB’s CEO even had the audacity to say the company was on track to breakeven in 2019 . How can MAB break even in 2019 when it lost MYR812 million in 2017 and with jet fuel prices, intense competition and other prevailing industry factors stacked against it?

In the same article, the CEO claimed Malaysia’s Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) “advised the company to continue with its progress”. If that was really the case, then the CEP doesn’t understand airline economics.

Are three years of consecutive losses at MAB considered “progress”?

If anything, MAB is showing signs of a company deep in distress. Poor management and persistent leakages are part of the losses. MAB’s business model is completely outdated and the carrier is out of its depth competing against low-cost airlines. In short, management is clueless.

But MAB’s penchant for profligacy knows no boundary.

In August the carrier decided it could do with a change of fortune and promptly summoned a fengshui master to alter the luck of the company, starting not surprisingly, with the finance department.

Nobody knows how much the fengshui master was paid but that it was done showed utter recklessness and a complete disregard by management in frittering taxpayers’ money. It is believed the CEO is an ardent follower of fengshui, and had engaged in a similar act during his tenure as chief of MAB subsidiary MASwings.

MAB’s misfortune is largely self-inflicted. The national carrier is on its way to self-destruction.

The airline has to pay GBP2 million (MYR11 million) in 2018 – money it can scarcely afford – to Liverpool Football Club as part of a foolish sponsorship it undertook under a previous expat CEO in 2016.

Safety and technical issues

Whilst the company’s financial situation has worsened, there are other serious issues concerning the airline’s safety and aircraft maintenance.

Aside from the already well-documented recent incident in Brisbane, Australia – where MAB’s crew allegedly failed to follow mandatory pre-departure checks – there had been other technical troubles afflicting the airline recently.

A MAB Airbus A380 was grounded for 11 days at London Heathrow airport from late July to early August due to a fuel quantity indicator issue. MAB said the problem was a faulty fuel tank probe.

But according to sources in MAB the A380 in question – 9M-MNF – had a fuel issue when it flew from KUL to LHR on 25 July. Apparently it started with an indicator problem in Tank 2, which was resolved.

But oddly fuel from Tank 2 allegedly got transferred to Tanks 1 and 3, resulting in a contamination of both tanks, forcing the aircraft to be grounded at Heathrow.

There was a chain effect following the grounding of this A380. Due to the A380 (9M-MNF) being stuck in London, MAB decided to fly another A380 (which had dropped off pilgrims to Jeddah), to London. There wasn’t a problem with that, except for the small matter that MAB forgot to inform London Heathrow that its A380 was heading there!

In August four of the six A380s in MAB’s fleet had technical problems. One A380 (9M-MNB) had to undergo a C3 check, one (9M-MNF) went for tank cleaning, another (9M-MNE) grounded to replace a probe and another (9M-MNC) suffered a pack problem and spares had to be ordered from Airbus in Hamburg.

The grounded A380s not only resulted in costly repairs (estimated over USD10 million) but more importantly, lost income.

MAB now deploys its Airbus A350-900s to LHR and while these are excellent aircraft suitable for the job, they don’t come cheap. Each A350-900 is being leased at a price of USD1.2 million a month (MYR5 million).

Fragile finances

MAB’s financial health is in a critical state, yet the airline has sent out an request for proposal (RFP) to raise money to pay for nine Boeing B737 MAX aircraft due in 2020. The airline is hoping to raise USD800 million.

But the most critical issue facing MAB must surely be the MYR5 billion bond payment due in 2022. In November 2012 MAB raised MYR5.3 billion via an Islamic bond instrument to help pay for the six A380s, one A330-300 and an A330-200F.

Failure to pay would result in a default, which would be financially disastrous for the airline.

That said, there are a couple of bright spots…

A memorandum of understanding (MoU) signed between MAB and Boeing during a visit by ex-premier Najib Razak to Washington – for eight B787 Dreamliners – has lapsed.

And MAB has hedged 78% of its jet fuel needs for 2018 at USD70 per barrel. Not bad.

Additionally MAB has reserves of MYR3.1 billion – a tidy sum but one that could dwindle fast given the weakness of the ringgit and rising fuel prices.

What’s more worrying, however, is the CEO confirming the airline has issued a request for information (RFI) for widebody, twin-aisle aircraft to add to the six A380s, six A350s and 17 A330s it already operates.

Does MAB need more widebodies when its network has shrunk to just regional routes? The furthest it flies to is Auckland in New Zealand.

And how does Khazanah via Malaysia Airlines Group (MAG) justify subsidising MASwings to the tune of MYR70 million a year when just MYR40 million would suffice to run the airline? That’s not all. Aside that generous MYR70 million, MAG pays USD175,000 a month (MYR717,500) in lease rentals for each of MASwings’ 10 ATR72-500 aircraft!

Contrary to the CEO’s remarks that MASwings and low-cost carrier Firefly “play good supporting roles in MAG”, the reverse is true: both are bleeding and dragging the parent company deeper into the abyss.

According to him, Firefly’s revenue “improved by 50% YoY in 1H18” – after reducing capacity (from 18 planes to 12) and cutting its network. This is only possible because Firefly is cannibalising on MAB’s capacity via code-sharing. Firefly lost MYR37 million in 2017.

But here’s the real deal: MAB is only a small part of the bigger picture. Khazanah has spent years – failing miserably – trying to prop up the airline to make it look good by shifting all the airline’s aircraft, including the hugely loss-making six Airbus A380s, into separate holding companies called MAB Leasing and MAB Pesawat under the MAG umbrella.

However slick anyone spins it, the fact is: MAG is perennially losing money. Lots of money.

 

 

 

Solid revenue growth but many airlines are struggling

MAS 737-800

A Malaysia Airlines B737-800 taking off from KLIA

 

Airlines globally saw strong revenue growth in July although this won’t last in the coming months, according to the latest Air Passenger Market Analysis report from the International Air Transport Association (IATA). Read the entire report here.

Total revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) for IATA’s member airlines rose 6.2% year-on-year (YoY) in July. But this was down from the 8.1% seen in June. Capacity rose 5.5% and load factors were up 0.6 percentage points for a record high of 85.2% in July.

That said, IATA revealed global passenger demand was up just 5.3% YoY compared to 8.2% in June.

For many Southeast Asia legacy airlines, there’s no reason to celebrate.

Method to MAB’s madness or just mad?

Take Malaysia Airlines Berhad (MAB) for example.

In a statement to the media on 30 August (a day before Malaysia’s 61st birthday), MAB said its revenue available seat kilometre (RASK) stayed constant at 2% YoY but that jet fuel prices had risen 37% YoY.

MAB went on to say industry-wide overcapacity resulted in demand and yield pressures as well as shortage of pilots. The airline’s CEO described its 2Q18 earnings as a “stable performance”.

In reality, MAB’s performance is anything but stable.

It has come to our attention the airline has yet to file its 2017 financial statement to the Companies Commission of Malaysia (CCM) as is required for all private limited companies.

It is unclear why MAB hasn’t done so as it had complied with the 2015 and 2016 financial statements. See here.

In 2015, the year after the old Malaysia Airlines (MAS) was completely shuttered, the new MAB posted a net loss of MYR1.13 billion (USD275 million) and the following year (2016) the losses narrowed to MYR439 million.

Recall that sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional had injected MYR6 billion into MAB as part of the MAS Recovery Plan (MRP). Some 6,000 MAS workers were retrenched and the airline’s fleet and network shrunk significantly.

We understand that MAB’s financial situation is now critical and that Khazanah Nasional had, over the past few months injected a further MYR300 million to the airline to help with its cashflow.

Its financial health is deteriorating so fast that MAB was believed to have recently brought in a fengshui master to its finance department, hoping to generate better fortune for the airline. It’s not clear how much the airline was charged for it.

Despite its perilous fiscal condition, MAB has sent out a request for proposal (RFP) to borrow money from the debt market to pay for nine Boeing B737 MAX planes with a list price of USD1 billion. And it has an MoU with Boeing for eight B787 Dreamliners.

Crazy but true.

The carrier is feeling the brunt of intense competition from low-cost carriers at home and within the region as well as strengthening jet fuel prices. It’s unclear to what extent MAB has hedged its fuel needs, at which price and for how long.

What is evidently clear is that the airline continues to struggle to make ends meet. MAB remains committed to paying GBP1 million (MYR5.3 million) this year to Liverpool Football Club as part of a sponsorship it undertook in 2016.

It’s uncertain why MAB chose to sponsor Liverpool FC: the club has not won the English league title in 28 years. MAB has had poor judgment in soccer sponsorships. Not too long ago it sponsored Queens Park Rangers, a London club owned by Tony Fernandes, the founder and owner of AirAsia (a competitor of MAB). QPR were relegated shortly after and now languish third from the bottom of the English Championship.

Meanwhile, MAB is facing intense safety scrutiny after the Australian Transport Safety Bureau (ATSB) released its findings, and Australian media suggested the failure and incompetence of the airline’s flight crew endangered the lives of its passengers during a flight from Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur on 18 July.

Read the damning full ATSB report here. MAB, however, defended its pilots, saying they were “highly experienced”.

This is the second serious incident involving a MAB aircraft in Australia in 2018. In January this year a flight from Sydney to Kuala Lumpur was forced to divert to Alice Springs when the A330 plane experienced technical difficulties.

THAI 010906

thai airways is trying, but not hard enough

Other carriers feeling the pain, too

Garuda Indonesia and Thai Airways International are also struggling.

The Indonesian flag carrier is shutting its 3x a week non-stop flights from Jakarta to London Heathrow from 28 October, a sector that has been in operation from April 2017. The airline is using a Boeing B777-300ER for these flights.

Garuda reported a USD116 million loss for the first half of 2018, compared to a USD282 million loss in 2017. It blamed stronger fuel prices and rupiah (IDR) depreciation for the losses. The airline is delaying taking delivery of new aircraft in 2018 but will take three Airbus A330neos in 2019 and five Boeing B737 MAX in 2020.

Garuda has also shelved plans for a global USD500 million bond issue.

Over in Bangkok, Thai Airways International last month reported a USD93 million loss for 2Q18, citing higher jet fuel prices, low demand and intense competition as the reasons. Load factor fell from 78.5% in the same period last year, to 75.8%.

The carrier is undergoing structural changes, although nobody (not even the management) is quite sure when it will end.

THAI is looking at new leadership, with a new CEO supposedly to be installed sometime this year. The airline, whose cashflow isn’t in the best of shape, has plans to spend USD3 billion on 23 new aircraft.

Crazy but true.

 

 

No appetite for Turkey

Sabiha Gokcen airport

istanbul sabiha gökçen international airport sale may be stalled amidst turkish turmoil

 

As the financial time bomb ticks away in Turkey, the focus is now on countries that have significant exposure to the country and its currency, the lira (TRY).

To recap, President Donald Trump is attacking Turkey. He has authorised a doubling of tariffs on steel (50%) and aluminum (20%). The result: the Turkish lira slumped 20%. In Jan. this year USD1 bought TRY3.7; on Aug. 10, USD1 bought nearly TRY7, meaning the Turkish currency has lost about 44% of its value versus the greenback this year. The TRY has experienced 12 straight days of decline.

How much is Turkey a risk to the markets?

The fear of a financial contagion is real. Many European banks are exposed to Turkey and that will have an impact on the EUR. Meanwhile, the yield on 10-year Turkish debt has soared 20%. That means Turkey will have to pay a lot more to borrow money.

Another risk is a further downgrade of the country; Standard & Poor’s has already cut Turkey’s sovereign rating to BB- (from BB) on May 1. That’s junk bond territory.

Where and how does Malaysia fit into all this Turkish turmoil?

According to this Turkish government site the foreign direct investment of Malaysia in Turkey as of 2015 was around USD2.5 billion (MYR10.2 billion).

Trade relations between Malaysia and Turkey are so good that a Malaysia-Turkey business club was formed in 2016, with the aim of fostering even closer networking between companies from both countries.

In the same year Malaysia’s exports to Turkey were worth almost MYR4 billion while imports were worth MYR1.9 billion. Malaysia’s exports were mostly palm oil and palm-based products, chemicals and chemical products, metal and rubber products.

Khazanah loves Turkey

Malaysian sovereign wealth fund Khazanah is a big believer in Turkey, having spent USD1.4 billion since 2008. Read what Khazanah had to say about its investments in Turkey here.

Khazanah exposure in Turkey

khazanah’s global investments – 5.7% in turkey

The Malaysian GLCs under Khazanah that invested in Turkey are Malaysia Airports Holding Berhad (MAHB), IHH Healthcare Berhad and Tenaga. Khazanah opened its regional Turkish office in Istanbul on Oct. 31, 2013.

MAHB owns 80% of Istanbul Sabiha Gökçen International Airport (ISGIA), Turkey’s second largest airport. IHH acquired a 75% stake in Turkey’s largest private healthcare provider Acibadem and utility company Tenaga owns 30% of Gama Enerji, Turkey’s power company.

Khazanah isn’t the only big believer in Turkey’s future. Former Malaysian premier Najib Razak in April 2014 gave a speech in Ankara in which he argued why Malaysia must forge stronger links with Turkey.

Lately, however, both MAHB and Tenaga have shown interest in flogging their stakes in Turkey.

Tenaga is reportedly exploring parting with its 30% stake in Gama Enerji, while MAHB is reportedly looking to sell its stake in ISGIA to Turkish Airlines.

Why is MAHB selling ISGIA?

MAHB was a 20% technical partner in ISGIA from 2009 to 2013 and raised its stake to 40% by end-2013. The following year it bought another 40% of the Turkish company. In total MAHB paid some EUR500 million for the 80% shareholding. A Reuters report said the price for ISGIA is USD1.2 billion.

That means MAHB’s initial EUR500 million investment has doubled within five years and that’s probably why the Khazanah-owned company feels it should cash out.

People familiar with ISGIA say the airport is profitable, with an expected 34 million passengers this year. The best part is, by concession 80% of the airport’s revenue is in euros. And it manages to achieve all this with just one 3.5km long runway.

So if ISGIA is doing very well, what’s behind MAHB’s decision to offload it? Why kill the goose that lays the golden egg? MAHB has already sold off strategic stakes in other international airports, including Delhi (10%) and Hyderabad (11%). It has exited from its 23% share in Maldives.

The word is that MAHB wants to spend proceeds from ISGIA to expand Terminal 1 (T1) at KLIA as well as upgrade Penang Airport. But what’s the urgency in expanding T1 when Terminal 2 is barely at half its capacity?

There seems more to it than meets the eye…

It appears unrealistic all that cosmetic refurbishing would cost MYR5 billion (the proceeds from ISGIA sale). Especially amidst all these talk of AirAsia wanting to build low-cost carrier terminals (LCCTs) in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Kota Kinabalu.

Could there possibly be a link between the two?

MAHB’s shares soared spectacularly this past week on talks of the ISGIA sale.

That said, MAHB’s financial standing is nothing to shout about. As of Mar. 31 it had debts of MYR5.53 billion. Revenue in 1QFY18 was MYR1.22 billion. Based on these figures alone, and with the turbulence in Turkey, it’s hard to see the current share price staying at its current level.

Sentiment in Turkey is going to get worse before it improves. President Tayyip Erdogan, in imploring Turks to prop up their currency by exchanging their gold and dollars into lira and blaming an “interest rate lobby”, has further spooked investors and the markets.

Any deals involving any Turkish assets are going to be put under extreme scrutiny. Potential investors that were looking at funding ISGIA or any other big-ticket transactions are unlikely to touch anything Turkish anytime soon.

 

 

The Az-man in the arena

Focus M PMB 1

Faces marred with sweat and dust and blood? (L-R) Tengku Azmil Zahruddin, deputy MD Khazanah; Rashdan Yusof, ex-MAS deputy CEO & ex-Khazanah director; Azman Mokhtar, ex-Khazanah MD

 

In Tan Sri Azman Mokhtar’s world there are only two types of people – those who fight “in the arena” and those who don’t (read: critics and detractors).

The erstwhile managing director of Khazanah Nasional Berhad officially left Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund (SWF) on July 31, after 14 years and two months at the helm.

Two days later Azman released a five-page long Farewell Note to his ex-colleagues and fellow Malaysians.

In it he lifted the Man in the Arena passage from a speech titled “Citizenship in a Republic” that US President Theodore Roosevelt delivered at the Sorbonne in April 1910. It is a lengthy but stimulating lecture and we encourage Malaysians, especially politicians, to read and digest it.

Azman’s missive was more or less to highlight his achievements during his 170-month tenure (mid-2004 to July 2018). He wants to ensure Malaysians are aware of what he and his team had achieved, from the financial, strategic and societal perspectives.

He reminded us that, like any other SWFs, making and losing money is par for the course, “part and parcel of investment operations”. In other words, it’s a bit like gambling: win some, lose some.

Khazanah made gains of about MYR100 billion (USD24.5 billion) in the last decade and its losses were just a fifth of that; using soccer as an analogy, Azman likened it to a 5-1 triumph.

Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad created Khazanah in 1994, and the SWF received an initial endowment of just MYR7 billion; today its assets have grown to over MYR157 billion. Kind of like Donald Trump getting a few million bucks from his dad to kick-start his business and then turned it into a multi-billion empire.

We wouldn’t want to take anything away from Azman’s and his colleagues’ achievements, so Malaysians must give credit to Khazanah where it’s due.

However, we feel it is only fair to put some things, as Azman said, into “a sense of perspective”.

We appreciate his candour and honesty in clarifying the MYR1.7 billion losses in UBS and Indian online women’s underwear company Zivame.

But one thing remains puzzling.

Azman took great pains – devoting some 300 words – to explain and justify Khazanah’s 22%, MYR80 million investment in Zivame, yet could muster barely 60 words on our flag carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS) – whose losses were MYR8.4 billion and where Khazanah is the sole shareholder.

He wrote, briefly: “There were companies where we have failed or not been able to turn it around completely thus far for various reasons including MAS/MAB in particular…”

How was this figure arrived at? Between 2011 and 2013 alone MAS lost over MYR4 billion. And we have yet to take into account the estimated USD1.2 billion (MYR5 billion) “investment” on six Airbus A380s, an aircraft whose residual values are laughable.

Focus M PMB 2

puzzling figures… almost four years on and khazanah has yet to clarify the numbers and media queries

The mystery of PMB’s losses

Since we’re on the subject of aviation, can Azman please explain the MYR2 billion losses at Penerbangan Malaysia Berhad (PMB), the leasing company Khazanah established over a decade ago – see the front-page cover and excerpts from the Focus Malaysia article (above).

That article is almost four years old (Dec. 6, 2014) and Khazanah has never bothered to respond to the questions raised.

That’s not all. What about the MYR6 billion bailout of MAS which Khazanah concocted in 2014 – shouldn’t that be included as losses, too? Or is that money recoverable?

Azman noted Khazanah’s investments in Alibaba made over MYR6 billion gains – that’s the same amount that was dumped to save our national airline, with no guarantee of success! So, plus, minus, we’re back to square one.

Aviation aside, why did Azman get all worked up on July 11 when The Star published a photo taken at a Khazanah event in San Francisco way back in September 2013?

Amokh with Najib & friends in Frisco

a smiling azman with ex-pm najib and two uninvited guests

He quickly informed the media that the two people who were with him and former PM Najib Razak in the photo – ex-Goldman Sachs banker Tim Leissner (currently being probed by the US Department of Justice) and wife Kimora Lee – were in fact uninvited guests.

Why did it take Azman five years to set the record straight when the photo had been widely circulated on the Internet in Malaysia since September 2013? Would Azman have made the clarification if there were no change in government on May 10?

Man in the Arena

Azman said he found the Man in the Arena passage inspirational and we couldn’t agree more.

What we find disappointing is that Azman used it to exhort his former colleagues to pay scant attention to Malaysians who are not “in the arena” as if (constructive) criticisms from working class folks do not matter to the gladiators in Khazanah.

He reminded them: “It is not the critic who counts, not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done them better… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood…”

But the critics do matter. Brushing aside (constructive) criticisms and ignoring questions from the media is rude and unprofessional. It comes across as haughty; belittling fellow citizens deemed unfit to question those who sit in high office (33rd floor of the Twin Towers, no less).

Criticism arises as a result of differences in thoughts, and thought processes. Malaysians are giving Khazanah their opinion although some may be, admittedly, baseless and unworthy of replying.

Whatever it is, (constructive) criticism helps our SWF to improve. Most Malaysians may never understand what Khazanah actually does or how it works or appreciate the sacrifice, toil and torture its employees have to endure, being “in the arena”.

All they know is that many employees of Khazanah, a government-owned company where all Malaysians are stakeholders, are very well paid and that its CEO gets a handsome MYR7 million salary, according to Tun Mahathir.

Have a good rest, Tan Sri. We hear Azman has invested in a swanky waterfront property in Iskandar Puteri, Johor Bahru. It makes sense given that he was one of the architects of the Iskandar Malaysia project and will have a vested interest in its long-term success (or God forbid, failure).

 

 

Whither Malaysia Airlines without Khazanah’s guidance?

MAS A350 ii

A malaysia airlines a350 at the airbus delivery centre in toulouse. pic/shukor yusof

 

Trouble can come in threes.

Or in Malaysia Airlines’ (MAS) case, trouble lurks in many places.

The most serious trouble, as far as the eye can see, is a drop in operational discipline. Here’s an incident involving a MAS Airbus A330-300, registration 9M-MTK on a flight (MH134) from Brisbane to Kuala Lumpur on July 18.

Long story short, the flight suffered an airspeed indication failure on takeoff, because the covers on the aircraft’s pitot tubes weren’t removed. These tubes measure static and kinetic air pressure in a moving aircraft to determine the indicated airspeed.

Pitot tubes are critical in an aircraft; a pitot tube failure led to an Air France A330 crash into the Atlantic Ocean in 2009.

Other news from Australia are damning, too and reports from Down Under suggest the pilots should have seen a discrepancy during the takeoff roll.

MAS indiscipline appears to be rampant in Australia. On June 30 a cabin crew of the airline was arrested in Melbourne for allegedly smuggling 3.5kg of heroin aboard a flight into the country. The drugs were worth AUD1.4 million.

Just a day earlier on June 27, a passenger on board a MAS jet lodged a complaint alleging the airline lost his cat, that was supposed to be transported with its owner on the domestic flight.

Complaints against the airline are coming fast and hard.

One passenger took to social media to highlight how MAS had, firstly been cancelling flights, and secondly, served all passengers (including those in business class) on an A380 plane, standard economy class meals on a Kuala Lumpur to Bangkok trip.

Read his rant here.

What is going on in MAS?

The CEO of the airline has been spewing this mantra of late: Malaysian Hospitality Begins With Us, but the latest incidents and cancellations of 15 domestic flights daily in July are anything but a sign of hospitality.

We understand that poor duty rostering, cancellation of annual leave, aircrew fatigue and changing policies have in some ways contributed to the decline in not just morale but more importantly, discipline.

Critically, pilots have started to leave, creating a shortage. MAS acknowledged this but put a clever spin on it by implying the situation was a healthy one because demand has been soaring. But it appears more a sign of poor planning; why did the airline schedule more flights when it knew it didn’t have sufficient flight crew?

Can MAS make money?

An International Air Transport Association (IATA) survey concluded that airlines’ profits are set to rise over the next 12 months due to firm demand and better efficiencies.

Unfortunately MAS is unlikely to ride on this. The airline is spending more than it earns each month. In FY15 the carrier posted a loss of MYR1.13 billion and managed to narrow this to MYR439 billion in FY16. But oddly, as of June this year, MAS has yet to file its 2017 financial statement with the Companies Commission of Malaysia.

Most other carriers in Southeast Asia had revealed their results for 2017 in May and June.

A big question mark now hangs over the fate of MAS following the en masse resignation of sovereign wealth fund Khazanah Nasional’s board of directors on July 26.

Khazanah was the mastermind behind the MYR6 billion, 12-Point MAS Recovery Plan (MRP) that projects the airline to be re-listed on the bourse in 2019 and be profitable by 2020.

In our view, the MRP has so far been an abject failure. Two foreign chief executives that were appointed by Khazanah at a cost thought to be almost MYR20 million, left within two years.

Obscene pay for executives

Paying its senior executives exorbitant and obscene amounts of money has been a hallmark of MAS.

According to the company’s annual reports of 2011, 2012 and 2013 MAS paid on average an annual salary of MYR2.33 million to its CEO then. During the same period (2011-2013) the airline lost MYR4 billion.

How could an airline described in 2015 by its ex-CEO as “technically bankrupt”, and representing a country now saddled with over MYR1 trillion in debts, justify paying monthly salaries that are five to eight times more than the prime minister? And let’s not forget that MAS is essentially being funded by taxpayers’ money.

To compound matters, MAS is today in the debt market to tap funds for the acquisition of nine Boeing 737 MAX planes.

When Japan Airlines (JAL) filed for bankruptcy in 2009 and subsequently restructured, it eschewed any borrowings. Instead JAL tightened its belt: employees took pay cuts, adjusted the pension policies, shrunk the airline’s fleet and unprofitable routes, and sold all non-core assets.

Speaking of non-core assets, we’d like to know what happened to the Botero artworks bought by a former MAS chairman over 10 years ago at a cost of more than MYR1.5 million – where are they now?

Structural problems remain

After three years of the MRP, the flag carrier is still struggling, shackled by incompetency and an inability to compete effectively and efficiently in a marketplace that is constantly changing and evolving.

The first and foremost issue with MAS is a question of trust. The airline has lost its reputation and the respect of many Malaysians and non-Malaysians, and rebuilding trust requires patience and a solid strategy. And what exactly is MAS’ business model – is it a premium carrier or a low-cost airline or in-between?

The second issue with MAS is internal corporate governance. Morale remains low and many employees are frustrated at the lack of opportunities (personal and professional growth). With low morale and frustration comes complacency, and in the airline industry that can be detrimental, to the company and its customers.

The third issue is, what now after the departure of those Khazanah board directors? Can the airline’s senior executives manage, left to their own devices? Who will the management and board turn to, and who will be accountable beyond the CEO?

If MAS is to succeed, it is absolutely crucial to tear apart the MRP and have a complete overhaul and review of the company, its management and shareholders. The installation of a new government in Malaysia presents an excellent opportunity to do that but has the political leadership the will to do it?

 

 

Tales from Toulouse

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is the Cute little A220 ready to conquer Asia? pic/shukor yusof

In between quaffing copious amounts of red and white grape juice from the terroirs of Toulouse and savouring the delicacies the southwest of France offered during lunch, it was easy to miss the reason we were all there this Tuesday week: to witness the launch of Airbus’ new cute little aircraft, the A220-300.

Except that the new jet isn’t actually new; two years ago in June 2016 the plane, previously known as a Bombardier CSeries jet, was delivered to Swiss. Those on board the CS100 were so impressed with the plane’s economics and comfort and wrote many positive things about it.

Airbus’ legendary salesman, the now retired John Leahy, called the CSeries a cute little airplane and vowed to – in not so many words – kill the programme. It was therefore a tad ironic that on Tuesday, July 10 the European manufacturer rolled out a CS300 and rebranded it as the A220-300, “the latest addition to the Airbus family.”

To recap, Airbus officially took control of the CSeries Aircraft Limited Partnership (CSALP) on July 1. It has a 50.01% stake with Bombardier and the Quebec province holding minority stakes.

A panel comprising the A220 programme sales chief David Dufrenois, head of customer support and engineering Rob Dewar, director of cabin marketing Christine de Gagne and head of product marketing Antonio de Costa tried very hard to convince a skeptical audience that there really was a big demand for aircraft with 110-130 seats.

Dufrenois stunned everyone in the hall (at least the rationale among us) when he announced the world needs at least 3,000 of these cute little thingies over the next two decades. And what’s harder to digest was that Airbus (and Boeing) had spent years telling us the regional jet market was too small to bother.

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CSALP head of sales david dufrenois and friends say global demand for the next 20 years will be 3000 regional jets. pic/shukor yusof

According to Ascend, regional jets – those that seat between 90 and 120 – make up just 5% of all commercial planes flying worldwide. The majority, or 66%, of planes fall under the narrowbody, single-aisle segment, typically the A320 and B737.

Never mind that, we say. There is a market for regional jets or else Airbus would not have gone into it. And if anyone can sell lots of cute little aircraft, the Toulouse-based planemaker is well positioned to do that, just as it made the A320 the workhorse of low-cost carriers worldwide.

Boeing, too, seems to be keen to gobble up Embraer and get into the regional race; the E190-E2 family has already been dubbed the “Boejet”.

But where will the market for these aircraft be?

Embraer, the market leader in regional jets, dominates the market in North America, where over 2,000 planes (or 60%) of the global fleet are concentrated. Europe is also a fairly large home for regional jets.

In April Norwegian low-cost carrier Wideroe took delivery of its first (of three) E190-E2 while KLM subsidiary Cityhopper has successfully exploited its fleet of 45 E-jets around the continent. The real challenge for both Airbus and soon Boeing, is how to convince Asian airlines to buy these planes.

Dewar thinks the A220-100 and -300 are perfect for China because, he explained, the plane is especially suited to high altitude airports. Seriously, how many airlines in China would buy an A220 because it can land well in Tibet, or Bhutan? The A319 already does a good job at it.

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middle seats on the a220 are cool, say CSALP bosses, because they are more spacious. pic/shukor yusof

The potential for regional jets is actually in Southeast Asia, where there are many archipelagic countries where an A220 or an E2 aircraft makes perfect sense. That’s because most travellers in this region hardly fly beyond two hours.

In countries such as Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand, regional aircraft have the right capacity for many routes that don’t justify an A320 or a B737. Additionally, regional aircraft can compete well (or better) when it comes to operating costs, against traditional single-aisle planes, and this is especially true of short-haul sectors.

All things being equal, both Airbus and soon Boeing, must be realistic about the size of the market for regional jets. The Teal group noted that in 2016 regional jet deliveries made up just under 7% of the world transport market value compared to 15% in 1989.

To make things more complicated, the regional jet market is over-crowded, with China’s COMAC aggressively pushing its own homegrown aircraft, Russia’s Sukhoi and Japan’s Mitsubishi also competing for a very small slice of the niche market.

 

 

 

Boeing offers Embraer a deal it can’t refuse

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Embraer’s E190-E2 at the Sao Jose dos Campos factory in Brazil. pic/shukor yusof 

 

Less than a year ago, at a briefing in Singapore, Boeing declared the market for regional jets in Southeast Asia – a region with 640 million people – was just 40. The planemaker forecasts demand for passenger aircraft in Southeast Asia to reach 4,210 units. Of these, 3,230 will be single-aisle, narrowbodies like the B737NGs.

On 5 July Boeing announced it is joining forces with Brazilian regional jet maker Embraer. It will take control of Embraer’s commercial aircraft and services operations in a deal valued at USD4.75 billion.

Boeing will take an 80% stake in the joint venture worth USD3.8 billion with Embraer holding the remaining 20% and more importantly, keep control of its defence and business operations.

Why is Boeing gobbling up Embraer if it feels there’s just a small market in a region such as Southeast Asia?

Here’s our analysis earlier this year, in January and another one in February. Admittedly we didn’t expect the deal to go through simply because there was no solid case for Embraer to do so, and we under-estimated how persuasive Boeing – flush with cash – can be when it comes to enticing the eager beaver Brazilians.

On 1 July Airbus officially became the majority partner of the C Series Aircraft Limited Partnership (CSALP). The Toulouse-based planemaker has a 50.01% stake, with Bombardier and Quebec province holding minority stakes.

There will be a grand event in Toulouse on 10 July where Airbus is expected to reveal a rebranding of the CSeries family of aircraft: the CS300 and CS100.

Airbus CEO Tom Enders was guarded when he spoke to Bombardier employees in Montreal mid-week but hinted to reporters there could be orders during the Farnborough Airshow starting 16 July.

For Embraer itself, having Boeing as a partner will certainly help boost sales, especially in Southeast Asia – even if Boeing believes there is a market for only 40 regional jets.

Globally Embraer trails Bombardier in the small but increasingly lucrative 70- to 120-seat aircraft market. Embraer’s orderbook stands at 280 but this includes up to 50 E190-E2 and E195-E2 planes for India’s Air Costa, which is no longer in operation.

Bombardier’s CSeries (CS100 and CS300) is already at 402 orders, with a potential 60 CS300s order looking likely from Moxy Airlines, a startup carrier founded by David Neeleman. Neeleman previously founded JetBlue in 1999; ironically the carrier is one of the largest operators of Embraer E190 aircraft.

Embraer’s E2 jets are slightly smaller than Bombardier’s CSeries family of aircraft but promises better fuel burn and are capable of achieving similar (or better) costs per seat of larger re-engined narrowbody aircraft such as the A320neo and B737MAX. Additionally there are no middle seats on the E2s.

Norwegian carrier Wideroe was the launch customer for the E2, taking delivery in April. Kazakhstan’s Air Astana is also a fan: it is taking its first (of five) deliveries in October and has indicated plans to add another 10.

airBaltic CS300 SG Airshow

Bombardier’s cs300 in airbaltic livery during the singapore airshow february 2018. pic/shukor yusof

That said, Bombardier’s CS100 and CS300, which seats between 100 and 150, is no less impressive, and promises a very comfortable ride with 20% increase in fuel efficiency. Unlike the E2, the CSeries is an all-new designed plane, lighter than the competition due to the use of advanced structural materials. It went into service with Swiss Air Lines in July 2016.

What this latest move signifies, in the broader picture, is the continued duopoly in the marketplace and further strengthening the influence and footprints of Airbus and Boeing.

Other regional aircraft makers, particularly the ambitious COMAC (China), Russia’s Sukhoi and Japan’s Mitsubishi Regional Jet (MRJ) will be seriously affected. The MRJ programme, mired by delays and other technical issues, and with a negative net worth of minus JPY51 billion, is perhaps the worst hit. The people behind MRJ would do well to re-assess the viability of the aircraft under the current conditions.

Apart from North America, a traditionally strong market for Embraer’s E-jets, the challenge for Boeing is to coax, cajole and convince skeptical Asians – particularly those in Southeast Asia – the benefits of the E2s. There are reasons why the E2, despite being a very strong performer, has yet to gain traction in this part of the world.

The region is ripe for regional jets, with several airlines already flying Bombardier’s products, including the Q400 and CRJ1000 that are currently in service in the Philippines and Indonesia.

Boeing will soon discover, if it hasn’t already, that the demand isn’t just for 40 regional aircraft but at least five-fold over the next 20 years.

Malaysia: HSR & other transport follies

Najib HSR Tianjin

the guy with the glasses wants to take Malaysians on a high-speed ride… for just MYR72 billion

 

This is a departure from our usual focus on the aviation sector; the topic of high-speed rail (HSR) in Malaysia has been the subject of intense debate since premier Mahathir Mohamed announced he would scrap the MYR110 billion (USD28 billion) project. He later clarified it would instead be postponed.

The man who came up with the 350km HSR idea, Najib Razak, believed the socio-economic benefits far outweigh its costs, which he said stood at just MYR72 billion at the start of 2018. Rahman Dahlan, a former minister in Najib’s cabinet, claimed it was myopic to scrap or postpone the project.

Here’s our brief analysis on the HSR.

Most HSR lines lose money. Only two in the world – the Tokyo-Osaka and Paris-Lyon lines – are profitable. Another bullet train, the Hakata-Osaka line, breaks even. A large number of HSR companies are subsidised by taxpayers and despite the support, HSR travel is costlier compared to air travel for 12 out of the 23 most popular bullet train services globally.

The greatest challenge for any HSR project is to rein in costs. Overruns occur frequently. For instance, Taiwan’s Japanese-influenced HSR was started in the 1990s. In 2007 it launched the Taipei to Kaohsiung 345km service; the HSR had a price tag of USD15 billion or USD43.5 million per kilometre. Seven years later the government warned the HSR could go bankrupt, with cumulative losses of over USD1.5 billion.

Depreciation and interest payments bogged down the company running the HSR. Cost and ridership estimates, too, had not gone according to plan. In 2008 it was anticipated some 240,000 passengers a day would use the service. At the end of 2015, less than 140,000 people a day rode the train.

Taiwan HSR Zuoying Station

Zuoying HSR station in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Pic/shukor yusof

Minister Rahman used a study by Jetro (Japan External Trade Organisation) to support his case. According to him, Jetro reckoned the HSR would bring in USD1 billion economic gain (see the report here) to Malaysia, which is an over optimistic financial forecast.

Jetro, however, had a vested interest: it was pushing Japan’s bid for Malaysia’s HSR project. Go through the report and one would find it hard to see where the actual benefits would come from, other than some charts, graphs and tables that offer little in terms of real economic gains. The 29-page paper fails to justify spending over MYR70 billion on the HSR.

The fact remains that the HSR is going to be very costly to construct. Older lines such as the Tokyo-Osaka service, built in 1964, cost barely USD5 million per kilometre. According to a World Bank paper (see here), in Europe today the cost would be USD25 million to USD39 million per kilometre while China’s HSR cost between USD17 million and USD21 million per kilometre.

That’s because labour is cheap in China. Moreover, land acquisition and resettlement costs are below 8% of project cost. The Chinese government could also standardise designs – for embankments, tracks, viaducts, electrification, signalling and communication systems – which cuts cost and duplication of efforts. That aside, it attributed the lower cost due to the large scale of the HSR network planned in China.

An estimate by the Institute of Southeast Asia Studies (ISEAS) in 2017 expected the total cost of the HSR to be up to SGD25 billion (MYR75 billion), with SGD5 billion allocated for the laying of tracks. The cost per kilometre is said to be around USD10 million and the cost of a one-way ticket around SGD65.

But nobody talks about ridership for the HSR to succeed. The popularity of rail travel, if anyone bothers to study, has been declining. Not just in Asia but globally. In many countries HSR and conventional rail service represent under 10% of all passenger-kilometres travelled by land. In Southeast Asia, flying is now the most popular mode of travel.

HSR rail agreement MY-SG map

Source: Sunday Times Graphics

Advocates of HSR list many factors to support the implementation of a bullet train service. These include:

  • Safety: HSR is undoubtedly a safe way to travel but most people today travel by air, which is the safest mode of transportation.
  • Mobility: Can HSR improve mobility? Unlikely. With the advent of low-cost carriers, most people now fly. In fact Malaysia would do well to redirect some of its resources to upgrade Subang Airport in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, now severely constrained because only turboprop planes are allowed there.
  • Going green: supporters of HSR maintain it is more environmentally friendly than flying. That is a myth. Constructing and maintaining a HSR line is energy-intensive and HSR needs lots of electricity generated at the electric plants. Rail can offer lower energy usage and fewer carbon emissions than road or air travel, but that happens only when it is at near or full capacity.
  • Economic gain: Malaysia has a different spatial structure compared to China, France or Japan. Kuala Lumpur, where most people are likely to board the HSR, has not quite the same population density as Beijing, Tokyo or Paris.

And let’s not forget that Malaysia has an entrenched car culture. In 2014 a Nielsen Global Survey of Automotive Demand revealed that Malaysia has the world’s third highest level of car ownership at 93% and the highest incidence of multiple car ownership globally (54% of households have more than one car).

How many Malaysians (and how often) would leave their cars behind and pay for a costly HSR ticket just to experience the 90-minute ride to Singapore?

Buses are another popular way to get from town to town in Malaysia. A one-way, four-hour coach ride from Johor Bahru, the southernmost city in Peninsular Malaysia, to Kuala Lumpur costs on average just MYR30+ (USD7.50). Buses remain a convenient way to move from the capital to other towns within the peninsular with many citizens unable or unwilling to pay more than MYR50 one-way for a 3-4 hour ride.

One of the reasons many HSR lines are loss-making is that its advocates often over-estimate the number of people who are willing to switch from flying or driving or riding (the bus). According to the promoters of the HSR, annual ridership is expected to reach 15.2 million in 2030 and rise to 37.8 million in 2060. Read it here.

It is unclear how the figures were arrived at. The population of Klang Valley (greater Kuala Lumpur) is just over 7 million while Singapore has a population of 5.6 million. HSR supporters assume by 2030 at least 10 million travellers annually would be persuaded to pay MYR450-500 (the price of a return ticket for the HSR to be profitable) instead of taking a low-cost flight or hopping on a bus.

How on earth did we ever get to this stage? Someone suggested that ex-premier Najib was so taken by his ride on a Chinese HSR from Beijing to Tianjin that he concluded Malaysia needed one, too. That’s fine except that, there are a few differences between China and Malaysia, namely economic growth, population size and land mass.

Simply put, the HSR project ignores history, evidence and logic. There is very little, if any, business case in spending over MYR70 billion on such an extravagant project.

In any case MyHSR Corporation was born in 2015, with seven board directors and a leadership team of nine. The Ministry of Finance owns the company. It remains unclear how much taxpayers money were spent in the past three years just to compensate these executives.

The world’s costliest international ferry terminal?

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white elephant – the Puteri harbour international ferry terminal. pic/shukor yusof

Speaking of taxpayers money, let us introduce you to the Puteri Harbour International Ferry Terminal (PHIFT) in Iskandar Puteri, Johor Bahru. Built by UEM Sunrise (a wholly owned company of Khazanah Nasional) at a cost of several hundred million ringgit, it was officially opened on 8 May 2013. The idea behind the terminal was to cater to tourists and Singaporeans alike, as well as Malaysians working in Singapore, by providing hassle-free sea travel to and from Singapore’s Harbourfront.

Najib and Singapore premier Lee Hsien Loong officially announced a ferry service between Puteri Harbour and Singapore during a leaders’ retreat in Singapore on 19 February 2013. Read the full joint statement here.

PM retreat SG 190213 - Puteri harbour ferry services

Over five years later, the said service has not started. No reason has been provided on whether it has been postponed, delayed or outright cancelled. Daily ferry services between Iskandar Puteri and Singapore would do much to alleviate the daily traffic congestion at both the Causeway and the Second Link.

A recent detailed Channelnewsasia report estimated that over 300,000 Malaysians travel across the Causeway each day. Some 145,000 vehicles cross Johor Bahru’s checkpoint daily.

Newly installed politicians in Johor blame congestion on the Second Link on the increase in number of users; some 9 million people apparently used it in the first five months of 2018.

 

Oddly enough officials have conveniently forgotten and completely disregarded the ferry terminal at Puteri Harbour, which was built using public funds to facilitate easier travel between Johor Bahru and Singapore.

With the failure of the intended service to Singapore – a sea link that could cut congestion and provide seamless access for commuters and tourists – the ferry terminal has been reduced to providing daily, very likely loss-making rides ferrying a handful of travellers to Batam and Karimun, in Indonesia’s Riau archipelago.

Today, the PHIFT – despite its strategic location and millions invested – is an under-used white elephant, quite possibly the costliest ferry terminal in the world based on a cost-benefit analysis.

 

 

A billion here, a billion there…

KLCC Tower 2

It’s not all gloomy when viewed from the top of the Petronas Twin Towers. Pic/shukor yusof

 

“A billion here, a billion there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money” – U.S. senator Everett Dirksen

Malaysians are not new to financial scams and scandals of immense proportions.

Let’s pause for a moment and consider these figures: the latest MYR42 billion losses from 1MDB, Port Klang Free Zone (PKFZ) incurred losses of MYR12.5 billion in 2008, and Bank Negara Malaysia, the central bank, blew over MYR31.5 billion between 1992 and 1994 in forex losses.

These are just some examples of plundering that have taken place over the past 30 years. Someone out there has actually put together a list on Wikipedia. Take a look here.

One of the most prolific plunderers (of taxpayers’ money) is national carrier Malaysia Airlines (MAS). The airline has turned the act of losing money into a fine art, losing MYR2.5 billion in one financial year alone, in 2011. It prompted then chief minister of Penang – now Malaysia’s new finance minister Lim Guan Eng – to describe it as “shocking”.

Lim has a point. Despite persistent losses, the airline’s parent and sole shareholder Khazanah has been unable (or unwilling?) to install professional management at the company. A German touted as a “turnaround specialist” was appointed MAS’ first expat CEO in January 2015 following a “rigorous assessment”.

Alas, Mueller left after barely a year at the helm, citing “personal reasons”. His replacement, Irishman Peter Bellew, lasted slightly longer – just over a year.

Malaysians are waiting anxiously to see what Lim, who now controls Malaysia’s purse, will do with MAS’ and Khazanah’s management.

By the way, why do photos of ousted former premier Najib Razak, the ex-second finance minister Johari Ghani and ex-secretary general of treasury MoF Irwan Serigar still adorn Khazanah’s website more than a fortnight after Malaysia ushered in a new government?

 

When it comes to burning money, few GLCs can rival MAS; it is simply sensational at squandering cash. In FY2005 it posted losses of MYR1.3 billion. In 2013, the penultimate year it was listed on the bourse, MAS incurred losses of MYR1.17 billion . The year before (2012) it lost MYR432.6 million.

Over a period of 20 years (1997-2017) it is plausible the carrier frittered away at least MYR20 billion, and we’re being conservative. Even after a bailout of MYR6 billion from Khazanah in 2014, and assurances that its recovery is on track, the airline remains in peril, with current liabilities of more than MYR1 billion according to people familiar with its finances.

Let’s open the Pandora box

On May 24, Malaysia’s new government revealed the country’s national debt had crossed MYR1 trillion. That’s 80.3% of GDP; as a rule of thumb, anything over 60% is a cause for concern as it could result in a country’s credit rating downgrade.

The previous government under Najib Razak, who was premier and finance minister, had put the official debt figure at MYR686.8 billion as of end-2017 or 51% of GDP. Here’s how finance minister Lim said he arrived at the new figures.

The latest revelation has caused astonishment and anger, not to mention shock. But while the figure of MYR1 trillion does look big – there are 12 zeros – let’s look closely at what it actually means.

Is Malaysia about to go bust? The short answer is no. In fact, Malaysia is in no danger whatsoever of going bankrupt. Is the financial system in a crisis? Again, no. As the finance minister readily said, Malaysia’s banking system remains intact and is well capitalised.

More importantly, Lim signalled Malaysia had the capability to service its debts when he said the government would pay all obligations. “We will honour those… ”, he stressed.

That’s positive news, at least to the major credit rating agencies that are assessing Malaysia’s financial standing following the installation of the new administration. Rating agencies focus mainly on a sovereign’s ability to repay debts on time, as well as how it manages its fiscal policies and the country’s cashflow.

Moody’s current view of Malaysia is A3, with a stable outlook. It has flagged the loss of revenue from the abolishment of the Goods & Services Tax (GST) as a negative, even if oil revenue improves following higher crude prices. In 2017, GST revenue was MYR44.3 billion.

Standard & Poor’s rates Malaysia A- with a stable outlook. In its most recent review in June 2017, S&P highlighted the country’s “strong external position and monetary policy flexibility”. At the same time it noted that Malaysia’s general government fiscal position carries contingent risks (including a USD3 billion letter of support for 1MDB) from its public enterprises and financial sector.

Seen in the context of Malaysia’s GDP, its debts and fiscal deficit – MYR11.2 billion in 1Q18 or 3.3% of GDP – shouldn’t make the finance minister lose sleep at night. It’s manageable. That said, we haven’t seen the end of the 1MDB saga and where it’ll take the country. Malaysia’s current woes look petty now, compared to what lies ahead. This is just the beginning…

 

 

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