Malaysiakini Letter

Minister, please leave the banks alone

Johnny Tsen

LETTER | I refer to the recent Malaysiakini report quoting Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng directing commercial banks to grant greater loan access to first-time house buyers and SMEs.

I am a retired banker who had been in the industry for 33 years. First of all, I believe the minister meant well in wanting to inject more liquidity into the market to jump-start the economy. In fact, Lim had been prodding the banks to ease lending for some time now, and his latest directive was his strongest plea yet.

As a free-market economy, banks are profit-driven. When there's money to be made, banks would jump on the opportunity. Likewise, when a business proposition has potential risks, such as the possibility of default, banks will exercise extra prudence.

Banks also need to make profits in order to be sustainable so that they can support the economy and the well-being of over 160,000 Malaysians employed in the banking sector.

Lim's directive to banks is, therefore, an attempt to tamper with the self-correcting mechanism or the so-called "Adam Smith's invisible hand" that underpins a free market economy. Going down this road comes with inherent medium-to-long-term risks.

Take the property market. A large part of the imbalance is due to the mismatch in housing prices and affordability. The median household income has experienced a slower increase, relative to median property prices. According to Bank Negara reports, median property prices are five times higher than the median household income.

The last thing banks want is for a borrower to default on payments. Providing financing to borrowers who cannot repay the instalments reeks of financial recklessness, or worse, criminal negligence. This undermines financial stability, can bring about downgrading by rating agencies as well as erode investors' confidence in the long-run.

As of end 2018, Bank Negara data shows there's an overhang of 35,000 residential units worth RM30 billion. If we include the unsold, under-construction properties, there'd be 169,000 units valued at RM93 billion. On top of that, our household debt to GDP ratio, which stood at 83 percent last year, remains at alarming heights by global standards. These are not exactly sterling statistics on the country's economic health.

As for the SME segment, it is untrue that many businesses have problems securing loans. According to BNM statistics, the loan approval rate for last year was 94 percent, with 89 per cent of the applications approved within one month. Artificially pushing those figures any higher could subject banks to be taken advantage of by unscrupulous borrowers who do not generate any value to the economy.

While I believe Lim has good intentions in asking banks to go easy on lending, this must be tempered with prudence and sound judgement. The subprime crisis that hit the US between 2007 and 2009 should serve as a lesson to us. We can ill-afford to face this crisis with the current economic headwinds.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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