How the biggest US Federal Reserve rate hike in 22 years may affect Singapore households and businesses

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Singapore

The US Federal Reserve’s biggest rate hike in 22 years will likely see interest rates in Singapore rise as well, translating to higher cost of debt for households and businesses, experts told CNA.

But a robust local economy and the recent reopening of the economy may offset some of the pressure felt by local businesses, they added.

The Federal Reserve on Wednesday (May 4) announced a half percentage point increase – its biggest increase since 2000 – to tackle soaring US inflation.

With inflation at the highest rate in four decades, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said he was confident the economy was strong enough to withstand the rate increases without tipping into recession.

After a quarter-point hike in March, the Federal Open Market Committee (FOMC) pushed the benchmark interest rate above 0.75 percent as it works to cool the economy.

The hike will raise the costs of all types of borrowing, from mortgages to credit cards and car loans.

Singapore is an “interest-rate taker”, and its borrowing costs tend to track the US interest rates closely, explained Mr. Yeap Jun Rong, a market strategist at IG.

He said the 50 basis-point hike announced on Wednesday was “just the beginning”, with more hikes widely expected later this year.

IMPACT ON SINGAPORE HOUSEHOLDS, BUSINESSES

With the Federal Reserve set to hike rates a few more times this year, this will continue to put upward pressure on interest rates in Singapore in the short- and medium-term, said Mr. Christopher Wong, Southeast Asia portfolio strategist at Fidelity International.

These higher interest rates may be felt by Singapore households and businesses.

“Households may be impacted by the rising cost of the mortgage and other loans on top of the general rise in the cost of living that they are currently already facing,” he said.

The ongoing upward trajectory for US interest rates is likely to drive further upside for domestic rates in the coming months, and that may translate to a higher cost of debt for both households and businesses, added IG’s, Mr. Yeap.

But he said that while rising debt may go against household spending, potential pent-up demand driven by the economic reopening and wage adjustments may support consumption in the near term.

“For businesses, sectors which are more heavily reliant on debt may face greater challenges in protecting their margins and companies may be more cautious in taking on project investments with huge capital outlay,” said Mr. Yeap.

As interest rates rise, the cost of funding and refinancing has risen “quite significantly”, therefore business costs and mortgage rates have also increased, said OCBC Bank’s chief economist Selena Ling.

“If businesses cannot fully pass on the higher business costs and workers do not get wage adjustments that commensurate with inflation, then there may be some margin pressure and belt-tightening respectively,” Ms. Ling said, adding that this could dampen capital expenditure investments and consumer spending.

Mr. Wong said the higher cost of loans for businesses will be added to the already rising cost of operations, materials, or utilities.

“That said, the still-robust local economy and recent reopening of the economy may offset some of these pressures felt by local businesses,” he added.

A recession for Singapore “looks unlikely”, said Ms. Ling.

While the stagflation risk has risen both globally and for Singapore, how things pan out from here would depend on other geopolitical issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, China’s COVID-19 lockdowns and growth slowdown, and whether the US and China manage a “soft landing”, among other headwinds, she added.

IG’s Mr. Yeap agreed, adding that the rising rates may slow economic growth momentum but it “does not necessarily derail the recovery”.

The current environment still favors Singapore equities, given its sizeable allocation to banks that tend to do well in a rising rate environment, said Mr. Wong. Singapore can also stand to benefit from a continued reopening of neighboring Southeast Asian countries.

Mr. Eugene Leow, the interest rate strategist at DBS Bank, said he expects the Fed funds rate’s upper bound to reach 2.75 percent by the end of the year.

Ms. Ling said the Fed is likely to hike by 50 basis-point increments for the next two FOMC meetings in June and July.

“While this is the most aggressive move since 2000 … Fed hawkishness has been building into this meeting,” said Mr. Wong.

“We believe the Fed will ultimately hike less than market expectations, but for now the hawkish stance is likely to remain intact given the strong state of the labor market and inflationary dynamics.”

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