Futures & Commodities

Despite good data, headwinds await Indonesia's economic growth

An excavator loads stripped overburden onto a dump truck in the mine pit at the PT Timah operations in Sungai Liat, Bangka Island, Indonesia.
Bloomberg | Bloomberg | Getty Images

Ibris Nickel has not made a shipment from its remote mine in Indonesia's Southeast Sulawesi for six weeks and is bleeding $12 million a month, one of hundreds of small miners squeezed by a controversial mineral export ban imposed last month.

The problems at privately owned Ibris illustrate one of several headwinds facing Indonesia, Southeast Asia's biggest economy, despite a spate of surprisingly strong economic data.

(Read more: Indonesia growsat faster than expected clip)

Indonesia is not only confronting a mining crisis, but also the delayed effects of the central bank's aggressive monetary tightening, political uncertainty in an election year, a slowdown in China, and the tapering of U.S. monetary stimulus.

"We very much doubt the economy has bottomed and expect the downturn to resume form in the current quarter," said Robert Prior-Wandesforde, an economist at Credit Suisse.

Indonesia's fiscal situation is improving: Fin Min

Recent data has looked good: December's trade surplus, at $1.52 billion was double the market consensus, the largest in two years and the third straight monthly surplus, the government said last week.

Also last week, the government reported a better-than-expected 5.72 percent rise in fourth-quarter gross domestic product, from 5.62 percent in the previous three months. That broke five straight quarters of weakening growth.

This Friday should bring more positive news with an expected big improvement in Indonesia's current account.

(Read more: How these two big emerging markets escaped selloff)

The widest measure of the flow of goods, services and money in and out of Indonesia has remained in deficit for eight quarters, driven by price declines for its most lucrative commodity exports - from coal to tin and palm oil.

The shortfall reached an unexpectedly large $9.8 billion in the quarter ended June 30, the biggest since before the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis and equivalent to 4.4 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

But commodity exports surged late last year and some economists expect Friday's data to show the current-account deficit was at about 1.8 percent of GDP in the fourth quarter, down from 3.8 percent the previous quarter.

But they caution that in three weeks, the statistics bureau will release its January trade data, the first to reflect the impact of the shutdown of one of the world's biggest mining sectors due to the mineral export ban that began on January 12.

No one is expecting an economic crash since mining only represented 7 percent of the 2013 gross domestic product, but it is one of several looming factors that analysts believe will force a further slowdown in growth this year, possibly causing the current account deficit to widen again.

(Read more: Indonesia Finance Minister:No deficit issue in 2014)

"Export growth will be hit by the government's recent ban on unprocessed mineral ore, while the lagged effects of the central bank's 175 basis point of rate rises ... should mean that domestic demand growth slows further," said Prior-Wandesforde at Credit Suisse.

Why Indonesia's mineral ban is ultimately beneficial

Moderating demand

Bank Indonesia is juggling several policy priorities this year. Its five rate rises since the middle of 2013 have put a floor under the rupiah currency, capping losses against the dollar at 21 percent last year, and halted foreigners from fleeing the country's high-yielding debt.

Foreigners own more than 30 percent, or about $27 billion, of outstanding government bonds.

But when adjusted for inflation, interest rates are negative. Analysts say real yields have to be positive, both to attract foreign investment and to curtail the rapid consumption that is causing imports to balloon. Stability in the rupiah, which is traditionally prone to wild swings, is vital to the economy.

But signs of moderating demand are already starting to trickle down through the economy, with industries ranging from hotels, restaurants, airlines and construction companies adjusting their growth targets.

(Read more: Meet Indonesia's fearlessrestaurant tycoons)

"Although economic growth rebounded in Q4 2013, it is not likely to be the pivotal point as we believe the impact of monetary tightening has yet to fully bloom," said Mandiri Sekuritas economist Aldian Taloputra, who forecasts 2014 GDP growth to slip to 5.6 percent, down from 5.78 percent last year and the lowest since 2009.

Political uncertainty is also a concern with many foreign investors waiting on the sidelines until a new president is elected later this year.

One of the biggest unknown factors that could cloud Indonesia's economic outlook this year is the ongoing mining crisis.

Confusion over the new rules have caused monthly ore and concentrate shipments worth around $500 million a month to grind to a halt.

Bank Indonesia Governor Agus Martowardojo warned days before the ban took effect that the current account deficit could stay above 3 percent of GDP if the new law is not managed carefully.

"The most worrying is if the mining firms do not make any shipments at all, there will be no profits (and) GDP will also slow down," said David Sumual, an economist at PT Bank Central Asia, who estimates the ban could widen the current account deficit by as much as 0.6 percent.

(Read more: Could the minerals ban worsen Indonesia's deficit?)

The social and political costs of the ban could already be mounting.

Ibris Nickel, a unit of Singapore-based Ibris Group, is no longer able to find work for half of its 1,200 work force - 80 percent of whom are from three remote villages in Southeast Sulawesi.

"This is going to have a very big impact on these remote areas that depend on the mines and where contributions from the government are fairly limited," said Agus Suhartono, the company's chief operating officer.

"Suddenly there is no revenue coming in. How are they going to alter their lives? I really don't know that answer."