Asia Economy

This country may be another oil victim

Malaysia's iconic Twin Towers are seen in the background of the Malaysian oil and gas company Petronas logo at a petrol station in Kuala Lumpur
Manan Vatsyayana | AFP | Getty Images

While lower oil prices are set to give many of Asia's economies a fillip, Malaysia could face serious headwinds due to its heavy reliance on state-owned oil company Petronas.

"Malaysian bonds are all AAA rated because they're guaranteed by oil money," Jalil Rasheed, investment director at Invesco, said in an exclusive interview. "When Petronas says it's going to pay lower dividends, it questions the ability of the government to finance some these loan obligations."

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He noted that Malaysia's debt-to-gross domestic product (GDP) could be as high as 75 percent when contingent liabilities are included. Invesco has cut its exposure to Malaysia by around half to about 15 percent of its portfolio for Southeast Asia this year, Rasheed said.

Petronas to cut expenditures

State-owned Petroliam Nasional, or Petronas, said Friday it could cut 15-20 percent of its capital expenditure budget next year and that the dividends it pays to the government could fall by as much as 37 percent if oil prices remain around current levels. It reported its third-quarter net profit around 12 percent from a year earlier, despite increased output.

Petronas expects to pay around 43 billion ringgit ($12.56 billion) to the government next year, compared with the planned 2015 budget spending of around 273.9 billion ringgit (around $80 billion).

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Malaysia's market reacted quickly to the news Monday, with the yield 10-year government bond rising to 3.92 percent Monday, the highest since September, from around 3.8 percent Friday, according to Reuters data. Bond yields move inversely to prices.

On Monday, the KLCI shed around 2.3 percent, although it recovered slightly Tuesday, ending up 0.4 percent; it's down around 4 percent so far this year. The U.S. dollar was fetching around 3.43 ringgit late Tuesday, with the Malaysian currency around 2.7 percent weaker compared with 3.34 ringgit against the greenback on Thursday, before the Petronas announcement. At the end of June, when global oil prices peaked, the greenback was fetching around 3.20 ringgit.

Government finances

From around $115 a barrel, Brent crude has lost around a third of its price. Weak demand, a strong U.S. dollar and booming U.S. oil production are the three main reasons behind the fall, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA).

Credit Suisse estimates every 10 percent decline in oil prices could cut Malaysia's GDP growth by around 0.2 percentage point. If oil prices stay around $70 a barrel, the country's economic growth could come in around 4.4 percent, compared with consensus forecasts around 5.2 percent, the bank said in a note Tuesday.

It cut its forecast for the ringgit, expecting the U.S. dollar will fetch 3.49 ringgit in three months and 3.53 ringgit in 12 months, from 3.38 ringgit and 3.42 ringgit respectively. But it estimates the U.S. dollar would need to fetch more than 3.60 ringgit to offset oil's disinflationary impact on the economy.

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But it isn't entirely clear how badly the lower oil-related payments will hurt government finances after the government abolished its fuel subsidies this week.

The subsidies accounted for 9.3 percent of total budget expenditure in 2013, compared with just 2.6 for education and 0.7 percent for health, Su Sian Lim, an economist at HSBC, noted in a report before the Petronas announcement.

While praising the government's quick and decisive move, she also noted that it was politically expedient as oil prices had fallen so far that the subsidized price was actually higher than the market price.

"The significance that this fiscal reform holds for Malaysia's longer-term economic prospects cannot be overestimated," she said, citing estimates it would save the government as much as 20 billion ringgit annually.

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In addition, Malaysia also receives some benefits from the lower oil prices as it is a small net importer, Citigroup noted in a report Tuesday.

"Fiscal reforms and Malaysia's small net oil imports provide a significant cushion to the risk from lower oil prices," it said.

The ringgit has fallen sharply against the U.S. dollar on the perception it has "the most to lose" from crude's decline, but that has made Malaysia's exports more competitive against regional peers as well as cushioning exporters' profit margins when profits are repatriated, it said.

Other commodities a worry

Indeed, Citigroup is more worried about the impact of declines in other commodity prices, particularly declines in crude palm oil (CPO) prices. That's not much comfort, however, as CPO tends to be correlated with oil prices, particularly as it's often used for bio-diesel production.

"Despite a smaller share of real and nominal GDP than oil or gas prices, CPO price declines will likely have more widespread impact, as they hurt a larger proportion of low income rural consumers/smallholders that have a higher marginal propensity to consume," it said.

Some analysts are already cutting their forecasts for CPO prices next year.

Read MoreMalaysia's growth slows to 5.6% in third quarter

Bank of America Merrill Lynch lowered its price forecast by 100 ringgit a tonne to 2,300 ringgit for 2015, on lower crude price forecasts as around 15 percent of palm oil globally is consumed as biodiesel.

—By CNBC.Com's Leslie Shaffer; Follow her on Twitter @LeslieShaffer1