Singapore's Economy Contracts, but Residents Unfazed

Shoppers in Singapore's main shopping district Orchard Road
Bloomberg | Getty Images
Shoppers in Singapore's main shopping district Orchard Road

Singapore's economy may have slumped in the third quarter, but it's hard to tell from the crowds filling the city's main shopping district, a booming property market and extremely low levels of unemployment.

Latest growth figures on Friday showed gross domestic product (GDP) contracting 1.5 percent in the third quarter from the previous three months, hurt by a sluggish manufacturing sector.

While the city state managed to avert a technical recession after second quarter GDP was revised to show a slight expansion, the government estimates full-year growth at 1.5-2.5 percent, sharply lower than the 4.9 percent and 14.7 percent expansion seen in 2011 and 2010, respectively.

However, for majority of the residents in the tiny Southeast Asian nation, the steep drop in growth seems to have had little impact on their daily lives. When asked to describe the how the economic pull-back is impacting them, a common response across a range of income groups is, "What slowdown?"

"There's no sign of a slowdown - there are new shops, bars and restaurants opening literally every week, it's hard to keep up, " said 23-year-old Saloni Bhojwani, a business analyst at an international consulting firm in Singapore.

Wai Ho Leong, an economist at Barclays, says consumer confidence remains strong because the employment picture is robust. The economy is among the few in the world that enjoys full employment, with a jobless rate of around 2 percent.

The wealth effect from high property prices also provides a major boost to spending, he added.

Despite several rounds of government measures to cool the sector, the real estate prices have continued to rise, driven by foreign buying and local home upgraders. Prices of private homes on the island rose to a record in the July-September period, according to estimates published by the country's housing authorities earlier this month.

Even as economic fundamentals in the city state are weakening, businesses, especially in the services sector, continue to sprout.

Venezuelan restaurateur Alejandro Luna, for example, is gearing up to launch a Latin restaurant in the city's central business district this November. He is undeterred by the Singapore's slowing growth citing the consumers' strong spending power.

"We're not anxious about the timing of the opening. Going out on the streets, restaurants are packed, it's difficult to even make a reservation at new places, " Luna said. "We've already got enquiries about bookings for holiday parties from offices around the area."

Anecdotal evidence from retailers also suggests spending is holding up. "Our sales are doing well, in fact they are quite a bit higher than the same time last year, " a sales associate at luxury retailer Prada, said.

Retail sales rose 0.4 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis in July from the previous month.

Manufacturing a Soft Spot

Even in the manufacturing space, the country's worst-hit sector, there is little sign of panic.

Friday's GDP data showed Singapore's manufacturing sector—which includes pharmaceuticals, oil and gas equipment and electronics and accounts for one-quarter of GDP—contracted 3.9 percent in the third quarter from the previous three months, as external demand weakened.

The sector is especially vulnerable to fluctuations in the U.S. and European economies; exports to the euro zone, for example, make up over 12 percent of GDP.

For now there's been little evidence of drastic cost cuts. Factory workers at Panasonic's plant in Singapore told CNBC there haven't been layoffs at their factory in the recent months, instead, the company has limited the number of overtime hours an employee can work.

"There is a little bit less output because of the slowdown in the U.S., " said a 47-year-old factory worker, who manufactures components for mobile phones. He requested to remain anonymous.

"There's less overtime, but we are still working 5 days a week, " another worker, who also requested anonymity, told CNBC.