Najib Razak: Asia's worst finance minister 2016

FinanceAsia launches its second ranking of the region's finance ministers. First up is the lowest ranked minister, who has faced a year of scandal and economic woe.

For the second year running, FinanceAsia has ranked the finance ministers of the Asia-Pacific region’s 12 largest economies.

FinanceAsia considers several factors when thinking about how to compare the performance of these men over the past 12 months. The role’s responsibilities and powers vary between countries but each minister contributes to fiscal policy and the budget, accesses capital markets, regulates financial institutions, and drives reform. Investor perceptions are one way to view how good a job they are doing, particularly when times are tough.

But the hardest criterion is independence. Most finance ministers serve at the pleasure of their prime ministers, presidents, or military dictators. Their ability to get things done requires political deftness, mastery of policy, sway over the bureaucracy, and the will to fight for the public interest.

Asia developed a post-1997 reputation for quality government, a perception now being put to the test as the Chinese economy slows and dollar strengthens. 

For last year's results, click here.

The vast withdrawal of capital from emerging markets makes it all the more imperative for Asia’s finance ministers to pursue good governance, sensible structural reform, and sound finances.

Unfortunately, the overall quality of the governments we cover has mostly deteriorated, led by the lowest ranked minister in our study. Take a bow ... 

Ranked No12: Najib Razak, Malaysia

Last year was a very challenging year for the Malaysian economy. The country suffered a double whammy of political scandal that enveloped state fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) and Prime Minister Najib Razak, who also happens to be Malaysia’s finance minister. In addition, it endured a collapse in the price of its key export, oil.

1MDB first started to attract unwelcome attention in early 2015 after struggling to settle a RM2 billion ($563 million) bridge loan. The funding crunch was an embarrassment for Najib, who chairs the fund’s advisory board and expanded its remit on coming to office in 2009, to help turn Kuala Lumpur into a financial hub. 

Then The Wall Street Journal reported that nearly $700 million had been transferred to the prime minister’s personal bank account from the Saudi Arabian royal family, prompting a series of investigations. The identity of the donor and the reason for the donation was never disclosed, but it triggered demands for Najib to step down and cast doubts over about the country’s commitment to good governance. After seven months, investigators said in January that they had found no evidence of wrongdoing by Najib.

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The long-running political crisis has taken up time that could have been better spent addressing the country’s acute economic troubles and made Malaysia appear even less attractive as an investment destination.  According to Moody’s, foreign investors withdrew approximately RM24.5 billion ($5.83 billion) from the country in the third quarter of 2015. The ringgit also depreciated by 19% last year to its lowest level since 1997.

The main task for Najib will be whether he can manage down the budget deficit to 3.1% of GDP in 2016 from 3.2% in 2015 in the face of a further slowdown in Chinese economic growth and low oil prices. Najib's stated aim is to balance the books by 2020, which would be no mean feat for a country that has run a deficit since 1998. 

In response to falling oil prices and weakening exports, the prime minister presented a revised 2016 budget plan in January. The original plan had assumed an average oil price of $48 per barrel, more than 50% above current levels. The "recalibrated" budget sets a minimum price of $25.

Rating agency Moody’s, which cut the outlook on Malaysia’s A3 sovereign rating to stable from positive, has estimated that Malaysia’s fiscal deficit will likely widen to 3.4% of GDP if the oil price averages $34 per barrel. Other economists think the fiscal deficit has the potential to blow out to 4% of GDP if things stay the same.

To help lessen its reliance on oil export revenues, the government introduced a goods and services tax in April in the face of public opposition. In the short term, though, that’s hurting consumer confidence, by biting into the spending power of Malaysian households. 

The country also joined the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal in October to gain greater access to new markets. 

How the embattled Najib can improve Malaysia’s reputation remains to be seen, but before then he must be ready to figure out a plan to tame the budget deficit while external weaknesses continue to crimp government revenue.

NEXT: Trying to keep the books in order under military rule proves a challenge

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