Thursday, February 21, 2013

Finally, A Sensible Cost Of Living Study - An Important Posting

This is a reposting from October 2009 of what is still quite a relevant piece. Enjoy.

(click on image to enlarge)

There have been many cost of living studies which somehow does not get it quite right. In many cases, it is skewed towards the expatriate lifestyle. The flamboyant CLSA has come up with a highly interesting piece on Asian living standards, with comparisons as well to US, UK and Australia. The basket of 27 items were well selected as reflective of a middle class lifestyle maintenance. It also looked into the currency effects, which will give a true purchasing power parity comparison.

The items selected:
1) Nokia 3600
2) Mobile phone monthly bill
3) Monthly broadband bill
4) Apple iPod
5) Acer laptop Aspire
6) Levis jeans
7) Louis Vuitton handbag
8) TV- 37" Sharp Aquos
9) Sony Playstation PSP
10) DVD (err...)
11)Movie ticket price
12) Coca-cola
13) Canned beer
14) Champagne
15) Marlboro Lights
16) Chicken
17) Rice
18) Eggs
19) English Newspaper
20) Economist magazine
21) KFC meal
22) Lowest price for new car
23) Toyota Camry 2.4
24) Petrol
25) Taxi flag down rate
26) Private doctor consultation
27) Private school fees per month

Taking the US living cost as the 1.00 benchmark, then one can assess the relative disparity. The table showed that India is at 0.59. Relatively speaking, one can buy the same items 41% cheaper in India and so on. Followed by Indonesia at 0.60, China at 0.69 and then Malaysia at 0.72... surprisingly on par with Taiwan at 0.72. It is more expensive in Thailand, coming in at 0.79. HK is there but at a surprisingly mild 0.93. It is more expensive/costly to be living in Australia, UK, Singapore and Japan, coming in at 1.14, 1.14, 1.15 and 1.57 respectively.

The fun part is here, dissecting the report and data. Interesting facts, if buying an iPod, best to go to the US, HK or Indonesia where is is less than $150. In the Philippines and Thailand, its double that. Same for the laptop, the Acer Aspire 10 inch screen cost$330 while its $400-500 in Asia, and a stupid $785 in the UK. The Sharp Aquos TV sells for $500 in the US, Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand but is double that in China, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Its even more than double in Australia and the Philippines.

The usual 20 Marlboro Lights cost $1-$2 in most of Asia, but is $8 in Singapore and most other Western countries. Guess what, as governments try to alleviate the health care cost side, the $1-$2 will gravitate towards $5 within 5 years.

The figures on its own are meaningless in PPP UNLESS you divide it by the annual median income. One would not mind so much living in Singapore compared to Malaysia (the PPP being 1.14 vs 0.72 if one's pay reflects that disparity - e.g. if you earn $30,000 in Malaysia a year, you should be equally well of earning $47,500 in Singapore. (1.14 /0.72 x 30,000).

Basket Shortfall: The basket of items missed out on a few critical items. If you are going to reflect on PPP vs median income, a proper Cost of Living study must include rental/mortgage costing as that should easily be the #1 cost item in most households. Another is, owning a car is one thing, maintaining, running, parking, tolls are another - people in HK and Singapore can tell that those are major considerations. The other would be the tax considerations. It is not clear but one should take the net disposable median income for a more meaningful analysis.

A better measure: I am surprised CLSA did not do this. One should just take the cost of purchase for the basket of items and divide them by the annual median income for each country. That would yield a better value add measure. It is no point if you are living in India with the lowest cost factor at 0.59 if your income is way lower than everybody. So, I have taken the median annual income and divided by the cost of living for each country. The higher the figure the better as that is basically how many multiples of the annual expense of the basket of items:
1) US 4.9x
2) Australia 2.9x
3) Japan 2.5x
4) UK 2.2x
5) Korea 2.0x
6)Taiwan 1.5x
7) Singapore 1.47x
8) HK 1.3x
9) India 0.9x
10) Malaysia 0.8x
11) China 0.3x
12) Indonesia 0.2
13) Thailand 0.15x
14) Philippines 0.11x

From the table above, despite being more expensive, one is still much better off living and working in Singapore, the UK, the US and Australia, and even Japan. Of course some caveats, the annual median income is skewed if your population is predominantly labour intensive or have a large proportion of rural folks. Hence if you are living and working in executive positions in countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, India or China, your income should be a lot higher than your country's median income, thus making them quite liveable and actually higher in the rankings.

The Malaysia Problem: The PPP can act as a basic argument on overvaluation and under valuation of the local currencies vis-a-vis the USD. For instance, the Sing dollar is technically 14% overvalued while the ringgit and renminbi are 28% undervalued. But of course there are other more pertinent factors as to why some currencies will stay undervalued substantially vs the USD for the longest time: one is reliance on cheap currency for export competitiveness; two, cheap currency to make it an attractive destination for foreign direct long term investment; three, a high subsidy mentality towards essential goods and services; four, how "open" is the central bank in allowing the free flow of the currency in circulation; five, global acceptance and unencumbered circulation of currency; six, political risk ... etc.

It can be said that countries such as Taiwan, China, Malaysia are all registering strong surpluses and have a more than adequate foreign reserves. Why then are the governments there not allowing their currencies to appreciate - my thesis is that these currencies are NOT ALLOWED to appreciate by their own governments and central banks, rather than the global markets stopping these currencies from rising - they are more concerned with making sure their industries stay competitive, preserve jobs. Singapore can allow their currency to appreciate because they are not tied to exports, they have made services as their major economy cornerstone and thus brought in expertise and high value added industries to their economy. You need to continually move up the industry value chain. Granted, Singapore is also a financial center, something Malaysia cannot easily aspire to become, but we must be aware of these gaps and at least narrow the gaps. You cannot and should not use the cheap currency as the driving force of your economy as that will put things on the backfoot and forever end up with industries that are either sunsetting, labour intensive or low value add. That will forever lock us in low pay, low value add, low income environment.

The problem will be cyclical as well when your currency is cheap and your industries are low value add and labour intensive as that will bring forth the need to maintain relatively low wages but also a lot of subsidy on essential goods in order to maintain the equilibrium. Why do you think Malaysia has over 2m legal foreign workers and probably another 2m illegal ones - its to keep the wages low. It may not be a deliberate policy but one that is brought on by our low cost environment. In the end, our subsidy on essential goods and services will come to a highly significant amount that we no longer can tolerate.

Have a masterplan to dismantle the subsidy, have a schedule. Eventually that will mean that only companies and industries that are globally competitive (without subsidies) can survive, with the exception of a few critical sectors. For example, why are petrol, gas and electricity the same for companies and the public? Why are we subsidising the companies as well? If there are certain industries that cannot compete once we remove the indirect subsidies, then we will be better off. We do not need steel plants or cement plants if we can buy them cheaper elsewhere.

We can still play this game as we are a resource rich country, but we all know that those resources are being depleted rapidly. Petronas provides a huge chunk of our country's spending budget. Imagine if Petronas can only give half of what they have been giving for the past few years - we cannot even pay for the civil service.