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SINGAPORE: The pain from surging inflation can turn something as desirable as economic growth or its potential into a subject of controversy.

So when policymakers refer to the fact that Singapore’s economy is operating “slightly” above its potential, conclusions are drawn that the economy is probably overheating – that is, growing at an unsustainable rate, which will trigger runaway inflation.

Yes, gross domestic product (GDP) has been growing at an above-trend pace since emerging from the 2020 recession and inflation has been running at its highest levels in more than a decade in recent months.

But the reality is a bit more nuanced. Historical data suggests that neither the GDP growth rate nor inflation is anywhere near levels that would risk the economy overheating.

Selena Ling, chief economist at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp, said: “Inflation is rising but growth is slowing. That means stagflation is a more plausible risk than overheating.”

But stagflation usually involves not just persistently high inflation and low growth but also high unemployment and stagnant demand, which is not the case right now, she added.

DBS Bank senior economist Irvin Seah said: “Inflation is a problem, yes. But are we overheating? My answer is no.”

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Potential GDP is an estimate of the value of output the economy would produce with efficient utilisation of available capital and labour resources. At potential, the economy is supposed to generate steady growth and stable inflation.

Estimates of potential GDP move in tandem with changes in new investment flows and the size of the labour force, which suffered as a large number of foreign workers left amid the Covid-19-induced economic downturn.

So potential GDP could have been compressed from estimates before the pandemic as sectors such as services, travel and construction had pared their operations due to the Covid-19 curbs.

According to the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS), the output gap – the difference between actual output and potential output – closed some time in late 2021 when curbs on gatherings, dining out, travel and construction were still effective.

That proves that it was only the export-driven sector such as manufacturing and wholesale that helped push output to potential.

Seah said: “If there is overheating, it is only in some parts of the economy, like manufacturing. The service sector has only just started to grow.”

The MAS still did not take any chances and since October last year has tightened monetary policy three times, pushing the trade-weighted Singapore dollar up to absorb part of import prices – the primary source of inflation here.

With most of the pandemic restrictions relaxed in the second quarter, it should come as no surprise that “the economy is operating at slightly above potential”, as stated by Finance Minister Lawrence Wong on July 4.

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