KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's central bank sees the economy firmly on the path to recovery, as it recorded improvements in domestic spending and exports even amid a spike in coronavirus cases.
First quarter gross domestic product shrank 0.5 percent from a year earlier, central bank data showed on Tuesday, better than the 2 percent contraction forecast in a Reuters poll and the 3.4 percent fall over October-December.
Bank Negara Malaysia (BNM) said the economic recovery will benefit from better global demand, increased public and private sector spending and continued policy support in the months ahead.
"We expect GDP growth to remain within the projected 6 percent to 7.5 percent this year," BNM Governor Nor Shamsiah Mohd Yunus told a virtual news conference.
Exports jumped 18.2 percent in the first quarter driven by demand for semiconductor shipments for work-from-home products and medical devices, the data showed.
Strong external demand provided a boost for the manufacturing sector, which grew 6.6 percent from a year earlier.
The government's decision to allow major economic sectors to continue operating during a limited lockdown in the first quarter was a key factor behind Malaysia's better-than-expected performance over the period, said Alex Holmes, Asia economist with Capital Economics.
"That said, the outlook has deteriorated again recently, with a rebound in cases leading to the reimposition of restrictions. As such, private consumption is likely to remain in the doldrums this quarter," Holmes said in a note.
The contraction in private consumption eased to 1.5 percent from a 3.5 percent fall the previous quarter, while government spending was up 5.9 percent. Consumption accounts for more than 70 percent of Malaysia's GDP.
The government declared a month-long nationwide lockdown on Monday amid a fresh spike in cases that health authorities have said could be related to new, more infectious coronavirus variants.
Malaysia's economy fell 5.6 percent in 2020, its worst annual performance since the Asian financial crisis, due to strict coronavirus curbs over most of the year.
BNM said its monetary policy will remain accommodative to support the recovery, but highlighted the need to manage price pressures and monitor any build-up of financial imbalances.
"We have sufficient monetary policy space to provide support...if necessary," Nor Shamsiah said.
Last week, the central bank left its policy rate at a record low of 1.75 percent.
Headline inflation is expected to average 25 percent to 4 percent this year, due to the cost-push factor of higher global oil prices, the central bank said.
The ringgit lost 3.5 percent against the dollar in the first quarter as other major and emerging market currencies broadly fell to a strengthening greenback, the central bank said.
BNM expects Malaysia's national vaccination program will help lift sentiment and bolster economic recovery, along with gradual improvements to the labor market, global demand and private and public sector spending.
"The path of recovery will be gradual and uneven across economic sectors. It may also be we will encounter speed bumps along the way. However...our assessment is for the economy to continue to recover in 2021."
Moody's Analytics expects conditions will likely remain weak in the coming quarters, citing risks from a slow vaccination rate. "As a domestic driven economy, strength in the external sector is insufficient for the economy to rebound completely from its pandemic lows."
(Reporting by Joseph Sipalan; Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff; Editing by Jacqueline Wong)