JAKARTA Indonesia saw the slowest growth in two years in the fourth quarter of 2012, with weak exports and a lack of government infrastructure spending casting a cloud over prospects for Southeast Asia's largest economy this year.
Indonesia's resilience to the global economic slowdown and its domestic consumption have made it a magnet for foreign investment in recent years, but the country's first annual trade deficit in 2012 has put pressure on the rupiah currency.
Fourth quarter growth in gross domestic product was 6.1 percent from a year ago, weaker than a median forecast for 6.2 percent in a Reuters poll. That took full-year growth to 6.2 percent, also just under the poll forecast and below 2011's pace of 6.5 percent.
"We expect that Indonesia's GDP will still be affected by slower trade performance in 2013, while the domestic economy will remain the backbone to support overall growth," said Andry Asmoro, economist at Bank Mandiri in Jakarta.
On a quarter-to-quarter basis, the economy contracted 1.45 percent in October-December, according to the statistics bureau, or more than the poll forecast of a 1.3 percent drop.
In the three preceding years, Indonesia also reported a contraction in the fourth quarter on an seasonally-unadjusted basis, as a lack of harvests during the period slowed growth in agriculture.
In each of the past three years, Indonesia has had annual growth of more than 6 percent, spurring global interest in the resource-rich country that is Southeast Asia's largest economy. Investors have been drawn by its resources, a rising middle class that's consuming more and a young population.
RECORD AUTO SALES
During 2012, Indonesia saw robust investment and consumption. Auto sales set a record of 1 million vehicles despite regulations requiring higher downpayments.
Private consumption slowed slightly from the prior three months but still grew at 5.4 percent in the fourth quarter. Growth was led by transport and communications, and hotel and restaurant sectors, while service growth quickened.
Domestic consumption, which accounts more than 50 percent of the economy, helped the country attract a record 221 trillion rupiah ($22.8 billion) in foreign direct investment last year, a 26 percent increase from 2011.
Consumer-based firms such as L'Oreal (OREP.PA), Pirelli PECI.MI, Toyota Motor Corp (7203.T) and Nissan Motor Ltd (7201.T) are among those expanding their business in Indonesia.
Gundy Cahyadi, economist at OCBC Bank in Singapore, said "for now" he is maintaining an estimate of 6.5 percent GDP growth in 2013. But he added that December trade data released last week included a disconcerting drop in capital goods imports and it would be a "worrying trend" if these keep dropping.
The rupiah, which has weakened about 0.6 percent against the dollar this year, held its ground after the GDP data. Last year, it fell around 6 percent to be emerging Asia's worst performer.
For Indonesia, economic concerns include large current account deficits and infrastructure woes.
Public-sector consumption shrank 3.3 percent in the fourth quarter from a year ago, compared to growth of 2.8 percent in the same period in 2011. The statistics bureau said this was due partly to a drop in government hiring.
Each year, the government of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono promises to improve bureaucracy and spend billions on infrastructure to overhaul the country's strained roads, ports and airports, but little change has been seen so far.
Yudhoyono, elected in 2004 and 2009 on a platform to clean up graft, has recently faced a stream of corruption scandals in his party, and political maneuvering ahead of national elections in 2014 is likely to distract policymakers. Yudhoyono's tenure will end next year, as a president can only have two five-year terms.
Economists say the government must slash costly fuel subsidies this year and re-direct the money to infrastructure, but this would be a politically risky move in a country where previous fuel hikes have led to huge protests. In 2012, Indonesia spent 211 trillion rupiah on fuel subsidies.
POLICY RATE TO RISE?
If fuel costs are raised, inflation will rise from 2012's tame 4.32 percent level, which was kept down after the government scrapped a plan to hike fuel prices early in the year.
Low inflation has let Bank Indonesia keep its benchmark rate at a record low of 5.75 percent for 11 months.
Analysts expect the central bank will to hold its policy rate at a February 12 meeting, as January inflation stayed benign at 4.57 percent, while policymakers are keen to prop up domestic growth in the face of an uncertain global trade recovery.
In 2012, Indonesia reported its first annual trade deficit of $1.63 billion, after weak demand and prices resulted in exports falling 6.6 percent.
Some economists think Bank Indonesia will need to lift interest rates in 2013 to support the currency, though any increase would likely crimp growth.
"We expect GDP growth to average a below consensus 5.6 percent in 2013, with most of the disappointment coming towards the end of the year," wrote Robert Prior-Wandesforde, economist at Credit Suisse.
"This mainly reflects our view that Bank Indonesia will be forced to tighten policy as current account funding problems and an associated inflation disappointment causes the rupiah to depreciate more abruptly," he said.
(Additional reporting by Adriana Nina Kusuma and Andjarsari Paramaditha; Editing by Richard Borsuk)