By Masayuki Kitano
SINGAPORE (Reuters) - Singapore's economic growth slowed in the fourth quarter as factories lost steam, but a services sector recovery has bolstered expectations the central bank could tighten monetary policy as early as April, sending the local currency higher.
The economy expanded 3.1 percent in the October-December quarter from a year earlier, advance estimates from the Ministry of Trade and Industry showed on Tuesday, slowing from the third quarter's upwardly revised 5.4 percent growth, which was the fastest on-year growth in nearly four years.
On an annualized and seasonally-adjusted basis, gross domestic product expanded 2.8 percent, well-down from revised growth of 9.4 percent in the third quarter.
While the quarter-on-quarter growth figure was slightly below the median expectation in a Reuters poll of economists, growth seen in the services sector has fanned market expectations the Monetary Authority of Singapore could tighten policy in 2018.
"The details looked a bit better, such as the upward revisions to Q3," said Vishnu Varathan, head of economics and strategy for Mizuho Bank in Singapore.
"There is a sense of a little bit of a broadening recovery and I think markets... are growing more confident of April rather than October MAS move," Varathan said.
The firmer views on central bank policy helped send the Singapore dollar <SGD=D3> up 0.5 percent to S$1.3307 per U.S. dollar at one point, its strongest level in 2-1/2 years. The local currency, on track for its biggest one-day gain since Nov. 22, was also supported by a broadly weaker greenback.
For the whole of 2017, the city-state's trade-reliant economy grew 3.5 percent, at the top end of the government's official 3.0 to 3.5 percent forecast range. This was the fastest pace in three years and helped by improved global demand, particularly for electronics products and components such as semiconductors.
The government has previously said it expects growth of 1.5 to 3.5 percent in 2018.
At its last semi-annual policy meeting in October, the central bank held monetary policy steady but changed a reference to maintaining current settings for an extended period, a shift that analysts said created room for a tightening this year.
The latest growth data has done little to dissuade such expectations for monetary tightening.
"We still hold the view that the MAS is likely to tighten this year, but maybe October rather than April," said Selena Ling, head of treasury research and strategy for OCBC Bank.
The MAS manages monetary policy through exchange rate settings, rather than interest rates, letting the Singapore dollar rise or fall against the currencies of its main trading partners within in an undisclosed policy band.
One focus is on whether the government will announce an increase to the 7-percent goods and services tax (GST) rate when it unveils its 2018 budget in February, Ling said, adding that the MAS may want to take some time to see how the market digests the budget and how inflation data pans out.
The pick-up in economic growth has helped bolster activity in the city-state's property market, with private housing prices rising 1 percent in 2017 for the first annual gain since 2013, according to separate data released on Tuesday.
The services sector grew 7.5 percent on an annualized basis in the fourth quarter, its fastest growth since the fourth quarter of 2016.
The ministry said growth in this segment was driven by expansion in the financial, wholesale and retail sectors.
Weighing on growth, however, was the manufacturing sector, which lost some shine, contracting 11.5 percent on an annualized basis after jumping 38.0 percent in the third quarter.
Singapore's strong full-year figures have been helped in large part by strong global demand for electronics products and components produced on the island, a trend that helped other Asian economies in late 2017.
(Reporting by Masayuki Kitano; Editing by Sam Holmes and Richard Borsuk)