IMF: KSA reform program in right direction but needs to ‘scale up’

Jihad Azour, the IMF's Mideast and Central Asia director, talks during his press conference in Dubai. (AP)
Updated 14 November 2018
0

IMF: KSA reform program in right direction but needs to ‘scale up’

  • IMF expects the Saudi economy to grow by 2.2 percent this year
  • Privatizations could have beneficial impact says analyst

DUBAI: Saudi Arabia’s reform process is heading in the right direction, but the Kingdom needs to “scale up” in certain areas of the economy, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
The IMF’s director for the Middle East and Central Asia, Jihad Azour, told journalists in Dubai that prospects for foreign direct investment — which the Kingdom has sought to attract in its strategy to get away from oil dependency — would benefit from more government measures to increase public sector involvement.
“The fiscal reform process is heading in the right direction, but improving employment prospects are subject to continued structural reform and the Vision 2030 program. Allowing women to drive is expected to have a positive effect on growth, but more progress is still needed and it needs to scale up, especially in education for local skills, and allowing small-to-medium enterprises to grow with access to finance,” he said.
On foreign direct investment (FDI), he said the oil industry had its own dynamic, but that other sectors were still dependent on public investment, and FDI would come if there were more opportunity in the private sector and in SMEs.
Azour made the comments in Dubai in the course of his twice-yearly regional economic outlook, which forecast economic growth across most of the region — with the exception of Iran — but warned that Middle East economies faced “gathering storm clouds” from global macro-economic issues and from oil price volatility.
“Global growth remains strong, but there are troubling signs ahead. Growth has become uneven; trade barriers and tensions are increasing; financial market conditions have tightened; and investor sentiment is volatile and uncertain. This changing global economic environment is bringing new challenges for the countries in the region,” he said.
In the oil-exporting Arabian Gulf countries, overall growth would resume this year following a contraction in 2017, with the IMF forecasting 2.4 percent for 2018 and 3 percent next year. “Higher oil prices and a slower pace of fiscal consolidation are boosting near-term growth prospects,” Azour said.
Saudi Arabia growth would be 2.2 percent this year and 2.4 percent next, the IMF is forecasting. For the UAE, the figures are forecast at 2.9 percent this year and 3.7 percent next, with Dubai projected at 4 percent in 2019.
“The outlook on Iran has been significantly downgraded as a result of the re-imposition of US sanctions, which are anticipated to lead to a drop in oil production and exports in the coming years,” he added. Inflation could reach 35 percent next year.
However, he said that Iranian sanctions might not be a “big negative” for neighboring countries in the Middle East because many did not rush to increase trade or financial flows after the sanctions were relaxed in 2015.
In the oil-importing economies, the IMF said that overall economies are expected to grow 4.5 percent this year and 4 percent in 2019. But there were great variations across the non-oil regions of the Middle East. Egypt was forecast to grow its economy by more than 5 percent, but many oil importers would grow at less than 3 percent.
“Rising oil prices have added to fiscal pressures in many oil-importing countries, leading to an uptick in energy subsidies,” Azour said.
The IMF executive said that there was the prospect of “reform fatigue” in many counties in the region against the backdrop of slower economic growth.
On the prospects of as global trade war between the US and China, he said that the direct impact on Middle East countries would be small, but that the indirect effects — in the form of slower global economic growth and lower oil prices — could be big.
Razan Nasser, senior economist for the Middle East at HSBC, said that FDI had been in decline in Saudi Arabia for some time and, despite successes in attracting capital to the country’s markets via the upgrade to emerging markets status, it was not an easy task to attract a long-term productive capital.
Salman Jeffrey, chief business development officer at the Dubai International Financial Center, said Saudi Arabia’s privatization plans were crucial in attracting foreign investment into the Kingdom.
“You have to pin your hopes on the privatization program coming through. Once you get one or two (privatizations) in the pipeline you will see a significant effect,” he added.


India names Modi demonetization backer as cenbank head

Visitors are seen standing next to a logo of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) at the bank's head office in Mumbai on December 5, 2018. (AFP)
Updated 12 December 2018
0

India names Modi demonetization backer as cenbank head

  • Das — a high-profile backer of Modi’s controversial 2016 move to scrap high-value currency notes, known as demonetization

MUMBAI: Ex-finance ministry official Shaktikanta Das took charge of the Reserve Bank of India on Tuesday, in a swift appointment expected to ease a dispute with the government as it pushes for looser credit rules ahead of a general election.
The announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration came just a day after Urjit Patel resigned from the post, following months of clashes between the two institutions over lending curbs and how to deploy the central bank’s surplus reserves.
Pressure on the RBI to take immediate steps to boost the economy, including a transfer of the excess reserves to the government, could well rise after Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) suffered likely election losses in three key states on Tuesday.
Das — a high-profile backer of Modi’s controversial 2016 move to scrap high-value currency notes, known as demonetization — will serve a three-year term as governor, effective immediately.
RBI watchers said they expected the 61-year-old, who retired last year as secretary of the department of economic affairs having previously served on the RBI’s board, to put relations between the Mumbai-based bank and the finance ministry in New Delhi on a stabler footing.
Investors will also look closely at his ability to hold up against outside influences after recent efforts by the Modi government to gain greater control over the central bank’s regulatory powers.
“The incoming governor will have to work hard to prove that he has his own independent mind,” said Deepak Jasani, head of retail research at Hdfc Securities.
Investors said any openly political appointee with little macro-economic experience, would not sit well with financial markets that already sold off following the BJP’s election setbacks.
But Ashish Vaidya, executive director and head of trading at DBS Bank in Mumbai, said he expected India’s debt and currency markets to react positively.
“He is a bureaucrat...We expect the RBI to take a pragmatic approach under him, be pro-growth and change its stance going ahead given that inflation has come off sharply,” he said.
Finance Minister Arun Jaitley told Reuters partner ANI that the government acknowledged the bank’s independence.
“Government will fully support the RBI and coordinate with it in areas where consultations of government are required to make sure India’s economy benefits from both government policy decisions and areas which fall within domain of the RBI,” ANI tweeted, quoting Jaitley.

SWIFT APPOINTMENT
Pronab Sen, India’s former chief statistician, said he was surprised by the speed of Das’s appointment.
“If you have a situation where a position as important as the governor of the RBI is filled within 24 hours of the resignation of the incumbent, that will raise eyebrows,” Sen told Reuters.
“People are going to say, clearly this guy had already been identified. And, the situation was created where Urjit Patel had to quit.”
Das — widely seen as a contender for the top RBI job after Raghuram Rajan’s term ended in 2016 — did not answer calls from Reuters to his mobile phone.
RBI officials who have worked with him closely said Das was likely to be more inclusive in the decision-making process than Patel.
“He has a balanced approach and is good at consensus building,” said a former deputy governor. .”..We have had our fair share of differences. But he has always been solution-centric rather than festering on those differences.”
Das worked in the finance ministry under both Modi’s government and the previous coalition led by the main opposition Congress party and was also involved in drafting the Insolvency and Bankruptcy code aimed at protecting small investors.
He came under fire for his pro-demonetization stance and was the most vocal bureaucrat at the time Modi withdrew the high-value bank notes to fight tax evasion.
Das last year criticized the methodology of global rating agencies and sought a sovereign rating upgrade for India.