Economy recovers, but remains structurally vulnerable – digest of the Belarusian economy
During a trip to Minsk on 5 October 2017, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro showed strong optimism on economic teamwork with Belarus, but forgot to mention the buildup of outstanding debts.
On 25 October, the National Bank of Belarus gave its overview of the current macroeconomic situation, citing the positive influence of monetary policy.
However, a day later on 26 October, experts from the Eurasian Development Bank were hesitant to confirm good long-term prospects for the Belarusian economy.
Trade policy: diversifying from Venezuela
President Maduro arrived in Belarus on 5 October as part of an official visit. The negotiations with Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenka were concerned mostly with trade and economic cooperation.
In 2016, trade turnover between Belarus and Venezuela equalled only $2m, which is a 92.6 per cent decrease in comparison with 2015 (see Figure 1 below). From January–July 2017, trade turnover reached $5.4m and mostly comprised exports of Belarusian potash fertilizers.
The economic crisis in Venezuela and a sharp decrease in world oil prices are the main reasons for the decline of Belarusian trade with Venezuela, which currently uses its foreign exchange reserves only for the purchase of food, medicines and other socially important goods.
According to Belarusian Scientific and Industrial Association Deputy Chairman Georgy Grits, Venezuela is approaching a default. He bases his view on an appraisal of studies into the country’s default risk made by world rating agencies.
Therefore, the main problem for Belarus coincides not with further development of trade with this former high-income country, but with Venezuelan debts accumulated for already shipped goods in previous years.
The total debt has reached approximately $500m. For example, Venezuelan debts to MTZ (Minsk Tractor Works), a Belarusian producer of tractors, have reached $50m, debts to MAZ (Minsk Automobile Plant), a truck manufacturer, are at $170m, and debts to various Belarusian construction companies amount to $108m.
However, on 8 October, Belarusian Deputy Prime Minister Vladimir Semashka expressed the optimistic view that further cooperation with Venezuela is feasible. He noted that Belarus plans to help increase the production of oil in Venezuela by more than three times. Current production levels sit at less than one million tonnes per year.
Economic growth: the regulator staying firm
On 25 October, the National Bank of Belarus announced the consolidation of positive changes in the economy and monetary sphere during the first nine months of this year.
Specifically, the monetary authorities have admitted that economic growth has started to recover jointly with slowing inflation. Moreover, decreasing interest rates and a continuing process of de-dollarization are the results of a unified macroeconomic policy.
Correspondingly, declining borrowing costs have led to the recovery of business activity and to increased demand for loans by commercial companies, which further strengthen Belarus’s banking system. The regulator also drew attention to the significant growth of foreign exchange reserves (see Figure 2 below) caused by the sale of foreign currency by Belarusian citizens.
Moreover, the Chairman of the Board of the National Bank, Pavel Kallaur, has admitted that within two or three years there exists a real possibility to boost foreign reserves up to $10b. At present, Belarus currently is about $3b shy of this mark.
In particular, accumulating net sales of foreign currency by Belarusian citizens, who exchange it to purchase goods and services, and growing exports (for example, from January–August exports increased by 21 percent) may contribute to the achievement of the $10b goal.
However, along with opportunities, risks also arise. The first risk coincides with trade policies that are heavily concentrated and focused on Russia. The plunge in foreign currency earnings from 2015–2016 showed what can happen to the economy when Russia’s market falters.
Secondly, the increase in demand for imports of consumer goods may apply pressure on foreign reserves, which in turn may lead to an increase in demand for foreign currency from importers.
Finally, the dynamics of foreign reserves depend not only on foreign exchange earnings, but also on debt expenses. Foreign reserves have increased in 2017, because Belarus both undertook external borrowings and refinanced old debts with Russia. Therefore, the resolution of debts—old and new—will directly affect the volume of reserves.
Monetary policy: hidden threats
However, on 26 October, experts at the Eurasian Development Bank warned that despite the significant improvement of Belarus’s macroeconomic situation, the rapid easing of monetary policy (through the decrease of interest rates) carry serious risks for the acceleration of inflation, which may occur in early 2018.
Structural problems, including excessive employment in state enterprises and the propping-up of inefficient enterprises, limits the potential for monetary policy to stabilize inflation and further to solve the issue of repaying of foreign debts.
Overall, the current positive macroeconomic situation cannot last long. Each production cycle does not bring substantial profits for the majority of Belarusian enterprises. Indeed, in many cases the cycles generate losses. The more they produce, the more they get bogged down in losses, which in turn leads to the growth of foreign debts.
An expert from BIPART (the Belarusian Institute for Public Administration Reform and Transformation), Vladimir Kovalkin, compares the general situation in the Belarusian economy to “walking on very thin ice that might crack at any moment and fall in.” In Particular, the Belarusian budget possesses insufficient funds to pay both foreign debts and the interest building upon them.
As a result, according to experts, any problem or any differences in foreign economic relations may first prevent the refinancing of foreign debts from previous years, and then eventually lead to a default.
In sum, while the Belarusian economy gradually recovers, it still suffers from long-standing structural problems. Failure to resolve these problems may not only reduce economic growth, but also lay the groundwork for a new type of crisis for Belarus—a debt crisis.
Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)
This article is a part of a joint project between Belarus Digest and Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC)