Medium-term economic recoveryA course correction beyond the band-aid nature of policy reaction is warranted.
The weaknesses of the economy, masked by pandemic-related fiscal and monetary relief measures and regulatory forbearances, are starting to unravel. Economic growth is persistently below target, the budget deficit is large and widening, public debt is increasing sharply, current account and balance of payments deficit are growing, and foreign exchange reserves are falling. The overall macroeconomic situation and growth outlook are not encouraging. A course correction beyond the band-aid nature of policy reaction is warranted to ensure the country has the available resources to finance the investment needed for medium-term economic recovery.
The economy contracted by an estimated 2.1 percent in fiscal 2020-21, the first contraction in over four decades, as demand, supply and health shocks disrupted economic activities. A sharp and considerable economic rebound is unlikely due to a setback in agricultural output, especially a shortage of chemical fertilisers, and the continued deceleration of remittances that affect households’ purchasing power. Gross domestic product (GDP) growth may hover around 5 percent as base effect (which refers to the tendency of achieving an arithmetically high rate of growth when starting from a very low base) dissipates, and remittances decelerate (which constrains aggregate demand).
The state of public finance is also not encouraging given the large and growing fiscal deficit, which refers to expenditure net lending minus total receipts. Federal receipt, which includes foreign grants, is estimated to reach 23.7 percent of GDP this fiscal, but federal expenditure is estimated to top 34.8 percent of GDP, of which recurrent expenses account for 65 percent. Despite expenditure and revenue shortfalls relative to budget targets, the deficit will likely be over 6 percent of GDP. Note that the spending pattern has not changed much with capital spending absorption capacity still low, and over 50 percent of actual capital spending bunched in the last quarter, raising concerns over the quality of assets and fiduciary risks. It was just 16 percent of the budget estimate in the first seven months of this fiscal.
Capital spending is beset with structural weaknesses (low project readiness, weak contract management, and high staff turnover), allocative inefficiency (ad hoc allocation, lack of adherence to medium-term framework, and weak project pipeline), and bureaucratic delays (political interference at operational and management levels, weak intra- and inter-ministry coordination, and maze of approvals). Meanwhile, outstanding public debt has nearly doubled in a matter of just five years, reaching 40.7 percent of GDP in 2020-21.
The financial sector is also not in good standing. An aggressive increase in credit relative to deposits, which has fallen in tandem with the deceleration of remittances, has contributed to a chronic liquidity crisis. The liquidity situation used to be periodic in the past, that is it fluctuated in line with capital spending. However, it has been persistent in recent years, implying structural weaknesses and increased vulnerabilities in the financial sector. The outsized real estate and housing bubbles and the bullish stock market are not in sync with the macroeconomic fundamentals. It could pose a significant challenge after pandemic-related regulatory forbearances and relief measures are withdrawn. The elevated inflationary pressure, primarily due to supply disruption, rise in fuel and commodity prices, and Nepali rupee depreciation, will worsen the matter.
The external sector is in bad shape. The current account deficit in the first six months of this fiscal year is already higher than the whole of the last fiscal year. This is mainly due to the widening trade deficit and deceleration of remittances, which is not expected to recover soon. Consequently, the balance of payments is negative and foreign exchange reserves are falling steadily. Now, foreign exchange reserves are sufficient to cover 6.6 months of merchandise and services imports. It was about 14 months of import cover in mid-July 2016. Given the currency peg with the Indian rupee, vulnerability to natural disasters and the need for an additional buffer for remittances and tourism-related vulnerabilities, the optimal level of reserves is estimated to be 5.5 months of prospective import of goods and services.
Economic recovery will only be strong and sustained if medium-term priority is reoriented to reduce reliance on exogenous factors to support growth, poverty and inequality reduction, revenue mobilisation, and financial and external sector stability. For instance, the pattern and intensity of monsoon rainfall largely dictate agricultural output in the absence of reliable supply of farm inputs such as year-round irrigation, timely availability of chemical fertilisers, cheaper access to finance, and connectivity to link farmgate and retail markets, and farmers and consumers. Similarly, remittance income largely dictates consumption, especially private consumption, accounting for 90 percent of total consumption and demand in services and industrial sectors. This is neither resilient nor sustainable. Policy effort should be directed towards reorienting the sources of growth to more reliable factors through investment in physical infrastructure and human capital development, private sector development, and public sector reforms. These are essential to boost aggregate output and productivity.
Creating fiscal space required to boost spending on physical infrastructure and human capital development in the public sector is essential. This can be done through expenditure management and/or higher revenue mobilisation. Reduction of recurrent spending through expenditure consolidation or by plugging in leakages (for instance, in the distribution of allowances, unnecessary recruitment, and mundane charges), enhancing budget transparency and policy direction, accounting for fiscal risks and liabilities, and decreasing fiscal burden due to loan and share investment in non-performing public enterprises are some of the areas that require urgent attention for expenditure management. Since raising taxes is not ideal given the already high rates, efforts should be redirected at enhancing revenue administration, including reducing tax expenditures (subsidies, rebates, concessions), broadening the tax base, and divesting the government’s share in public enterprises and the monetisation of their assets. These will be helpful to create the fiscal space needed to finance medium-term recovery and promote competitive and cooperative federalism.
Similarly, financial sector volatility and vulnerabilities need to be curbed by using macroprudential tools. Credit growth needs to be consistent with deposit growth, asset-liability mismatch minimised, sectoral bubbles contained, and evergreening of troubled assets discouraged. These contribute to high volatility of liquidity and hence unpredictable interest rates. The current monetary policy and financial sector architecture do not adequately stop the misallocation of resources to sectors that do not contribute much to boosting domestic economic activities and job creation.
Another priority area should be private sector development to boost competitiveness and unshackle the economy from the grip of sectoral cartels and crony capitalists that distort factor and product markets. A holistic review of policies, rules and regulations is needed to get a clear picture of why investment is not increasing as expected despite the slew of legal changes enacted in the last five years. This review should also answer why special economic zones remain vacant and what needs to be done, the possibility of providing relatively cheaper electricity to businesses to boost cost competitiveness of industrial and services sectors, and the effectiveness of Investment Board Nepal in promoting investment and public-private partnership.