OPINION January 15, 2020

Mongolia has Come a Long Way – What is Needed to Consolidate These Gains?

Sustained economic recovery requires sound economic management and improvements in the investment climate to diversify the economy.

When I last visited Mongolia in 2016, the country was on the brink of a deep economic crisis, with a large fiscal deficit and unsustainably high debt. The changes since then have been remarkable. Thanks to the government’s efforts under the Economic Recovery Program, supported by international partners, Mongolia’s economy has recovered strongly. Since 2017, economic growth has averaged 6.5 percent, the government turned a fiscal deficit of 15.3 percent of GDP in 2016 to a surplus of 2.6 percent last year and debt levels have come down, although they remain too high.

The World Bank has supported this progress with two budget support operations, aiming to close budget loopholes, improve the targeting of social spending and strengthen the investment climate to stimulate private sector job creation. Our colleagues at the International Finance Corporation and the Multilateral Investment Guarantee Agency have also contributed through engagements in the financial and mining sectors. Mongolia’s upcoming graduation from the International Development Association—the arm of the World Bank Group that provides concessional finance to low-income countries—is a sign of confidence in Mongolia’s development trajectory and reaffirms its middle-income country status.

As impressive as these gains are, there is still work to be done. In the face of an increasingly volatile and uncertain international outlook, Mongolia needs to remain vigilant to avoid policy reversals and ensure broad public support for necessary reforms. Three key risks stand out.

First, poverty remains stubbornly high. Preliminary calculations by the statistical agency suggest that urban poverty rates in particular have stagnated. While herders and rural workers have benefited from high meat prices, the robust economic performance of mining and manufacturing has not translated into sufficient income opportunities for the majority of the urban population. Creating more and better jobs remains an urgent priority.

Second, to create lasting improvements in people’s livelihoods ultimately will require improving governance and building stronger institutions. This is key to further improve confidence among private investors and to deliver better quality public services.

Lastly, weaknesses in the financial sector and the country’s external balances remain the Achilles’ heel of Mongolia’s economic stability.

What can policy makers do to address these risks and break the boom-and-bust cycle?

The government needs to maintain its course on reforms. It needs to focus on actions to create more private sector jobs and higher income opportunities while resisting pressures to go back to the practice of fiscal hand-outs. A transparent and predictable investment climate is key.

Poor and vulnerable households will need to be protected and supported. Social protection systems could be further strengthened, and social transfers better targeted. Looming fiscal liabilities in the country’s pension system need to be addressed. Bolder reforms are required.

Financial sector risks need to be urgently addressed. A successful recapitalization of the banking sector as agreed with the International Monetary Fund would provide critical financial resilience in case of negative external shocks. In the face of global uncertainty, Mongolia can ill-afford to let this issue linger. Addressing anti-money laundering issues to get Mongolia off the Grey List of the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) will ensure continued access to international bank lending.

Finally, the Bank of Mongolia can allow greater flexibility of the exchange rate and limit the volume of its interventions. It is now, when the economy is still performing relatively strongly, that it is the easiest to get savers and investors used to greater exchange rate volatility.

The international community is ready to support Mongolia in addressing these challenges, building on the gains achieved over the past three years. Since 1991, the World Bank has been a steadfast partner for Mongolia, providing over US$1billion in development financing to the country. We have invested in building infrastructure, strengthening education and health systems, and improving governance. We are proud of the progress made to date and look forward to further strengthening our partnership with Mongolia as a middle-income country with aspirations to improve living standards for all its citizens.

Mongolia has come a long way. Let’s consolidate these gains together.  

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