ULAANBAATAR, September 17 2020—A new report by the World Bank estimates that out of every dollar in mineral revenues Mongolia has generated over the past 20 years, only one cent has been saved for future generations. The report argues that to break this cycle, Mongolia should use its mineral wealth to invest in people and institutions, while gradually reducing its dependence on the sector.
This is particularly true as demand for key minerals is likely to tumble due to climate change concerns, a shift of investors’ preference toward sustainability, China’s ambitious goal to reduce coal consumption, and persistence of the COVID-19 shock, according to Mongolia’s Mines and Minds, the World Bank’s September 2020 Country Economic Memorandum for Mongolia.
Since the advent of large-scale mining in 2004, Mongolia’s economy has grown at an average rate of 7.2 percent per year, making it one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. Growth has translated to rapid decline - although at times partly reversed - in the incidence of poverty and improved quality of life. The report also notes that Mongolia enjoys relatively strong human capital, and its infrastructure capital has improved for the last few decades, though remains scarce given the size of the country and low population density. This performance has been made partly possible through a generous but inefficient social assistance system and a large public investment program supported by mineral revenues and external borrowing.
However, a number of enduring challenges have grown in the shadow of this success. Mongolia’s rapid growth has been obscured by its extreme macroeconomic volatility and frequent boom and bust cycles. Growth has almost entirely come through capital accumulation and the intensive use of natural capital rather than through sustained productivity growth. Meanwhile, the country has not only consumed almost all its mineral outputs, but has also borrowed heavily against them, bequeathing negative wealth to the next generation.
“Instead of maximizing the benefits of its mineral wealth for diversified and inclusive growth, Mongolia has increasingly become more addicted to it. At the same time, human capital has been underutilized and institutional capital has eroded.” said Andrei Mikhnev, World Bank Country Manager for Mongolia. “Such inability to capitalize on the country’s endowments has resulted in limited diversification of outputs and exports and has further amplified its vulnerability to the swings of the global commodity markets. Breaking this gridlock calls for a fundamental shift in approach that puts investing in minds on an equal footing with mines.”
The report recommends key policy actions to build the foundation of a diversified and sustainably growing economy. These include:
- Implement countercyclical fiscal and monetary policies – supported through transparent fiscal rules, an independent fiscal council, a market-driven exchange rate, and a well-functioning stabilization fund – to smooth consumption over the business cycle rather than maximize current consumption.
- Undertake bold investment climate reforms to enhance competition, secure investor rights, and create a more level playing field that enables productive firms to invest and grow.
- Move away from the mindset of diversifying products to expanding endowments, especially in terms of better utilization of Mongolia’s young and educated, especially female, labor force.
- Accelerate the implementation of fundamental governance reforms (especially on the government effectiveness and control of corruption) to reduce political interference, increase transparency, and improve regulatory quality throughout the economy.
“Fortunately, there are many encouraging signs of improved macroeconomic management in 2017-19, providing the new government an opportunity to advance its reform efforts,” said Jean-Pascal Nganou, World Bank Senior Country Economist and lead author of the report. “Some impressive fiscal outcomes were achieved not by introducing new reforms but by effectively implementing existing ones. They demonstrate that with the right political will and leadership, similar improvements are possible in other areas including monetary and exchange rate policy, the financial sector, the business environment, and the labor market. The new administration has, therefore, an opportunity to institutionalize these reforms and avoid policy regression in the future.”