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Economic gods may be smiling again at Mongolia

Despite debt downgrade, IMF-led bailout looks realistic as commodities bottom out

The new government in Ulaanbaatar may have to agree to IMF bailout terms sooner rather than later.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- The international financial community's confidence in the Mongolian government's capability in delivering reforms and debt services seems to be ameliorating after a long slump. That was an impression left by an investment-promotion conference held in Tokyo last week, attended by representatives of foreign lenders and investors as well as officials at the country's central bank and legislature.

The timing of the conference, hosted by Frontier Securities, a Japanese-run Ulaanbaatar-based investment bank, seemed to be as bad as it could be.

The country's sovereign debt rating had been downgraded from "B3" to "Caa1" by Moody's in mid-November, with less than four months before the mid-March maturity of a $580 million bond issued by state-run Development Bank of Mongolia. There is no hope that the bank itself will manage to secure funds to repay the bond, given its poor management. The former chief executive of the bank was arrested in October for arbitrary use of funds raised from the bond issuance.

The country's fiscal deficit has exploded to reach 20% of gross domestic product this year. The 2016 GDP is projected to show no growth at around $12 billion, if not a contraction. Mongolia's total external debt is estimated at as much as $23.5 billion, of which the government debt accounts for about $8.4 billion. Analysts say the government needs to repay $1.7 billion-$1.8 billion over the next two years.

In such a situation, to meet the March deadline for the Development Bank's $580 million bond, many believe that the government will need to agree the IMF's loan terms by early February at the latest.

Graeme Knowd, a managing director at Moody's Japan, was straightforward on that issue at the conference. "There seems to be a large gap in the growth forecasts between the Mongolian government's and the IMF's, and we think it will take some time for them to agree on a consensus somewhere in the middle."

On the other hand, Knowd also made a remark that seemed to contradict his own institution's decision to downgrade the country's debt, which led to worries about a default. "What we are seeing is not an insolvency issue but a liquidity issue. We are quite confident that repayment will be made. We are just not certain that it will be made on time in March," he said.

Following Knowd's comment, Neil Saker, IMF's resident representative in Ulaanbaatar, even sounded optimistic. "Regarding the liquidity issue, I am hopeful. We don't really see any big difference [between IMF and the Mongolian government] on the policy framework," Saker said, which many saw as implication that the IMF's talks with the Mongolian government are advancing smoothly. He revealed that the IMF is encouraging other international institutions and countries to join in the rescue initiative as well.

High coupons

Some conference participants said they expected holders of the Development Bank's $580 million would be willing to roll over the debt because the coupon rate will be in double digits. Such a rate would be attractive enough considering that fundamentals internally and externally, including resource commodity prices, mining project progress and macro-economic policies, are starting to ameliorate. "Not many countries have very high interest rates and a bright future at the same time like Mongolia," one of those participants said.

On the sidelines of the conference, an official of the country's central bank, the Bank of Mongolia, was reassuring to both the IMF and Moody's representatives, repeating the line that "the government will repay on schedule for sure."

The central banker also told the Nikkei Asian Review that the bank is determined to maintain the current level of tight monetary policy to maintain the value of the Mongolian currency, the tugrik, for at least a couple of years despite political pressures against it. Saker had told the conference a sustained tight monetary policy is a prerequisite for a new IMF loan.

In recent years, a sharp decline in resource commodity prices led to a sharp drop in government revenues from the mining sector and to a deterioration of the balance of payments. In the June 29 general election, the then-ruling Democratic Party was removed from power and an overwhelming majority voted in the Mongolian People's Party. The new parliament named Erdenebat Jargaltulga, former finance minister, as the new prime minister.

The new government started drafting a policy package involving a fiscal restructure and structural reforms immediately after the inauguration in early July and started talks with the IMF. It proceeded in late September to officially request for an IMF bailout.

Almost all the speakers pointed to a rapid rebound in the prices of coals and copper, both crucial exports for Mongolia. "The economic gods are starting to smile for Mongolia," Nicholas Edwards, a veteran American investor, said. He pointed out that, thanks to the recent price increase, Mongolian coal mines are starting to make money He also noted that copper has been the best performing metal for the past six weeks in the international market.

Of course, every participant agreed that continuous fiscal reforms and economic restructuring are absolute "musts" for the Mongolian government in order to attract a substantial amount of foreign direct investments again.

IMF's Saker warned that the government and politicians should refrain from expanding government expenditure even if the commodity market recovers substantially. "Rather than increasing expenditure when commodity prices go up, which was the story over the last 10 years, [Mongolians] should save those windfalls into sovereign wealth funds and other effective instruments," he said.

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