The International Monetary Fund recently released the report on Montenegro's overall economic performance, emphasising basic fiscal and macroeconomic policy perspectives. In English the report is availible here while it can also be reached in Montenegrin (here).
Two years after gaining a formal independence from Serbia, Montenegro's economy operated at a full capacity, having seen robust output growth rates estimated to exceed 7 percent by the end of 2007. The growth, mainly driven by a significant amount of foreign direct investment, seems to remain robust in the medium-run despite particular tensions referring to the signs of overheating. Nearly 85 percent of capital value of companies was privatized. Banking sector, telecommunications, oil distribution and import services are 100 percent privately owned. Foreign direct investment is reaching record highs. In 2006, according to Montenegro's central bank, foreign direct investment reached $680 million USD, six times higher than in 2004. In the first half of 2007, foreign direct investment increased by 78 percent, while from January to July 2007, the amount of FDI was $650 million. Thus, Montenegro has one of the highest FDI per capita, $ 1,100 USD, one of the highest shares in Europe.
Montenegro's business environment is weak by international ranking, despite of significant improvement in since the independence year. Montenegro ranks 81st in the world according to the ease of doing business. The failure of public administration to provide the operating business environment at sound quality, long licensing procedures, severe difficulties faced when registering a property, bureaucratized trading environment, and a high level of difficulty in enforcing commercial contracts, reflect the disadvantages of Montenegro's business environment (link).
Affected by international financial turbulence, Montenegro's asset prices soared in the last two years, leading to a remarkably rapid growth of credit which further fueled the investment into real estate industry. However, rapid credit growth posed signs of an overheating economy which has been a particular backlash of Montenegro's domestic economic environment.
On the other side, Montenegro's growth is not drifted by inflationary pressures. Subject to concentrated market structure, retail inflation peaked slightly ahead of central bank's expectations, particularly in the electricity sector which has not yet been demonopolized by the infusion of competitive mechanisms and price liberalization. Electricity shortages occured despite tariff increases.
The economic reforms, such as the privatization of state-owned assets and the openness to foreign trade and investment, contributed to stable macroeconomic position. The budget remained anchored in surplus. Public debt does not currently evince any sign of quick consumption-inflated indebtedness. Total public debt peaked at 38 percent of the GDP while loans denominated into foreign currency presented 27 percent of the GDP by the end of 2006. As a matter of fact, overall public debt was reduced from 88,3 percent of the GDP where it stood in 2002 (link). Foreign indebtedness is expected to decrease in the years to come due to large amount of inflows from the investors' buy-outs of state-owned assets and enterprises.
As a transition economy, Montenegro has experienced typical short-term and medium-term problems due to the rapid convergence of GDP and robust economic growth as well. Transition process, by itself, poses a lot of risk and challenges, ensuring economy's vitality and growth sustainability. First, in Montenegro, real estate and equity prices skyrocketed due to signficant demand-induced pressures and country's valuable tourism potential, which folded residential and coastal property prices upward.
Second, according to IMF, credit growth accelerated at 170 percent by August 2007, pushing the the household indebtedness to record highs. Credit growth has surpasses the amount of inflows from foreign direct investment which Montenegro has received in this year. However, deteriorating current account deficit is not alarming, neither a sign of recession or downturn, whether it applied to established economy or an economy in transition. In case of Montenegro, widening current account is a result of accountable investment imports and capital inflows whose contribution to overall output growth is significant. In relation to credit growth, it is the question whether banking industry is strained by the lack of ability to assess loans in real estate.
Third, external demand-supported pressure on wages poses a significant threat to overall competitiveness of Montenegro's booming economy. If productivity expectations are high, the spiral of wage-increases claims could have been eased by the fact of productivity outcome. But if the productivity expectations are low, the wage-increasing claims could have bursted the triggering of inflation-pressing spiral. In case of Montenegro, public sector has claimed wage increases several times. It is the question whether the sector whose contribution to growth is relatively low relative to the components of the private sector, could claim wage increases on a legitimate basis subject to distortionary effects of wage-increasing claims under conditions of low and possibly rachitic productivity performance. The rigidity of wage claims is mainly derived by the lack of labor market reforms, whereas outdated labor legislation returns uncompetitive effect respectively.
Montenegro's abundant potential of a flourishing tourist industry propelled by market optimism and Stabilization and Association Agreement with the EU, provides sound opportunities to address the abovementioned concerns. Years ago, Montenegro adopted euro as a common currency, thus eliminating the possibility of currency and exchange risk. Monetary policy's ability to tackle demand pressures is thus partly limited and that's why a prudent fiscal stance is needed in lines with transparency and restrictive expenditure agenda.
In a booming economy, such as Montenegro, fiscal policy is a powerful tool in managing the fluctuations and brisk economic progress. In the state of robust output growth rates and soaring private sector productivity, fiscal policy is ought to be countercyclical to prevent the possiblity of overheating where the expansionary fiscal policy could turn a non-inflationary economic performance into inflationary economic growth generated by fiscal expenditures on infrastructure and public or/and foreign indebtedness, while seeing the overheating of economy's overall capacity. Fiscal balance or possible surplus is favorable to the business cycle for two particular reasons: (1) it faces adverse shock with low risk and (2) it gives support when revenue growth cools the impact on public finance. Also, significant import growth, reflecting the current account deficit, presented 4-5 percent share of imports in the GDP.
The role of fiscal policy is ought not to be undermined. As a powerful tool in responding to cyclical fluctuations during a "catch-up effect" period, fiscal stability and low government spending are usually based on surplus mechanisms. By avoiding budget deficit, policy responses may prevent the demand shocks and low level of public spending is a sign of maturity that helps to detach the anticipation of inflationary pressures and its impact on macroeconomic stability.
Tax cuts implemented in previous years may be seen as a policy failure in generating greater revenue. As the Laffer curve succinctly explains, it is able to reach higher tax revenue from a broader tax base, by reducing the rates on corporate and individual income. Since the implementation of low flat taxation on major sources of productive behavior, revenues have increased rapidly. Currently, public spending stands at 45 percent of the GDP (link), and the share of capital investment is 3 percent in this respect.
As a negative aspect of fiscal and structural policy, Montenegro's policymakers approved a significant 30 percent wage increase in the public sector, which is far ahead of current productivity and output growth measures. Such expansionary effects should be wisely avoided to prevent the loss of incentives to boost the economic performance when the growth performance slows. Robert Barro, a professor of economics at Harvard University, has shown empirically that reducing the size of public sector by 10 percent, stimulates growth by 1,3-1,8 percent. As a sign of innovative policy, public sector employment and expansion might be frozen and possibly reduced to prevent further unanticipated shocks such as wage-increasing claims.
In recent years, Montenegro's economic policymakers implemented a rigorous tax reform. Flat tax was implemented on personal and corporate income and it is expected to be dropped slightly in the years to come. Tax cuts were imposed procyclically. However, complex taxation structure such as numerous exemptions, loopholes, breaks and deductions have counter-effects as they raise the cost of paying taxes, notified as a difficult tax compliance and administrative burden which costs firms and taxpayers millions. The aim of tax reform and system is to pursue the efficiency and minimal tax burden levied on firms and individual taxpayers. High tax burden, empirically and practically, constrains growth and does not meed the indicated measure of efficiency. Fiscal reform, such as braking-up the size of government spending, is expected to pursue the objectives of fiscal consolidation which contains easing pressures to anticipated as well as unanticipated external or domestic shocks. The goal of prudent fiscal sustainability in the medium-term is to meet the demands of macroeconomic and structural stability. In the medium run, demands to invest rapidly in infrastructure may be tackled. However, it would be wise to avoid infrastructure investment through the expansion of state-owned enterprises. By the means of risk-taking and efficiency of capital and technology investment, infrastructural investment is easily attainable through private sector. In case if externalities and signs of market failure appear, then public infrastructural investment may be justified, also to prevent the emergence of public or natural monopolies where one firm, in public or private ownership, could substantially abuse its market power, such as in case of railway and highway infrastructure.
In monetary area, Montenegro has stabilized low inflation rate and the monetary policy remains anti-inflationary (link). In 2006, inflation rate peaked at 2,5 percent. In the first half of 2007, inflation rate was 1,1 percent (link). S&P has given Montenegro BB+ credit rating. The abovementioned rapid growth of credit has tightened banks to raise capital adequacy ratios. This could hamper the ability of banks as well as equity funds in responding to the demand claims of investors in real estate and stock market industry (link)
At last, structural reforms demand both; challenge and perspectives. One of the greatest potential of structural reforms is to boost economy's potentials. According to the data, the government and state, still own shares in 65 companies. In 53,8 percent of those companies, government has more than 50 percent ownership share. The argument for an accelerated privatization is the fact that the allocation of labor, capital and technology resources is better utilized as well as distributed in the channel of productive use. In fact, as an owner, government has severely different interest than private investors. In addition, the data shows, that privatized companies sustain higher level of productivity than state-owned companies.
The area in which radical reforms should not be postponed, is the labor market. The aim of the labor law is to pursue flexible and dynamic environment, allowing firms to dismiss non-performing employees without high severance costs. As every economist can confirm, collective contracts and bargaining such as oligarhic bundling between monopoly structures such as federation of employers and trade unions, does not match the needs of modern market economy. Instead, flexibility and deregulated labor market are essential to maximize productivity growth and eliminate discretionary wage-increasing pressures and also fight unemployment. In this respect, Montenegro's business environment is free of unnecessary regulation which boosts the potential of private sector growth. In the long run, fiscal risks are inevitable and Montenegro's abundant potentials may be implemented not by government intervention but by low public spending and first-class investment environment that underpins the role of private sector, free of corruption, in the economic performance respectively.
Rok SPRUK is an economist.
Copyright 2007 by Rok SPRUK