Russia’s invasion of Ukraine profoundly impacted the global economy, immediately sending shockwaves across the globe. The attack of a country that was once a major energy supplier to Europe on the country which was one of the top food exporters in the world, sent food and fuel prices spiralling, causing major energy shortages and the prospect of protracted recession in the United States and the European Union.
The unprovoked and brutal aggression resulted in nearly universal condemnation and widespread sanctions placed on Russia by the United States, the EU, and other Western allies. Financial sanctions were perhaps the most unexpected and significant with the potential for immediate impact on Russia’s neighbours, including those that did not formally join the sanctions regime. In addition to sanctions, the major consequence of the war was mass migration waves, particularly from Ukraine, but also from Russia and Belarus to neighbouring countries.
At the start of the war, it was expected that the Georgian economy would be severely and negatively impacted for the following reasons:
- First, as a former Soviet republic, Georgia historically maintained close economic trade ties with both Russia and Ukraine. The ties with Russia have weakened considerably in the wake of the 2008 Russo-Georgian war but remained significant. Russia was the primary market for imports of staple foods into Georgia, such as wheat flour, maize, buckwheat, edible oils, etc. Russia and Ukraine were both important export markets for Georgia. Russia was absorbing about 60 percent of Georgian wine exports and 47 percent of mineral water exports, while Ukraine was one of the leading importers of alcohol and spirits from Georgia (46 percent of Georgia’s exports). Tourism and remittances are other areas where Georgia is significantly tied to Russia and somewhat weaker to Ukraine. Before the pandemic, in 2019 Russia accounted for 24 percent of all tourism revenues, while Ukraine for 6 percent. Remittances from Russia accounted for 16.5 percent of total incoming transfers in 2021.
- Second, while the Georgian government chose to largely keep a neutral stance on the war (announcing at one point that they would not join or impose sanctions against Russia), the main financial and trade international sanctions were still in effect in Georgia due to international obligations and close business ties with the West. These factors were reinforced by strong support for Ukraine among the Georgian population, where the memory of the Russian invasion of Georgia in 2008 remains uppermost.
- In addition, Georgia is a net energy importer, and while the dependence on energy imports from Russia is not significant, the rising prices would have affected Georgia profoundly.
Original publication: This policy paper was originally published in the ISET Policy Institute Policy Briefs section by Yaroslava Babych, Lead Economist of ISET Policy Institute. To read the full policy paper, please visit the website of ISET-PI.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
Numerous developed countries have imposed tough sanctions on Belarus, as the Belarusian regime has become part of the Russian aggression against Ukraine. At the same time, economic relations with Ukraine have been disrupted. These shocks have simultaneously disturbed the Belarusian economy and triggered a severe recession. Thanks to several positive effects from the external environment, some success from measures undertaken by the authorities to stabilize output, and some degree of resilience – all seasoned with a large portion of good luck – the situation of the Belarusian economy is however “not that bad”. Nonetheless, the Belarusian economy is experiencing its worst economic crisis since the mid-1990s, and the current path of the economy is highly unstable and associated with numerous risks and threats. In economic terms, it is likely the case that the full costs from the sanctions are yet to be paid.
Sanctions, Multiple Shocks and Their Potential Implications
As the Belarusian regime has become part of the Russian war on Ukraine many developed countries have adopted tough sanctions against Belarus. These sanctions include an embargo on a large share of Belarusian exports and imports, prohibitions and restrictions on transportation of goods of Belarusian origin, restrictions on and/or blocking actions regarding financial operations and settlements, a freeze of parts of the Belarusian international reserves, and numerous restricting and blocking actions against banks, companies and individuals. Such sanctions, combined with a new external environment, cause powerful indirect effects with foreign companies exiting the Belarusian market and refusing business with Belarusian counterparts. Additionally, some Belarusian businesses and employees have left the country. On top of this, economic relations with Ukraine, formerly Belarus’s second largest trading partner, have been virtually reduced to zero.
In economic terms, the above mentioned may be treated as a bundle of simultaneous powerful shocks to the national economy, differing in direction, mechanics, size, and persistence. These shocks may be grouped into three clusters.
The first cluster covers demand shocks, and in particular export shocks. According to our assessments, the exogenous demand shock following the sanctions may reduce Belarusian exports (in physical terms) by 40 percent, compared to previous steady-state levels. This figure should however be seen as a potential lower bound which may be realized if no measures to mitigate the impact from the sanctions are undertaken. Belarusian authorities and businesses are however doing their best trying to find new buyers for the “vanishing” exports, bypass restrictions in order to connect to “old” buyers, and establish new logistic and financial chains. The extent to which these attempts may be successful depends on the global environment, the degree of the price competitiveness of Belarusian producers, and numerous non-economic factors. Additionally, all factors affecting exports are unstable and volatile. Exports under these new conditions are therefore less sustainable and may fluctuate in an extremely wide range. Shocks to consumption and investments stemming from weakened sentiment and expectations further amplify the demand shocks.
The second cluster of shocks relates to the supply side of the economy. It includes business closures, emigration that weakens labor supply, and production bottlenecks due to the inaccessibility of imports. Supply shocks are hard to quantify, but we perceive them as persistent and cumulative. Business closures and emigration have irrevocable effects on the national economy (at least in the medium-term), and a continuation of such drop-outs will likely amplify the size of the shock.
The third cluster combines different primarily nominal shocks: price, exchange rate, financial stability and fiscal ones. Such shocks have become permanent companions to the Belarusian economy under the sanctions, and they are volatile in terms of size. As a result, the corresponding economic indicators are likely to also become highly unstable.
This bundle of adverse shocks shifts the economy down from the previous, close to steady-state, trajectory. A new trajectory is however far from predetermined. Firstly, it depends on the effectiveness of the government in curbing the shocks stemming from the sanctions, as the actual path of the economy may be considerably affected by monetary or fiscal policy and other interventions. Secondly, some positive exogenous shocks may partially offset the effects from adverse ones. Lastly, the economy, at least for a while, may resist through exploitation of accumulated buffers (such as, international reserve assets, financial reserves of State-owned enterprises that were accumulated under favorable conditions in 2021 etc.).
Considering the worst possible assumptions regarding the above mentioned issues, our model-based simulations predict a severe recession of about 20 percent (as compared to the output peak in 2021-Q2). This recession is accompanied by a sharp increase in inflation (which in turn is highly likely to be supplemented by a full-fledged financial crisis). This simulation should however be regarded as the potential rock bottom. Whether it will become reality or not critically depends on the Belarusian government’s policies.
Policy Response by the Authorities
The root cause of the problem, namely the provision of Belarusian territory for the Russian army, has never been publicly discussed by Belarusian officials. Instead, the government has focused on strategies which treat the symptoms, rather than focusing on curing the disease itself. The main coping strategies that were publicly discussed include: 1) expected increase in Russian support and exports to Russia 2) re-orientation of exports towards Asian and developing markets 3) greater mobilization of domestic resources and 4) monetary, fiscal and other stimuli.
The Russia-related initiatives are often beyond convention and include some radical proposals. These are, for instance, accelerating the establishment of sea terminals in Russian ports, promoting exports to Russia, and requesting greater financial support from Russia linked to the so-called “deep integration” package (mainly in the form of energy subsidies, import substitution investments and direct subsidies). Adherence to these proposals would mean that Belarusian authorities de facto accept serving as a Russian protectorate and correspondingly take on the role of a puppet government.
Belarusian authorities have reached some success from choosing the “Russian track” as the debt payments to Russia were postponed, new cheap gas and oil prices were granted and export to Russia increased by 15 percent in the first 8 months of 2022. The Belarusian regime’s $7 billion compensation claim for incurred economic losses due to the war has however been rejected by Russia so far.
The coping strategy of export re-orientation serves primarily as a rhetoric intervention as China and other Asian countries considered by the government cannot fully replace the European market. For many Belarusian exports, the EU was a premium, high-margin market while re-orientation means at best lower margins. The success of re-orientation depends on the degree of price competitiveness, which can change greatly over time. The only success from this strategy to date is the re-orientation of 10 percent of potash exports to China via railroad (incurring greater transportation costs).
The third strategy “greater mobilization of domestic resources” firstly assumes more interference with the business activity of State-owned enterprises (SOE). Despite severe demand shocks these are pressured by the government to maintain production and/or salaries, the latter in order to support output via sustained consumer demand. Further, a “discipline” component of the strategy is implemented through renewed catch-pay-and-release practices. In effect, businessmen are arrested based on anti-corruption or tax fraud criminal charges. They are then offered to pay certain amounts to the state and released if they choose to pay.
Since late spring, when direct financial shocks have been suppressed, the authorities have intensified stimulus measures to the economy. In the fiscal sphere, these are aimed at promoting exports and mainly provided on an individual or sectoral basis. To a large extent, these stimuli may be seen as partial compensation to SOEs for their output-supporting role. In the monetary sphere a specific environment in which the Russian ruble is appreciated vs. the US dollar, despite the worldwide strength of the latter, has allowed the authorities to implement a “magic” (but highly likely temporary) solution: The Belarusian national currency is manipulated to depreciate vs. the Russian ruble (both in nominal and real terms) but appreciate vs. the US dollar. The former leads to a great increase in price competitiveness (as Russia is today the dominant trading partner), while the latter serves as a buffer for fragile prices and provides financial stability. Moreover, the authorities have excessively softened monetary policy, trying to spur domestic credit. These measures lead to heightened inflation pressure, which is however somehow suppressed by reinvigorated direct price controls.
Current Situation and Future Implications
Until now, the Belarusian economy places far from the potential rock bottom. By the end of the second quarter in 2022, output losses (vs. the output peak in 2021-Q2) amounted to about 5.5 percent. By the end of 2022, they are however expected to increase to about 8.5 percent (vs. the 2021-Q2 output peak). The Belarusian economy is stuck in a heightened inflation environment – with the inflation being as high as 20 percent in annual terms. Although the inflation is considerably higher than in “normal times”, it is still not a disaster (considering the much higher projected level under the worst-case scenario and the background of 40-year peak in global inflation). Moreover, the current situation is still far from a full-fledged financial crisis, despite some financial turbulence.
The position of the economy as “not that bad”, is a result of existing buffers, positive effects from the external environment and some immediate efficiency from actions undertaken by the authorities to stabilize output – all seasoned with a large portion of good luck. For instance, the jump in price competitiveness accounts for a large share of curbing efforts that counter the sanctions. This is, in turn, due to a combination of high global prices, low and frozen energy prices for Belarus, and a very specific and unstable stance on monetary policy underpinned by direct price controls. Some buffer savings that Belarusian SOEs succeeded to accumulate during the period of the so-called “foreign trade miracle” in late 2020 and 2021 also play an important role. Last but not least, the Belarusian authorities seem to have succeeded in the partial curbing of the export shock. Since the beginning of summer, there are some signs of recovery in exports which most likely reflects a partial recovery of exports within the most sensitive domains: oil products and potash fertilizers (corresponding statistics have been blocked out).
However, the “not that bad” position of the economy does not mean good. According to all standard metrics, Belarus is currently experiencing a severe economic crisis. The notion that it could be even more severe is bad news, not good ones. Moreover, the current situation is extremely unstable and fragile. The economy is facing numerous distortions, contradictions and risks, all of which can still shift the scenario of the crisis from the “not that bad” situation to the worst possible.
The Belarusian regime’s involvement in the Russian aggression against Ukraine have propelled Belarus into the most severe economic crisis since the mid-1990s. Until recently, fortunate external economic circumstances, a specific policy mix and a good portion of luck have allowed for a partial mitigation of the crisis. The situation is however extremely unstable and the full effects from the sanctions are likely yet to be realized.
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
In this brief, we report on the FREE network webinar on the state of vaccinations and the challenges ahead for opening up economies while containing the pandemic, held on June 22, 2021. The current state of the pandemic in each respective country was presented, suggesting that infection rates have gone down quite substantially recently in all countries of the network, except in Russia which is currently facing a surge in infections driven by the delta-version of the virus. Vaccination progress is very uneven, limited by lacking access to vaccines (primarily Ukraine and Georgia) and vaccine scepticism among the population (primarily in Russia and Belarus but for certain groups also in Latvia, Poland and to some extent Sweden). This also creates challenges for governments eager to open their societies to benefit their economies and ease the social consequences of the restrictions on mobility and social gatherings. Finally, the medium to long term consequences for labour markets reveal challenges but also potential opportunities through wider availability of work–from-home policies.
In many countries in Europe, citizens and governments are starting to see an end to the most intense impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on their societies. Infection and death rates are coming down and governments are starting to put in place policies for a gradual opening up of societies, as reflected in the Covid-19 stringency index developed by Oxford University. These developments are partially seasonal, but also largely a function of the progress of vaccination programs reaching an increasing share of the adult population. These developments, though, are taking place to different degrees and at different pace across countries. This is very evident at a global level, but also within Europe and among the countries represented in the FREE network. This has implications for the development within Europe as a whole, but also for the persistent inequalities we see across countries.
Short overview of the current situation
The current epidemiological situation in Latvia, Sweden, Ukraine, and Georgia looks pretty similar in terms of Covid-19 cases and deaths but when it comes to the vaccination status there is substantial variation.
Latvia experienced a somewhat weaker third wave in the spring of 2021 after being hit badly in the second wave during the fall and winter of 2020 (see Figure 1). The Latvian government started vaccinating at the beginning of 2021, and by early June, 26% of the Latvian population had been fully vaccinated.
Sweden, that chose a somewhat controversial strategy to the pandemic built on individual responsibility, had reached almost 15 thousand Covid-19 deaths by the end of June of 2021, the second highest among the FREE network member countries relative to population size. The spread of the pandemic has slowed down substantially, though, during the early summer, and the percentage of fully vaccinated is about to reach 30% of the population.
Figure 1. Cumulative Covid-19 deaths
Following a severe second wave, the number of infected in Ukraine started to go down in the winter of 2020, with the total deaths settling at about 27 thousand in the month of February. Then the third wave hit in the spring, but the number of new daily cases has decreased again and is currently three times lower than at the beginning of the lastwave. However, a large part of the reduction is likely not thanks to successful epidemiological policies but rather due to low detection rates and seasonal variation.
In June 2021, Georgia faces a similar situation as Ukraine and Latvia, with the number of cumulative Covid-19 deaths per million inhabitants reaching around 1300 (in total 2500 people) following a rather detrimental spring 2021 wave. At the moment, both Georgia and Ukraine have very low vaccination coverage relative to other countries in the region(see Figure 5).
In contrast to the above countries, Russia started vaccinating early. Unfortunately, the country is now experiencing an increase in the number of cases (as can be seen in Figure 2), contrary to most other countries in the region. This negative development is likely due to the fact that the new Covid-19 delta variant is spreading in the country, particularly in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Despite the early start to vaccinations, though, the total number of vaccinated people remains low, only reaching 10.5% of the population.
Figure 2. New Covid-19 cases
In some ways similar to Sweden, the government of Belarus did not impose any formal restrictions on individuals’ mobility. According to the official statistics, in the month of June, the rise in the cumulative number of covid-19 deaths and new daily infections has declined rapidly and reached about 400 deceased and 800 infections per one million inhabitants, respectively. Vaccination goes slowly, and by now, around 8% of the population has gotten the first dose and 5% have received the second.
There were two major waves in Poland during the autumn 2020 and spring 2021. In the latter period, the country experienced a vast number of deaths. As can be seen in Figure 3, the excess mortality P-score – the percentage difference between the weekly number of deaths in 2020-2021 and the average number of deaths over the years 2015-2019 – peaked in November 2020, reaching approximately 115%. The excess deaths numbers in Poland were also the highest among the FREE Network countries in the Spring of 2021, culminating at about 70% higher compared to the baseline. By mid-June, the number of deaths and cases have steeply declined and 36% of the country’s population is fully vaccinated.
Figure 3. Excess deaths
Turning to the economy, after a devastating year, almost all countries are expected to bounce back by the end of 2021 according to the IMF (see Figure 4). Much of these predictions build on the expectations that governments across the region will lift Covid-19 restrictions. These forecasts may not be unrealistic for the countries where vaccinations have come relatively far and restrictions have started to ease. However, for countries where vaccination rates remain low and new variations of the virus is spreading, the downside risk is still very present, and forecasts contain much uncertainty.
Figure 4. GDP-growth
Since immunization plays such a central role in re-opening the economy and society going back to normal, issues related to vaccinations were an important and recurring topic at the event. The variation in progress and speed is substantial across the countries, though.
Ukraine and Georgia are still facing big challenges with vaccine availability and have fully vaccinated only 1.3% and 2.3% of the population by the end of June, respectively. Vaccination rates have in the recent month started to pick up, but both countries face an uphill battle before reaching levels close to the more successful countries.
Figure 5. Percent fully vaccinated
Other countries a bit further ahead in the vaccine race are still facing difficulties in increasing the vaccination coverage, though not so much due to lack of availability but instead because of vaccine skepticism. In Belarus, a country that initially had bottleneck issues similar to Ukraine and Georgia, all citizens have the opportunity to get vaccinated. However, Lev Lvovskiy, Senior Research Fellow at BEROC in Belarus, argued that vaccination rates are still low largely because many Belarusians feel reluctant towards the vaccine at offer (Sputnik V).
This vaccination scepticism turns out to be a common theme in many countries. According to different survey results presented by the participants at the webinar, the percentage of people willing or planning to get vaccinated is 30% in Belarus and 44% in Russia. In Latvia, this number also varies significantly across different groups as vaccination rates are significantly lower among older age cohorts and in regions with a higher share of Russian-speaking residents, according to Sergejs Gubins, Research Fellow at BICEPS in Latvia.
Webinar participants discussed potential solutions to these issues. First, there seemed to be consensus that offering people the opportunity to choose which vaccine they get will likely be effective in increasing the uptake rate. Second, governments need to improve their communication regarding the benefits of vaccinations to the public. Several countries in the region, such as Poland and Belarus, have had statements made by officials that deviate from one another, potentially harming the government’s credibility with regards to vaccine recommendations. In Belarus, there have even been government sponsored disinformation campaigns against particular vaccines. In Latvia, the main problem is rather the need to reach and convince groups who are generally more reluctant to get vaccinated. Iurii Ganychenko, Senior Researcher at KSE in Ukraine, exemplified how Ukraine has attempted to overcome this problem by launching campaigns specifically designed to persuade certain age cohorts to get vaccinated. Natalya Volchkova, Director of CEFIR at NES in Russia, argued that new, more modern channels of information, such as professional influencers, need to be explored and that the current model of information delivery is not working.
Giorgi Papava, Lead Economist at ISET PI in Georgia, suggested that researchers can contribute to solving vaccine uptake issues by studying incentive mechanisms such as monetary rewards for those taking the vaccine, for instance in the form of lottery tickets.
Labour markets looking forward
Participants at the webinar also discussed how the pandemic has affected labour markets and whether its consequences will bring about any long-term changes.
Regarding unemployment statistics, Michal Myck, the Director of CenEA in Poland, made the important point that some of the relatively low unemployment numbers that we have seen in the region during this pandemic are misleading. This is because the traditional definition of being unemployed implies that an individual is actively searching for work, and lockdowns and other mobility restrictions have limited this possibility. Official data on unemployment thus underestimates the drop in employment that has happened, as those losing their jobs in many cases have left the labour market altogether. We thus need to see how labor markets will develop in the next couple of months as economies open up to give a more precise verdict.
Jesper Roine, Professor at SITE in Sweden, stressed that unemployment will be the biggest challenge for Sweden since its economy depends on high labor force participation and high employment rates. He explained that the pandemic and economic crisis has disproportionately affected the labor market status of certain groups. Foreign-born and young people, two groups with relatively high unemployment rates already prior to the pandemic, have become unemployed to an even greater extent. Many are worried that these groups will face issues with re-entering the labour market as in particular long-term unemployment has increased. At the same time, there have been more positive discussions about structural changes to the labour market following the pandemic. Particularly how more employers will allow for distance work, a step already confirmed by several large Swedish firms for instance.
In Russia, a country with a labour market that allowed for very little distance work before the pandemic, similar discussions are now taking place. Natalya Volchkova reported that, in Russia, the number of vacancies which assumed distance-work increased by 10% each month starting from last year, according to one of Russia’s leading job-search platforms HeadHunter. These developments could be particularly beneficial for the regional development in Russia, as firms in more remote regions can hire workers living in other parts of the country.
It has been over a year since the Covid-19 virus was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization. This webinar highlighted that, though vaccination campaigns in principle have been rolled out across the region, their reach varies greatly, and countries are facing different challenges of re-opening and recovering from the pandemic recession. Ukraine and Georgia have gotten a very slow start to their vaccination effort due to a combination of lack of access to vaccines and vaccine skepticism. Countries like Belarus and Latvia have had better access to vaccines but are suffering from widespread vaccine skepticism, in particular in some segments of the population and to certain vaccines. Russia, which is also dealing with a broad reluctance towards vaccines, is on top of that dealing with a surge in infections caused by the delta-version of the virus.
IMF Economic Outlook suggests that most economies in the region are expected to bounce back in their GDP growth in 2021. While this positive prognosis is encouraging, the webinar reminded us that there is a great deal of uncertainty remaining not only from an epidemiological perspective but also in terms of the medium to long-term economic consequences of the pandemic.
- Iurii Ganychenko, Senior Researcher at Kyiv School of Economics (KSE/Ukraine)
- Sergejs Gubins, Research Fellow at the Baltic International Centre for Economic Policy Studies (BICEPS/ Latvia)
- Natalya Volchkova, Director of the Centre for Economic and Financial Research at New Economic School (CEFIR at NES/ Russia)
- Giorgi Papava, Lead Economist at the ISET Policy Institute (ISET PI/ Georgia)
- Lev Lvovskiy, Senior Research Fellow at the Belarusian Economic Research and Outreach Center (BEROC/ Belarus)
- Jesper Roine, Professor at the Stockholm Institute of Transition Economics (SITE / Sweden)
- Michal Myck, Director of the Centre for Economic Analysis (CenEA / Poland)
- Anders Olofsgård, Deputy Director of SITE and Associate Professor at the Stockholm School of Economics (SITE / Sweden)
Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.
The Belarusian economy has given birth to a very interesting phenomenon of extremely high real interest rates in a prolonged recession. Despite an expected intuitive guess about the linkage between them (high interest rates cause recession), the reality turned out to be more difficult. The era of high real interest rates was due to past mistakes in economic policy, which undermined the credibility of the latter and gave rise to high and volatile inflation expectations. However, the adverse output path following the too high interest rates was not essential. The recession was mainly predetermined by a negative Total Factor Productivity (TFP) shock. The shock itself forms a disagreeable and contradictive environment for monetary policy. Together with unanchored inflation expectations, this makes monetary policy ineffective and too risky.
Unusually high real rates and recession
Since the painful currency crisis of 2011, the Belarusian monetary environment has become extremely vulnerable in many respects. In 2011 and early 2012, the country faced (once again) a 3-digit inflation rate. While the inflation rate later went down gradually, it was not sufficient to enhance monetary stability in a broader sense. For instance, for nominal interest rates, the level of 20% per annum was an unachievable lower bound until 2016. Moreover, in 2013—2016, upside jumps in the nominal interest rates took place regularly (see Figure 1).
Figure 1.Nominal interest and inflation rates, % per annum
Such combination of nominal interest and inflation rates has resulted in an extremely high and volatile level of real interest rates throughout the last 4 years. Real returns at the Belarusian financial market fluctuated in 2013—2016 within the range of 10-30% per annum. For instance, a median (monthly) value of the real interest rate on new loans in 2013—2016 was 17.6% per annum (in the beginning of 2017 it approached the level of 8-10% per annum). So, one may say that the real monetary conditions have been extremely tight in the last couple of years.
At the same time, in 2015—2016 Belarus has dipped into a prolonged and deep recession. During the last two years, the country has lost roughly 7% of its output. The combination of high real interest rates and a recession gave rise to a naive, but acceptable diagnosis: the excessively high interest rates caused (or at least contributed to) the recession. This view became popular in the domestic policy discussions. Furthermore, often this story transformed into a claim that ‘too tight monetary policy causes (or at least contributes to) recession’. Given this pressure, the National bank of Belarus (NBB) became accustomed to justifying its policy stance by considerations of financial stability given financial fragility. So, the economic policy discussion got into the discourse of these two extremes. Finally, it boiled down to the question whether ‘the monetary environment has stabilized enough in order to soften monetary policy’.
However, a naive story about the stance of monetary policy and the business cycle is not (fully) true in the case of Belarus in several respects.
Unanchored expectations drive interest rates
First, high interest rates at the financial market were not because of the excessively high policy rate of the NBB. It happened due to volatile, but still persistently high inflation expectations (Kruk 2017, 2016a). The latter visualized the loss of monetary-policy credibility by the general public.
Before 2016, the level of inflation expectations was persistently higher than the actual inflation, demonstrating an extremely slow (if any) convergence (see Figure 2). At the same time, the ex-ante level of real returns has remained relatively stable. When setting its policy rate, the NBB has taken into consideration existing inflation expectations, otherwise the high expected inflation would have been realized.
Figure 2. Actual and expected inflation, %
So, in the recent past, the stance of the monetary policy could hardly be accused of generating too tight monetary conditions through the setting of an improper policy rate. The problem was (is) more severe, and one can argue about the inability (and the lack of willingness) of the NBB to anchor inflation expectations.
However, in the late 2016 and early 2017, the expected and actual inflation rates converged, mainly due to a contraction of the former. This introduced more stability into the monetary environment, in a broader sense. Kruk (2017, 2016a) shows that the turn of 2016—2017 has become a breakpoint for the monetary environment to return into a ‘normal’ stance (see Figure 3).
The NBB reacted to the milder monetary environment by a number of reductions in the policy rate (from 18% since August 2016 down to 14% since April 2017). However, a shift of both expected and actual inflation into the range between 5% and 9% may be interpreted as there being room for further reductions.
Figure 3. Classification of monetary environment stance in Belarus, probability estimates
Note: Classification and the methodology for estimates are based on Kruk (2016a). ‘Normal’ regime is characterized by reasonable and relatively stable real interest rates; ‘subnormal’ – too high real interest rate due to ‘inflation expectations premium’; ‘abnormal’ extremely volatile and mainly huge negative real interest rates due to the swings of actual inflation.
Therefore, as of today, one may argue that the long-expected time for a softening of the monetary policy has come, as the ‘expectations overhang’ has disappeared. However, such a view might be too optimistic. Kruk (2017) argues that the convergence of expected and actual inflation rates might be a temporary lucky combination, as there is a lack of evidence supporting a growing credibility of monetary policy among the general public. On the contrary, inflation expectations seem to have shrunk due to a depressed domestic demand and lower consumer confidence. So, even if expectations have contracted, they have not been anchored. Hence, ‘the expectations overhang’ may resurge at any time.
Monetary softening cannot neutralize structural recession
Even if we assume that the ‘expectations overhang’ has disappeared, it would still not mean that there is room for a new monetary stimuli. A naive story about high real interest rates that cause recession glitches once again when interpreting this linkage. Most frequently, countries face a cyclical recession (i.e. caused by temporary demand fluctuations). If that is the case, a negative impact of excessively high interest rates on output path is taken for granted.
However, the Belarusian story of recession is different. Kruk and Bornukova (2014) have shown that the country faced a negative TFP shock, which determined the weakening of the long-term growth rate. Kruk (2016b) shows that due to this shock, the long-term growth rate crossed the zero level approximately at the turn of 2014—2015, and dipped into a negative range later on. Hence, the Belarusian recession that started in 2015 was a combination of a negative contribution from both the long-term dynamics and the business cycle. Furthermore, since the second half of 2016, the negative contribution of the business cycle has faded out, and the recession was determined by the negative TFP shock almost solely (Kruk, 2017) so that, by 2017, the recession has become a purely structural phenomena.
From a monetary policy stance, this gives rise to a new challenge. Although the majority of methodologies still assess the output gap to be negative (but not far away from zero), the output gap will soon be closed automatically because of continuing negative TFP shocks (Kruk, 2017). In a sense, the negative TFP shock contributes to the closing of the output gap in the same way as monetary policy does. However, it does this job in an opposite manner (i.e. by squeezing the trend growth, and not by stimulating the business cycle), it leaves almost no room for monetary policy. It creates a situation where a reasonable loosening of the monetary policy may immediately turn into an excessive one. Taking into account that the dormant inflation expectations can resurge, monetary policy decisions resembles walking on the edge.
Today’s policy discussion in Belarus is extensively concentrated around the search for the best monetary policy to fight the recession. However, this formulation of the problem is a mistake in itself. Today’s contradictions in monetary policy are simply a reflection of the bulk of accumulated structural weaknesses in the economy. Today, monetary policy can hardly do anything to stabilize output. The solutions for ending the recession, and enhancing growth should be found in structural policies, not in the sphere of monetary policy. As for monetary policy, it can, at this moment, hardly contribute to output stabilization (without challenging price stability). To do so, it has to ensure an anchoring of the inflation expectations first.
- Kruk, D. (2017). Monetary Policy and Financial Stability in Belarus: Current Stance, Challenges, and Perspectives (in Russian), BEROC Policy Paper Series, PP No.43.
- Kruk, D. (2016a). SVAR Approach for Extracting Inflation Expectations Given Severe Mnonetary Shocks: Evidence from Belarus, BEROC Working Paper Series, WP No. 39
- Kruk, D. (2016b). The Reasons and Characteristics of Recessiion in Belarus: the Role of Structural Factors (in Russian), BEROC Policy Paper Series, PP No. 42.
- Kruk, D., Bornukova,K. (2014). Belarusian Economic Growth Decomposition, BEROC Working Paper Series, WP no. 24.