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.
After impressive growth in the 2000s, Belarus’ economy has since the currency crisis of 2011 stalled. Structural issues – dominance of the state sector and directed lending practices – have made growth anemic. Recession for Belarus’ main trading partner and the decline of oil prices has aggravated the long-run problems. We perform growth diagnostics to separate the effects of total factor productivity (TFP) growth from capital accumulation over the recession. We show that, as in the 2000s, capital accumulation had the largest positive effect on growth in Belarus, but TFP gains were very low, or even negative in the years of recession.
During the 2000s, Belarus experienced extraordinarily high growth rates, despite a lack of economic reforms and low performance in the EBRD transition indicators. In Kruk and Bornukova (2014) we show that the growth was extensive in its nature, and mainly driven by capital accumulation. The total factor productivity (TFP) contribution to growth was low. After the currency crisis of 2011 in Belarus, however, growth rates have stagnated. Despite a high investment rate (which declined dramatically only after 2015) the growth rates were below 2 per cent per annum, which is a non-satisfactory performance for a developing economy (see Figure 1). In 2015, Belarus entered its first recession in the last 20 years with GDP declining by 3.9 per cent, and the recession has continued in 2016.
Figure 1. GDP Growth Rates and Investment Rates in Belarus (%), 2005-2015.
In the 2000s, the Belarusian government relied on directed-lending programs, and subsidized the interest rates for state-owned enterprises’ (SOE) loans. After the currency crisis of 2011, which many blamed on the loose monetary policies connected to directed-lending programs, the government switched to a so-called modernization policy that underlined the need to invest in new equipment and introduce new technologies. So far this policy have not bear fruits in terms of economic growth, but did it increase efficiency?
Growth Decomposition 2011-2015
Using the standard capital services approach modified for the Belarusian data in Kruk and Bornukova (2014), we decompose Belarusian economic growth in 2011-2015 into the growth of factors (capital and labor) and growth of TFP. We find that the lack of growth in TFP explains the lack of GDP growth and GDP decline over these years.
Figure 2. Gross Value Added Growth Decomposition in Belarus, 2006-2015.
A noteworthy fact about the Belarusian growth decomposition is that the direction of growth rate of capital and TFP has been persistently opposite in 2012-2015. Presumably, accelerated capital accumulation vs. stagnating/lowering TFP could be explained by initially insufficient levels of it (i.e. less than steady state). However, this explanation seems to be improper for the Belarusian path. According to our assessments, a capital stock has passed its steady state level at the turn of 2013-2014. Despite this, capital kept growing rapidly, while productivity contracted. An alternative explanation – a growth of the capital stock was secured by specific directed instruments; this artificial capital accumulation caused an endogenous contraction of TFP, as confirmed by the data.
Indeed, a TFP decline could accompany capital accumulation due to expanding allocation and technical inefficiencies. This explains the meltdown of economic growth in Belarus by 2013-2014 and its transition to the negative spectrum later on. In late 2014-2015, this was supplemented by exogenous negative shocks affecting TFP – deteriorating terms of trade and a shrinking energy subsidy from Russia – which caused a rapid dip into recession, which should be classified as structural adjustment.
In 2015-2016, lack of TFP growth and excessive capital accumulation caused further adjustments: firms reduced capital investments radically and contracted capacity utilization. These mechanisms amplified structural recession by a cyclical component.
Sectoral dimension: manufacturing
Out of all the manufacturing industries, only one – manufacturing of electrical, electronic and optical equipment – had positive TFP growth in 2011-2015. On average, manufacturing has lost 4.1% of TFP over this period, with the highest TFP losses in the industries that have always been hallmark for Belarus: manufacturing of machinery (-7.6%) and transport equipment and vehicles (-8.8%). The wood-processing industry has notoriously obtained huge financial aid during the modernization campaign (over 1 billion USD – but Belta (2015) lost 5.6% of TFP over 2011-2015.
We also find that the capital market continues to be distorted by the government interventions, leading to inefficient allocations in the sense that investment is not going to the most efficient industries. On the contrary, there is a negative relationship between the capital growth rate and the TFP growth rate in manufacturing industries. The labor market, which faces less government intervention, functions more efficiently. Labor growth is higher in the industries with higher initial labor productivity.
While comparing the TFPs of Belarusian industries to each other makes little sense (like comparing apples and oranges), comparing them to the TFPs of corresponding industries in other countries might shed some light on the comparative efficiency and competitiveness of the Belarusian economy. Table 1 lists the industries and sectors of the Belarusian economy that are the most and least competitive in a relative TFP sense.
Table 1. TFP winners and losers in Belarus
|2014 TFP relative to|
|Trade and repair||1.37||1.77|
|Machinery and equipment||0.70||0.34|
|Electricity, gas and water||0.41||0.22|
Source: Author’s calculations.
The majority of the industries in the “winners” category are non-tradable (services like communications, finance, trade and repair). Coincidentally, trade, transport and finance also have relatively high shares of private ownership. Another group of winners are rent industries (petroleum benefitting from cheap Russian oil; and chemical industry built on potassium salts extraction).
As for the most of the manufacturing industries, where the government dominates, and where extensive financing was available at subsidized rates, TFP levels are relatively low. While the TFP performance of the manufacturing of transport vehicles, machinery and other equipment was also reported as low in 2010 (Kruk and Bornukova, 2014), the woodworking industry reached high levels of inefficiency after 2010, when the “modernization” program of this industry received a huge influx of capital.
The relative levels of TFP are good predictors of the future exports performance: higher-TFP industries are more competitive in the international markets. The current low relative TFP of the manufacturing sectors suggests that manufacturing exports will not recover in the coming years.
As in the 2000s, Belarus relies on capital accumulation to generate economic growth. In recent years, however, more investments have not generated growth and rather led to losses in TFP, aggravated by external factors. The current recession in Belarus is mainly a structural adjustment, driven by distortive policies of capital accumulation and allocation; and only partially driven by external shocks.
Lack of TFP growth leads to loss of international competitiveness, causing a collapse of exports. Deep structural reforms are necessary to revive growth and recuperate the lost export potential.
- Belta (2015) http://eng.belta.by/president/view/bellesbumprom-group-to-increase-exports-to-1.4-1.5bn-by-late-2017-2860-2014/
- Kruk, Dzmitry; and Kateryna Bornukova, 2014. “Belarusian Economic Growth Decomposition”, BEROC working paper series, WP no. 24