Arab Countries in Transition - Economic Outlook and Key Challenges - Deauville Partnership Ministerial Meeting
IMF Policy Paper, October 10, 2013
Summary: In an environment of heightened socio-economic tensions, regional insecurity, and strained public finances, the Arab Countries in Transition (ACTs) 1 face the difficult task of delivering on the expectations for jobs and growth. Despite patchy improvements in some countries, economic growth remains subdued, private investment is weak, and external and fiscal buffers are running low. Fostering social cohesion and avoiding a downward spiral of economic and political malaise calls for urgent implementation of economic reforms and coordinated support from the international community.
Regional economic outlook and key challenges (edited)
In an environment of heightened socio-economic tensions, regional insecurity, and strained public finances, the Arab Countries in Transition (ACTs, Egypt, Jordan, Libya, Morocco, Tunisia, and Yemen) face the difficult task of delivering on the expectations for jobs and growth. Despite patchy improvements in some countries, economic growth remains subdued, private investment is weak, and external and fiscal buffers are running low. Fostering social cohesion and avoiding a downward spiral of economic and political malaise calls for urgent implementation of economic reforms and coordinated support from the international community.
A. Background and recent developments
Three shocks undermine sentiment. The economic situation in the ACTs has become increasingly difficult amid a still weak external environment, rising regional tensions stemming largely from the civil war in Syria, and heightened domestic political uncertainty in many countries, at times accompanied by violence. As a result, private sector sentiment has worsened, private sector activity remains subdued, and private investment, particularly foreign direct investment, has slowed.
Growth is low and unemployment is rising. Average growth (excluding Libya) is expected to inch up to 3 percent in 2013 from 2½ percent in 2012, with the marginal pick-up reflecting a nascent recovery of tourism and exports, increased post-crisis capacity utilization, and a post-drought rebound of agriculture in Morocco. This moderate growth is not generating the jobs needed to stem the rise in the number of unemployed, which has increased by more than 1 million people since early 2010.
Progress with reforms has been uneven, further straining public finances. Budget deficits remain elevated, averaging 9 percent of GDP in 2012(excluding Libya) owing to weak revenue collection and weaker-than-expected fiscal consolidation efforts. In Egypt and Jordan, high levels of public debt (more than 80 percent of GDP) further limit fiscal space. Meanwhile, inflation pressures have begun to ease in most ACTs helped by lower food and energy prices and weak demand. Foreign exchange reserves have stabilized for now, reflecting a gradual narrowing of current account deficits and, notably in Egypt, external financial support. Nevertheless, reserve buffers remain low relative to the underlying vulnerabilities.
B. Short-term outlook
Private investment and growth are anemic. The current challenges faced by the ACTs are likely to persist over the near term. Revitalizing private sector activity will require political stability and strong policy efforts to improve the business climate. This will take time. Meanwhile, we expect only a gradual recovery in 2013–14, with average GDP growth at about 3 percent. Inflation is expected to stabilize in the upper single digits and the current account and fiscal deficits could begin to narrow gradually, but will remain elevated. Consequently, public debt and unemployment in most countries are likely to continue creeping up.
Significant downside risks. Risks to this already sobering outlook are significant, and mostly to the downside. The Syrian crisis, recent domestic political tensions, and incidences of increasing violence have the potential to intensify further and bring growth to a halt. This would have strongly negative consequences for labor markets in the region. First, an increased flow of refugees could overburden budgets of Syria’s neighboring countries, while damaging trade, confidence, and growth in the region more broadly. Equally damaging could be setbacks to the political transitions as well as an escalation of violence in Libya, Tunisia, Egypt, or Iraq, which would further delay economic reforms and deter investment. In some countries, new disruptions to energy supplies (for example, oil production in Libya or Jordan’s gas imports from Egypt) would take a toll on fiscal and external positions. Finally, and with somewhat lower probability, weaker global—notably European—growth could slow recovery of exports and foreign inflows.