IMF issues warning on rising debt risks in virus-hit ME

13 April, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Dubai: The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said on Sunday that countries in the Middle East and Central Asia need to curb their financing requirements, as a surge in government debt, exacerbated by the pandemic, threatens recovery prospects.

The region, which includes around 30 countries from Mauritania to Kazakhstan, saw an economic rebound in the third quarter as countries relaxed measures to contain the new coronavirus, report agencies.

But the outlook remains highly uncertain and recovery paths will diverge depending on the speed of vaccinations, reliance on heavily impacted sectors, such as tourism, and countries’ fiscal policy.

“Recovery has started, but in an uneven, uncertain way,” Jihad Azour, director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department at the IMF, told Reuters.

“The outlook is uncertain because the legacies of the pre-Covid-19 are still there, especially for countries who have high levels of debt.”

The Fund said “early inoculators”, which include the oil-rich Gulf countries, Kazakhstan, and Morocco, will reach 2019 gross domestic product (GDP) levels next year, while recovery to those levels is expected to take one year more for other countries.

“High financing needs could constrain the policy space required to support the recovery,” the Washington-based global lender said in its Regional and Economic Outlook Update.

Lower demand and a slump in commodity prices eroded state finances last year. In the Middle East and North Africa, fiscal deficits widened to 10.1 per cent of GDP in 2020 from 3.8 per cent of GDP in 2019.

The crisis led many countries to raise debt, partly taking advantage of abundant liquidity in the global markets, to afford extra spending needed to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

The IMF warned that financing needs are projected to increase over the coming two years, with emerging markets in the region likely to need around US$1.1 trillion during 2021-2022 from US$784 billion in 2018-2019.

This presents financial stability risks and could slow economic recovery. Many countries rely on domestic banks to fund sovereign needs, which could make credit less easily available for corporates and small enterprises.