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Kuwait returns to strong growth, account surplus

IMF concludes 2019 Article IV consultation with Kuwait

KUWAIT: According to the International Monetary Fund, Kuwait’s growth has resumed and the current account has rebounded thanks to higher oil prices. Hydrocarbon output rose by 1.2 percent in 2018 after contracting a year earlier. Buoyed by a rebound in confidence and government spending, non-oil growth has accelerated to 2.5 percent.

After the first deficit in more than two decades in 2016, the current account shifted back into surplus in 2017 and reached an estimated surplus of 12.7 percent of GDP in 2018. Inflation fell to a multiyear low of 0.7 percent due to falling housing rents, easing food prices and a strengthening dinar, reported the IMF after concluding the 2019 Article IV consultation with Kuwait on March 25, 2019.

While the overall fiscal balance has improved, financing needs remain large. Higher oil revenues and investment income boosted the overall balance. Fiscal financing needs – overall balance not counting the compulsory transfer of a portion of earnings to the Future Generations Fund (FGF) and excluding investment income – remain large. Delays in the passage of a new debt law have rendered the government unable to issue debt since Oct 2017. As a result, it has had to draw on the General Reserve Fund assets for financing.

The banking sector reports sound indicators, and credit is recovering from a slow start in 2018. The system-wide capital adequacy ratio reached 18 percent in Sept 2018, and liquidity ratios were comfortably within regulatory requirements. Profits rose and asset quality improved, with NPLs net of specific provisions falling to a historical low. The Central Bank of Kuwait (CBK) raised the repo rate, a benchmark for deposits, several times but has kept the policy lending rate at 3 percent since March 2018.

As a result, bank lending interest rates have risen by less than deposit rates. Coupled with ample liquidity – a by-product of deposit growth and government debt redemption in 2018 – this is supporting a credit recovery. Private sector loans grew 4.1 percent year-on-year in December 2018 on the back of household, construction, and oil sector borrowing.

IMF Executive Directors noted that growth is expected to strengthen and the underlying fiscal position to gradually improve over the medium term. Given the volatility of oil prices and the exhaustible nature of oil resources, Directors underscored the need for timely and well-sequenced fiscal and structural reforms to reduce Kuwait’s dependence on oil, boost government saving, and create more private sector jobs.

Directors called for deeper fiscal reforms to ensure adequate savings for future generations. They encouraged the authorities to tackle spending rigidities and increase non-oil revenue while boosting capital outlays to improve infrastructure and raise potential growth. They underscored the need to tackle the large public sector wage bill, noting that public sector wages should be gradually aligned with those in the private sector to incentivize nationals to seek private sector opportunities and support competitiveness. Directors also encouraged the authorities to proceed with the introduction of GCC-wide excises and VAT.

Directors emphasized that a robust fiscal framework and strong fiscal governance are vital to bolstering fiscal policy credibility. Directors stressed that enhanced fiscal transparency, an improved public procurement framework, and greater spending efficiency would help increase government accountability, cut waste, and reduce Kuwait’s vulnerability to corruption.

Directors welcomed the banking system’s sound position and commended the authorities for prudent regulation and supervision. To further enhance financial sector resilience, Directors encouraged the authorities to implement the recommendations of the FSSA. In particular, they saw scope to further enhance the crisis management framework, notably by establishing a special resolution regime for banks and unwinding the blanket guarantee of deposits once the preconditions are met. They also encouraged the authorities to strengthen liquidity management, bolster systemic risk oversight, and called for a gradual relaxation of the interest ceilings. Directors encouraged the authorities to further strengthen the AML/CFT framework.

Directors stressed the need for structural reforms to improve the business environment, support entrepreneurship, and foster productivity. In particular, they saw scope for further easing of administrative procedures, facilitating trading across borders, and efforts to promote competition. They also called for a more enabling environment for SMEs and startups, by enhancing their access to finance, facilitating participation in public tenders, and training entrepreneurs.
Directors concurred that the pegged currency regime remains appropriate, with the peg to a basket of currencies continuing to provide an effective nominal anchor. Directors noted that the recommended fiscal adjustment would largely close the current account gap over the medium term.

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