Mongolia: Dip in demand hits growth
Concerns that falling demand for coal from China and a decline in commodity prices could weigh on Mongolia’s resource-related boom look to have been realised, at least in part, with figures for the first quarter of 2013 showing growth more than halved over the same period the year before.
According to data from the National Statistical Office (NSO), published in mid-May, Mongolia’s GDP growth for the first quarter reached just 7.2%, significantly lower than the 16.7% posted for the same period last year. Exports were also down for the first four months of 2013, dropping 5.5% year-on-year (y-o-y). Overseas sales of coal, which dominates exports, fell to 5m tonnes, down from 5.3m recorded for the same period in 2012.
Demand for coal and other fuels in China, the primary buyer of Mongolia’s mining exports, has declined as electricity consumption has fallen and steps have been taken to make more use of alternative energy sources. Hydropower output in China jumped 22% in the first three months of the year. Exports were also hit as the state-owned Erdenes Tavan Tolgoi suspended shipments of coal from the huge Tavan Tolgoi mine between January and April.
Despite the fall in resource-related trade, other indicators in the NSO data suggest a more positive outlook. The foreign trade balance showed a deficit of $528.3m in the first four months of 2013, down $269m, or 33.7%, on the same period last year.
The government also recorded a fiscal surplus of MNT240.1bn ($0.168bn) for the January-April period, although the World Bank has projected that the budget deficit may reach 6% of GDP for the full year. The international lender also revised its GDP growth estimates down, saying that it is likely to be nearer 13% than the original forecast of 16.2%.
Taehuyn Lee, senior economist for the World Bank in Ulaanbaatar, said Mongolia is still likely to be one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. “However, high uncertainty over the economic prospects remains and it is advisable for the government to be more realistic in estimating revenue and less ambitious in spending,” he told Bloomberg.
The dip comes as Mongolia pushes ahead with its efforts to restore international investor confidence. In April lawmakers approved changes to the foreign investment law, easing a restriction that any deal worth more than MNT100bn ($0.07bn), or involving the transfer of more than 49% of a Mongolian company, needed to be approved by parliament. This requirement will now apply only to state-owned entities.
These amendments could stem a decline in FDI, which fell 17% in 2012 and dropped 58% in the first two months of 2013. However, the government’s on-going dispute with British-Australian mining outfit Rio Tinto may discourage investors. The Oyu Tolgoi copper mine, set to be run by Rio Tinto, is expected to produce around 450,000 tonnes of copper and 330,000 ounces of gold annually once running at full capacity.
James Liotta, a partner at law firm Mahoney Liotta LLC in Ulaanbaatar, told Bloomberg by e-mail that while the amendments were welcome, damage had been done. “[M]any investors’ appetites have moved on to more stable jurisdictions,” he said. “Those who are locked in are likely to take a much more conservative approach toward investing in Mongolia.”
While uncertainties in the legal framework, especially when combined with a decline in demand for exports, represents a challenge in the short run, natural resources are nonetheless expected to drive growth over the next decade. Confidence in Mongolia’s longer-term prospects was highlighted by the government’s successful sale of $1.5bn in debt, equivalent to about 20% of GDP, in November 2012. The issuance was well-subscribed, suggesting that international investors are willing to look through short-term political and macroeconomic challenges towards Mongolia’s larger potential.