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Serbia: Concluding Statement of the Mission for the 2019 Article IV Consultation and the Second Review under the Policy Coordination Instrument (PCI)

May 21, 2019

A Concluding Statement describes the preliminary findings of IMF staff at the end of an official staff visit (or ‘mission’), in most cases to a member country. Missions are undertaken as part of regular (usually annual) consultations under Article IV of the IMF's Articles of Agreement, in the context of a request to use IMF resources (borrow from the IMF), as part of discussions of staff monitored programs, or as part of other staff monitoring of economic developments.

The authorities have consented to the publication of this statement. The views expressed in this statement are those of the IMF staff and do not necessarily represent the views of the IMF’s Executive Board. Based on the preliminary findings of this mission, staff will prepare a report that, subject to management approval, will be presented to the IMF Executive Board for discussion and decision.

  • Growth is robust, public debt is declining, inflation is low and stable, and many key reforms have been implemented.
  • Available fiscal space should be used for capital spending and follow rigorous selection and appraisal procedures to contribute the greatest boost to sustained growth.
  • Key requirements to support medium-term growth include building a workforce that can fully participate in the modern economy, improving the business environment, and strengthening corporate governance of state-owned institutions.

We enjoyed constructive discussions on the 2019 Article IV Consultation and reached staff-level agreement on policies needed to complete the second review under the PCI. The program remains broadly on-track with all end-March 2019 quantitative targets met. Most reform targets have been implemented, although some with delays. The agreement is subject to approval by IMF Management and Executive Board. Consideration by the Executive Board is tentatively scheduled for mid-July.

It will be critical to maintain a balanced policy mix to promote a sustainable expansion

Macroeconomic stability has continued to take hold since the 2017 Article IV Consultation. After Serbia suffered a drought in 2017, growth in 2018 rebounded to 4.3 percent—its fastest pace in 10 years. Fiscal discipline has taken root, with the general government budget recording a surplus for two consecutive years and public debt falling by about 15 percent of GDP since the beginning of 2017. At the same time, unemployment has continued to decline, and employment has risen steadily, with informal employment making up a smaller share. Inflation has been kept low and the financial sector is stable, with the level of banks’ non-performing loans as a share in total loans reaching 5.5 percent at end-March 2019, the lowest level since 2008.

The near-term outlook remains positive. Growth in 2019 is projected at 3.5 percent, with a pick-up in growth expected during the second half of the year due to strong foreign direct investment (FDI), continued public investment, and assumed recovery in trading partner countries. Inflation will move within the lower half of the inflation target band, while the current account deficit as a share of GDP is expected to widen modestly and remain fully covered by FDI.

The recent relaxation of fiscal policy, with a deficit of about ½ percent of GDP targeted in 2019 and over the medium term, remains appropriate. This provides some fiscal space, which should be reserved for capital investment, while reducing public debt further. The recent increases in investment spending are welcome, but public investments should be based on rigorous selection and appraisal procedures to make sure that they contribute the greatest boost to potential growth. At the same time, current spending should remain contained.

The National Bank of Serbia’s accommodative monetary policy stance has been appropriate. It has supported domestic demand and bank credit growth in recent years, while inflation remains under control. With macroeconomic stability firmly entrenched, over the medium term a gradual move towards greater exchange rate flexibility, that preserves financial stability, could help to further develop the exchange rate market and promote dinarization.

Risks to the near-term growth outlook are tilted to the downside. The slowdown in the euro area starting in the second half of 2018—especially in Serbia’s most important trade partners—has already affected economic activity and may continue to do so because of lagged effects. Rising protectionism could further hamper growth through its impact on global trade. On the domestic side, strong wage growth is expected to support consumption, but domestic demand may turn out weaker if anticipated investments are not realized. Maintaining strong domestic policies will be essential to strengthen the resilience of Serbia’s economy. If downside risks to growth materialize, there is room for automatic fiscal stabilizers to act and monetary policy could play a supportive role, provided that inflation remains low.

Even more important than near-term growth is ensuring that the structural drivers of growth over the medium term are solid

Ensuring opportunities for skilled workers within Serbia will be critical to limit ‘brain drain’. Education and training opportunities to prepare students and workers for the modern economy will be key as well as regulations that address business needs.

Improving the private investment climate through the better provision of public services and reduction of the grey economy should remain government priorities. Actions by the state to reduce its footprint can help improve competition and in this regard the authorities’ resolve to privatize Komercijalna Bank is welcome. The tax administration’s (STA) split between core and non-core activities will support the streamlining and modernization of tax administration. Greater use of electronic fiscal services can help curb the grey economy. The recently-agreed action plan approved by the Coordination Body for Countering the Grey Economy is also a positive step in this regard.

Fiscal achievements need to be better anchored to preserve hard-won gains, while also supporting private sector growth. Plans to reintroduce a fiscal rule anchored on debt can help cement credibility. The full implementation of the wage system reform and reintroduction of pension indexation can also be important tools to underpin fiscal discipline. Tax policy measures to strengthen competitiveness, raise growth, and boost employment should aim at reducing the tax burden on labor, particularly on low wage earners.

Improving governance frameworks can bring positive economic dividends

Strong governance is critical, including anti-corruption efforts and providing legal certainty. Substantial progress has been achieved on AML/CFT deficiencies, but other anti-corruption efforts need to be strengthened. The recent legislation on converting CHF mortgage contracts, with budget support, should not set a precedent for resolution of conflicts within the private sector.

Improving State Owned Enterprise (SOE) governance and efficiency can raise economic growth. Good strides to resolve some strategic enterprises have been made and the overall SOE sector is now profitable, but more can be done. Weak corporate governance—particularly in the areas of ownership policy and fiscal oversight—can constrain growth and increase risks of corruption. In the short-run, the authorities should publish a comprehensive list of SOEs, adopt an ownership policy document, appoint permanent professional management, and expand capacity to analyze fiscal risks from SOEs.

The mission team is grateful for the authorities’ hospitality, candid conversations, and close cooperation.

IMF Communications Department
MEDIA RELATIONS

PRESS OFFICER: Gediminas Vilkas

Phone: +1 202 623-7100Email: MEDIA@IMF.org

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