Domestic Economy

IMF: Iran Returning to Positive Growth

IMF: Iran Returning  to Positive GrowthIMF: Iran Returning  to Positive Growth

An International Monetary Fund team, led by Martin Cerisola, assistant director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department, visited Tehran during September 19–30 to conduct the 2015 Article IV Consultation discussions.

Aasim M. Husain, deputy director of the Middle East and Central Asia Department, also participated in some of the discussions.

The IMF team exchanged views with senior officials of the Central Bank of Iran and the Management and Planning Organization and other government agencies on recent developments in the Iranian economy, near-term outlook, macroeconomic policies and structural reforms, the IMF's website reported.

The team also met with a wide range of public sector officials and representatives of the business community, academia and trade unions.

Based on the visit, a staff report will be prepared and presented to the IMF’s Executive Board in early December.

At the conclusion of the visit, Cerisola issued the following statement:

The agreement on Iran’s nuclear program and the envisaged lifting of economic sanctions bring a unique opportunity to build on and broaden the achievements of the past two years. Prudent policies have allowed the economy to return to positive growth last year and to reduce inflation to around 15%. The authorities have also regained stability in the foreign exchange market and advanced with subsidy reform.

However, the economy faces severe structural challenges. The sharp decline in global oil prices has cooled off the momentum in economic activity. The corporate sector confronts weak demand with large inventories and low capacity utilization. The banking system faces high nonperforming assets that have resulted in unsustainably high real interest rates and stagnant credit to the economy. Arrears accumulated by the public sector over the past two years compound these problems. As of December 2014, unemployment remained at 10.5%.

The economy is weak at present. The sharp decline in global oil prices, tight corporate and bank balance sheets, and postponed consumption and investment decisions ahead of the expected lifting of economic sanctions, have significantly slowed down economic activity since the fourth quarter of 2014/15. The economy may have contracted during the first half of 2015/16, and as a result, real GDP growth is projected to decline from 3% in 2014/15 to somewhere between 0.5 and -0.5% in 2015/16, depending on the exact timing of the expected lifting of sanctions.

Twelve-month (point-to-point) inflation has declined to around 12% in recent months, largely reflecting lower food and beverage inflation, and the inflation rate is expected to remain close to 14% by year-end.

Prospects for 2016/17 are brighter. Higher oil production, lower costs for trade and financial transactions, and restored access to foreign assets, would be expected to lift real GDP to about 4–5.5% next year. A significant part of this growth would be the result of higher oil production (of at least 0.6 mbpd to an official estimate of 1 mbpd), with lower trade and financial transaction costs accounting for 0.75–1 percentage point of growth.

Much of the acceleration in growth would also depend on the spillovers from higher oil production to the rest of the economy. Higher oil revenue and terms of trade, and renewed access to foreign assets and capital can lead to appreciation pressures on the real exchange rate.

Continued gradual fiscal consolidation—including by sustaining tax revenue mobilization and subsidy reform efforts—and prudent monetary policy, anchored by the authorities’ goal of achieving single-digit inflation by the end of 2016/17, can mitigate these upward pressures. The authorities’ intention to unify the foreign exchange market while preserving a competitive real exchange rate is welcome.

Comprehensive reforms are critical to ensure that the envisaged lifting of economic sanctions entrenches macroeconomic stability and leads to high and inclusive growth over the medium term. The authorities have taken important steps over the past year, by completing an initial financial health check of the banking system, and by preparing drafts to reform banking and central bank laws to strengthen the frameworks for prudential supervision and monetary policy.

They have also started to work on measures to address the linkages between government arrears to suppliers, nonperforming loans and public debt to banks. Further reforms are now needed for the policy framework to be able to respond more effectively to shocks and achieve price stability, by bringing more of a medium-term perspective to fiscal policy formulation, rebuilding buffers and enhancing transparency, and by operationally strengthening the CBI to deal with unlicensed financial institutions.

Enhancing the business environment, governance and restructuring the corporate and financial sectors will enhance productivity growth and reduce unemployment, especially among youth and women. The complexity and extent of the problems require strong political leadership and support for decisive and coordinated action.

Risks to the outlook are significant and longer-term prospects will depend crucially on the depth of reforms that are undertaken. Uncertainties about the implementation of the nuclear agreement could constrain foreign direct investment and capital inflows. Iran’s full return to the oil market could bring oil prices down further and force additional fiscal adjustment.

Domestically, nonperforming loans and tight cash flows in the financial and corporate sectors may undermine investment. Pent-up demands from different sectors may also pose some risks to macroeconomic stability.

Ultimately, if mild reforms are implemented, the sanctions relief will have only a moderate positive impact on the economy. If, on the other hand, more assertive and deeper reforms along the lines outlined above are carried out, the boost to confidence and investment inflows would put Iran’s economy on a significantly higher growth trajectory.