Interview with Grigory Marchenko, the head of the National Bank
The crisis came down to nothing or we just got used to live in its terms, taking it as an inescapable reality? The economy is stuck at the notorious bifurcation point and what to expect now: an increase or a new wave of setback? These issues are still hotly debated in society. Discarding the emotions and looking at the situation on the basis of the indicators of bygone years, the head of the National Bank, Grigory Marchenko, offers his view.
- To remind you the key results of the economic growth of Kazakhstan according to official sources in 2009: economic growth was 1,1%, industrial growth – 1,7%. While the predictions at the start of the last year were very pessimistic. Today, experts agree that a positive result was achieved by taking proper anticrisis measures in many ways. The effectiveness of the Government, the National Bank and AFS, summing up the very difficult year, were voiced by the Head of the State in his speech: “The world financial and economic crisis affected the pace of economic growth but did not stop our development. Past economic potential provided us with stability in difficult crisis battles for three years. We have defended the country’s financial system and rescued banks. We were in a “breakout group” of countries with positive growth rates. Gross international reserves and assets of the National Fund already exceeded $ 50 billion and has increased over the past ten years for more than 25 times. It is important to note that we spent part of the funds last year, but yet today the fund is bigger than in December of last year.” Today’s priority is to prepare the economy for the post-crisis development. So, are we done with the page addressed to the crisis and its emotional perception?
- There are lee emotions now and you can safely talk about it, because accusations, made and not made, in fact, have accumulated a lot, said the head of the National Bank. – The fact that they are mostly emotions, economically unfounded or financially illiterate, is obvious. In particular, the question: why did we have the devaluation? Even today there is still some views that it could not have been done. But this is misleading.
- Gregoriy Aleksandrovich, to be honest, some measures, particularly February devaluation, seemed very hard, painful, ill-founded a year ago.
- Shall we recall what happened before? Prices for raw materials, which is our main export item and an essential part of the economy, fell two or three times. In autumn 2008 the country’s neighbors devalued the currency: Russia – 50%, Ukraine – almost 60%. In January 2009, our industrial production fell by 18% in a month. This reduction was for those industries that competed with cheap imports of Russia or Ukrainian (more than two-thirds of them). All that we had already passed in 1998-1999! We also had no internal reasons for the devaluation. But there was a default in Russia. There was an abrupt devaluation, and all of Russian, Ukrainian, Belarusian goods fell sharply in price in dollar terms and poured into our market. They were much cheaper than domestic goods, which costs could not compete with them. As a result, our enterprises had problems: first, they began to go to work in one shift, then began to send people to unpaid leave …
Many financiers saw the devaluation as the only exit in January and February 1999. Although, personally, I was not its advocate. At that time I was a member of the working group, and we were opposing devaluation, believing that we could solve those problems by methods of tax and customs policy of the state. It did not happen. And the National Bank introduced a freely floating exchange rate in April 1999.
In January 2009, there were similar factors and other circumstances. For example, during one month the net purchase of US dollars was amounted to two billion dollars in exchange offices! For our system is an absolute record.
In addition, during the same month the flow of deposits in tenge currency to foreign currency was 3,8 billion dollars. Thus, everybody understood what was happening and began a massive withdrawal into dollars. These factors clearly indicated that the devaluation was absolutely inevitable. The question was only how to do it. But that was what exactly I had to do in a week after taking the office; I did not come up with a scheme. By this decision, I repeat, we summed up the real situation.
- Was there an alternative to implement schemes, for example, the gradual devaluation, as in neighboring Russia?
- The decline in industrial production, the massive buying of dollars and flow of tenge deposits into foreign currency clearly said that the devaluation had to be done before and that we were already late. From the standpoint of economic theory it should have been carried out in October, when commodity prices fell. That happened, for example, in Australia, Canada, Norway. These countries, like Kazakhstan, are commodity exporters. There, the exchange rate in just a few weeks fell to 26% in Australia, at 28% in Canada and 40% in Norway. There was also a second option: to devalue along with Russia in mid-November. Neither the first, nor the second option had been made. Therefore, the only way out was to conduct a one-stage devaluation in February 2009.
- It is believed, that as a result investors, individuals, who kept their savings in tenge, became the most aggrieved party…
- According to the National Bank, Kazakhstan depositor shifted to the foreign currency deposits 20% savings in four months (November 2008 – February 2009), and in Russia, despite the gradual devaluation – 18%. That is, our people had shifted more money: all who wanted to protect savings which was done before the devaluation. In that case we had no leaks of deposits. And it was in Russia: 300 billion left the banking system, but later returned. I also recall that during the last decade the National Bank has always insisted that you should not keep all your savings in one basket. It is necessary to divide the savings in the proportion of 50 to 50. And then the currency fluctuations between them are not scary. Investors who adhere to this rule were not affected by the devaluation.
If we compare the scheme of the devaluation, let’s judge their performance. In Kazakhstan GDP grew, albeit a little bit; in Russia it fell for 7,9%. Inflation in the neighboring countries was 8,8% in 2009. In Kazakhstan – 6,2%. This one and a half times lower compared to 2008 (9.5%). Although, I remind you that some of the most pessimistic “experts” promised us inflation at 25%. The forecasts of the same “experts” on the second round of devaluation were not justified as well. They frighten people that the dollar would cost 180 tenge. It’s possible even now to hear such predictions, but if the “experts” regularly mistaken before, then why do people believe them now?
I think the important lesson of the last year is that the National Bank, publicly designating its policy, was adhered to it: we did all that we promised. The National Bank marked the corridor, and it passed. And the corridor was even narrower in reality. We promised that there would be more inflation but it did not let that happen. We said that there would be a small growth in GDP, and it was so. However, even more than we planned. We have done everything correctly, and all our predictions were confirmed.
I think the situation with international reserves (gold reserves) of Kazakhstan is fully restored: the total gold and foreign assets (GFA) of the country stand at 52.7 billion dollars now. But it’s more than before the crisis, despite the fact that we spent 10 billion dollars from the national fund for the anti-crisis measures.
- It is common knowledge that you are not a fan of analysts and experts. However, the National Bank uses forecasting and planning. What is, in your opinion, permissible prediction error?
- We have no, unfortunately, serious analysts or an authoritative analytical community. However, many foreign analysts do not differ in their validity and accuracy of forecasts as well. For example, they predicted the deficit of current account balance at minus-six – eight per cent of GDP in 2008 for us, but it was actually plus five percent! Error in 12 billion dollars! However, the same experts come again and give forecasts for Kazakhstan in 2010. But if the experts do not understand the economy, do not understand its significant difference from the economies of Europe or Russia, they should not give forecasts, or give them, but cautiously, with these caveats in mind.
I, personally, and the National Bank, would gladly welcome a serious analytical community, but there are just a few good analysts. I can name one of them – Jonathan Schiffer, the vice president of Moody’s, who is responsible for Kazakhstan since 1996. Before he was a professor at the Columbia University and worked on the Soviet economy. There are just a few people who understand the nature, essence, the origins of the national economy, its specificity and the mentality of the population. Everything matters in the analysis, even, for example, the notion of “sedentary” or “nomads”. And who, for example, knows in Europe what is a nomadic lifestyle and the customs and traditions that it generates?
- For example, the Roma …
- But they do not work as analysts! But if to talk seriously, the National Bank is constantly analyzing the situation and makes predictions. It prepares and not guesses. But even in serious prognosis some errors are allowed. So, we gave the forecast for GDP growth of 0,3%, but it turned out – 1,1%. The volume of GDP at current prices, according to operative data of the Statistics Agency, reached 15.9 trillion in 2009. Let me remind you, some analysts predicted the fall of the main indicators, but in practice it was an increase. That is, first, the trend was identified incorrectly. This is a principle mistake. Secondly, there is an error of calculation – not even for a few percents, but in times. Therefore, the National Bank indicates the corridor in forecasts. And if the process goes in limits of this corridor, the exact approach is correct.
- Grigory Aleksandrovich, I remember well your interviews with our newspaper three-four years ago, when you warned about the mortgage bubble and would predict that it would burst. It happened. Many mortgage based businesses were in a difficult situation. What to do now?
- They are all adults, and if they assume such risks in the market economy, they should be responsible. And I do not see other ways but to negotiate with your bank, explain what the essence of problems is and how the debt can be restructured. There are people who really were in a difficult situation because of the crisis circumstances among the borrowers. But many of them wanted to do business on the growth of prices in the real estate market. That is another story – this is a market risk rather than social risk. In addition, we estimate that one third of borrowers could not service their loans, even if there was no crisis and there would be no devaluation. And there are many lessons to be learned for everybody, because some borrowers used dishonest tricks in efforts to confirm their ability to pay. For example, they provide banks with non-existent income statements.
- To sum up: how does the National Bank evaluate the outcome of the devaluation, does it achieve its goals?
- The results clearly show that our decision was necessary and correct. One-stage devaluation immediately reduced the pressure on the national currency and devaluation expectations, increased the competitiveness of Kazakhstani goods by reducing their costs, improved the balance of payments, and maintained gold reserves of the National Bank and the country. In addition, despite the devaluation, the total amount of residents’ deposits in the banking system for the year increased by 19.7% to $ 6,473 billion tenge. Moreover, individual deposits grew by 28.5%, exceeding 1.8 trillion tenge.
- Your term “asymmetric apron” gave an incentive for new forecasts. In particular, it was about a more pronounced correlation of tenge exchange rate with the rate of the ruble, which includes the establishment of the Customs Union. Are these assumptions reasonable?
- In principle, the establishment of the Customs Union should not have any pressure on tenge exchange rate in relation to Russia’s ruble as well as it does not require an adjustment in the monetary policy of the National Bank. However, one of the potential risks involved with the creation of the Customs Union is a risk of rising inflation. However, if implemented, the National Bank has the necessary tools to minimize it.
- The head of the state demanded banks to cut off from overtly or covertly affiliated entities, to ensure that they are engaged exclusively in banking activities and that their activity should be very transparent. What measures are supposed to take?
- First, it is necessary to tighten control over the ongoing intra-group transactions and prudential supervision of banking conglomerates. Secondly, it’s necessary to improve measures on transparency of the ownership structure of financial institutions and affiliated organizations. Today, there is a working group, based on the AFS, is being established to develop a bill which will ensure the transparency of banks and their exclusive affiliation with other entities. It will also include representatives of the National Bank of Kazakhstan.
- Evaluating the outcomes of anti-crisis program in 2009, do you consider it necessary to continue the state support for the banking sector?
- The main achievement of bygone years that the banking system of Kazakhstan is relatively successfully coped with the negative impact of the second wave of the crisis. Problems of individual large banks do not have the problems of the whole system, and they successfully complete the restructuring process. In general, a package of anti-crisis measures helped to overcome some of the most dangerous consequences of the crisis. In particular, to overcome the shortage of credit on the most important sectors of the economy and avoid a collapse as a result of underfunding.
If we talk about stabilizing activities in the current year, I think, success will depend on the concerted action of the Government, AFS and the National Bank. We have already identified the main directions of work. First, to support exchange rate stability of tenge and the level of liquidity of the money market.
This is the main task of the National Bank. Secondly, it is necessary to accelerate the healing process of bank balances and to clean their low-quality assets.
Thirdly, there is a need to develop a set of measures that will stimulate the credit activity of banks in the post-crisis phase. Fourthly, it is necessary to make the transition to a countercyclical management and improved risk management systems in financial institutions. Finally, fifthly, there is a need to develop a set of measures to reduce the level of economic imbalances and systemic risks.
I think that, it is not worth to cease the direct support of the banking sector completely in 2010 because the current state of the banking sector is largely dependent on state support, which allows overcoming the shortage of funding banks. However, there should be a gradual reduction in state aid and stimulus to the process of finding new sources of funding.
The interview is taken by Alevtina DON