On October 6, 2017, the Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation1 with Zambia.
The near-term outlook for the Zambian economy has improved in recent months, driven by good rains and rising world copper price. The economy was in near-crisis from the fourth quarter of 2015 through most of 2016, reflecting the impacts of exogenous shocks and lax fiscal policy in the lead up to general elections. Low copper prices reduced export earnings and government revenues, while poor rainfall in the catchment areas of hydro-power reservoirs led to a marked reduction in electricity generation and severe power rationing. A sharp depreciation of the kwacha fueled inflation which rose from an annual rate of 7 percent in mid-2015 to nearly 23 percent in February 2016.
Tight monetary policy succeeded in stabilizing the exchange rate and slowing down inflation to 6.3 percent in August 2017, but contributed to elevated stress in the financial system evidenced by a sharp rise in nonperforming loans and a plunge in the growth of credit to the private sector. Stress tests suggest that the banks are resilient to credit and liquidity pressures, but the financial system faces considerable risks, owing to high dependence on copper exports, rising public debt and funding pressures.
Fiscal imbalances have remained high. The fiscal deficit on a cash basis reached 9.3 percent of GDP in 2015, twice the budgeted level. On a commitment basis—taking into account accumulation of arrears and delays in paying VAT refunds—the deficit exceeded 12 percent of GDP in 2015, and remained elevated at about 9 percent of GDP in 2016. The deficit on a commitment basis is projected to decline significantly in 2017, but the cash deficit will remain elevated as the government clears arrears.
Public debt has been rising at an unsustainable pace and has crowded out lending to the private sector and increased the vulnerability of the economy. The outstanding public and publicly guaranteed debt rose sharply from 36 percent of GDP at end-2014 to 60 percent at end-2016, driven largely by external borrowing and the impact of exchange rate depreciation. Increased participation of foreign investors in the government securities market has eased the government’s financing constraint but has made the economy more vulnerable to swings in market sentiments and capital flow reversals.
The medium-term outlook for the economy is contingent on policies. Real GDP growth has picked up after a marked deceleration from 7.6 percent in 2012 to 2.9 percent in 2015.
Growth is projected to reach 4 percent in 2017. However, achieving sustained high and inclusive growth requires a stable macroeconomic environment as well as policies and reforms to increase productivity, enhance competitiveness, strengthen human capital and support financial inclusion for small and medium scale enterprises. Domestic risks to the outlook include delayed fiscal adjustment which would continue to crowd out credit to private sector and entrench an unsustainable debt situation, and unfavorable weather conditions which would affect hydro power generation and agricultural output. External risks include tighter global financial conditions and volatility in the world copper price.