IMF Report: Malta – 2013 Article IV Consultation Concluding Statement
Macroeconomic outlook and challenges
1. Malta has shown remarkable resilience in the face of a major crisis in Europe and its main challenge is to preserve this macroeconomic stability. Average growth of the Maltese economy (relative to historical average) has been the best in the euro area since the beginning of the crisis and the unemployment rate remains one of the lowest. This resilience was underpinned by robust export growth and a sound banking system. The current account balance has improved gradually in recent years, turning into surplus in 2012. However, economic growth slowed to about ¾ per cent in 2012 and remains below potential, reflecting a weak external environment and subdued domestic demand. In addition, the fiscal position has deteriorated and the level of public debt is uncomfortably high, constraining the fiscal space for manoeuvre in the event of further shocks.
2. Going forward, domestic demand is expected to become a larger contributor to economic growth. The mission projects a moderate acceleration in real GDP growth in 2013-15, which means that Malta would continue to outperform the euro area average. The pick-up in activity is predicated on the recovery of private consumption and improved confidence, as policy uncertainty decreases. While this would lead to some increase in imports, the current account balance is projected to remain slightly positive.
3. Short-term risks to this scenario are largely related to the external environment. A protracted period of slower growth in Europe, or re-emergence of euro area financial stress if policy momentum is not sustained, would negatively affect the economy through the trade channel. In addition, close financial integration with the euro area entails a spillover risk via banking and financial markets channels. However, relatively strong fundamentals in Malta, including a comfortable external position, very small reliance on external financing by the government, a resilient financial system, and relatively healthy balance sheets of households and nonfinancial corporates limit the vulnerability against these risks.
4. In the longer term, regulatory and tax reform at the European or global level could erode Malta’s competitiveness. The Maltese economy, including the financial sector and other niche services, has greatly benefited from a business-friendly tax regime. Greater fiscal integration of EU member states and potential harmonisation of tax rates could erode some of these benefits, with consequences on employment, output and fiscal revenues.
5. Against this background, policies should aim at maintaining macroeconomic and financial stability, safeguarding fiscal sustainability and enhancing the growth potential. The mission’s key recommendations to the authorities are the following:
– In the banking sector, improve coverage of bank nonperforming loans through higher provisioning requirements;
– Stand ready to take action if the international banks’ business model changes or spillovers from abroad become imminent;
– Increase the resources of the deposit compensation scheme at least to the level implied by the draft EU proposal on the harmonisation of the deposit insurance;
– Pursue a credible adjustment of fiscal policy until the budget is balanced and debt is put on a sustainable path;
– Continue restructuring large public corporations with a view to restore their viability, enhance their efficiency and reduce contingent liabilities of the government;
– Persevere with the structural reform agenda to boost potential growth and competitiveness.
6. Recent events in Europe have heightened perceptions about risks of hosting a large banking sector in a small country. In the case of Malta, these risks are contained because the large international banking segment has limited balance sheet exposures to the Maltese economy and negligible contingent claims on the deposit compensation scheme. The authorities should, nonetheless, continue monitoring closely developments in all banks, including links between foreign parent banks and their Maltese entities. The authorities should also stand ready to take action if spillovers from abroad become imminent or the internationally-oriented banks increase their exposure to the domestic economy. In this context, the mission supports the recent introduction of more frequent monitoring of banks’ liquidity.
7. Near-term risks related to the core domestic banks appear to be contained. Despite turbulence in the euro area, the performance of Maltese banks has been satisfactory. Banks report adequate capitalisation, liquidity, and profitability and are well positioned to transition to the Basel III regime. In contrast to many European countries, banks’ deposits and credit to the private sector continued to increase in 2012, albeit at a slower pace than in 2010-11. However, these banks are heavily exposed to the local property market and non-performing loans are on the rise, reflecting subdued conditions in the construction and real estate sectors. A significant decline in house prices, although not likely in the short-term, could have a sizeable impact on the domestic banking sector.
8. Further efforts in several specific areas are still needed to shore up the resilience of Maltese banks and ensure financial stability.
The coverage of nonperforming loans by provisions is relatively low. Despite ample availability of collateral, the authorities should tighten provisioning rules in order to increase the available buffers to cover loan losses. These should take into account slow judicial procedures and historical recovery rates. Current efforts in this direction by the Malta Financial Services Authority and the Central Bank of Malta are welcome.
There is room to strengthen crisis preparedness and management frameworks in line with the forthcoming reforms at the European level. This would require boosting the resources of the deposit insurance scheme and improve the legal framework for bank resolution. Recent amendments to the regulations on deposit insurance are a step in the right direction. However, more needs to be done in view of sizeable contingent liabilities (relative to the size of the economy) and potential large increase in deposits covered by the scheme as a result of the forthcoming EU directive.
The largest banks will be placed under the direct oversight of the ECB from 2014. The MFSA should work closely with the ECB to ensure no reduction in the supervisory capacity of these banks.
In light of the rapid growth in online gaming and financial sector activities, all relevant institutions should maintain an effective anti-money laundering framework, which will be important to preserve the reputation of the Maltese financial sector.
Strong financial sector oversight is a critical pillar to financial stability. In this regard, the mission welcomes the establishment of the Joint Financial Stability Board to conduct macro-prudential policy. The mission also encourages the authorities to undertake an IMF Financial Sector Assessment Programme.
9. Government’s objective to balance the budget over the medium-term remains essential, but it requires credible and sustainable consolidation efforts. After notable progress in 2011, the fiscal deficit widened to 3.3% of GDP in 2012 amid the election cycle, triggering a reassessment of Malta’s public finances under the EU Excessive Deficit Procedure. Discretionary measures in the 2013 budget are expansionary and tax revenues appear optimistic in light of the moderate growth outlook and developments so far. Therefore, the mission urges the Maltese authorities to adopt additional measures to ensure that the deficit falls below 3% ofGDP in 2013 and public debt is put back on a sustainable path. These measures should be designed to contain the fast growth in current spending, while preserving capital spending. The focus should be on tightening controls on the growth of health spending, greater use of means-testing for government benefits, and containing the wage bill through prudent collective wage agreements and compression of public sector employment through attrition.
10. Restoring the profitability and viability of large public corporations is crucial to alleviate fiscal pressures. The high level of government-guaranteed debt and delicate financial position of Enemalta and Airmalta heighten concerns about fiscal sustainability. Progress on the restructuring of Airmalta appears on track and the restructuring plan of Enemalta was approved in December 2012. In this context, budget assistance to Enemalta needs to be phased out, as it crowds out priority public spending. The mission supports government’s objective to reduce energy costs – one of the highest in the EU – and diversify energy sources to reduce Malta’s dependence on oil. However, any reduction in electricity tariffs should be contingent on the success of the government’s strategy to reduce costs and restore Enemalta’s financial health.
11. Further progress is needed to strengthen the fiscal governance framework. The authorities need to undertake the necessary reforms to ensure that the fiscal framework meets the EU requirements under the six-pack and fiscal compact by end of 2013. A clear rule-based multi-year fiscal policy framework would reinforce the linkage between annual budget laws and the medium-term target. Fiscal discipline and governance should also be strengthened by establishing an independent fiscal council to guide and assess government’s consolidation efforts.
12. Steady implementation of structural reforms is critical to boost potential growth and ensure sustainability of public finances. The mission welcomes government’s recent adoption of the National Reform Programme that includes specific measures in different areas. Pension reform remains a priority to ease long-term fiscal pressures. In particular, the retirement age should be aligned with life expectancy, and second and third pension pillars should be introduced. The latter, which would require an appropriate legal framework, would support the development of the local capital market and allow households to diversify their sources of savings. Continued efforts are also needed to strengthen female labour participation and educational attainment. Ongoing efforts to incentivise and support job search are welcome. Education reforms should focus on promoting greater social inclusion and linking vocational training more closely with labour market needs.
13. With Malta’s growth model increasingly dependent on financial and niche services, measures to broaden competitiveness would help diversify the economy. The authorities should ensure better alignment of wages and productivity at the enterprise level, promote foreign investment, improve the judicial system and promptly implement structural reforms. This is particularly important at a time when many of Malta’s trading partners are undergoing internal devaluation, fiscal consolidation and structural reforms to restore their competitiveness. More generally, these reforms would make the economy less vulnerable to sectoral setbacks and more resilient to a potential harmonisation of tax rates at the EU level.