Kazakhstan’s leader orders raid on oil fund to support growth

Kazakhstan, populated by just 17 million, saw its gross domestic product expand by 6 percent last year

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Kazakhstan’s President Nursultan Nazarbayev ordered officials on Friday to raid the country’s strategic oil reserve and slash banks’ bad loans, stamping his authority on the economy in an effort to prevent growth rates from slipping.

Nazarbayev, who has ruled the oil-rich nation for more than two decades, said the government should use 1 trillion tenge ($5.4 billion) from the rainy-day fund to boost the economy during 2014 and 2015.

Speaking days after a close-to 20 percent devaluation of the tenge to deter speculators, he also told the central bank to cut the share of non-performing loans (NPLs) in the banking sector in half by next year.

The banks’ $22.7 billion of bad loans accounted for 31.4 percent of their loan portfolios at the start of this year and analysts said the reduction target would be “hard to achieve.”

“We will have ... to resort to the reserves of the state to administer emergency aid to our economy in a bid to ensure its 6-7 percent growth, as we forecast earlier,” Nazarbayev told a government meeting.

“This is why, in order to make long money available to the economy, I am taking a decision to issue long-term credits worth a total of 1 trillion tenge ($5.4 billion) for our economy in 2014-2015.”

Burden of bad loans

Kazakhstan, a vast steppe nation five times the size of France but populated by just 17 million, saw its gross domestic product expand by 6 percent last year after 5 percent in 2012.

But its banks were hit hard because of their high exposure to foreign borrowing and the bloated real estate market.

International financial institutions say that a significant share of non-performing loans (NPLs) in the portfolio of local banks remains a drag on the country’s economic growth.

Nazarbayev told the central bank to reduce the share of banks’ NPLs to 15 percent by 2015 and to 10 percent by 2016.

“We believe that this task is hard to achieve,” investment company Asyl Invest said in a research note sent to Reuters.

“The main problem is that it is mainly real estate that acts as collateral on bad loans,” it said. “But real estate is hard to sell for some reasons.”

It also cited local bankers as saying that tax privileges granted for writing off bad loans were not very efficient.

Tap the national fund

Nazarbayev said the money for the long-term credits will come from the National Fund, popularly tagged “the fund for future generations,” which collects windfall oil export revenues and was worth $71.1 billion at the end of last year.

“We believe that $5.4 billion is a considerable sum for Kazakhstan’s economy, and it is set to give an impetus to the development of small and mid-sized businesses,” Asyl Invest’s research note said.

The central bank devalued the national currency by 19 percent on Tuesday to about 185 per dollar to prevent large-scale foreign exchange speculation and adjust to a freer rouble float in neighboring Russia, Kazakhstan’s main trading partner.

Nazarbayev, a 73-year-old former steelworker, said on Wednesday that the devaluation was a boon for the economy, but told the central bank to keep the currency stable within its new range of 185 per dollar plus/minus 3 tenge.