Economic growth in Bhutan is forecast to strengthen moderately, buoyed by the industry and services sectors, according to a new Asian Development Bank (ADB) report.
The Asian Development Outlook (ADO) 2019, ADB’s flagship annual economic publication, forecasts the economy to grow at 5.7% this year and 6.0% in 2020. This is following the slipping of growth for a second year running to 5.5% in fiscal year (FY) 2018 on slower hydropower construction and temporary decline in electric power production.
“The expected commissioning of the Mangdechhu hydropower plant, strengthening of private spending, and increased government spending following the formation of a new government to implement the Twelfth Five-Year Plan will greatly contribute to growth,” said ADB Country Director for Bhutan Ms. Kanokpan Lao-Araya. “Inflationary pressure is anticipated following the recent announcement of expected pay rise of the public servants in Bhutan. A downside risk to growth forecasts would be any further delay in commissioning or lower-than-expected production capacity of the Mangdechhu hydropower plant.”
Inflation is expected to rise moderately from 3.6% in FY2018 to 3.8% in FY2019 before edging up to 4.0% in FY2020 as initial benefits from India’s goods and service tax (GST) taper and Indian inflation trends higher. Lower international oil price forecasts will help keep inflation at bay, but the planned revisions to civil service salaries and minimum wage might push up inflation, once implemented.
Current account deficit will continue to narrow further to a forecast of 16.9% of gross domestic product in FY2019, mainly on declining imports with the slowing of hydropower construction and a 6-month hiatus in capital expenditure as the country transitioned to a new administration. It is expected to shrink further in FY2020, as higher imports because of the picking up of government investment is offset by high export revenue from the full-year operation of the Mangdechhu hydropower plant.
Strengthening domestic resources toward better funding of development remains a challenge. With the expected graduation of Bhutan from the United Nations’ least developed country status in 2023, access to concessional official development assistance will increasingly be limited. Reforms have been undertaken to strengthen the mobilization of revenues to fund development. These include the creation of a stabilization fund to ensure even distribution of expenditure, a GST regime which is planned to be adopted in 2020, and reforms on provision of fiscal incentives. Fiscal incentives have been costly for the government with forgone revenue amounting to 17% of tax collected in 2017 only. Reduction of fiscal incentives, particularly tax reforms could be explored to raise government revenues, discourage the entry of footloose opportunists, while not deterring investors who see solid business opportunities in the country. Further, Bhutan needs to simplify the provision and administration of incentives without compromising the level of investment. As a complement to revenue reforms, public financial management needs further strengthening to ensure the proper collection and administration of revenue.
ADB has been supporting Bhutan since 1982, with strong emphasis on renewable energy production, transport connectivity, and key urban infrastructure projects. ADB has committed loans totaling $534.06 million, grants worth $269.22 million, and technical assistance amounting to $53.75 million for Bhutan. In 2018, it approved four projects, including two grant projects focusing on human resource development, particularly on skills and health development. Overall assistance aims to help generate revenue, support inclusive growth, and promote environmental sustainability.