Saudis Risk Draining Financial Assets in 5 Years, IMF Says

Saudi Assets at Risk as Spending Outpaces Oil Revenue
  • Estimate based on current fiscal policies amid oil's slump
  • Saudi authorities are already planning spending cuts

Saudi Arabia may run out of financial assets needed to support spending within five years if the government maintains current policies, the International Monetary Fund said, underscoring the need of measures to shore up public finances amid the drop in oil prices.

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The same is true of Bahrain and Oman in the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council, the IMF said in a report on Wednesday. Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates have relatively more financial assets that could support them for more than 20 years, the Washington-based lender said.

Saudi authorities are already planning spending cuts as the world’s biggest oil exporter seeks to cut its budget deficit. Officials have repeatedly said that the kingdom’s economy, the Arab world’s biggest, is strong enough to weather the plunge in crude prices as it did in similar crises, when its finances were under more strain.

But the IMF said measures being considered by oil exporters “are likely to be inadequate to achieve the needed medium-term fiscal consolidation," the IMF said. “Under current policies, countries would run out of buffers in less than five years because of large fiscal deficits."

Reserve Accumulation

Saudi Arabia accumulated hundreds of billions of dollars in the past decade to help the economy absorb the shock of falling prices. The kingdom’s debt as a percentage of gross domestic product fell to less than 2 percent in 2014, the lowest in the world.

The recent decline in the price of crude, which accounts for about 80 percent of Saudi’s revenue, is prompting the government to delay projects and sell bonds for the first time since 2007. Net foreign assets fell to the lowest level in more than two years in August, with the kingdom fighting a war in Yemen and avoiding economic policies that could trigger social or political unrest.

Budget Deficit

The IMF expects Saudi’s budget deficit to rise to more than 20 percent of gross domestic product this year after King Salman announced one-time bonuses for public-sector workers following his accession to the throne in January. The deficit is expected to be 19.4 percent in 2016.

“There have been a number of one-off spending proposals this year that have taken place, and those initiatives have added to the spending needs,” Masood Ahmed, director of the Middle East and Central Asia department at the IMF, said in an interview in Dubai.

“The budget deficit in Saudi Arabia does go down substantially as a share of GDP over the next five years but it still remains high over this period, all the more reason to identify ways in which it can be brought down further to more a manageable level," he said.

David Butter, associate fellow at Chatham House in London, said a crisis isn’t imminent.

“They have options of borrowing and then they have other options in terms of structural reform, developing some sort of effective tax policy, maybe some privatization,” he said by phone. Still, if the government doesn’t develop sustainable non-oil revenue over the next 5 to 10 years, “then of course, they’re in big trouble," he said.

The benchmark Tadawul All Share Index for stocks declined 1.7 percent at 12:35 p.m. in Riyadh, extending its drop over the past year to 25 percent. The MSCI Emerging Market Index has fallen 12 percent over the same period.

Debt Sales

The kingdom’s net foreign assets fell for a seventh month to $654.5 billion at the end of August. Saudi Arabia has raised 55 billion riyals ($14.7 billion) from debt issuance this year. The IMF expects the debt-to-GDP ratio to grow to 17 percent next year.

Saudi Arabia has led the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in boosting production to defend market share even as prices plunged below $50 a barrel, abandoning its previous role of cutting output to boost prices.

Analysts have said Oman and Bahrain face greater risks than their wealthier neighbors from the decline in crude prices, with less oil to sell, thinner fiscal buffers and in Bahrain’s case, more debt.

The IMF expects Oman’s budget deficit to widen to 17.7 percent of GDP this year and 20 percent in 2016. For Bahrain, the fund expects the shortfall to stand at 14.2 percent in 2015 and 13.9 percent next year.