Public Information Notices

Austria and the IMF





Public Information Notice (PIN) No. 00/58
August 8, 2000
International Monetary Fund
700 19th Street, NW
Washington, D.C. 20431 USA

IMF Concludes Article IV Consultation with Austria

Public Information Notices (PINs) form part of the IMF's efforts to promote transparency of the IMF's views and analysis of economic developments and policies. With the consent of the country (or countries) concerned, PINs are issued after Executive Board discussions of Article IV consultations with member countries, of its surveillance of developments at the regional level, of post-program monitoring, and of ex post assessments of member countries with longer-term program engagements. PINs are also issued after Executive Board discussions of general policy matters, unless otherwise decided by the Executive Board in a particular case.

On August 3, 2000, the Executive Board concluded the 2000 Article IV consultation with Austria.1

Background

Barely dented by the global slump in late 1998 and early 1999, the Austrian economy has been growing at an annual rate in excess of 3 percent since mid-1999. The vigorous expansion is sustained by both external and internal factors: merchandise exports are benefiting from Austria's close links with the reforming central and eastern European countries and from the recovery in the EU; fiscal stimulus from tax cuts and increased social transfers as well as healthy employment gains are sustaining a rapid expansion in private consumption; and monetary conditions remain expansionary despite the recent increases in official interest rates. Inflation is low: although the increase in oil prices boosted headline consumer price inflation to 1.6 percent in May, underlying inflation remains at around 1 percent. An increase in indirect taxes in June is expected to push prices further up. Benefiting from rapid growth and intensified labor market programs, the unemployment rate has dropped to about 3½ percent of the labor force, the third lowest in the euro area.

Fiscal policy has essentially been on hold, following a major consolidation effort in 1996-97 amounting to some 3 percent of GDP. The primary underlying surplus―the general government balance net of interest payments, cyclical effects, subsidized lending, and one-off measures―was roughly unchanged during 1998-99, and is expected to fall slightly in 2000. At about 53¾ percent of GDP, the expenditure-to-GDP ratio is the highest in the euro area. Last year, public sector debt increased to nearly 65 percent of GDP, reflecting the appreciation of dollar and yen denominated debt.

Experience with deregulation in the telecommunications and electricity sectors has been encouraging: increased competition in these sectors has brought about substantial price reductions and a booming supply of new services. Moreover, greater emphasis on active labor market policies and innovative programs like job coaching and training have been instrumental in reducing unemployment. On the other hand, little progress has been made in reducing red tape, liberalizing access to professions, and rationalizing market regulation.

The new government, sworn in on February 4, 2000, has announced its intention to achieve fiscal balance by 2002, and to accelerate structural reform, including privatization.

The prospects for a sustained expansion are good. Strong external demand and continued economic liberalization should contribute to sustaining economic expansion at a rate of close to 3 percent per annum in 2001-02.

Executive Board Assessment

Executive Directors commended the authorities for the achievement of strong economic growth, subdued inflation, and low unemployment, which had been facilitated by cooperation with the social partners. Fiscal consolidation and structural reforms undertaken since EU membership in 1995 had also contributed importantly. Directors cautioned, however, that, with fiscal consolidation stalled since 1998 and structural reforms still incomplete, Austria's good economic performance could be jeopardized by an unexpected weakening in the external environment. They therefore stressed that the ongoing strong economic expansion offered ideal conditions for the new government to press ahead with the fiscal and structural reforms.

Directors welcomed the authorities' recent decision to accelerate and strengthen their consolidation effort. They viewed the objective of overall fiscal balance by 2002 as an important step in the right direction, and looked forward to the articulation of the authorities' supporting measures in the period ahead.

With strong economic growth and expansionary monetary conditions from an Austrian perspective, Directors judged that cyclical reasons would support a front-loaded approach to fiscal consolidation. They urged the authorities to use revenue windfalls from stronger growth and the sale of mobile phone licenses to accelerate the reduction of the deficit and lower public debt.

In view of the large size of the government sector, Directors recommended that fiscal consolidation be achieved through durable expenditure reduction rather than tax increases or one-off measures. They considered that expenditure cuts would need to be substantial enough to achieve a structural fiscal balance and to create room for measures to reduce nonwage labor costs.

Directors considered that long-term fiscal sustainability would require steps to shore up the pension finances against the consequences of population aging. In this regard, they welcomed the adoption of the 2000 pension reform law which represented a significant step in this direction. Directors noted that more adjustment was needed, however, which should focus on curbing entitlements, as higher contributions would weaken work and employment incentives, as well as external competitiveness.

Directors underscored the importance of a suitable agreement on the reordering of the financial relations between the three levels of government. Such an agreement should establish a better balance between tasks and own financial resources at each level, including the transfer of some power to tax to lower levels of government, and the phasing out of revenue earmarking.

Directors encouraged the authorities and the social partners to build on their past achievements by rapidly agreeing to measures to enhance the functioning of labor and product markets. Among the crucial measures in Directors' views were improvements in the employment conditions for older workers; increased wage flexibility; liberalization of access to the professions and an easing of regulations governing their exercise; adoption of a time-bound one-stop procedure for the approval of investment projects; and establishment of an independent competition agency. Directors also welcomed the authorities' intention to sell the government equity holdings in commercial enterprises. They encouraged the authorities to bring this process to a speedy conclusion.

Directors considered that rising competitive pressures in the financial sector required financial supervisors to remain appropriately vigilant, including with respect to Austrian banks' operations in Central and Eastern Europe and their lending to nonbank residents in non-euro currencies. The planned reform of banking supervision should be used to strengthen its operational independence and effectiveness.

For the purpose of surveillance, Directors viewed Austria's data provision as generally adequate, although the timeliness of some national accounts and external statistics could be improved. Directors encouraged the authorities to lift official development assistance toward the UN target and to use its standing in the EU to promote increased market access for the exports of the least developed countries.


Austria: Selected Economic Indicators

    1997 1998 1999 2000 1/ 2001 1/

  Real economy (change in percent)          
Real GDP 1.2 2.9 2.2 3.5 2.9
Domestic demand 1.0 2.2 1.6 3.0 2.7
CPI (year average) 1.2 0.8 0.5 1.9 2.1
Unemployment rate (in percent) 2/ 4.4 4.5 3.7 3.5 3.5
Gross national saving (percent of GDP) 21.8 22.5 21.1 22.2 22.8
Gross domestic investment (percent of GDP) 24.4 24.8 23.9 24.2 24.6
           
Public finance (percent of GDP)          
Central government balance -2.7 -2.9 -2.4 -1.8 -1.6
General government balance -1.9 -2.5 -2.0 -1.7 -1.5
General government debt 63.9 63.5 64.9 63.7 62.7
         
Money and credit (end of year, percent change)          
Domestic credit 3.6 3.7 5.2 ... ...
M3 1.2 6.4 4.7 ... ...
         
Interest rates (in percent) 3/          
Three-month market rate 3.5 3.6 3.0 4.5 ...
Government bond yield 5.7 4.7 4.7 5.6 ...
           
Balance of payments (percent of GDP)          
Trade balance -3.0 -2.6 -2.5 -2.3 -1.6
Current account -2.5 -2.3 -2.8 -2.0 -1.8
           
Fund position (as of June 30, 2000)          
Holdings of currency (in percent of quota) 69.4
Holdings of SDRs (in percent of allocation) 62.8
Quota (in millions of SDRs) 1,872.3
           
Exchange rate          
Exchange rate regime Participant in euro zone
Present rate (July 7, 2000) US $0.9487 per euro
Nominal effective rate (1990=100) 4/ 102.9 103.1 102.0 100.2 ...
Real effective rate (1990=100) 4/ 5/ 83.5 81.9 79.7 77.0 ...

Sources: IMF, International Financial Statistics; IMF, World Economic Outlook; and IMF staff projections.

1/ IMF projections.
2/ In percent of labor force based on EU standards.
3/ Data for 2000 refer to July 7, 2000.
4/ Data for 2000 refer to June.
5/ Based on relative normalized unit labor cost in manufacturing.

1 Under Article IV of the IMF's Articles of Agreement, the IMF holds bilateral discussions with members, usually every year. A staff team visits the country, collects economic and financial information, and discusses with officials the country's economic developments and policies. On return to headquarters, the staff prepares a report, which forms the basis for discussion by the Executive Board. At the conclusion of the discussion, the Managing Director, as Chairman of the Board, summarizes the views of Executive Directors, and this summary is transmitted to the country's authorities. In this PIN, the main features of the Board's discussion are described.


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