The Balkans’ Suppressed Agrokor Agony

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By: admin

Croatia, Slovenia and Serbia held on to single-digit MSCI Frontier index gains through April following passage of a law to facilitate orderly restructuring at food and retail chain Agrokor, with hundreds of thousands of employees and suppliers across ex-Yugoslavia after it was unable to get emergency commercial loans. The Zagreb government under terms of EU membership cannot guarantee the private conglomerate’s liabilities despite its systemic importance, and such a move would jeopardize fiscal deficit progress at less than 1 percent of GDP last year to lift potential Brussels sanctions. Domestic consumption and investment will suffer pending resolution, and could jeopardize the 3 percent growth target likely with good tourism numbers.  Banks in the sub-region face a blow but may be able to absorb it with  Serbia’s IMF cleanup, Slovenia’s privatization of NLB, and Croatia’s new single borrower rules capping exposure at one-quarter of capital. The local sector has just emerged from the Swiss-franc mortgage conversion mess, and Agrokor provisions will again cramp profitability while the central bank is on standby to offer liquidity. The perennial coalition balancing act could be strained after the main opposition party SDP proposed a no-confidence vote against the Finance Minister, a former senior executive of the company. Another cabinet reshuffle is expected, but the prime minister has fought another election round until alternatives are exhausted to try to advance the economic modernization agenda demanded by EU accession and ratings agencies to forestall further downgrades with the 85 percent of GDP public debt. Balkans interest shifted to Romania amid the fallout as stocks rose 15 percent, but a fiscal deficit blowout to 4 percent, the same as projected growth, has prompted unease. The new government has brushed off IMF recommendations with pension and salary hikes, and was forced to backtrack on a corruption amnesty bill only after massive street protests. The current account gap likewise widened to 3 percent of output despite a weaker currency adjusted for inflation. Interest rates have been on hold but tightening may be forced by the loose budget and a series of scheduled VAT and customs duty increases.

Ukraine has also been a double-digit performer after the Fund released another $1 billion from the $17 billion program and 2 percent growth was achieved in 2016 after years of near-depression. However enthusiasm is muted by the renewed outbreak of fighting in the East coupled with a blockade against the Russia-backed separatists, which President Porochenko, with a 10 percent approval rating, was late to endorse. His former business colleague and central bank head Gontareva resigned her post after spearheading a crackdown against leading oligarchs which won international praise but domestic enmity. In a survey 80 percent of citizens distrusted her policies, and with departure reform momentum may flag at the same time pension and healthcare overhauls are in the works. Privatization of strategic enterprises has yet to resume, and a $3 billion sovereign bond dispute with Moscow is pending in London, while officials have hinted at reopening the recent global deal with commercial holders even as GDP-linked warrants may pay off this year. The prime minister, plucked from a post as mayor, has avoided his predecessor’s corruption taint ahead of 2019 elections, which could be advanced if austerity agony persists.

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