Brunei’s economic performance – which was strong before the COVID-19 pandemic – has been buffeted by the health crisis and a pandemic-induced oil and gas (O&G) price shock, according to the International Monetary Fund. The authorities responded fast and decisively. The number of new infections was quickly suppressed, thanks to a swift public health response, effective health measures and non-pharmaceutical interventions. The O&G sector saw a significant output contraction in 2020 – the largest since the oil price shock in mid-2014. In the non-O&G sector, growth performance was more heterogenous. Stringent containment measures implemented in the early stages of the pandemic negatively affected contact-intensive sectors (such as hotels, restaurants, and air transport) which contracted by 1.6 per cent in 2020. In contrast, growth in the downstream non-O&G sector, led by manufacture of petroleum and chemical products, was exceptionally strong, contributing 4.6 per centage points to real GDP growth in 2020. Strong fiscal and monetary policy responses helped sustain production and household income and consumption. As a result, the economy performed strongly in 2020, with real GDP posting positive growth of 1.1 per cent – a rare outcome amidst negative growth in the region.
Economic activity is projected to strengthen in 2021-22, albeit at varying speeds across sectors, and to continue improving over the medium term on the back of further diversification. The outlook remains, however, subject to unusual uncertainty, with significant risks skewed to the downside. In particular, the recent resurgence of the pandemic and associated containment measures would slow the recovery, especially in the contact-intensive sectors. However, the strong fiscal and regulatory policy responses would help sustain production and household income and consumption. Stronger vaccine rollouts and energy prices could surprise to the upside.
Real GDP growth is projected at around 2 per cent over the medium term and, reflecting important diversification efforts, the share of non-O&G is projected to rise further to around 52 per cent of GDP by 2026. Employment is expected to increase as the recovery strengthens. Headline inflation is projected to remain relatively high, averaging 2.5 per cent in 2021. Over the medium term, price pressure is expected to subside. The fiscal position is also expected to recover over the medium term. The current account surplus is expected to increase in the medium term, reflecting stronger exports of O&G and downstream products.
The high uncertainty about the path of the pandemic and global economic outlook as well as vulnerabilities to global oil price shocks pose major headwinds for Brunei. The macroeconomic policy mix should continue to support the recovery in the short term, while aiming to strengthen resilience and promote economic transformation in the longer term. Continued short-term fiscal support is necessary to put the recovery on a solid footing. Brunei’s ample fiscal reserves, with virtually no public debt, should be leveraged to underpin the recovery in private demand, while incentivising resource reallocation. At the same time, reforms aimed at improving the fiscal position – including a strengthening of the medium-term fiscal framework – should continue in order to achieve sustainable long-term expenditure and improve intergenerational equity. Financial sector regulation and supervision should remain vigilant. The development of a holistic macroprudential framework should be stepped-up to safeguard financial stability, while continuing to ensure access by productive sectors to financing. Structural policies to build human capital and attract higher value-added FDI would need to be strengthened. Accelerating digital and green growth will be critical to foster resilience.
Brunei has made noticeable efforts in fiscal consolidation and economic diversification, facilitating private sector employment and FDI attraction. Several initiatives to improve fiscal positions have been implemented, including a fiscal consolidation programme aimed at reducing wasteful spending in the medium term, the establishment of a medium-term fiscal framework, a containment in public employment, and a first step of a subsidy reform – such as the launch of high-quality fuel without subsidy, a smart metering system for power and water, and the digitalised National Welfare System. The authorities have accelerated their efforts to diversify the economy with commencement of the Economic Blueprint, emphasising human capital development and linkage to regional and global trade. Private sector employment has been enhanced with a variety of measures such as JobCentre Brunei, Politeknik Brunei, I-Ready, Lifelong Learning Center, SkillsPlus to facilitate job matching and training. Sizable FDI has been attracted mainly in the downstream industry thanks to customised supports from the authorities and improved business environment particularly in starting a business. Also, the authorities have established new policy packages on digitalisation and climate change response for smart and green growth. The authorities remain committed to further fostering the development of the financial sector, while putting in place regulatory safeguards to preserve financial stability, including strengthening the AML/FCT framework to maintain overall financial system integrity.
Executive Board Assessment
The IMF Executive Directors commended the authorities for the strong, timely, and multi-pronged policy response to the COVID-19 pandemic and associated decline in oil and gas prices. Noting the still very uncertain outlook, with risks skewed to the downside, the Directors stressed the need to maintain supportive policies until the recovery is on a firm path. They also underscored the importance of continued reforms to support economic transformation, strengthen resilience, and foster green, digital, and inclusive growth.
The Directors welcomed the authorities’ continuous efforts to strengthen the fiscal position. In this regard, they were encouraged by several recent initiatives, including the establishment of a credible medium-term budget framework, measures to increase efficiency of public spending, rationalisation of public employment, and steps to reform subsidies. The Directors saw scope for further efforts in these areas over the medium term to reduce vulnerabilities and support intergenerational equity.
The Directors agreed that the peg to the Singapore dollar remains appropriate, providing a credible nominal anchor for macroeconomic and financial stability, and helping to deepen trade and investment linkages, including with Singapore.
The Directors noted the resilience of the banking sector. They commended the authorities’ initiatives to enhance risk-based supervision through an early warning exercise, introduce the Basel III framework, and develop a holistic macroprudential framework. The Directors also welcomed the recent legislative changes aimed at strengthening the AML/CFT regulatory and supervisory framework.
The Directors encouraged the authorities to continue to build on their efforts to diversify the economy, further attract FDI, and enhance human capital and improve private employment. They welcomed the policy priorities of the recently released Economic Blueprint and highlighted the importance of accelerating digital and green growth to foster job creation and enhance resilience.
The Directors welcomed the steps taken to address data gaps and the authorities’ commitment to further improve data compilation and reporting. They noted the authorities’ plan to request further capacity development support from the IMF to improve data collection and dissemination.
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