By Terrence Edwards
ULAANBAATAR (Reuters) - Mongolia has agreed with the International Monetary Fund and other partners for a $5.5 billion economic stabilization package, according to a statement from the IMF on Sunday.
The landlocked nation saw its economy grow at a double-digit annual rate over 2011-2013 as foreign investors rushed in to take advantage of its vast untapped mineral deposits, but it has been hit hard by an economic crisis since 2016 due to government overspending and declining revenues from commodity exports.
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To bailout the country - which is now scrambling to avoid missing a $580 million sovereign-guaranteed debt repayment due in March - the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and bilateral partners, including Japan and South Korea, will provide up to $3 billion in aid, the IMF said in its statement.
People's Bank of China will expand a swap line worth 15 billion yuan ($2.19 billion), while the IMF will offer three-year loans worth about $440 million, the latter added.
The bailout plan is pending formal approvals from the IMF board in March, according to the statement.
"Fiscal consolidation is a key priority, as loose fiscal policy in the past was a major driver for Mongolia's current economic difficulties and high debt," said Koshy Mathai, IMF's team leader for the package.
Paving the way for the bailout was a move by the country's lawmakers earlier this month to allow the Development Bank of Mongolia, which issued the $580 million debt that is up for repayment, to act independently of the government.
Under the bailout plan, Mongolia has pledged to implement fiscal reforms for greater budget discipline, maintain a flexible exchange rate and build a stronger regulatory environment for banking and finance.
The president of the Bank of Mongolia, Nadmid Bayartsaikhan, said the central bank would no longer bankroll fiscal policy programs, including a mortgage subsidy one that will now be self-sustaining rather than dependent on additional financing from the central bank.
Bayartsaikhan added that an independent study of the banking sector would be launched to identify weaknesses at institutions and the need for new regulations.
The Mongolian economy grew at 1 percent last year, its slowest pace in seven years, and may slip into recession when austerity measures imposed on the country for a debt bailout are rolled out.
However, the bailout terms will not affect Mongolia's social spending. It plans to subsidize some drug costs and a universal allowance for children will be given to those in need, Finance Minister Battogtokh Choijilsuren told reporters on Sunday.
With these structural changes in place, Mathai of the IMF said Mongolia could look forward to sustainable growth built upon its lucrative mining sector, as well as its growing industries in agriculture and tourism.
"I think we're looking at a pretty good outlook for Mongolia," said Mathai.
(Reporting by Terrence Edwards, Editing by Aizhu Chen and Himani Sarkar)