Belize’s economic history shows marked periods of growth accelerations and recessions. There have been two such expansions and collapses in the past two decades, with disturbingly similar features. While not always initiated by public spending, these booms quickly became public-investment led, until ballooning budget, trade, and current account deficits and the resulting shrinking reserves and growing debt required home-grown adjustment programs. The huge cuts in public investment and sharp increases in reserve requirements created marked recessions. In addition, the second acceleration happened after a significant collapse in private savings, and ended up creating a huge debt overhang which has eliminated public savings. As a consequence, Belize is a country with a low savings, little access to international finance, and an extremely high domestic cost of finance. Access to finance is the binding constraint to economic growth.
We show that other potential constraints are not binding. Returns to education are low, and there is little to no infrastructure congestion, suggesting that although Belize is a structurally high-cost country, lacking complementary factors of production are not holding back growth. Furthermore, tax, inflation, exchange rate stability, and law and order do not seem to restrict investment through lowering appropriability. Finally, the country is not being held back by a lack of self-discovery. Although the movement to new export goods is critical for Belize’s growth, this process is being hindered by the cost and availability of finance, both public and private.
The appropriate policy stance is therefore to institutionalize fiscal discipline and gradually reduce the cost of credit. Given that low public savings are presently the result of expensive debt service, and also that foreign debt has created barriers to foreign borrowing and a heightened tax on financial intermediation which are key contributors to the high cost of finance, fiscal sustainability is key for drawing down the cost of finance in Belize. Reforms to prevent a lack of fiscal discipline in the future, particularly surrounding political cycles, are critical to end the past two decade’s ‘stop-and-go’ growth pattern. Finally, the government must address the rapidly rising implicit tax expenditure on investment promotion, as well as the fall in the tax take.
But these reductions in the domestic cost of finance will, as best, be gradual given the size of the debt. In the meantime, there is a need for public investment in areas such as public safety, road maintenance, and rural airports that if ignored, could have deleterious effects on long-term growth. Creative ways to finance such productivity-enhancing investments, which would not increase publicly-guaranteed debt, must be pursued.
In addition, the industrial strategy of the country must adapt to the current financial constraints and focus on attracting investors who aren’t subject to the high domestic interest rate, namely foreign investors. The current industrial strategy is not consistent with Belize’s constraints to growth.