The Governor's letter​

02/04/2013

22 Nisan 5773
April 2, 2013
 

 

To:  The Government and the
Finance Committee of the Knesset,
Jerusalem
 
I submit herewith the Bank of Israel Annual Report for 2012, in accordance with Section 54 of the Bank of Israel Law, 5770–2010.
 
In 2012, the economy's growth rate moderated to 3.1 percent, as compared to 4.6 percent in 2011. This slowdown in growth began in the middle of 2011 and a further slowdown was recorded at the end of 2012. The moderation in growth derives primarily from the slowdown in global growth, which negatively impacted Israeli exports, and was also the result of an increase in the cost of fuel imports. The moderation in the rate of expansion in the construction industry explains about one-fifth of the slowdown in growth this year.
 
The slowdown in exports, accompanied by increased expenditure on fuel imports as a result of the temporary shift from natural gas to imported and more expensive fuels, not only limited economic growth, but also contributed to the shrinking of the surplus in the current account of the balance of payments. The current account was almost balanced this year, following a long period of surpluses which began in 2003.
 
Despite the slower rate of growth, the unemployment rate remained stable at its lowest level of the past thirty years and employment and labor force participation rates continued to rise. These developments are evidence of the increased efficiency of the labor market and the considerable flexibility of wages and work hours in Israel, which dampen the response of the unemployment rate to changes in the GDP growth rate.
 
Inflation in 2012 was 1.6 percent, below the center of the inflation target range (2%). Three main factors contributed to the increase in prices: the higher prices of housing services, which account for about one-quarter of the CPI; the increase in energy prices due to the temporary interruption in the supply of natural gas; and increased food prices. The prices of two CPI components declined this year as a result of measures adopted by the government—the implementation of the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations regarding kindergartens, which lowered the prices of education and culture, and the increased competition in the mobile phone industry, which lowered prices of communication.
 
In the capital market, stock prices increased less than in the rest of the world and although the yields on Israeli government bonds fell to a historic low, their yield spreads widened, compared to those in advanced economies. The widening of yield spreads reflected the geopolitical risks which Israel faces. The corporate bond market this year again reflected the high level of credit risk among firms. In non-bank credit, growth was concentrated in the direct loans provided by institutional investors. This new channel is developing rapidly and it is important that its regulation be brought in line with the standards that exist in other channels.
 
Monetary policy supported economic activity through a measured reduction in the Bank of Israel interest rate, which began in the second half of 2011. The reductions were intended to help the economy deal with the slowdown by increasing domestic demand and by supporting the depreciation of the shekel.
 
The government deficit expanded this year to 4.2 percent of GDP, the result of a slowdown in the rate of increase in tax revenues that began in 2011. The expansionary fiscal policy encouraged economic activity, although as a result of the large deficit the government decided to raise taxes during the course of the year. Nonetheless, the structural deficit remained large, and reducing it is essential to continuing the decline in the public debt to GDP ratio. The reduction of the deficit and the debt will improve the ability of the government to adopt countercyclical policy during any future slowdowns and possible future crises. In addition, it will reduce the burden of interest payments on the government, which is high by international standards and which limits the government's ability to increase expenditure on civilian services.
 
One of the main challenges in this context will be to ensure that government's commitments to future expenditures are in line with the expenditure rule that it sets for itself. In recent years, the gap between the two has grown, against the background of commitments due to wage agreements and public sector reforms, as well as the implementation of the Trajtenberg Committee recommendations to expand social services and a decision not to cut the defense budget.
 
Home prices again began to rise during the second half of the year and increased by 5 percent in real terms. The increase in prices since 2008 derives from a shortage in homes relative to the needs of the population. This shortage was in turn due to, among other things, constraints on supply, which include a shortage of land available for construction, particularly in areas of high demand, and the slow rate at which building permits are issued. Also affecting home prices were low interest rates and low alternative yields in the market, which increase the demand for homes as an investment asset as well. It is worth noting that the increase in home prices in recent years has contributed to the significant growth in building starts and in this way contributed not only to increasing the supply of housing but also the level of economic activity.
 
Increases in home prices and mortgage volume increase the risk that mortgage activity poses to the banking system. In order to reduce this risk, the Supervisor of Banks imposed additional limitations on housing loans towards the end of 2012 and in early 2013. These limitations, together with the macroprudential measures adopted in previous years, strengthen the resilience of the banking system to shocks. These measures also reinforce the ability of monetary policy to fulfill its role in encouraging economic activity without being constrained by risks originating in the construction industry.
 
The emphasis on the economy-wide role of monetary policy has proved itself by helping the economy deal successfully with the global crisis and slowdown in recent years. If the Bank of Israel, in an attempt to moderate the increase in home prices, had maintained a higher rate of interest, it would have led to an additional appreciation of the shekel which would have hurt exports, and would have also led to lower investment in the economy. As a result, economic growth would have been slower and unemployment higher. A higher rate of interest would also have reduced the demand for housing and, as a result, the number of building starts. Dealing with the problems in the housing market should be accomplished primarily through macroprudential measures, to the extent that this concerns the stability of the banking system, and through measures that increase the supply of homes, in particular a prudent expansion in the supply of land available for building.
 
Looking forward, the economy faces a number of structural challenges:
·         As mentioned, the government must reduce its high structural deficit and set up a mechanism which will ensure that future commitments to expenditure are in line with the expenditure rule.
·         Efforts must continue to further integrate Arabs and the ultra-Orthodox in the labor market.
·         Labor productivity in Israel is low relative to other advanced economies and increasing it is essential to increasing the long-term rate of growth. This can be accomplished by expanding government efforts of previous years to improve the education system, physical infrastructure and the business environment, as well as increasing competition in the economy.
·         The cost of living should be reduced, an issue that was the focus of the social issues protest. Increasing competition in the economy will contribute to achieving this goal as well.
·         There are numerous potential benefits to the economy from the natural gas reservoirs. At the same time, they also present some complex challenges—how to spread the use of the profits over time and how to minimize the damage to the tradable sector’s competitiveness and to future growth by establishing a “sovereign wealth fund”, which should be done at the earliest opportunity; and how to find the right balance between the advantages in exporting the gas and the need to ensure long-term supplies to the local market.
 
 
 
 

 

Stanley Fischer
Governor of the Bank of Israel 

 

 
 

 

 
For the Bank of Israel Annual Report, 2012, click here