Minister further consolidates reputation second time around
When Sri Mulyani Indrawati became finance minister for the second time in July 2016, economists and investors had high expectations. She has done all they could have asked for.
Indrawati developed a stellar reputation during her first stint as finance minister between 2005 and 2010 during the administration of Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono. She was lauded both for her anti-corruption credentials and her clear policy knowledge. When she stepped down the World Bank was quick to snap her up as a managing director.
But her greatest challenges arguably came on her return to the job. Indonesia’s sprawling economy offered huge potential but provided serious headaches for the finance ministry. Tax collection has long been a problem in the country, but the government had also struggled to spend the money it did raise.
Indrawati has tried to address both issues. Tax collection was around 91% of the target last year, a big jump from the 83% hit over the previous two years. This was helped by an amnesty bill that helped bring foreign wealth back onshore.
Government spending meanwhile grew at its fastest rate in three years during 2017, hitting 21.1% of GDP. But just as important, ‘the disbursement of capital expenditures’ went from 73% in 2016 to 97% in 2017, the highest level in six years.
Indrawati can also take some credit for a reduction of poverty, something she has pinpointed as a goal. The poverty rate fell 0.6% between September 2016 and September 2017, the largest year on year decline in five years.
Indrawati now faces a difficult balancing act, helping push infrastructure investment in the country while keeping the government’s finances in check. The clear need for infrastructure investment means that a shrinking fiscal deficit, a strong sign for most finance ministers, could actually be seen as a blot against the government’s record.
The World Bank estimates the deficit fell to minus 2.4% last year, although newer unaudited government figures put it around 2.6%. In any case, that is below what the government wants. Indonesia has a 3% maximum fiscal deficit and has previously targeted around 2.9%. The infrastructure need is such that the government should not be short of projects to spend on.
This is hardly a major argument against Indrawati’s record, however. When Moody’s upgraded Indonesia to Baa2 in April, it said the decision was in part because of “an increasingly credible and effective policy framework”. That is a tacit admission of Indrawati’s key strengths — ‘credible’ and ‘effective’ are both words that describe her perfectly.