THE LONG HAUL

Kazakhstan 2015 | ECONOMY | FOCUS: BUSINESS CONFIDENCE

An expected decrease in GDP growth for 2015 is not stopping many firms in Kazakhstan from ramping up their operations, and maintaining a positive outlook for the year ahead.

The expectations of managers in Kazakhstan in the post-devaluation period show that not only have firms scrambled back from the sudden decline, but that a sense of cautious optimism has some managers confident about their business prospects in 2015. This disposition is an important indicator of future prospects for the national economy, as managers' willingness to spend and invest is a strong indicator of overall performance. The most recent TBY assessment of business confidence indicates that investment and spending will remain steady if somewhat depressed, as firms in Kazakhstan bank on the strong fundamentals of the economy trumping the shorter-term fluctuations of oil prices and currency devaluations. While many such surveys ascertain indicators for current conditions, TBY's approach looks further to the future. These findings reflect those of the State Agency for Statistics in late 2014, and suggest how this trend will play out into 2015.

Almost 80% of managers interviewed by TBY in Kazakhstan expected moderate to strong growth for their firms for 2015, although many couched these expectations in lowered expectations, when compared to previous years when GDP growth was over 6%. The IMF anticipates a GDP growth rate of 4.7% for 2015. Only 10% held negative outlooks, with a much smaller percentage reporting decisively pessimistic outlooks. However, a more qualitative analysis of the responses points to real plans to expand existing capacities and invest more in infrastructure. Moreover, beyond private sector spending, state spending will remains strong in the lead up to Expo 2017, artificially driving up demand, but also helping out firms that are seeing their operating and import costs go up.

Convenience goods are predictable strong, suggesting that Kazakhstan's consumers are cutting back on big budget items as their costs in tenge rise. Companies such as Danone see room for strong growth in the short- and medium-term. After investing €17 million in its manufacturing capabilities, the firm expects to double its business by 2017 while also increasing its profits. Financial uncertainty has also not reduced—and may actually stoke—the local thirst for alcoholic beverages. Management at both Efes and Carlsberg, two prominent brewers in the country, had positive outlooks, although the specter of another devaluation was cause for concern as imports of hops and certain grains are a factor. Carlsberg boss Victor Semak reported that the climate was “better than before," while Efes boss Serkan Eris expected the market to, “keep on recovering in 2015 if there is no further devaluation, [which will] translate into a slight growth in the market."

Other sectors where managers are bullish about their prospects heading into 2015 are healthcare and tech, where powerful government incentives and state spending are central to the state's development policies, and therefore unlikely to change in the next few years. As a result, firms in these sectors are doing a great job attracting investment and generating a positive narrative. Kaztranscom General Director Andrey Khan told TBY that the telecommunications firm was investing heavily in developing fiber optics networks within major cities and that future partnerships with other telecom firms were in the works for 2015 and 2016. In the ICT sector, companies were even more bullish. At Cisco, General Manager Svetlana Anisimova was optimistic about Kazakhstan's future in ICT, thanks to large impending infrastructure projects and the country's disposition towards developing its technological capacity.One exciting development during the last decade has been the advances made by private healthcare providers. With economic activity historically restricted to major urban centers—where there is strong healthcare growth as well—a new push to provide access the periphery and mid-sized cities is opening new areas of earning potential. Speaking to TBY, Gulzhan Sadyrbayeva, the General Director for Medicare in Kazakhstan explained that the company was taking advantage of this trend by, “strengthening [its] presence in the west of the country, as well as in the south and east." She also explained that by targeting urban centers such as Shymkent, Kyzylorda, and Pavlodar, Medicare would expand its reach to other up and coming regions.

Optimism for 2015 does not (and must not) ignore future market shocks. Some firms, especially those in finance, are downsizing. The European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) forecasts GDP growth rate to be only 1.5%, reflecting underlying cynicism about Kazakhstan's ability to ride out the storm and its exposure to Russian and Central Asian markets. Some firms, especially those in finance, are downsizing. Another devaluation, the continued malaise in the energy sector, or worsening crises in export markets could all lead to an outcome that corresponds more closely to the EBRD outlook than that of the IMF. What both authorities, and TBY's own research show however, is that most firms are looking to the long term, which means that they will remain busy throughout 2015 with investment and expansion, preparing for the inevitable upswing.