CORRECTED-Mongolian rejects interest rate cap as austerity bites

(Corrects to show mortgage subsidies began in 2013, not 2012)

ULAANBAATAR, March 20 (Reuters) - Mongolia’s central bank has rejected lawmakers’ proposals to cap or cut interest rates, currently among the world’s highest, as rifts deepen over an economic rescue package agreed with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) last year.

As parliament discusses a bill to prevent interest rates on commercial bank loans from exceeding 18 percent, Bank of Mongolia president Bayartsaikhan Nadmid proposed an alternative strategy during a forum on Tuesday.

“The central bank supports the strategy to decrease interest rates by enabling a macroeconomic environment for it, not by force or control,” he said.

Mongolia secured a $5.5 billion bailout with the IMF last May after an economic crisis left the landlocked Asian nation struggling to pay off its debts and sent its currency, the tugrik, into a tailspin.

The terms of the deal forced the government to raise taxes and cut spending, and also urged Mongolia to strengthen the independence of its banking system and make it less vulnerable to political interference.

Most of the austerity measures have been enacted by the ruling Mongolian People’s Party, but opposition politicians have expressed concern about the economic impact of high interest rates and are seeking powers to force banks to make cuts.

Mongolia has some of the world’s highest interest rates, averaging 19.4 percent in January, according to the central bank. The high rates have reduced economic activity and discouraged small businesses, analysts say.

Inflation currently stands at 6.9 percent, according to the Bank of Mongolia, below an 8 percent target.

Mongolia began subsidising mortgages in 2013 allowing homes to be bought at a rate of 8 percent. According to the Mongolian Mortgage Corporation, which manages the portfolio, total outstanding mortgages as of December 2016 stood at around 4 trillion tugrik ($1.67 billion).

However, the IMF has discouraged the central bank from participating in programmes it describes as “quasi-fiscal activity”.

Demberel Sambuu, a former legislator and head of an economic think tank, said demand for lower interest rates has been on the rise in recent years, but forcing banks to comply was not the solution.

“Fixing the maximum rates on loan interest would be an inefficient way,” he said.

$1 = 2,398 tugrik Reporting by Munkhchimeg Davaasharav and Terrence Edwards Editing by David Stanway and Sam Holmes