Once Booming, Mongolia's Economy Veers From Riches To Rags : Parallels The sparsely populated nation of nomadic herders rode China's booming economy by supplying it with coal. But as China's economy slows and commodity prices drop, Mongolia's economy is crashing.
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Once Booming, Mongolia's Economy Veers From Riches To Rags

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Once Booming, Mongolia's Economy Veers From Riches To Rags

Once Booming, Mongolia's Economy Veers From Riches To Rags

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Now let's look at China's northern neighbor Mongolia. Five years ago, it had the world's fastest-growing economy. China's demand for coal had led to a mining boom. China's growth has since slowed and so the price of coal has plummeted. Now Mongolia has asked the International Monetary Fund for an emergency bailout. NPR's Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Inside Mongolia's largest open air market in the capital city of Ulaanbaatar, it doesn't feel like the economy is on the brink of collapse. Alleyways are packed with people selling carpets, fabric, clothes. But they've had a front row seat to an economy that has quickly gone from fastest-growing in the world to one of the slowest. And everyone here seems to have a riches-to-rags story to tell.

ERDENEJARGAL: (Through interpreter) Business is terrible. More and more people are unemployed and they can't afford anything. They ask me about the prices. I tell them, they leave.

SCHMITZ: For 28 years, Erdenejargal worked for a construction company. Last year, her company went bankrupt. And now she's here in a market selling Russian candy out of the trunk of her tiny, rusted-out car perched in front of a loudspeaker dangling from a storefront announcing chickens for sale - chickens she can't afford.

ERDENEJARGAL: (Through interpreter) The police chased me out of here. But if I don't do this, we won't have any money. I've got three children and my husband lost his job. This is the government's fault. They borrowed so much and it all disappeared.

SCHMITZ: Mongolia is a country more than twice the size of Texas with just 3 million people, a nation of nomadic herders whose history goes back to Genghis Khan. China's demand for coal helped Mongolia's economy grow by 17.5 percent in 2011. This year, the World Bank forecasts it'll grow by less than 1 percent. Undraa Agvaanluvsan was elected to Mongolia's parliament in June.

UNDRAA AGVAANLUVSAN: We were considered to be the fastest-growing economy in the world for a number of years. Since 2011 and '12 when the commodity prices started going down, so did our economy.

SCHMITZ: Now Mongolia, nicknamed Minegolia, suffers as global prices for coal and copper plummet and its mines are bleeding money. So is the government. When its economy was booming five years ago, the government went on a spending spree, issuing $1.5 billion worth of so-called Genghis bonds to build infrastructure. Much of the money was poorly spent.

Several officials were outed in the Panama Papers for holding secret offshore accounts and now Mongolia's debt is nearly 80 percent of its GDP. Its currency, the tugrik, is in free-fall.

MOGI BONTOI: Obviously immediate thing we should do is fix our budget, cut our deficit as much as we can.

SCHMITZ: Mogi Bontoi runs the market intelligence firm Cover Mongolia. He says an IMF emergency bailout won't be enough to prevent Mongolia from defaulting on billions of dollars' worth of loans. Some of that debt is owed to its neighbor China, a country whose economic and political influence many Mongolians fear, but a country that seems poised to loan even more money to Mongolia.

BONTOI: Despite our public fear of China, what our politicians do is go to China.

SCHMITZ: In the meantime, says Bontoi, unofficial unemployment hovers between 30 and 40 percent. Many of those who lost their jobs live here in neighborhoods on the outskirts of town filled with gers, the round tents of nomads who moved to the city to find work back when the economy was healthy. Thirty-eight-year-old Gankhuyag abandoned his life as a nomadic herder and moved here a few years ago with his family to work as a porter.

GANKHUYAG: (Through interpreter) Everything costs money in the city - water, electricity, gas. I'm thinking of returning to the grasslands. Life is much simpler there. You ride your horse, herd your animals and sell your meat and hides.

SCHMITZ: And for some in this sparsely populated country with a grassy backyard whose horizon seems limitless, waiting out this economic crisis by returning to nature seems like the best option. Rob Schmitz, NPR News, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia.

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