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Editorial

A budget oozing overoptimism

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Thursday 19th November 2020

Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, who is also the Minister of Finance, has presented Budget 2021, which looks a good story with a happy ending. It has offered something to everyone, and is bound to go down well with those who are to benefit from tax exemptions and other such relief. All 75 budgets presented in the Sri Lankan Parliament have been tales told by Finance Ministers. Most budget proposals, especially the progressive ones, have remained unimplemented, all these years, for want of funds mostly due to failure on the part of successive governments to meet their revenue targets and curtail wasteful expenditure.

As for Budget 2021, proposals to abolish PAYE and the withholding tax and increase the personal income tax threshold will benefit a large number of people. But it will be swings and roundabouts for them if indirect taxes increase, as feared in some quarters. Steps taken to develop local agriculture and industries through tax exemptions, etc., and allocate additional funds for developing public health and education sectors are welcome. The proposed expansion of the university system, however, is a task that the government has to carry out cautiously, taking into consideration the need to ensure their standards. Even the existing universities are experiencing a severe dearth of qualified teachers and facilities. There are some more progressive budget proposals, and they are welcome. One can only hope that there will be enough funds for their implementation.

The devil is in the detail, though. When one reads Budget 2021 carefully, one sees that several crucial issues have not been addressed in a satisfactory manner. The government has made numerous expenditure commitments as regards development and social welfare, but how does it propose to meet the revenue shortfall resulting mainly from tax concessions and a significant decrease in foreign earnings? Borrowings, both foreign and domestic, will not be easy.

The government has undertaken to reduce the budget deficit to 4% of GDP by 2025. This is a very ambitious target. One may recall that it was first set by a UNP-led government, in 2002. The then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe declared, in Parliament, that the budget deficit would be brought down to 4% of GDP by 2008. (His government fell in 2004!) Later on, the Mahinda Rajapaksa government undertook to achieve that target. Now, another Rajapaksa government has repeated the same promise. It seems to believe that the economy will expand at such as rate that its revenue will increase automatically. It is being overoptimistic.

The success of any programme to reduce the budget deficit to the expected level hinges on the government’s ability to increase revenue to at least 10.8% of GDP, in 2021, as economists argue. This goal will be unattainable without new tax proposals. A shortfall in revenue collection may lead to a much higher budget deficit than 8.8% of GDP. Such a situation can be averted only by curtailing public investment, inter alia, to match lower revenue. This means most ministries will not receive allocated funds for the implementation of envisaged projects in such an eventuality.

It will also be an uphill task for the government to fulfil its expenditure commitments while reducing public debt from 90% of GDP to 70% of GDP and ‘minimizing the risk in debt composition caused by sourcing of foreign loans’. How the government is planning to achieve this target is not clear.

As for the envisaged budget deficit, 8.3% of GDP is expected to be financed through domestic borrowings. Enough domestic financial resources in terms of savings will not be available for the government to borrow such a large amount domestically, and the Central Bank may have to print money as it has done this year in view of the pandemic. If money printing continues, it will result in serious problems such as higher inflation and price instability.

The government has expressed serious concern about slow progress in foreign-funded projects and low returns therefrom. Pointing out that the number of programmes implemented annually with foreign financing has increased exponentially, the PM has said in Budget 2021: “However, a significant number of projects worth more than USD 6.000 million show slow progress. The main deficiencies identified in monitoring of project planning, feasibility, implementation are deviation of the projects from national requirements, and frequent cost and time escalations resulting in low returns … Due to these expenditures, productive investments which could have been implemented at a lower cost are not adequately financed …” Has the government forgotten that most of these problems are also due to rampant corruption involving politicians and bureaucrats. How does it propose to tackle corruption, which will put paid to its efforts to keep the costs of development projects low and increase returns?

Meanwhile, Budget 2021 does not reveal how the Treasury is going to meet USD 6 billion worth of foreign currency debt obligations falling due during 2021 while having only USD 5.5 billion official reserves with the Central Bank. If the government fails to raise at least USD 6 billion external borrowings, it will be forced to default on its external debt obligations––absit omen!––and this has never happened in Sri Lanka. If it were to happen, Sri Lanka would have a hard landing currency crisis similar to ones faced by Greece, Argentina and Zimbabwe, in the past.

Overall, we view Budget 2021 as a government attempt to achieve a set of highly ambitious goals within an overoptimistic macroeconomic framework.



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Editorial

Free-market and socialism

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Friday 16th April, 2021

Former Finance Minister and newsmaker, Ronnie de Mel, has attracted media attention, again, at the age of 96. He is reported to have said, during a recent conversation with Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, that the Sri Lankan economy should be repositioned with a tilt towards socialism. He has also stressed the need for equitable growth, and other such pro-poor measures in keeping with the tenets of Buddhism.

It is being argued in some quarters that de Mel, who presented 11 budgets consecutively under the better-dead-than-red J. R. Jayewardene government, has faced about, but going by what he is heard saying in a video clip of the aforesaid conversation, which is accessible on the Internet, one can see that he only opines how capitalism can emerge stronger and remain relevant, especially in this country. Speaking boastfully about the epochal economic change the country underwent in 1977, he says there is a pressing need for another such momentous event for the Sri Lankan economy to come out of the doldrums.

Ironically, there was no love lost between de Mel and the late President Ranasinghe Premadasa, while they were in the JRJ government as the Finance Minister and the Prime Minister respectively, but the former is now of the view that the latter’s son, Sajith, is the only hope for the country!

We had two epoch-defining elections as regards the national economy. In 1970, the SLFP-led United Front (UF) government, which secured a two-thirds majority in Parliament, adopted a statist approach to economic management and threw in its lot with the socialist bloc in a bipolar world. It took things to an extreme in experimenting with its autochthonous politico-economic model. The state’s vise-like grip on the economy retarded the growth of the private sector much to the resentment of the capitalist bloc. Many arguments have been put forth in defence of this kind of state control over the economy, stringent regulations, etc., under that regime; they are not without merit, but the UF government became hugely unpopular, as a result. In 1977, the UNP, made a stunning comeback and formed a government with a five-sixths majority in the House with de Mel as the Finance Minister and upended the UF’s economy policies, triggering an open-market tsunami as it were; that revolutionary change led to the evisceration of many vital state institutions. Both regimes failed to maintain a balance, and their economic reforms, therefore, did not yield the desired benefits for the country. If only they had heeded the classical, oxymoronic adage, festina lente (‘make haste slowly’).

Those who expected capitalism to flourish following the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991) only cherished a delusion. Capitalism has been in crisis; this situation is mostly due to the fact that the capitalist state has to carry out two mutually contradictory functions—accumulation and legitimisation. The process of legitimisation basically requires maintaining social harmony, which cannot be achieved unless the ill-effects of the unbridled capital accumulation are mitigated for the benefit of the ordinary people. Hence attempts by the capitalist state to give its policies a socialist flavour with social welfare and pro-poor schemes. (The JRJ government went so far as to call this country a ‘Democratic Socialist Republic’, in the Constitution it introduced. (Emphasis added.) It is against this backdrop that former Finance Minister de Mel’s aforesaid advice to the Opposition leader should be viewed.

Besides, critics of capitalism inform us that the current free-market model has led to a triple crisis for capitalism—financial instability, lack of environmental sustainability and political unpopularity. “Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative,” H. G. Wells has said. This aphorism applies to economic models as well. Even the US has had to make dramatic course corrections over the decades. Some of these measures run counter to its unsolicited advice to the rest of the world; Washington opted for a massive bailout package to save the American banks, etc., during the 2008 financial meltdown, which marked a turning point in capitalism and modern economic theories. The Occupy Wall Street movement, which emerged in 2011, was another manifestation of the crisis of the capitalist state; the protesters who took to the streets were young Americans enraged by intolerable economic inequalities.

President Donald Trump had no qualms about openly practising protectionism to boost the US industries at the expense of other nations, especially China, through controversial tariff hikes. His successor, Joe Biden continues with, more or less, the same policy. All US Presidents have been closet protectionists.

Biden has recently got a 1.9-trillion-dollar stimulus package approved by the Congress to jump-start the economy, facilitate the ongoing Covid-19 vaccination drive, and grant relief to the pandemic-hit Americans. These measures are part of the legitimisation process aimed at bringing about social harmony.

One can only hope that the present-day political leaders and economic policymakers will take note of the fact that one of the main architects of the Sri Lankan version of market economy has owned that things are far from copacetic for capitalism in its present form; the key takeaway for the incumbent government from de Mel’s advice to Sajith, in our book, is the need to ensure equitable growth, which, however, is not attainable through occasional cash handouts and politically-motivated poverty alleviation projects.

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Editorial

Happy New Year!

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Tuesday 13th April, 2021

The Sinhala and Tamil New Year is the time when ordinary people have their fill of merrymaking, and traders and pawnbrokers laugh all the way to the bank. The much-talked-about need to preserve traditions associated with the national festival for posterity is only an excuse for the annual splurge.

What is being celebrated is essentially a harvest festival. In days of yore, people toiled away for months and produced a surplus, part of which was set aside for the New Year festivities. They did not have to worry about the rest of the year as they had enough food stocks. Today, there is no such surplus production, and most people spend borrowed money on New Year celebrations only to regret later when the festive hangover gives way to sobering reality.

Today, harvesting makes only moneylenders and the middleman happy. The farming community is caught in a debt trap. Loan sharks prey on them with impunity. Harvesting is followed by debt-servicing, and farmers either cannot pay back their loans or are left with little or nothing after debt repayment; they have to borrow more for consumption and cultivation purposes, and never will they be able to break this vicious circle unless the state makes a meaningful intervention. Avurudu provides them with some respite from suffering. The same is true of most other people as well.

The koha is said to be conspicuous by its absence, this year. Is it fed up with looking for trees to perch on, given the rate at which the country is being denuded? Its cry which is considered the herald of the traditional new year is, in fact, a desperate mating call. One wonders whether its cry is not heard these days because it has opted for remaining silent by way of family planning, as it were, on account of serious habitat problems.

Health experts have been trying to knock some sense into the public, but in vain. People have thrown caution to the wind, and are behaving as if the pandemic were a thing of the past. They seem to consider Avurudu to be something worth dying for. Shops are chock-a-block, and nobody cares two hoots about the physical distancing rule. People jostle inside clothing stores as if they had never worn clothes before. They also strip bare the racks of grocery stores as if they had never seen food, all these years. Adult males religiously flock around liquor outlets as though their very survival were dependent on the bottle that cheers.

Yesterday, India reported 168,912 COVID-19 infections overnight and overtook Brazil as the second-worst hit country in the world. Unless precautions are taken during the current festive season, Sri Lanka may find itself in the same predicament as its big neighbour.

Politics has apparently taken precedence over the COVID-19 protocol although the health authorities fear that a surge of infections is on the horizon. The government seems reluctant to have the health regulations strictly enforced lest such action should not find favour with the public, who had to be immured in their homes during the festive season, last year. The Provincial Council elections are also expected before the year end. Hence the distribution of cash handouts by the government, which is playing Santa months ahead of Christmas.

The national economy and productivity will take another severe beating due to holidays. Workplaces will remain closed until early next week. It takes, at least, one whole week to reboot the country after the New Year celebrations. Economists should figure out how much the country loses owing to numerous holidays.

Perhaps, it was only last year that Sri Lankans celebrated Avurudu meaningfully. They confined themselves to their homes due to strictly enforced lockdowns, which may have caused numerous difficulties, financial or otherwise, but members of most families huddled together as never before; this is what Avurudu is all about.

We wish our readers a very happy New Year!

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Editorial

Bridging vaccine divide

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Monday 12th April, 2021

Rich nations make a show of their commitment to defending human rights in the world. They harangue their developing counterparts, at every turn, about the need to protect human rights, and even threaten to meet non-compliance with punitive actions such as sanctions. They, however, do not seem keen to promote and protect humans’ right to vaccination vis-a-vis the prevailing global health emergency. The only way to safeguard this right is to ensure an equitable distribution of COVID-19 vaccines across the world, but the World Health Organisation (WHO) has expressed utter dismay at what it calls a ‘shocking imbalance’ in the distribution of vaccines between the rich and the poor.

This kind of vaccine inequality could be attributed to what WHO Director General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus has rightly called a ‘catastrophic moral failure’. The COVAX initiative, which alone can ensure a well-coordinated global fight against the virus, has suffered a serious setback, with the high-income countries reportedly holding as many as 4.6 billion doses of vaccines, and the low-middle income nations only 670 million. One in four people have been inoculated in the high-income countries as opposed to one in more than 500 in the low-income countries, according to the WHO.

Unless the COVAX scheme, the most efficacious antidote to what has come to be dubbed ‘vaccine nationalism’, which has put the poorer countries at a distinct disadvantage, goes ahead as planned, a vast majority of the global population, in the developing countries, will be badly hit, and in the long-term, the world’s fight against the virus will be in jeopardy because the pandemic is no respecter of geographical boundaries; no country, however rich and powerful, will be safe in today’s interconnected world dependent on international trade and travel.

‘Vaccine nationalism’ may give the rich nations a sense of security in the short-term, but it will be counterproductive in the long-term, for no vaccine is believed to be able to ensure life-time immunity against COVID-19. The pandemic continues to throw up new challenges. Even if the rich nations achieve their vaccination goals while their poor counterparts are lagging far behind, they will be at the risk of being affected by new variants, against which, the currently available jabs might not be effective. This is why Dr. Ghebreyesus has said no country will be safe until every country is safe.

Some Asian nations are struggling to beat the virus despite some initial success in their battle against the pandemic, according to an Asia News Network article we publish today. The report informs us that India, which is grappling with its second wave of infections, has seen record increases of new cases, with more than 100,000 daily being reported on, at least, five days, last week. This being the predicament of a vaccine-producing nation, with a reasonably efficient vaccination rollout, the vulnerability of other countries is not difficult to guess. Similar unfortunate situations have been reported from other parts of the world as well. The US, which is among the nations with impressively high COVID-19 vaccination rates, is also troubled by a sudden increase in the number of pandemic-related deaths.

If the vaccine rollouts fail to reach a successful conclusion the world over fast, it may not be possible to achieve global herd immunity through vaccination, and the chances of beating the virus may be slim due to its mutations, experts warn. COVAX is scheduled to supply as many as two billion doses of vaccines to 190 countries within one year with 92 poorer nations gaining access to vaccines at the same time as their wealthier counterparts. This is a highly ambitious target, which, however, must be achieved if the world is to get on top of the pandemic. But help from the rich nations is not forthcoming, and it is only natural that the WHO is disappointed.

The WHO is hopeful that it may be possible to change the composition of the existing vaccines to deal with the mutations of the virus, but it is still trying to figure out what kind of impact new variants may have on the effectiveness of vaccines. Reuters reported yesterday that a new coronavirus variant discovered in South Africa had been found to be able to break through Pfizer/BitoNtech’s vaccine to a considerable extent. Some Indian epidemiologists interviewed by BBC yesterday said they feared that the emerging variants might even be able to escape the human immune system!

The need for all nations, which are currently at cross purposes as regards the global battle against the virus, to support and be guided by COVAX, which alone can make them work in unison to beat the virus, cannot be overemphasised.

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