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Budget 2021 likely to worsen macroeconomic instability amidst COVID-19 pandemic

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By Prof. Sirimevan Colombage

The Budget Speech 2021 was presented at a time when the country is being severely hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. GDP growth is projected to be down to negative 2 percent this year. Despite this economic setback, the government envisages to maintain an inclusive GDP growth rate of 6 percent per annum over the medium-term while containing inflation to around 5 percent, according to its macroeconomic programme, ‘Vistas of Prosperity and Splendour’.

 

Less emphasis on COVID-19

Given such optimistic targets, it is somewhat puzzling that the Budget Speech does not pay much attention to Covid-19 pandemic which has paralyzed virtually all economic activities by now. Reflecting mixed-up priorities, the Budget has given undue resource allocations at this difficult juncture to some arbitrarily selected projects such as urban townships, sports, road construction and walking paths, which have no direct relevance to revive the pandemic-hit economy, though they may have their own merits during normal times.

A coherent economic recovery strategy, apart from the fiscal and monetary stimulus already granted, is the need of the hour to revive the economy from the fallout. The pandemic has severe consequences on the Sri Lankan economy, which had already encountered multiple economic setbacks including low economic growth, fiscal disarrays, balance of payments deficits and foreign debt burden even prior to the health crisis. The pandemic has adversely affected the export sector, domestic production, inward remittances and distribution network. Poor households who are mostly working in the informal sector with irregular income sources have become extremely vulnerable in the present crisis situation.

 

Escalating fiscal imbalance

The budget deficit is projected to rise by 24 percent from Rs. 1,266 bn. (7.9 percent of GDP) in 2020 to Rs. 1,565 bn. (8.9 percent of GDP) in 2021, reflecting a severe deterioration of the fiscal position (Figure 1). It is expected that the total revenue would rise by 28 percent in 2021 as against 26 percent increase in total expenditure. Such exorbitant revenue growth cannot be expected for a single year even during normal times. The projected increase in revenue is said to be based on the assumption of 5 percent growth in GDP in 2021. This assumption seems to be over-optimistic considering the negative impact of COVID-19 in years to come, and the country’s limited growth potential experienced even before the outbreak of the pandemic. Slower GDP growth in 2021 means low level of government revenue, and consequent expansion of the budget deficit much higher than what is expected. Thus, the budget deficit is likely to be 10 percent of GDP or more in 2021.

 

Monetary implications of fiscal imbalance

With the rise in the budget deficit, the government is compelled to rely increasingly on the banking system to finance the deficit. Net bank credit to the government rose by 46 percent from Rs. 2,732 bn. in September 2019 to Rs.3.980 bn. in September 2020. The Central Bank has accommodated government finance requirements by directly purchasing Treasury Bills at primary auctions. The Central Bank’s net credit to the government rose by 50.8 percent from Rs. 383.2 bn. in September 2019 to Rs. 577.7 bn. in September 2020.

The monetary easing policy adopted by the Central Bank to relieve the households and businesses adversely affected by Covid-19 too accelerated the annual money growth from 7.4 percent in September 2019 to 19.2 percent in September 2020 (Figure 2). The monetary easing measures included sequential reductions of the policy interest rates and Statutory Reserve Ratio (SRR), which led to inject substantial liquidity into the market, and to reduce borrowing costs significantly. Concessional credit schemes were also introduced to facilitate the activities of Small and Medium-scale Enterprises (SMEs), alongside debt moratoria granted for businesses and individuals distressed by the pandemic.

Nevertheless, the annual growth of commercial bank credit to the private sector has remained stagnant around 5 percent reflecting the slow pick up of economic activities. In contrast, net commercial bank credit to the government rose by 44.9 percent in the 12-month period ending September 2020. In this background, the excessive money supply growth is bound to create demand pressures augmenting inflation and imports in the coming months.

 

Inflation-targeting monetary policy missing

Surprisingly, the Budget Speech does not make any reference to monetary policy which is vital in achieving macroeconomic stability, and sustaining economic growth. The Central Bank made concerted efforts about two years ago to launch the inflation-targeting monetary policy framework with the expectation of close coordination with fiscal authorities while regaining its independence. I categorically warned in these columns that such efforts would be suicidal for the Central Bank, unless the fiscal sector is aligned with such process committing to low budget deficits.

It is evident by now that inflation-targeting monetary policy is a remote possibility, as such policy is completely neglected not only by the fiscal authorities in the latest Budget Speech, but also by its architect, the Central Bank. Inflation-targeting monetary policy framework is not focused in the Central Bank’s publication, ‘Recent Economic Developments – Highlights of 2020 and Prospects for 2021’.

Understandably, it is not feasible to implement such rule-based policy amidst the current economic crisis, but the Central Bank should have displayed its long-term commitment to run the inflation-targeting monetary policy framework, which was declared with much grandeur not so long ago. That would strengthen the Central Bank’s independence, which is vital to operate monetary policy without undue political interference.

Demand pressures mounting

The easy monetary policy implemented by the Central Bank under the Presidential directive following the pandemic is unlikely to boost production activities significantly as expected, given the inherent weaknesses of enterprises, uncertain macroeconomic environment and imperative health-related precautionary measures imposed by the government including curfews, lockdowns and travel restrictions.

The global economic downturn resulting from the pandemic has dampening effects on the export sector. Further, business decisions in the private sector are mostly based on comparisons of the expected rate of return on investment vis-à-vis opportunity cost of investment. Interest rates represent the opportunity cost while expectations are influenced by many factors including macroeconomic economic environment, technological changes, exchange rate volatility, capacity utilization, export competitiveness, aggregate demand, fiscal stability, inflation, political stability, business confidence, and cost of production.

The present low interest rate environment encourages consumption, as savings yield low returns. Thus, low interest rates have negative effects on domestic savings. This is reflected in the downfall of domestic savings rate from 24.8 percent of GDP in the first half of 2019 to 20.8 percent in the corresponding period of 2020. Meanwhile, private consumption rose from 66.7 percent of GDP in the first half on 2019 to 70.5 percent in the same period of 2020. Given the low returns on savings, the surplus-fund holders tend to move to alternative assets such as commodities, real estate and risky financial instruments. Such fund diversions lead to distort investment decisions, and to create asset bubbles harming financial stability.

The rising consumption demand has spill-over effects on domestic production and imports exerting pressures on inflation and balance of payments deficits. Inflation, in addition to cheap credit, makes imports attractive and exports unprofitable, causing further deterioration of the trade balance. Unless the exchange rate is allowed to depreciate freely to achieve external equilibrium, import restrictions become imperative to avoid deterioration of the trade deficit. This type of inward-looking foreign trade policy seems to be the government’s policy choice at present, as can be evident from several import controls imposed in recent times. Although such measures are inevitable amidst the pandemic, it must be noted that they have adverse consequences on competitiveness, productivity and export-led growth in the long run. Hence, it is important to phase out import restrictions and to allow free trade.

Policy concerns

Given Sri Lanka’s long track record of low economic growth and macroeconomic imbalances, it is a major policy challenge to mitigate the economic fallout from COVID-19. Budget 2021 does not contain any coherent policy strategy to overcome the crisis. The budget deficit in 2021 is likely to be much higher than what is given in the official projections due to inevitable revenue shortfalls and expenditure overruns amidst the pandemic. In financing the widening budget deficit, increased reliance on bank borrowings results in liquidity injections, and consequent pressures on the money supply, inflation and balance of payments. The import restrictions imposed recently to arrest the balance of payments deficit might give wrong signals to the market depressing outward-oriented growth. Meanwhile, recourse to foreign borrowings escalates the already heavy external debt burden.

The response of the private sector to monetary easing seems rather weak due to structural factors while cheap credit has tended to encourage extravagant consumption, speculative asset holdings and risky financial dealings. The neglect of inflation-targeting monetary policy launched by the Central Bank about two years ago is a matter of concern from the viewpoint of optimal monetary-fiscal policy mix. A systematic growth strategy, backed by a realistic macroeconomic framework, is essential to recover the economy.

(The author is Emeritus Professor in Economics at the Open University of Sri Lanka)



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Features

Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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Features

New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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