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COVID-19 and the Sri Lankan economy: Policy choices and trade-offs

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By Chathurrdhika Yogarajah

Sri Lanka’s macro-economic outlook amidst the COVID-19 pandemic came under the spotlight at a webinar panel discussion held on October 11, to mark the release of IPS’ flagship report, ‘Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2021’. The event featured presentations by Dr Dushni Weerakoon and Dr Asanka Wijesinghe from IPS with expert insights from Dr Missaka Warusawitharana, Financial Economist, Johns Hopkins University, USA. Tharindu Udayanga from IPS moderated the discussion.

Prospects and Possibilities Dr Dushni Weerakoon, Executive Director, IPS

A V-shaped recovery is likely to take shape, but Sri Lanka faces a relatively weak output growth. A critical challenge is to lift the growth rate to, at least, 5-6% and maintain that momentum in the medium term. How investments perform will be a crucial determinant, as the dip in investment was a major driver of output contraction in 2020. With little fiscal space, Sri Lanka relied mostly on monetary policy. There was a surge in direct financing of fiscal spending, and there were efforts to ensure that borrowing costs were kept low via yield-control measures.

Sri Lanka is not so fortunately placed when considering the risks related to large-scale debt monetisation programmes due to high debt levels, elevated exposure to foreign debt with repayments of sizeable amounts in the medium term, and the low reserve stockpiles. With such weak fundamentals, the backbone of debt monetisation programmes is policy credibility. But for the last 18 months, there has been no notable effort to curtail discretionary spending and anchor fiscal plans. Thus, Sri Lanka is reluctant to deal with IMF conditionalities.

Policy measures must address fiscal imbalances through cuts in national spending or raising national income. As the latter takes time, the governments tend to focus on a policy mix to cut national spending that includes tighter budgets allowing interest rates to move with market fundamentals and implementing more flexible exchange rates. The downside is that the growth suffers in the short term with worsening debt ratios. These are politically difficult choices when economic conditions are tight as they are now.

Sri Lanka must firm up its access to foreign capital markets to balance the risks. If Sri Lanka comes to an adjustment on the fiscal front and improves access to capital markets, this will free up the space for a more orderly macroeconomic adjustment. Though the exchange rate may initially overshoot, it can be stabilised over time. This will allow the Central Bank to reverse its debt monetisation and focus on price stability, as that will be an area of concern in the coming months. A policy framework along these lines will provide a more robust environment to support investment and sustain Sri Lanka’s recovery.

Opportunities and Costs Dr Asanka Wijesinghe, Research Economist, IPS

During the pre-pandemic period, there was stabilisation in the rate of globalisation, but Sri Lanka’s openness has continuously declined especially after 2005 due to GDP growth in nontradeable sectors. However, Bangladesh, India, and South Asia, in general, show an increasing trend of openness. COVID-19 led to a deep plunge in the world’s industrial production and trade in 2019. But even after this collapse, it recovered by the beginning of 2021. There is no evidence to show deglobalisation effects due to the pandemic.

When the world trade outlook is taken into consideration, the WTO predicts a pickup in global trade volumes for the year 2022. An IMF database that uses signals emitted by sea vessels also showed an uptick in world trade from the beginning of 2021. Sri Lanka should ready itself to take advantage of trade diversion and investments opportunities the tariffs imposed on China’s textiles by the US, for instance. At present, its global value chain (GVC) participation is low and in fact declined from 2009 to 2019. In contrast countries like Bangladesh, Viet Nam, India and Pakistan showed an increasing trend. He pointed out that the US-China trade war presents opportunities for Sri Lanka to increase both forward and backward GVC participation.

A key challenge is the costly policy of import substitution, resulting in resource misallocation, reduced competitiveness, and possible retaliation from trade partners. Another challenge for Sri Lanka is the potential withdrawal of GSP+ which will be a hard hit on the seafood and textile industries. Sri Lanka should work to secure GSP+, disengage from the ‘anti-trade’ bias, integrate with GVCs, and restructure existing regional trade agreements.

Roads to Recovery

Dr Missaka Warusawitharana, Financial Economist, Johns Hopkins University, USA

Sri Lanka’s growth trajectory has not been in line with its true potential, adversely impacting the well-being of the people. This can be attributed to the low level of productivity growth. Although the manufacturing sector has contributed to growth, it has not demonstrated sufficient productivity that would enable the country to achieve a better output.

Further, the current fiscal difficulties can be pinned to structural imbalances in the country’s budgets that have spanned decades along with different administrations that have been unwilling to make hard choices. In the longer term, budgets must be structured to bring the debt down to a manageable level.

The world economy is moving away from physical goods to a digital-based economy, requiring greater provision of services. Sri Lanka scores well on the Human Development Index with its knowledgeable workforce. The need is to increase productivity by investing more in education and service-producing industries and improve the business environment by reducing institutional barriers.

Link to blog: https://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics/2021/10/15/covid-19-and-the-sri-lankan-economy-policy-choices-and-trade-offs/

Chathurrdhika Yogarajah is a Research Assistant at IPS with research interests in macroeconomics and trade policy. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Agricultural Technology and Management, specialised in Applied Economics and Business Management from the University of Peradeniya with First Class Honours. She is currently reading for her Master’s in Agricultural Economics at the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, Peradeniya. (Talk with Chathurrdhika: chathurrdhika@ips.lk)



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Sri Lanka Tourism commands attention at World Routes 2021

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Sri Lanka made a huge splash at the 26th World Route Development Forum (World Routes 2021), which took place in Milan, Italy, recently. By making its presence felt at the forum, Sri Lanka pitched its destination for global airlines to consider it as one of the top holiday destinations for the upcoming winter season and beyond. Sri Lanka Tourism officials were able to directly engage with decision-makers from the global route development community, including world’s air services, while taking advantage of dedicated in-person and virtual event days combining extensive meeting opportunities, exclusive industry insight and first-class networking opportunities.

The Chairperson of Sri Lanka Tourism, Ms. Kimarli Fernando, expertly leveraged on the platform provided by World Routes 2021 to highlight Sri Lanka’s 5-year global campaign and growth potential. Her keynote presentation was followed by a panel discussion and a Q&A session with attendees in collaboration with Major General (Rtd.), G.A Chandrasiri , Chairman, Airport and Aviation Services. Through the duration of the Forum, Sri Lanka Tourism was present on all social media platforms for driving brand awareness, pushing Destination Sri Lanka to the front and centre of global travel and tourism operators present.

With the Sri Lankan Government declaring this a growth decade, Sri Lanka Tourism has been aligned to the government’s vision as enshrined in the 10 pillar strategy document. Over the last two years, Sri Lanka Tourism has advanced the industry across various factors to bring prosperity to all stakeholders and to ensure Sri Lanka tourism fulfills its potential. Concurrently, with a high vaccination rate, Sri Lanka has opened up to fully vaccinated tourists, offering them a safe and exciting stay.

One of the key pillars has been connectivity and the efforts made have been fruitful – with several European and regional airlines resuming direct flights, new routes being established and increased frequency of flights to Sri Lanka which will boost tourism for the upcoming peak season.

Apart from elaborating on the strategy, Kimarli Fernando engaged in an absorbing Q&A session with global airline industry stakeholders. During her keynote speech she elaborated on Sri Lanka’s biodiversity, UNESCO sites and other cultural and nature offerings. One of the highlights of her speech was tourist investment. Tourism has been attracting substantial investment despite the challenges emanating from the pandemic. Between March 2020 – June 2021, the Government of Sri Lanka has attracted over US$950 million in investments, received 64 project proposals and approved 38 projects to the value of $102.38 Million. These ventures will be executed under the Sri Lanka Tourism Development Authority (SLTDA). In order to attract strategic investors, the Investor Relations Unit was launched as a single point of contact for all tourism investments. In addition, the Government of Sri Lanka is extending a host of financial incentives and fast-track processes to get projects off the ground within the shortest possible time.

Given the recent tie-ups with France tourism operators and a similar push in more key western markets, the brand awareness of Sri Lanka is growing in strategic markets.

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ComBank wins Daraz award for ‘Best Engaging Overall Cards Base’

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The Commercial Bank of Ceylon was presented the award for ‘The Best Engaging Overall Cards Base’ at the recent ‘Payment Partner Performance Awards 2021’ of Daraz, South Asia’s premier online shopping marketplace.

The Bank was awarded this title for empowering the Daraz platform by generating the highest number of transactions by both credit and debit card bases and the highest number of unique buyers’ engagement during the financial year 2020-21. This is the second consecutive year that the Bank was honoured with this award.

The Commercial Bank of Ceylon has been an Internet Payment (IPG) service provider to Daraz from 2018, and has since partnered with the online retailer to power ‘Daraz 11.11,’ the world’s biggest online sale.

The two organisations are working together to offer diversified and unique offers to customers with a view of offering them attractive value additions, the Bank said. Commercial Bank cardholders can enjoy periodic discounts at Daraz with the offers structured by the Bank, and the convenience of Easy Payment Plans of up to 60 months.

Launched in 2012, the Daraz eCommerce site has an active presence in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Nepal. The marketplace has over 2.5 million products in diverse categories such as consumer electronics, household goods, beauty, fashion, sports equipment, and groceries. It was acquired by the Alibaba Group in 2018.

Commercial Bank Credit and Debit Cards offer year-round promotions covering a wide variety of services. Commercial Bank was the first bank to offer loyalty rewards for both Credit and Debit Card holders under its Max Loyalty Rewards Points scheme. The Bank was also a pioneer in extending promotional discount offers which were traditionally only offered for Credit Cards to its Debit Cards.

Commercial Bank cards are the fastest growing cards in Sri Lanka and enjoy market leadership in Credit and Debit Card cumulative point-of-sale usage. The Bank offers a variety of Credit Cards in the Silver, Gold and Platinum tiers of Visa, Mastercard and UnionPay Cards, as well as Visa Signature, World Mastercard, Visa Infinite, UnionPay Asia Prestige Platinum and UnionPay Asia Prestige Diamond Cards in the premium segment. The cards are equipped with ‘Tap ’n Go’ NFC technology and are backed by a strong NFC Point-of-Sale (POS) network.

Sri Lanka’s first 100% carbon neutral bank, the first Sri Lankan bank to be listed among the Top 1000 Banks of the World and the only Sri Lankan bank to be so listed for 11 years consecutively, Commercial Bank operates a network of 268 branches and 931 automated machines in Sri Lanka. Commercial Bank is the largest lender to Sri Lanka’s SME sector and is a leader in digital innovation in the country’s Banking sector. The Bank’s overseas operations encompass Bangladesh, where the Bank operates 19 outlets; Myanmar, where it has a Microfinance company in Nay Pyi Taw; and the Maldives, where the Bank has a fully-fledged Tier I Bank with a majority stake.

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Banks’ Chief Internal Auditors’ Forum appoints new committee for 2021/22

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Seated from left - Varuna Koggalage (Committee Member), Numair Cassim (Vice President), Charitha Jayawickrama (President), Nirosha Perera (Secretary), Dulan Abeyratne (Committee Member) Standing from left - Dhanjaya Dayananda (Committee Member), Chandima Samarasinghe (Outgoing Secretary), John Premanath (Outgoing Vice President), Maduwantha Liyanage (Immediate Past President/Committee Member), Jayan Fernando (Committee Member). Absent from picture - Committee Members Kushlaini Allis and Gamini Jayaweera

The Chief Internal Auditors’ Forum of Banks appointed its 5th committee recently. The inaugural committee meeting was held on 17th November 2021 subsequent to the AGM held on 3rd November 2021. Charitha Jawawickrama of Sampath Bank was appointed as the President, Numair Cassim (Amana Bank) as Vice President and Nirosha Perera (Union Bank) as Secretary. Others in the committee include Varuna Koggalage (Seylan Bank), Dulan Abeyratne (HSBC), Dhanjaya Dayananda (SDB), Jayan Fernando (DFCC), Kushlaini Allis (NTB) and Gamini Jayaweera (NSB). The outgoing committee included Maduwantha Liyanage of BOC (Immediate Past President), John Premanath (Commercial Bank) and Chandima Samarasinghe (Cargills Bank).

The Forum was established to build strong relationships amongst the Licensed Commercial Banks and Licensed Specialized Banks in dealing with new developments and challenges pertinent to the industry. It also supports Internal Audit professionals to enhance comradeship and encourages participation of Banks to share knowledge and industry best practices. Since re-establishing in 2015, the forum has become an integral body that supports and assists Banks with regard to common audit related concerns in the industry.

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