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Governance issues, etc., will have to be sorted out to avert further debt restructuring: Verité Research

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By Rathindra Kuruwita

Unless Sri Lanka addressed its governance issues, the country would have to restructure its debt again like most countries that had unsustainable levels of corruption, Executive Director of Verité Research Nishan de Mel said in a recent televised interview.

Dr. De Mel said that as the government had decided to pay the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) only 9% for its investment until 2038 instead of the average Treasury bond interest rate of 13.5 percent, it would lose 12 trillion rupees.De Mel also said that Domestic Debt Optimization (DDO) was a phrase that the Sri Lankan government coined.

“Domestic debt restructuring usually means making credit owners take a loss for the benefit of the government. The word commonly used for this is restructuring, optimisation is a word that we have come up with,” he said.

De Mel said that the government’s proposal was to reduce the interest paid on the money at EPF and other such funds to 9.1 percent until 2038. However, the average interest paid for Treasury bonds over recent years was 13.5 percent, which is almost 50 percent more than the proposed interest for EPF, he said.

“We know the interest rates for Treasury Bonds because the government has released information about the interest rates of bonds issued because foreign creditors have been asking for transparency. By the end of 31 May this year, the average interest rate given to bondholders was 13.5 percent,” he said.

There had been years when interest rates for Treasury bills were below 9.1 percent. However, it was unlikely that the interest rates offered on Treasury bills would fall below 9.1 percent, he said. Sri Lanka was going through an uncertain time and governments could only lure people into buying bonds by offering attractive interest rates, de Mel added.

“We still can’t borrow from bond markets. So, the government will offer higher interest rates when it borrows from the domestic market. During the past two years, the government has paid about 30 percent interest to borrow from the domestic market. It is unlikely that interest rates for bonds will be less than 13.5 percent in the future,” he said.

De Mel said that at present there are 3.4 trillion rupees at the EPF, and it will reach about 25 trillion by 2038 at 13.5 percent interest. However, EPF funds would only grow to 13 trillion at 9.1 percent interest.

“That’s 12 trillion rupees less at 9.1 percent,” he said.

The Central Bank had a Monetary Board taking decisions on the EPF and there was a conflict of interest as CBSL was also entrusted with restructuring debt, de Mel said.

“A lot of people ask me why I am using 13.5 percent to calculate the losses. They tell me that the EPF already receives less than 13.5 percent in interest. The EPF is late in producing annual reports. The last available report was for 2020. The Central Bank produces its annual reports every year, but the EPF reports are delayed. There are many allegations about what happened. If someone tells me that EPF receives lower interest rates than the market rate for treasury bonds, that is another serious problem. All private sector employees are compelled to be a member of the EPF, so why are EPF beneficiaries receiving less than market rates?” he asked.

There are several pension funds, and CBSL workers have a special pension fund. De Mel said he was not aware if that pension fund, too, had been restructured.Although the parliament had approved a resolution on the domestic debt restructuring, the government could not change the interest rates given to EPF without changing some laws, he said.

“The laws governing the EPF say that the Central Bank must publish all investments it makes with EPF money. However, when we look at EPF’s financial statements, they have misinterpreted the above clause. Instead of listing out every investment, they are listing out every type of investment. This way, people can’t figure out what’s going on,” he said.

Those who are EPF beneficiaries will lose about 70 percent of the real value of their money because of inflation and the lower market rate of interest. However, foreign investors are only getting a 30 percent loss, he said.

“This is unequal treatment. There are two factors needed for sustainable domestic debt restructuring. One is that foreign creditors must take a deep haircut—over 50 percent. Secondly, the governance issues in a country must be addressed. Most countries have to restructure their debt more than once. And these countries have serious governance issues. So, to attain sustainability, we need foreign creditors to get a deeper haircut and we have to address our serious governance issues,.”



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Contentious Chinese research vessel docks in Maldives

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Xiang Yang Hong 03 has previously visited Indian Ocean on several other occasions

A contentious Chinese research ship reached the Maldives on Thursday in the latest sign of the archipelago’s diplomatic reorientation towards Beijing and away from its traditional benefactor India.

Local residents said they had spotted China’s Xiang Yang Hong 3 at the Thilafushi industrial port near the capital Male.The 100-metre-long (328-foot) vessel was at an anchorage near Male on Thursday evening, according to the website Marinetraffic.

The Maldives’ pro-Beijing government said earlier the vessel was docking for a port call to rotate crew and take on supplies, on the condition that it would not conduct “research” while in its territorial waters.

Media reports in India had suggested that the vessel was conducting surveillance for Beijing.

India is suspicious of China’s increasing presence in the Indian Ocean and its influence in Sri Lanka and the Maldives, which are strategically placed halfway along key east-west international shipping routes.Relations between Male and New Delhi have chilled since pro-China President Mohamed Muizzu won elections last year.

Muizzu has asked India to withdraw 89 security personnel based in the Maldives to operate reconnaissance aircraft by March 15.But the president has also insisted he does not want to upend ties with New Delhi by replacing Indian troops with Chinese forces.

Sri Lanka refused entry to Xiang Yang Hong 3 after two other port calls from Chinese vessels since 2022 raised objections from India.That included the ship Yuan Wang 5, which specializes in spacecraft tracking and which New Delhi described as a spy ship. (AFP)

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MP Harsha in Australia as “Special visitor”

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Harsha de Silva

Opposition MP and Chairman of the Committee on Public Finance (COPF) Harsha de Silva is currently in Australia as a special visitor.

Taking to ‘X’, the Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) MP said he had embarked on a nine-day visit on an invitation extended by the Government of Australia.

“My engagements with policymakers, academics, scientists and investment managers began in Melbourne and will continue in Adelaide and then public officials and politicians in Canberra,” he added.

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ADB country chief hopes Lanka could sustain policy reforms despite elections

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Takafumi Kadono

ECONOMYNEXT –The Asian Development Bank (ADB) expects Sri Lanka not to reverse its International Monetary Fund-led policy reforms despite elections soon, the ADB Country Director for Sri Lanka Takafumi Kadono said.

The island nation has witnessed repeated reversals of policy reforms in the past due to greedy politicians who misled  the people to vote for them by sowing the seeds of subsidy mentality with unsustainable debts at expensive borrowing costs, economists say.

That led the country into an unprecedented economic crisis in 2022 with a sovereign debt default. Sri Lanka is still struggling to come out of the crisis.

The IMF has strictly placed some reforms including in state sector enterprises, fiscal and monetary sectors.

Sri Lanka has implemented the painful IMF reforms so far including higher personal income taxes, but economists have raised concerns over the sustainability of the current reforms due to possible changes in the policies in the event of a new president or government comes to power after democratic elections.

“If that kind of reversal happens, we also cannot justify our support,” ADB Country Director for Sri Lanka Takafumi Kadono told EconomyNext on late on Wednesday.

“We do expect these policy reforms to be sustained. So that is our expectation. That is the premise which we are providing our budget support. If they reverse, the whole premise will be collapsed. That kind of policy reversal cannot happen.”

The island nation had sought IMF bailout package for 17 times including the ongoing support. However, the authorities have failed to complete most of the past IMF loan disbursements due to politically motivated contradiction with the global lender’s tight fiscal policies.

Sri Lanka has shown some signs of recovery in the third quarter of 2023 with the economic growth turned to positive from contraction for the first time in seven quarters.

However, opposition political parties have promised to revisit the IMF deal if they come to power.

Higher taxes, soaring cost of living, and lack of salary hike have made President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s government unpopulour among the public, analysts say.

Wickremesinghe has said the country will hold both presidential and parliamentary election by 2025.

Some government politicians have told EconomyNext that the higher taxes would be eased from April and the authorities will try their best to meet the IMF conditions for the third disbursement in June this year.

The presidential polls should be held by October this year, but opposition parties have said President Wickremesinghe is in the process to delay the poll.

However, Wickremesinghe’s office last week said Presidential Election will be held “within the mandated period”, without giving an exact time.It also said the General Election will be held next year, “according to the current timeline”.

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