Reform or perish, it’s not too late
Sri Lankan economy in historic crisis
By K.D.D.B Vimanga and Naqiya Shiraz
The Sri Lankan economy faces a historical crisis. The root causes are the twin deficits. First, the persistent fiscal deficit – the gap between government expenditure and income. Second, the external current account deficit – the gap between total exports and imports. The problems have been festering for too long. Without urgent reforms, the crisis could easily morph into a full-blown debt crisis.
Sovereign debt workouts are extremely painful for citizens. A mangled debt restructuring can perpetuate the sense of crisis for years or even decades. A return to normal economic activity may be delayed, credit market access frozen, trade finance unavailable.
With the global pandemic, these are unusual and difficult times. The next five years are going to be crucial for the country. The problems can no longer be avoided and should be faced squarely. The journey ahead is going to be painful but the longer these are delayed the worse the problem becomes and the magnitude of the damage compounds.
State of the Economy
The new government inherited a fragile economy, battered by the Easter attacks of 2019, the constitutional crisis of October 2018 and the worst drought in 40 years in 2017. With the pandemic in 2020 Sri Lanka’s economy shrank by 3.6% with all sectors of the economy contracting.
Yet, the pandemic is not the sole cause – it only accelerated the decline of Sri Lanka’s economy that was weak to begin with. The country has long been plagued by structural weaknesses, with growth rates in the last few years even below the average growth rate during the war. Mismanaged government expenditure coupled with a long term decline in revenue have characterised Sri Lanka’s fiscal policy. As of 2020 total tax as a percentage of GDP fell to just 8%, while recurrent expenditure increased.
Borrowing to finance the persistent budget deficits is proving to be unsustainable. Total government debt rose to 101% of GDP in 2020 and has grown since. Sovereign downgrades have shut the country from international debt markets. The foreign reserves declined from US$ 7.6 bn in 2019 to US$ 5.7bn at the end of 2020 and to US$ 2.8 bn by July 2021. This level of reserves is equivalent to less than two months of imports. With future debt obligations also in need of financing, the situation is dire.
The import restrictions placed to combat this foreign exchange crisis have failed to achieve their purpose and are doing more harm than good. imports rose 30% in the first half of 2021 compared to 2020 despite stringent restrictions.
The problem lies not in the trade policy but in loose fiscal and monetary policy that has increased demand pressures within the economy, drawing in imports and leading to the balance of payments crisis and consequently the depreciation of the currency.
Measures by the Central Bank to address this by exchange rate controls and moral suasion have caused a shortage of foreign currency leading to a logjam in imports.
Fundamental and long-running macroeconomic problems were intensified by the pandemic.Import restrictions, price and exchange controls do not address the real causes.
Treating symptoms instead of the underlying causes is a recipe for disaster.
The continuation of such policies will lead to the deterioration of the economy, elevate scarcities, disadvantage the poor who are more vulnerable and in the long run lead to even higher prices and lower output due to lack of investment.
Sri Lanka’s GDP growth over the last decade has been alternating between short periods of high growth and prolonged periods of low growth. This is a result of the state-led, inward looking policies of the last decade.
A comprehensive reform agenda must be built around five fundamental pillars:
i) fiscal consolidation – The need to manage government spending within available resources and to reduce debt are paramount. Revenue mobilization must improve but the control of expenditure cannot be ignored. Budgetary institutions must be strengthened and there must be reviews not only of the scale of spending but also the scope of Government.
ii) Much of government expenditure is rigid – the bulk comprises salaries, pensions and interest so reducing these is a long term process. Reforming State Enterprises, especially in the energy sector and Sri Lankan Airlines is less difficult and could yield substantial savings. Continued operation of inefficient and loss-making SOE’s is untenable under such tight fiscal conditions. Financing SOE’s from state bank borrowings and transfers from government reduces the funds available for vital and underfunded sectors such as healthcare and education. Excessive SOE debt also weakens the financial sector and increases the contingent liabilities of the state. Therefore SOE reforms commencing with improving governance, transparency, establishing cost reflective pricing and privatisation are necessary. This can take a significant weight off the public finances and by fostering competition contribute to improvements in overall economic productivity.
iii) Tighten monetary policy and maintain exchange rate flexibility. Immediate structural reforms include, Inflation targeting, ensuring the independence of the central bank by way of legislation and enabling the functioning of a flexible exchange rate regime. Further significant attention has to be placed on the financial sector stability with a cohesive financial sector consolidation plan, with special emphasis on restructuring of SOE debt.
iv) Supporting trade and investment. Sri Lanka cannot achieve economic growth without international trade which means linking to global production sharing networks. Special focus has to be given to reducing Sri Lanka’s high rates of protection which creates a domestic market bias in the economy along with measures to improve trade facilitation and attract new export oriented FDI.
Attempts to build local champions supported by high levels of protection have
(a) diverted resources away from competitive businesses,
(b) created a hostile environment for foreign investment,
(c) been detrimental to consumer welfare,
(d) dragged down growth
v) Structural reforms to increase productivity and attract FDI – Productivity levels in Sri Lanka have not matched pace with the rest of the growing economies. The reforms mentioned above are extensively discussed in Advocata’s latest publication “Framework for Economic Recovery”.
Sri Lanka stumbled into the coronavirus crisis in bad shape,with weak finances; high debt and widening fiscal deficits. It no longer has the luxury to delay painful reforms. Failure to do so will not only jeopardize the economy; it could even spawn social and humanitarian crises.
Naqiya Shiraz is the Research Analyst at the Advocata Institute and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.K.D.D.B. Vimanga is a Policy Analyst at the Advocata Institute. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Oil prices rise as Saudi Arabia pledges output cuts – Opec+
Oil-producing countries have agreed to continued cuts in production in a bid to shore up flagging prices.
Saudi Arabia said it would make cuts of a million barrels per day (bpd) in July and Opec+ said targets would drop by a further 1.4 million bpd from 2024.
Opec+ accounts for around 40% of the world’s crude oil and its decisions can have a major impact on oil prices.
In Asia trade on Monday, Brent crude oil rose by as much as 2.4% before settling at around $77 a barrel.
The seven hour-long meeting on Sunday of the oil-rich nations, led by Russia, came against a backdrop of falling energy prices.
Total production cuts, which Opec+ has undertaken since October 2022, reached 3.66 million bpd, according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Alexander Novak.
Opec+, a formulation which refers to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries and its allies, had already agreed to cut production by two million bpd, about 2% of global demand.
Manpower services agency wins accolades for its contribution to foreign employment sector
Its MD says. ‘go abroad only if you can work hard’
Siraj Manpower Services, one of Sri Lanka’s leading foreign employment agencies, was honoured with the Three-Star Award at the ‘Golden Awards’ 2023, organised by the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment (SLBFE). This award ceremony was organised to honour foreign employment agencies that have made a significant contribution to the development of the foreign employment sector, which is a major source of foreign exchange for Sri Lanka. Siraj Cafoor, Managing Director of Siraj Manpower Services, was presented with the award at the award ceremony which was held at the BMICH in Colombo under the patronage of Minister of Foreign Employment and Labour Manusha Nanayakkara.
Having been established in 2002, Siraj Manpower Services (www.sirajmanpower.lk) has earned a reputation in the field of foreign employment by winning the trust of customers for more than 20 years. It has been offering job opportunities in the Middle East countries such as Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai and Saudi Arabia, and Malaysia as housekeepers, drivers, sanitation workers, labourers and also jobs related to the apparel industry. All these workers are entitled to approved salary scales certified by the SLBFE.
“We always stand for the safety of workers who go abroad through our organisation. We work to solve the problems that arise in relation to the contracts that the workers have entered into. I must mention something special to those who go abroad for employment. That is, you should keep in mind that you go abroad only to work. Go abroad only if you can work hard. You have to remember that you are going abroad to earn some more money and achieve the advancement of your family.” said Siraj Cafoor.
Ports Minister invites Singaporean investors to develop Colombo North Port
The Minister of Ports, Navigation and Aviation Nimal Siripala de Silva was on an observation tour on 3rd of June to witness the operations and development of Singapore’s main port. During the tour, he had a special discussion with the head of PSA International Private Company which carries out the operations and development of the Singapore port.
Won Chee Fung, CEO of the company’s Middle East and South Asia arm said if there are investment opportunities for development and operations in the ports of Sri Lanka, they would like to apply for them.
The Minister told him that since the government has planned to start the development of the North Colombo Port, a suitable investment plan and proposal could be made for it. He also requested the heads of PSA International Private Company to provide a suitable proposal for the development of Trincomalee Port.
PSA International is one of the few largest companies operating in ports in the world, and 37,000 million containers are handled per year in Singapore’s main port alone.Officials including Assistant Vice President of PSA Company Lim Wei Chang, Chairman of JCT Oil Bank Company, Lakmal Ratnayake and representatives of the Sri Lankan Embassy in Singapore also participated in this discussion.
Developing and underdeveloped countries are paying the price for the wrong policies of some developed nations – Narendra Modi
Navy relief teams assist flood affected communities
Landslide Early Warnings issued to Badulla, Galle and Kalutara Districts
‘Dates have the highest sugar content to fight Coronavirus’
Sunday Island 27 December – Headlines
#Sundayisland Sunday Island- 31 January- Headlines
News7 days ago
Police looking for security guard of Sirisena’s brother
Latest News7 days ago
Jadeja’s nerveless hitting gifts Chennai Super Kings fifth IPL title
Features7 days ago
Sri Lanka’s ignorance matches that of US – II
Features7 days ago
President’s efforts require parliamentary support
News7 days ago
Six Lankan victims of trafficking repatriated from Myanmar
Business7 days ago
Havelock City Mall to be launched
Features7 days ago
Excitement galore for Janaka
Business5 days ago
‘ඇය සුරකින AIA’ celebrates one year of empowering half a million women to rise together