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Some beliefs on current economic and financial crisis, debt sustainability, Central Bank independence, transparency and accountability

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By Jayampathy Molligoda

What is Belief?

“Belief is the central problem in the analysis of mind. Believing seems the most “mental” thing we do. The whole intellectual life consists of beliefs, and of the passage from one belief to another by what is called “reasoning”. Beliefs give knowledge and error; they are the vehicles of truth and falsehood. Psychology, theory of knowledge and metaphysics revolve about belief. What makes a belief true or false I call a ‘fact’. The particular fact that makes a given belief true or false I call its “objective.” – Bertrand Russell, The Analysis of Mind (1921), Lecture. XII: Belief, p. 295

Price stability as core function of CB:

One popular belief is that the government of the day could continue to print money to service its domestic debt and meet other expenditure, but it cannot roll over foreign debt so easily and therefore it is associated with sovereign risk, meaning government is unable to repay its debt. Therefore, the debt sustainability needs to be constantly evaluated by comparing future debt obligations with available reserves to ascertain whether it could meet the debt obligations.

It is generally known that a Central Bank mandate is basically to keep the money that the CB has issued at a given period of time at a ‘stable level’. In other words, one of its main objectives are the price stability; means “maintaining inflation at a low rate’- then it would not discourage people to save and businesses to plan for their future activities, taking into consideration a long- term view on price stability. Some eminent economists are of the view that, having undertaking extensive case studies of economic situations and series of financial crises in several countries over a long period of time, the only one task the Central Bank could accomplish well is ‘maintaining price stability’ through regulating the money supply and interest rates. That’s another belief.

Before 2002, the price stability was the supreme objective although there were many sub objectives assigned to the CBSL. In order to attain ‘price stability’ with certain level of economic growth, the CB is required to keep the money supply of the country at an appropriate level so that the total demand for goods and services known as the ‘aggregate demand’ is just equal to the total supply of goods and services called ‘aggregate supply’. Under Monetary Law Act, the objective of price stability and financial system stability becomes the mandatary rule for the CBSL. As for financial system stability, there is a separate department handling banking supervision at the CB. In the event some banks are in trouble and the CB wants to bail out by giving them some loans, it amounts to printing new money leading to increase in money supply, thus facing difficulties in containing core inflation. Therefore, one belief is that the CB should not compromise its prime ‘price stability’ objective, if inflation becomes the most pressing problem at a given period.

In 2002, the then Governor and the monetary board of the CBSL changed the objective clause to state as “economic and price stability” meaning an additional objective of achieving the country’s economic growth. Some economists believe that achieving the economic growth should be the responsibility of the government and not the Central Bank. Retired Senior Central Banker, Dr. W.A Wijewardena stated in his book on Central Banking published in 2017 that he and many in the Central Bank did not fully understand the wisdom enshrined in the mission statement and then Governor’s belief. It should be mentioned here that there are different economic theories put forward by various eminent economists from time to time and for example, Keynes presented his theory in the form of deficient demand that leads to economic recession during 1929 period in the US and he believed that printing money and spending through government budget would eliminate deficient demand and improve economic growth.

When the government expenditure increases, it raises aggregate demand in the country and policy makers would expect some increases in goods and services through capital formation. In addition, the government could reduce taxes as a policy to induce investments through increased capital formation and together with low interest rate regime, it was expected some increases in the economic growth. The Sri Lankan government adopted this policy since beginning 2020 till end of 2021 with a view to providing relief to people and businesses in order to overcome negative effects due to the COVID 19. However, the economy did not really produce goods and services to the extent that is required, resulting in high inflation from beginning of 2022. It is also true that during the year 2020 the recorded negative growth rate of 3.6% due to the COVID 19 impact has thus been converted into a positive growth rate of 3.7% in 2021. From the beginning 2022, the CBSL adopted a policy of tightening the monetary policy by increasing the interest rates in order to avoid over spending by private and public sector economic players.

Excessive government expenditure including subsidies and debt sustainability:

The responsible governments in other developing countries make every attempt to maintain their expenditure within the revenue and any deficit to be financed through non-inflationary borrowings. As for Sri Lankan situation, there has been a current account deficit in the Balance of payment (BOP) every year -except few years. This means, the FOREX receipts from the transactions with rest of the world are always below the FOREX outflows, even before the foreign debt repayment mainly due to excessive import bill. The tourism proceeds and inward remittances from expats are not enough to bridge the trade deficit. There has not been a single year a ‘surplus’ in the government budget for the last half a century.

Exports as a % of the GDP has come down from 28% during 90’s to 12% from 2014 to date. The GDP of the US $ 25 billion in 2004 has increased to the US $ 85 billion during the last 17 years mainly through services sector- infrastructure development expenditure without corresponding increases in revenue from exports. However, it would have helped to improve tourism proceeds and some export sectors by improvement in the ‘incremental capital out- put’ ratio. my belief is that no proper assessment on the economic cost: benefit of these infrastructure development projects has been undertaken by experts and presented to the ordinary people. My belief is the current crisis has aggravated partly due to the ‘twin deficits’ for a long period of time, meaning the current account deficit in the BOP, which was only US $ 215 million in 2001, thereafter ever increasing and it was US$ 3,343 million in 2021. The government budget deficit of 4-6 %, which is now exceeding 12% (not even a primary surplus before debt service, except in 2017). Further, the GDP per capita in the economy did not really increase to the extent that is required, resulting in high inflation. (GDP at current market price was US $ 85 billion in 2021 compared to US $ 75 Billion in 2014)

Even with the current exchange rate of Rs 366 per dollar, compared to say, Rs 230 per $ as determined by CBSL on 06 March 2022 (thereafter has adopted some kind of a managed float with upper bands), the FCY accounts of commercial banks are still not receiving sufficient foreign currency inflows There is a lack of dollars to meet import bills either through LCs, DP/DA terms or TTs. Almost the entire export sector and other foreign exchange earning businesses are in the hands of private sector, but 25-30% of the import bills of the country consists of most essential items/goods have to be imported by the government through trade finance facilities and credit lines, thus creating further issues on foreign debt sustainability. (See table)

Central Bank independence, transparency and accountability:

Prudent and cautious economists believe that there must be a sound, practical and legal mechanism guaranteeing the independence of the Central Bank, whilst making the CBSL accountable and transparent. John Exter, the founding Governor of the Central Bank of Ceylon, in his report stated that Governor of the Central bank should be of unquestioned integrity and responsibility. This is very critical because an independent CB is essential for maintaining price stability. Dr H.N. Thenuwara, former Director, Economic Research, Central Bank during 2004-6, in his book, ‘Money, inflation and output’ published in 2015 argued that the simplest test is whether the CB can resist demands from the government (a) to print money and/or (b) continue to maintain low interest rate regime, when a higher interest rate is necessary to maintain price stability meaning containing inflationary pressure. This is because the government of the day would naturally tend to push economic growth rates to run at a faster rate than its capacity limit permits and their desire to incur budget deficits by securing funds borrowed from the CB. The section 12 of MLA, the President can appoint any one as the Governor of the CBSL based on the recommendations by the Minister of Finance. However, we believe that the appointment of key positions such as the Governor, CBSL and other Monetary board members should not be solely in the hands of the incumbent President or the Prime Minister, but by the Constitutional Council set up with eminent personalities as its members. The independence of the CBSL must be strengthened along with accountability and transparency task as well. According to the CBSL annual report,2021, the total borrowings by State Owned business Enterprises (SOBE’s) from the banking system continued to expand in 2021 (Rs. 186 billion in ’21, in addition to Rs 184 billion in 2020, thus reflecting weak financial position. My own belief is that the CB must focus on price stability as its core mission as well as ‘financial system stability’ till the current precarious situation is arrested in order to contain the core inflation and fluctuations in the external value of foreign currencies including the US $.

Sovereignty of the people and Separation of power:

One of the most important aspects under the Constitution is the ‘separation of powers’ under peoples’ sovereignty – Article 4. The powers of government under peoples’ sovereignty namely, the Executive, the Legislature and the Judiciary – three most important pillars, must be further strengthened and separated. The writer is of the belief that the Cabinet must consist of only from the members drawn from the National list, except the Prime Minister elected by people through parliamentary elections (in addition to the President). This is to reflect aspirations of the people at grass root level through the elected MPs, as PM could take up those views at the cabinet deliberations before taking decisions. The Cabinet of ministers are charged with policy formulation and if necessary, the concept of District ministers could be introduced and such appointments could be made from other elected members in the parliament, the government expenditure for maintaining the PC system and other duplicate political institutions such as PSs, Municipal , Urban Councils need to be reduced (PC/PS acts of parliament during 1986,7 period) Even the Parliamentary seats can be reduced to 160 based on electoral districts, plus maximum 20 national list members whom they select the cabinet. However, it is important to strengthen GA system and Divisional secretary level administrative powers stemming from ‘Grama Niladharis’ empowering them with ICT.

Evidence- based policy shaping through facts finding-reasoning:

This is a time of reckoning when we need to come together and set aside ideology and egos and focus on problem solving. The positive side – there is an opportunity for the government, if genuinely interested to restructure Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, unbundling CEB, arrange Private: Public partnerships (PPPs) of many institutions like ‘Sri Lankan airline’, PPPs for port development etc. Further, some strategic actions such as any amendments to Monetary Law Act of 1949 thus re -defining Central Bank mandate and mission statement, restructuring finance ministry (MOF) and amalgamate duplicate semi government institutions, close down some other SOEs etc.

The government must make every endeavour to maintain their expenditure within the revenue and any deficit to be financed through non-inflationary borrowings and strengthen accountability and transparency to the people through parliament. We can re-build the economy by eliminating the twin deficits as long as the highest authority level, The President and Prime Minister would handle the geo political realities, especially relationship with India, China, US and create a conducive environment to attract Investments and private sector to operate without unnecessary red tapes. Ideally, this must be done in consultation with the leader of opposition after reaching consensus on nationally important subjects. The issue, since 1952 has been this excessive rival party politics and divided loyalty of voters to different political parties, and unwanted trade union protests etc., whoever in power, have made the government of the day inactive and inefficient and thus resorting to malpractices. The enforcement of law and order and discipline in the society must be strictly enforced.

As articulated by Bertrand Russell in his ‘Analysis of Mind’, belief of people gives knowledge and error; they are the vehicles of truth and falsehood. Therefore, opinions expressed (beliefs) by our ‘Key opinion leaders’(KOLs) such as the religious leaders, eminent academics, professionals top level administrators, the educated youth, the politicians including Cabinet ministers, are either truth or falsehood, but what makes a belief true or false, Russell calls a “fact.”. One can shift his own belief to another belief through the passage from failed one to finding ‘truth’ by what he called “reasoning. This applies to every policy matter, may be hybrid middle path solutions can be the most practical, relevant and appropriate. Therefore, the name of the game is evidence- based policy shaping with clear focus on addressing implementation snags through proper monitoring systems.



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Opinion

Right to travel

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A.G. Noorani

VERY few would dispute that travel broadens the mind. But in the developing nations of this world, the state asserts that it can determine whether its citizen has the right to go abroad or not. The supreme court may take its own time to decide whether or not a citizen — even if he or she lives in a country that claims itself to be a democracy — has the right to possess a passport. Even if that is allowed as an essential travel document, the authorities might decide who can use it or who cannot. The government of India, regardless of which party is in power, seems to have assumed the right to decide whether or not to let a chief minister travel abroad.

The victim is the chief minister of Delhi, Arvind Kejriwal, who was to speak at the World Cities Summit in Singapore. But the BJP-ruled government, headed by Narendra Modi, felt that he could not go and did not give him clearance. Its approach was nonsensical.

By now, most of the countries of the Third World have ratified the United Nations. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966). This is an international treaty in law while the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) is, in law, just a resolution of the United Nations General Assembly. Article 12(2) of the covenant provides that “Everyone shall be free to leave any county including his own” — in other words, there should be no restrictions on travelling abroad.

The covenant sets up a human rights committee of distinguished persons who are not representatives of the government but are individuals of note who have “high moral character” and are elected by the states, who have ratified the covenant.Parties to the covenant have to file reports to the committee on their observance of the stipulations contained within. States send mostly their attorney general to defend their reports. Members of the committee grill representative of the states. They do not publicise much of the report within their own countries or the contents of their reports. Both err on the side of exaggeration.

Unfortunately, civil liberties movements in the Third World are generally not articulate nor well-equipped. The exception that stands out is the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan based in Lahore whose prominent chairperson, the late Mr I.A. Rehman, never failed to stand up for civil rights.

In India, following Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the election in 1977, a liberal government came to power which ratified the UN covenant in March 1979. They ratified it only with certain conditions but these did not concern Article 21 of the constitution of India that says very clearly that “No person shall be deprived of his life and personal liberty except according to the procedure established by law”.

The Indian supreme court has ruled that fundamental rights can be exercised outside the country. In 1978, the apex court had to deal with Maneka Gandhi’s case concerning the impounding of her passport. The supreme court held:

“…[F]reedom to go abroad is one of such rights, for the nature of man as a free agent necessarily involves free movement on his part. There can be no doubt that if the purpose and the sense of state is to protect personality and its development, as indeed it should be of any liberal democratic state, freedom to go abroad must be given its due place amongst the basic rights.

“This right is an important basic human right for it nourishes independent and self-determining creative character of the individual, not only by extending his freedoms of action, but also by extending the scope of his experience. It is a right which gives intellectual and creative workers in particular the opportunity of extending their spiritual and intellectual horizon through study at foreign universities, through contact with foreign colleagues and through participation in discussions and conferences.

“The right also extends to private life; marriage, family and friendship are humanities which can be rarely affected through refusal of freedom to go abroad and clearly show that this freedom is a genuine human right.

“Moreover, this freedom would be a highly valuable right where man finds himself obliged to flee: (a) because he is unable to serve his God as he wished at the previous place of residence, (b) because his personal freedom is threatened for reasons which do not constitute a crime in the usual meaning of the word and many were such cases during the emergency, or (c) because his life is threatened either for religious or political reasons or through the threat to the maintenance of minimum standard of living compatible with human dignity.” This ruling has stood the test of time.

(The Dawn/ANN)
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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Opinion

If visitors pay USD at airport, no fuel queues for them

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The above statement was made by Manusha Nanayakkara our Labour & Foreign Employment Minister. How the Minister is going to do it is not known.I wish to make a few suggestions to the Minister for his consideration to implement his proposal. Tourists, migrant workers and the dual citizens were the people whom the Minister referred to in his proposal. Many expat Sri Lankans of whom some could be dual citizens visit home once a year to spend their holidays with their families. Since Covid this might have slowed down.

With the Covid jabs even though one could catch Covid people have started to travel. Travelling to Colombo again will slow down due to the pathetic situation that exist with a shortage of everything, particularly fuel, gas and medicines. The Minister’s statement is some encouragement, but he must place his plan for the consideration of the prospective travellers and shoe by action.

The Bank Of Ceylon Branch at the Airport can sell a Dollar debit card to expats, migrant workers and tourists or in other words those who arrive with a return ticket. The minimum value can be USD 500 with provision to put more dollars attending any BOC Branch. When selling the card, a separate certificate in a little booklet format can be given with the Passport details of the traveller entered. The registration details of the vehicle the traveller intends to use can be entered in the booklet by any BOC branch after the traveller finds the vehicle, that is hired or owned by a relation. If the traveller changes the vehicle the new vehicle details can be entered only after 3 days of the first registration. This will help to prevent misusing the debit card.

The traveller must be able to purchase fuel and other rare commodities on production of the certificate to pay by the debit card referred to in the certificate.

Expats and the tourists visit to travel, and fuel must be available at petrol stations, at least one station ear marked in every town with stock always available for this category. Purchase of fuel can be restricted to at least 15 litres per day that will be good to run about 150kms approximately.

I have suggested the above as a base for the Minster to work out a reasonable plan. Once it is made and implemented whether it works smoothly or with hiccups will be known to prospective travellers through the newspapers. If the system works well, the travellers will have confidence in visiting Sri Lanka and there will be many wanting to visit in the near future.

Hemal Perera

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Opinion

‘CEB restructure must be apolitical says CEBEU’ – a reply

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The above captioned news item appearing in your Sunday issue quotes CEBEU mentions that Cabinet approval has been granted to commence restructuring of Ceylon Electricity Board [C EB] and a committee has been appointed to submit its recommendations within a month; a very important and urgent action indeed seeing and learning the mismanagement and conflicting views and action taken to serve two masters viz, the Ministry for Power and Energy and the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka [PUCSL] and also political interferences as correctly stated by CEB engineers –”The engineers stressed that political non-interferences is of paramount importance”. The interference of the Minister to award a tender for the construction pf 350 Mw LNG plant at Kerawalapitiya to a Chinese construction Company as against the recommendation of the Tender Board, causing a delay of over four years, and the cabinet approval for a wind farm in the north by an Indian company without consulting CEB are a couple worthy of mentioning. It should be emphatically stated, CEB has knowledgeable expert electrical engineers and I believe there are none outside, other than those retired CEB engineers who have set up lucrative consultancy firms, internationally recognized. During my time serving this sector for nearly two decades, with directives by the Ministry, in electrical engineering, administrative and financial matters, the CEB ran to the satisfaction of consumers and also invested elsewhere which made the Treasury to compel CEB to invest on Treasury Bills. The interferences in the administration and matters were directly settled by CEB and also directives of the Ministry have now to obtain the approval of PUCSL.

I remember that the PUCSL called for tenders to remove electric poles, a minor job done by area engineers. There was an instance where the PUCSL sought legal action against CEB for not consulting the PUCSL on a certain matter. Recently, the PUCSL has reduced the tariff worked out by expert proposed by the CEB. What does this mean, the CEB will have to cut down or cancel certain items which it had, to accommodate PUCSL reduction. For efficient running of the CEB, the committee should recommend an end to PUCSL interference with CEB. Do not forget consumers of electricity, commuters etc., could directly place their grievances to the authorities or through organizations, associations concerned and Trade Union, to get redress. The interference I mentioned is not my not my view alone. This was a request made by former Ministry for Power and Energy, Dallas Alahapperuma to the then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa; it was approved but overruled by the then Prime Minister and Minister for Finance, Mahinda Rajapaksa. For reasons perhaps ut ab ordine – chaos from order.

It is hoped the Committee appointed will look into what is stated above and make recommendations accordingly.

G. A. D.S irimal
BORALESGAMUWA
Former Assistant Secretary, SLAS, Ministry P&E.

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