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Sri Lanka needs ‘bridge financing’ to last next six months, says Indrajit Coomaraswamy

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by Sanath Nanayakkare

Sri Lanka needs to take steps on getting to a framework programme with the IMF, restructure its external debt and bring some bridge financing to last for next six months until negotiations with the IMF on external debt is completed,”former central bank governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy said recently, at a forum hosted by CT CLSA.

“IMF won’t be able to transact with Sri Lanka until we fix the unsustainable situation in the country,” he said.

Dr. Coomaraswamy highlighted the fact that IMF may include fiscal consolidation in a programme of debt restructuring for Sri Lanka.

CT CLSA, a leading capital market service provider that offers investment banking, stockbroking and wealth management services , conducted the forum on the timely topic ‘ The IMF and the Order of Priorities for Reforms.”

Elaborating on the topic, he said, “In fact, we have a solvency problem on our external debt. Trying to treat it as a cash flow problem and addresing it with short-term measures may create a bigger problem. However, we are beginning to see light at the end of the tunnel due to the policy measures taken by the government recently. Now having approached the IMF, and the government considering some external debt restructuring; we are shifting to the right path, but this is going to be tough.”

“Interest rates are about to rise. As per previous levels where inflation was high, 91-day treasury bill yield was 16%, SLFR was 12% and SDFR was 10.5%. According to former deputy governor of the central bank, Dr. W. A. Wijewardena, the interest rates are expected to double from the current levels.”

Responding to a question on the upward movement of the exchange rate, he said, “I think we could have taken measures to reduce the imbalance between demand and supply of foreign exchange before letting the exchange rate float.”

Referring to domestic debt, Dr. Coomaraswamy said,”We should not suggest or ever take into consideration to restructure our domestic debt. If we restructure the domestic debt, it will lead to serious undermining of the stability of the financial system. Such a situation may not help Sri Lanka in meeting its commitments with external creditors.”

“In fact, the crisis was two years in the making from the time the government cut taxes after the presidential election The country’s banking system is highly exposed to sovereign debt because in recent years, the banking system provided for bridging the budget deficit of the country. And therefore, if there is any restructuring of domestic debt, the impact of such a move could spill over to the balance sheets of the banks and would likely create a crisis in the financial sector. And some of the banks would be affected in the event of external debt restructuring. However, this effect could be managed through regulatory programmes of the central bank. The only way to solve this problem on a sustainable basis is to create a primary surplus in the budget,” he emphasised.

“All creditors of Sri Lanka would seek equality of treatment, and therefore, multilateral debt; namely, World Bank, ADB and the little bit of IMF debt should not be restructured. If it were to be restructured, those institutions could stop their operations in Sri Lanka, and even their financing in the pipeline may not be disbursed.”

“Bilateral debt, mainly OECD which is West + Japan are part of the Paris Club. As China and India are not part of the Paris Club, one of the possibilities for us is to see whether we are eligible for B20 framework earmarked for low-income countries. [B20 proposes to consider the issue of public debt management within the international financial architecture reform].

Dr. Dushni Weerakoon, the Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) was also a panelist at the CT CLSA forum.

When she was asked how Sri Lanka should put the reforms in a particular order to be implemented, she said,”We no longer can afford sequential reforms. What is most critical for Sri Lanka in terms of its economic outlook is to gain some sense of macro stability as a first priority.”

“We are currently witnessing a clear shift in policy. We have to work on several fronts simultaneously with well-coordinated action on three fronts; namely, monetary policy front, exchange rate front and fiscal front. We have entered a monetary policy tightening cycle. The moves of the central bank led to a market-driven exchange rate. But the fiscal side is missing. As long as this is neglected the progress made on monetary and exchange rate fronts will not bring stability. This will put pressure on other two fronts.”

“There is slowness on fiscal adjustment maybe because it’s difficult to do it. Fiscal adjustment will require to raise taxes on the revenue side, and the spending side will require to freeze expenditures. Clear communication of these reforms to the general public is important as these changes should not create more social unrest. The way to do this could be that greater sacrifices would have to be made by those who have greater ability to pay taxes. The richer segment of the Sri Lankan population may have to bear a larger burden of the tax adjustments”.

“On the expenditure side, government spending may have to be frozen and public sector wages and salaries may also have to undergo changes. In such a context, there will be the need to try as much as possible to provide social safety nets for needy segments. It could be provided by implementing a cash transfer programme to reduce the potential social unrest.”

“The other reforms include State Owned Enterprise (SOE) reforms, labor market reforms and banking sector reforms,” she said.

When asked about the possible scenario of debt restructuring with debt to equity swaps, she said,” The possible cost of that is; you will face a prolonged negotiating process with the threat of legal action on the country. Unlike in the past, now our creditor landscape is huge. Our creditors are mostly based in the U.S., and then we have bilateral debt providers such as China and India. we will have to bring all these stakeholders to a common ground and ensure equality of treatment.”

“Another risk is that we need to know that the bonds issued by Sri Lanka has clauses where the majority of the bond holders can buy the minority. If not, there could be a hold off problem where we may have to face legal consequences.”

“The recent debt restructuring of Ecuador and Argentina only had restructuring of interest rate adjustments and maturity extensions and did not receive a haircut,” she pointed out.

Sri Lanka for the first time in 63 years achieved a Rs. 21.9 billion surplus in the primary balance of the fiscal account during the first 10 months of 2017. The country recorded a primary surplus of 0.6 percent of GDP in 2018, the second year running. Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy was the governor of the central bank at that time.



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Pelwatte Dairy conducts O/L Seminars as part of its CSR campaign

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Pelwatte, a local dairy brand with international standards and an unwavering promise of delivering quality fresh milk to its customers recently organized a series of seminars for the GCE Ordinary Level students. This was done with the intention of furthering Pelwatte’s corporate philosophy of uplifting livelihoods through sustainable methods. The seminars commenced during the last week of March and concluded in the 1st week of April 2022.

The seminars focused on maths in particular as it was found that many students either struggled in maths or were highly doubtful about it. Pelwatte, being a responsible brand took initiative to help these students in this time of need. With Education being at a critical juncture and O/Ls being a critical stage in a student’s career, this program was initiated. The Managing Director of Pelwatte Mr. Akmal Wickramanayake said “Pelwatte is a brand that goes to every extent to ensure that our communities are treated well. This includes ensuring that the next generation is well versed in their education”.

He said this while commending his in-house experts, Mr Asela Sampath who is a mechanical engineer and Mr. Kavinda Umesh who is a chemical and processing engineer attached to the Pelwatte Engineering and Technical team. These two individuals led the seminar and took the students through not just the entire syllabus but also through several model papers. They made sure to answer and clarify any and all doubts that these students had before they wrapped up.

These series of seminars were conducted mainly in Buttala with the participation of schools such as Pelwatte Mahavidyalaya, Kukuranpola Vidyalaya, Dutugemunu Mahavidyalaya and Pelwatte Ranjan Wijeratna Vidyalaya. Students in the Hundreds attended these seminars which lasted for a day. Students from the respective schools got to learn from two qualified engineers who not only showed them how to solve mathematical problems but also gave them an idea about the type of career they can go into in the future to develop the engineering field in Sri Lanka.

Pelwatte received many blessings from both the students and their parents who were present for carrying out such programs. The current situation of the country is such that many corporates have either completely scrapped their community welfare programs or have limited it. However, Pelwatte aims to continue doing such activities to not only uplift communities but to also boost morale. Education is a very important focus area for Pelwatte as it has continuously done many activities to uplift education especially in rural areas that are in need of programs like this.

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‘HNB continues to demonstrate resilience under stressed conditions’

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In the backdrop of turbulent market conditions, Hatton National Bank PLC continued to demonstrate resilience, strength and stability, posting a profit before tax of Rs 5.9Bn and a profit after tax of Rs 4.8Bn for the first quarter of 2022 recording a YOY growth of 7% and 3% respectively. At Group level PBT and PAT were at Rs 6.4 Bn and Rs 5.4 Bn respectively.Commenting on the first quarter performance, Aruni Goonetilleke Chairperson of Hatton National Bank PLC, stated that “as Sri Lanka goes through unprecedented times, HNB has yet again demonstrated resilience. At this critical time, I wish to reiterate our commitment to all our stakeholders. As a responsible Domestic Systemically Important bank, ensuring safety, stability and sustainability is our prime focus.”

With the tightening of the monetary policy since August 2021, the AWPLR increased by nearly 400 bps over the 12 months up to March 2022. This enabled the Bank to record a 59% increase in NII during 1Q 2022 compared to the corresponding period of the previous year. The Net Fee income grew by 42% YoY to Rs 3.2 Bn for the first quarter of 2022, driven mainly by improved cards transactions and trade income.The significant devaluation of the rupee as at March 2022, compared to the previous year, resulted in trading gains of approximately Rs 7.5Bn in 1Q 2022. The Bank also, booked an impairment of Rs 7.4Bn against the impact of the currency devaluation on foreign currency denominated loans and investments, which was set-off against the position revaluations.

The Bank’s net stage III loan ratio improved from 2.55% as at December 2021 to 2.41% as at end March 2022 while stage III provision cover increased to 59%, maintaining its position as one of the best in the industry in asset quality. However, considering the significant volatility in macro-economic factors in 1Q 2022, the Bank recognized a higher impairment charge of Rs 13.4Bn. This included an impairment of Rs 6.7Bn on account of investments in foreign currency denominated government securities, subsequent to the announcement made by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka in relation to suspending the repayment of external foreign currency debt obligations of the Government and the sovereign rating downgrade.Operating expenses increased by 21% in 1Q 2022 driven by salary revisions, relatively higher card transaction volumes with the pickup of economic activity and general expenses increasing in line with higher inflation. However, the stronger growth in income, enabled HNB to record a cost to income of 25% during the first quarter of 2022.

HNB’s total tax charge increased by 33% to Rs 2.8Bn for the first quarter. The effective income tax rate increased from 31% in March 2021 to 37% in March 2022 due to the YoY reduction in interest income from foreign currency denominated government securities.Jonathan Alles, Managing Director / Chief Executive Officer of Hatton National Bank PLC stated that, “Sri Lanka has been travelling through a tough terrain over the past few years commencing from adverse weather conditions experienced in 2017-2018 to, unfortunate Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and then the most unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic which impacted the entire globe. The banking sector of Sri Lanka and HNB has weathered these challenges and emerged strong and stable. Today, Sri Lanka as a nation is facing one of the most challenging times in its history. The next few months would be even more challenging. As such, it is extremely important that we play our part as responsible Sri Lankans at individual, organizational and country level. We believe that the authorities would take necessary steps to ensure political, social, economic and financial stability enabling successful conclusion of discussions with International Monetary Fund, the multilateral organizations and supporting nations to secure much needed funding.”

“It is equally important that we focus on the real economy and sustainable foreign exchange earning avenues that will support us over the medium to long term. Providing necessary support to drive exports, remittances, tourism, manufacturing and industrial development would be key. At the same time, diversifying foreign exchange earning sources would also be important. Focusing on Sri Lanka as an education hub, promoting agri-preneurs, IT, KPO, BPO industries would also be vital in this regard. We need to be cautious about our spending, and purchase local products to support our micro, small and medium enterprises, while at the Government, institutional and corporate level, adopt very tight cost containment measures and slash budgets.”

“As we encounter many obstacles in our day to day life, I would like to place on record my sincere gratitude to each and every member of the HNB team for their continuous commitment and dedication in delivering essential banking services to our valued customers.”(HNB)

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SLIIT launches CODE with the country’s first free AI/ML online course

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Ushering a new era of online learning, SLIIT unveiled its Centre for Open and Distance Education (CODE), a fully-fledged, independently developed online platform offering a range of self-paced courses. CODE aims to fill skill shortages in the industry by enabling youth to equip themselves with highly sought after skills.The Centre, established by the Industry Engagement Unit of the Faculty of Computing, SLIIT, held its virtual launch event recently under the patronage of Prof. Lalith Gamage, Vice-Chancellor, SLIIT, senior management, and staff from SLIIT with industry professionals and prospective students in attendance.

The inaugural course offered by CODE is ‘Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning Engineer Stage 1’, which has been developed for anyone aspitring to become an AI/ML Engineer. The next two courses lined up are in Cyber Security and Cloud Computing. . The comprehensive courses, molded with hands-on exposure to cutting-edge technologies, will seek to maximize the employability potential of the youth.Prof. Chandimal Jayawardena, Dean, Faculty of Computing SLIIT, said, “SLIIT developed CODE as a free learning platform designed to offer courses and learning materials for those who wish to develop skills needed by the industry within a short time period. Courses offered by CODE are self-paced and will be equally relevant for school leavers, university students, as well as industry professionals. . The first course in CODE, the AI/ML Engineer stage 1 course can help anyone who wants to develop a career as an AI/ML engineer. This will be followed by two other courses covering stages 2 and 3. We are proud to launch this distance education platform as part of our mission to provide useful and relevant education to a wider audience, reaching beyond traditional university education. Being a platform open for free courses, CODE platform also illustrates SLIIT’s commitment to addressing and contributing to the needs of the society.”

The SLIIT AI Course, which is the first course to be offered to students via the CODE platform, consists of fundamental, intermediate, and expert levels, with the initial Stage 1 covering fundamentals relating to artificial intelligence and machine learning, with an understanding of how each area of expertise is used in the industry related to AI.The course has been designed with a practical and hands-on approach that will introduce the learner to the industry’s most innovative tools and technologies, including TensorFlow and PyTorch. Courses are designed to ensure an individual can gain exposure to programming basics since a certain knowledge of programming basics is required for the course.

Lessons related to the course will be introduced weekly and participants need to study the content, complete the assessment components such as available quizzes and achieve sufficient marks to complete the course and gain the certificate. Upon completing the course, participants will receive a ‘Certificate of Completion’ from SLIIT.CODE invites school leavers, non-IT graduates studying IT-related programmes and IT enthusiasts to enhance their skills and knowledge to enrol in the AI/ML Course. All courses are free of charge, and there is no restriction on the number of participants for each course.SLIIT believe the courses offered via the CODE platform will empower students to maximize their potential for employability while enhancing their capabilities of gaining foreign employment, engaging in remote work, or even working for reputed IT companies in Sri Lanka.

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