By Dushni Weerakoon
The hike in policy interest rates by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) in August 2021 marks a shift from stimulus to exit strategies in the pandemic era. Such recalibrations globally are focused on how to tackle the historically large debt-to-GDP ratios that the COVID-19 pandemic leaves in its wake. At end 2020, advanced economies (AEs) on average had amassed debt to the tune of 120% of their GDP with emerging markets economies (EMEs) trailing some distance at 65% of GDP. As the spotlight moves, the full impacts of the macroeconomic policy measures, hitherto obscured by the urgency to deal with the health crisis, are now coming under greater scrutiny.
Sri Lanka’s debt metrics make an orderly exit more difficult
Many countries, especially AEs, exercised their ‘monetary sovereignty’ to create and print their own money to support stimulus efforts. They have done so through coordinated monetary/fiscal policies – i.e. using monetary policy to keeping borrowing costs low while fiscal authorities provide back-stop assurance. Some are better positioned to manage the inherent risks and conflicts of interest that are involved in this exercise. AEs have an advantage as issuers of reserve currencies with global demand and historically low interest rates; EMEs with limited exposure to foreign currency-denominated debt and holding comfortable stockpiles of reserves are less exposed to disruptive tail events.
Such countries can bring down their debt ratios if they are able to maintain nominal GDP growth persistently above the average interest rates that they pay on their debt – i.e. the growth-corrected interest rate (r-g) whereby countries can run modest primary deficits and still have a stable or falling debt-to-GDP ratio.
Sri Lanka is not similarly positioned. Its debt metrics point to high vulnerabilities – a high debt-to-GDP ratio of 101% of GDP, large exposure to foreign currency-denominated debt, and a hefty foreign debt repayment schedule. Under these conditions, the threat from exercising monetary sovereignty was always self-evident. A depreciating currency, notwithstanding distortionary controls on imports and capital flows, worsens the debt vulnerabilities.
Domestic and foreign debts are hardly similar. Given Sri Lanka’s debt metrics and the fundamental economic imbalances that have generated them, simple accounting identities do not always offer very plausible solutions. If the exchange rate depreciates, it adds to the real value of outstanding debt, relative to the size of the economy, even if interest rates remain modest. Further, shocks like COVID-19 raise risk premia, and marginal borrowing costs can rise suddenly and sharply, cutting countries abruptly out of financial markets.
Crucial to instill and retain macroeconomic policy credibility
Short of distortionary measures such as inflating debt away or maintaining an overvalued currency, a primary surplus is needed to stop the public debt-to-GDP ratio from rising and an even larger surplus is needed to reduce it. Improving the primary budget balance calls for tax increases or public spending cuts that are unpopular and have upfront costs. Given the government’s unwillingness to go down this path, households and firms will be required instead to bear the cost through higher interest rates that will affect their consumption and investments.
Higher interest rates in this instance will also not ‘pull in’ foreign capital to firm up the exchange rate given the risk premia on the currency front as depreciating pressure deepens. With reserves in hand to cover barely two months of imports, the forex market will continue to face volatility and instability until a steady stream of capital inflows, beyond short-term swaps, emerge. Until such time, a depreciating domestic currency will increase the interest burden as calculated in that currency. If debt servicing interest rate costs are pushed persistently above the economic growth rate, Sri Lanka’s debt burden will grow steadily even in the absence of new borrowing – a context sometimes called a ‘debt spiral’.
Without a clearly spelt-out debt sustainability path, Sri Lanka seems to be placing all its bets on foreign direct investment (FDI) to ease external pressures and revive economic growth. For a successful outcome – i.e. productivity gains to drive long-term growth – the type of FDI matters. The more desirable is efficiency-seeking FDI, but this is also harder to attract. For now, a policy environment of import curbs and capital controls is more likely to see strategic-seeking infrastructure-led FDI. The latter runs the risk of switching resources to non-tradable sectors – reducing the availability of external financing over the longer term – and the prospect of a short-lived growth burst as before in the post-war years. Crucially too, the sole reliance on FDI leaves Sri Lanka at the mercy of developments beyond its control.
Rather, efforts to attract FDI should be coupled with building effective policy strategies that instill and maintain credibility. Indeed, this is all the more important as Sri Lanka appears to be firmly against an International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. IMF loan amounts are small and it no longer has much sway on debt relief with much of EME foreign debt held by private institutional investors and China. An IMF programme is mostly useful in firming up sovereign credit ratings and reviving the sentiments of investors. But investor sentiments can also improve if governments put forward and implement credible policy strategies. By contrast, the CBSL’s policy rate adjustment to anchor expectations, for instance, will not stick if direct financing of fiscal spending is to continue under yield control measures. Instead, market convictions on the credibility of the policy mix will drive economic fundamentals. As Sri Lanka readies to transition out of pandemic-related emergency support, some notion of fiscal and debt sustainability to anchor confidence should be the priority in Budget 2022 preparations.
* This blog is based on the comprehensive chapter on “Economic Performance and Outlook: Managing the Crisis and Promoting Recovery” in IPS’ forthcoming annual flagship publication ‘Sri Lanka: The State of Economy 2021’
Link to blog: https://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics/2021/08/30/sri-lankas-macroeconomic-policy-setting-cohesion-or-confusion/
Dushni Weerakoon is the Executive Director of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS) and Head of its Macroeconomic Policy research. She joined IPS in 1994 after obtaining her PhD, and has written and published widely on macroeconomic policy, regional trade integration and international economics. She has extensive experience working in policy development committees and official delegations of the Government of Sri Lanka. Dushni Weerakoon holds a BSc in Economics with First Class Honours from the Queen’s University of Belfast, U.K., and an MA and PhD in Economics from the University of Manchester, U.K.
SLTMobitel-PEOTV and DP Education launch ‘Videsa DP Education’
SLT-MOBITEL, the National ICT, Telecommunications and Mobile Services Provider has teamed up with DP Education, to launch ‘Videsa DP Education’, a dedicated educational channel on CH.215 of SLTMobitel–PEOTV, ensuring school children from Grade Five to Advanced Level have access to a high-quality learning experience with Rewind TV.
The revolutionary services of SLTMobitel-PEOTV includes ‘Videsa’ a series of educational channels hosted on the platform, that comprise of 06 TV channels dedicated to individual grades covering grades 06 to 11, that enhance the knowledge sharing with curriculum-centered lessons from a panel of reputed teachers. DP Education, a unique online learning platform, leverages digital solutions to deliver quality education to empower students. Together, Videsa and DP Education, enrich the educational arena further with the ‘Videsa DP Education’ channel, a dedicated television space for the students at home.
This path-breaking partnership is a commitment by SLTMobitel–PEOTV to support the education of children, whose options are limited due to the challenges convergence posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The initiative will use the home TV screen and mobile devices as a ubiquitous medium to impart knowledge providing access to quality education for students across the country.
Commenting on the initiative, Rohan Fernando, Group Chairman, SLT said, “We understand that parents are now faced with the challenge of keeping their children safe during the pandemic as well as having to deal with the ongoing disturbances to their children’s education. As a solution to ensure that their learning remains uninterrupted, we have already introduced six different channels for Grade 6 to Grade 11 students through our Videsa digital platform. Our latest initiative and partnership with DP Education has now enabled us to launch a dedicated channel with unique learning experiences in key subjects such as Mathematics, Science and English for students from Grade 5 to Advanced Level with the Rewind TV facility. We are appreciative of the exceptional efforts extended by Mr. Dammika Perera and his team at DP Education and are grateful for the opportunity to connect the two learning platforms together in unison to create a revolutionary learning experience for our children”.
Thornton and Dane’s combined projects portfolio tops Rs 5.9 billion
Thornton Engineering, the Nextventures owned civil engineering company, has announced the acquisition of a 100% stake in Dane Engineering (Pvt) Ltd. for Rs 350 million, creating a construction business with a combined portfolio of Rs 5.9 billion.
The new entity, Thornton and Dane Engineering, expects to add new construction projects with a cumulative value of Rs 5 billion within the current financial year, nearly doubling its projects portfolio, the Company said in its announcement.
“We are excited at the post-acquisition prospects for the new company, because we strongly believe that it is a good example for the concept of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts,” said Thornton and Dane Director Dinesh Schaffter. “The combined strengths of Thornton and Dane create a formidable as well as extremely flexible engineering company that is capable of executing projects of varying scope and scale.”
Capacity-building programs for SMEs
Sri Lanka Chamber of Small and Medium Industries (SLCSMI), the apex body for SMEs in Sri Lanka has been at the forefront in supporting the SMEs during the pandemic. The chamber took several measures since the pandemic first hit the country in the first quarter of 2020. The Webinar series “Way Forward for SMEs” was a grand success among other initiatives, which was conducted with the participation of prominent scholars, leading business personalities as well as top rankers of state and private sector organizations.
The president of SLCSMI, Prof. Rohan De Silva said: “We are always there to represent and support the SMEs in the country and that’s our prime duty. During the first wave, we understood the need to share the knowledge and provide psychological support for the business owners to withstand the difficult times and that’s how the webinar series was born. Our initiative was well received by the businesses and our audience was not limited to Sri Lanka alone, as we witnessed participants from around 12 countries.”
Prof. Rohan further said that the chamber has looked at the possibilities of providing sustainable solutions to the SMEs beyond merely conducting knowledge sharing sessions and the Executive Committee has decided to introduce a range of Capacity Building programs to develop the SMEs. These programs include different solutions to address various gaps among the SMEs and the chamber intends to issue a valuable certificate for the participants of these programs.
The chamber has partnered with the Asia Pacific Institute of Money and Entrepreneurship Development (iMED) to design and deliver the programs and the details of the Programs will be unveiled at the launching event scheduled to be held on the 25th of September.
‘Ratwatte’s boorish actions unbecoming of a Minister’
CTU: ‘Grant demands of principals and teachers before school reopening’
SL – India economic and democratic cooperation extensive – Speaker
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Unfit, unprofessional, fat Sri Lankans
Sports5 days ago
Killi; Sri Lanka’s Mr.Cricket
news2 days ago
Private member’s Bill deemed unconstitutional:Tissa says he only complied with ‘Bills Office’ request
news6 days ago
‘No person can own elephants in Sri Lanka’ – Jagath Gunawardena
Features4 days ago
Ivermectin – A possible win-win situation
news6 days ago
Sinopharm best for kids – Prof. Vitharana
news4 days ago
Govt. urged to stop foreign scholarships awarded on basis of ethnicity
Features5 days ago
Remembering Dr. Tissa Wickremasuriya
Features5 days ago
SRI LANKA SHOULD CLOSE DOWN MOST OF OUR OVERSEAS MISSIONS AS A STEP TOWARDS REDUCING PUBLIC EXPENDITURE