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Sri Lanka’s Sovereign Foreign Debt: to restructure or not?

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By Dr Dushni Weerakoon

Sovereign debt restructuring can be pre-emptive or post-default. A default is inherently costly as it can result in a sustained loss of access to capital markets. That leaves pre-emptive restructuring when a country deems itself unable to service outstanding debt.

The complex creditor landscape of today though makes governments reluctant to entertain sovereign debt restructuring. The landscape of sovereign borrowing has evolved from a small group made up of multilateral organisations, a few commercial banks, and the ‘Paris Club’ of rich countries to something much more complicated. In recent decades, emerging markets and developing economies have borrowed proportionately more from international bond markets with their dispersed private investors, and tapped new non-Paris Club lenders like China. From the sovereign’s perspective, this makes a potential debt restructuring operation particularly complicated.

The first step in any restructuring is calculating how much a country owes and to whom. This involves sharing detailed information on all categories of sovereign debt denominated in foreign currency, including collateralised liabilities and the debts of state-owned enterprises. The adoption of an IMF programme may be conditioned as a part of a restructuring to underwrite the data, economic plan and the promise of macroeconomic and fiscal supervision.

Lenders will weigh the upfront losses of a debt standstill and restructuring against the total magnitude of

losses in the event of a default. In entering restructuring talks, though, they will also demand to do so on the principle of comparable treatment of creditors in any proposed debt reprofilings and restructurings. Lenders will be mindful that any relief offered does not give preferential treatment to other creditors, especially in the face of new geopolitical power rivalries. This would typically mean that a country in distress asks for debt relief from friendly governments to whom it owes money and then seeks a comparable deal from private lenders.

The Holdout Problem

Over the past decades, there has been progress in governance frameworks to deal with sovereign debt crises, but considerable gaps persist. In the COVID-19 era, the G-20 Common Framework for Debt Treatments apply only to low-income countries (LICs), and even then, do not compel the participation of private creditors. Emerging markets that have undergone debt restructuring most recently (e.g. Argentina and Ecuador) are categorised in academic research as countries with a track record of serial default – i.e. more than two default spells or episodes. Given research evidence that countries that have defaulted on their debt obligations in the past are more likely to default again in the future, creditors have an added incentive to enter into negotiations in such cases.

All told, with the creditor landscape transformed, debt restructuring is still very much a matter of ad hoc negotiations between a sovereign and its creditors.

The creditors are aware of their special legal protection that comes down to a question of money due but not paid. At the same time, creditors too have virtually no choice but to negotiate as there will be inadequate assets to satisfy every creditor’s claims even with a successful legal remedy. In the extreme, ‘vulture funds’ have used litigation as an investment strategy to buy the debt at a hefty discount and pursue full payment through the courts. Confronted with this reality, a negotiated resolution should appeal to both creditors and debtor country.

At the centre of such a coordinated effort will be creditor (especially bondholder) committees. The composition of such committees – inclusive of large institutional investors, hedge funds, etc. – is critical to obtain a relatively quick resolution. However, there are no guarantees of fast and efficient mechanisms, and countries still risk fighting creditor lawsuits from those who may hold out.

Such potential holdout creditors may not necessarily take the view that what is good for the many is always good for the few. A disgruntled holdout creditor has the leverage to cause disturbing headlines, especially when countries resume bond market access once again at some point. Holdout creditors can be reined in through exit consents – where a majority of holders can amend terms, or as more commonly used now, employ collective action clauses (CACs) in bond agreements to bind minority holders. In the latter case, a specified supermajority of holders (usually 75%) can bind a minority to the terms of a debt restructuring. But much depends on whether a debtor country’s outstanding stock of international sovereign bonds contains these clauses. Some countries have also adopted anti-vulture fund legislation that limits holdout creditor recovery as a deterrent.

Net Benefit Calculation

High uncertainty during a restructuring, and the risk of prolonged negotiations means debt restructuring is still the last resort, to be done only if you must. A restructuring is a costly exercise with reputational downsides, loss of market access and more expensive debt issuances, weighed down further by concerns about adverse legal implications. For policymakers, a decisive step can be taken after a careful net benefit calculation of whether a country’s economic conditions are likely to deteriorate further without a restructuring, or whether a timely restructure may reduce the total magnitude of upfront losses and return debt to a sustainable level at the lowest cost to both the country and its creditors.

Link to Talking Economics blog: https://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics/2022/01/12/sri-lankas-sovereign-foreign-debt-to-restructure-or-not/

Dr 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. (Talk with Dr Dushni – dushni@ips.lk)



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Conclusion of phase 1 of private placement of Ordinary Shares of JKH to ADB

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Krishan Balendra Chairman JKH

Following is the text of a letter addressed by JKH Deputy Chairman/Group Finance Director Gihan Cooray to the CSE’s Chief Regulatory Officer Renuke Wijayawardhana.

Further to the announcements to the Colombo Stock Exchange on 22 November 2021 and 22 December 2021 regarding the Private Placement of up to a maximum cumulative amount of the Sri Lankan Rupee (“LKR”) equivalent of USD 80 million to Asian Development Bank (“ADB”), through the issuance of up to a maximum of 122,500,000 new ordinary shares of the Company in two phases (Phase 1 & Phase 2), we wish to inform that Phase 1 of the Private Placement of ordinary shares of the Company to ADB was concluded on 19 January 2022.

Accordingly, 65,042,006 ordinary shares (“Initial Placement Shares”) of the Company were allotted to ADB at a price of LKR 154.50 per share on 19 January 2022 for a consideration of the LKR equivalent of USD 50 million. The Initial Placement Shares results in a post-issue dilution of 4.70 per cent in Phase 1 of the transaction.

Additionally, in terms of Phase 2, the Company has issued 39,025,204 non-tradable/non-transferable options (“Options”), which will entitle ADB to subscribe for additional new ordinary shares of the Company (“Option Shares”), for an investment amount of up to a maximum of the LKR equivalent of USD 30 million.

Therefore, the maximum number of ordinary shares that would potentially be issued under the entire transaction, assuming all Option Shares are subscribed for, will be 104,067,210, thereby capping the post-issue dilution on the conclusion of both phases to a maximum of 7.31 per cent.

The salient details of the Options are as morefully detailed in the Shareholder Circular dated 29 November 2021. Based on the subscription date of the Initial Placement Shares, the Option Exercise Period will be from 19 October 2022 to 18 January 2023.

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Bangladesh – Sri Lanka Preferential Trade Agreement: Gains and policy challenges

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By Asanka Wijesinghe and Chathurrdhika Yogarajah

0espite enhanced trade partnerships in South Asia, intra-regional trade is far from reaching its theoretical potential. Similar production patterns and competitive sectors can be the causes. However, bilateral discussions to further lower trade costs continue. The ongoing Bangladesh-Sri Lanka discussions on a preferential trade agreement (PTA) will benefit from knowing the potential gains from reducing bilateral trade costs. In addition, knowledge of products with higher potential for export gains will help optimise the economic benefits from a trade deal.

Bangladesh – Sri Lanka Trade:
The Current Status

In 2018, when discussions on a PTA began to firm up, Sri Lanka’s exports to Bangladesh were USD 133 million, while imports from Bangladesh were USD 37 million. Despite the low trade volume, Sri Lanka’s exports to Bangladesh have grown (Figure 1). In addition, Sri Lanka records a bilateral trade surplus with Bangladesh, which is encouraging given the country’s trade deficit concerns. However, weak growth of exports from Bangladesh to Sri Lanka can be seen from 2001 to 2016 (Figure 1).

The current trade deals between the two countries are still partially restrictive. Both countries keep a sensitive list of products that are not eligible for tariff cuts. Sri Lanka maintains a list of 925 products sanctioned by SAFTA (South Asian Free Trade Area) while Bangladesh keeps 993 products. Sri Lanka’s sensitive list covers USD 6.2 million or 23.8% of imports from Bangladesh. The sensitive list of Bangladesh covers USD 77.6 million or 62% of imports from Sri Lanka. Thus, the elimination of sensitive lists may benefit Sri Lanka more.

Figure 1: Trade Intensity between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka

Source: Authors’ Illustration using Trademap Data.

Theoretically, bilateral alliances deepen trade by removing weaknesses in existing multilateral trade arrangements. A trade deal between Bangladesh and Sri Lanka can simplify trade regulations further. In addition, Bangladesh needs alternative preferential access as graduation from Least Developed Country (LDC) status will take away preferential access to its key markets. For Sri Lanka, increasing bilateral participation in production value chains, especially in the textiles sector, might be an economic motivation. Financial support extended by Bangladesh to manage Sri Lanka’s foreign currency pressures might be a political motivation for a trade deal.

Eliminating sensitive lists can lead to trade creation, although it may not happen due to political and economic reasons. When it comes to tariff cuts, both countries will act defensively as certain products in the sensitive lists are vital for employment and revenue generation. Thus, the success of a trade deal depends on how many products with high export potential are under its purview. In this direction, a group of products with specific characteristics can be identified as an offensive list. For example, Sri Lanka’s offensive list includes products that Bangladesh imports from anywhere in the world, produced by Sri Lanka with a capacity for expansion. Sri Lanka has a comparative advantage in exporting that good, and Bangladesh already has a tariff on the product.

Export Gains from Tariff Elimination

If tariffs on the sensitive lists are eliminated, there will be modest export gains for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka in absolute terms. Sri Lanka will gain USD 24.7 to 49.7 million of exports to Bangladesh, while Bangladesh will gain USD 2.1 to 4.5 million of exports to Sri Lanka. Potential export gains are given in a range due to assumptions on elasticity values used in the partial equilibrium model. Elimination of sensitive lists will generate a higher tariff revenue loss to Bangladesh, ranging between USD 13.5 million to USD 19.1 million. By contrast, Sri Lanka’s revenue loss will be slight at USD 1.4 million to USD 1.9 million.

Whatever the arrangement, it is crucial to include the products with high export potential in the offensive lists (See Table 1 for the major products). Out of 39 products in Bangladesh’s offensive list, 21 are intermediate goods, while 18 are consumption goods. Similarly, 75 out of 115 products in Sri Lanka’s offensive list are intermediate goods. Tariff cuts on intermediate products may induce fragmented production between two countries, which would harness country-specific comparative advantages. Major intermediate goods in the offensive lists are dyed cotton fabrics, cartons, boxes, and cases, plain woven fabrics of cotton, denim, natural rubber, and smoked sheets of natural rubber (Table 1).

The ex-ante estimates predict modest gains for Sri Lanka and Bangladesh in absolute terms, even after completely removing the sensitive list. But complete removal is politically challenging for both countries. Moreover, Bangladesh as an LDC may expect special and differential (S&D) treatment. Thus, the outcome can be a limited PTA in line with weaknesses in existing trade agreements governing South Asian trade. The impact on trade of regional trade agreements in force is negative primarily due to stringent general regulatory measures, including rules of origin (ROO), sensitive lists, and prolonged phasing-in. Given that the estimated modest economic gains of a Bangladesh-Sri Lanka PTA do not justify a trade deal that requires substantial resources for negotiations,the PTA should have fewer regulatory measures and tariff concessions for the products on the offensive lists to maximise the economic benefits of a PTA between the two countries.

Link to the full Talking Economics blog: https://www.ips.lk/talkingeconomics/2022/01/20/bangladesh-sri-lanka-preferential-trade-agreement-gains-and-policy-challenges/

Asanka Wijesinghe is a Research Economist at IPS with research interests in macroeconomic policy, international trade, labour and health economics. He holds a BSc in Agricultural Technology and Management from the University of Peradeniya, an MS in Agribusiness and Applied Economics from North Dakota State University, and an MS and PhD in Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics from The Ohio State University. (Talk with Asanka – asanka@ips.lk)

Chathurrdhika Yogarajah is a Research Assistant at IPS with research interests in macroeconomics and trade policy. She holds a BSc (Hons) in Agricultural Technology and Management, specialised in Applied Economics and Business Management from the University of Peradeniya with First Class Honours. She is currently reading for her Master’s in Agricultural Economics at the Postgraduate Institute of Agriculture, Peradeniya. (Talk with Chathurrdhika: chathurrdhika@ips.lk)

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Expolanka boosts bourse by adding 21.7 points to ASPI

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By Hiran H.Senewiratne

CSE trading started in negative territory yesterday due to heavy profit- takings but after 1 pm the market began to recover, triggered by index heavy counter Expolanka, which gained by adding 21.7 points to the All-Share Price Index. The stock market yesterday produced a creditable recovery to finish on a positive note after early losses amid a relatively low but healthy turnover level. The Expolanka share price appreciated by 2.5 per cent or Rs 9.50. Its shares started trading at Rs 386 and at the end of the day they shot up by Rs 9.50.

Amid those developments both indices moved upwards. The All -Share Price Index went up by 42.8 points and S and P SL20 rose by 7 points. Turnover stood at Rs 4.9 billion with a single crossing. The crossing was reported in Expolanka, which crossed 100,000 shares to the tune of Rs 39.5 million and its shares traded at Rs 395.

In the retail market, top seven companies that mainly contributed to the turnover were, Expolanka Rs 715 million (1.8 million shares traded), Browns Investments Rs 336 million (19.9 million shares traded), ACL Cables Rs 261 million (2.1 million shares traded), LOLC Finance Rs 231 million (8.1 million shares traded), JKH Rs 193 million (1.2 million shares traded), Expack Corrugated Cartons Rs 162 million (seven million shares traded) and  Softlogic Capital Rs 161 million (11.3 million shares traded). During the day 154 million share volumes changed hands in 37000 transactions.

Yesterday, the US dollar was quoted at Rs 202.91, which was the controlled price of the Central Bank. The actual price would be more than Rs 250, market sources said.

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