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Surviving the World economic crisis



The outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic precipitated a world economic crisis. Many commentators suggest that the pandemic caused the crisis. In actual fact, several economists, such as Sri Lanka-born Howard Nicholas, have predicted this economic downturn for several years.

The roots of the crisis go much deeper than the Coronavirus. The economies of the world are mired in debt. Because of the hegemony of the financial elite, companies in the advanced industrial nations have not, for years, invested in new plants and machinery but have, instead, used government subsidies to buy back their shares from shareholders. Investors have used this mechanism to increase the apparent value of their assets, enabling them to borrow more from banks.

This is because investors expect to make money, not from the dividends enabled by company profits, but by speculating in company shares. Many of the so-called “unicorn” companies (new, fast growing companies valued at over US$ 1 billion) make no profit, but grow because investors believe they will grow in value.

Economic stagnation

For the same reason, many big companies, such as Apple, Facebook and Google, instead of increasing their own value by investing in production, or research and development, buy other companies. Profitability is increased by reducing staff numbers, or hiring temporary staff at much lower remuneration, often on a “gig” (for-the-job employment) basis. This in turn has an effect on workers’ purchasing power, which affects the growth of markets negatively.

This kind of economic stagnation occurs from time to time. It used to be solved by more “inefficient” companies (that is, companies that do not make a profit, even if they happen to be more efficient by other criteria) going bankrupt, and more profitable companies expanding into the space they create. This has changed now. For example, the old hiring-car-based company Hertz, which made a profit of US$ 168 million in the last quarter of 2019, went bankrupt, while Uber, which made a loss of US$ 1.1 billion in the quarter, is doing famously. Companies able to attract capital prosper, while those seen as not expanding, fail.

The economy recovers from such crises by investing heavily in new technological methods to increase productivity. In the last two decades, however, companies in the West, especially in the USA, have invested in technologies that enable them to extract the greatest profit from “gig” labour, and essentially in sales, delivery and other services, rather than production.

On the other hand, East Asian countries have invested heavily in high-tech manufacturing industries. China, Japan and South Korea, together, account for two thirds of all new industrial robot installations, while Europe and North America only account for 30%. In the context of the current crisis, such countries will probably lead the recovery, with brand new technologies. Other up-and-coming industrial powers, notably Vietnam, Iran and India, will also accelerate their technological capabilities.

The continued economic stagnation, in the USA, has several corollaries. In the first place, as the world’s biggest consumer of imports, the exports of export-based economies will suffer. In the second place, investors are fleeing the US Dollar for gold, the price of which has risen from US$ 48,000 per kg in March to over US$ 65,000 per kg today. The consequent fall in the value of the US dollar (from € 0.94 in March to € 0.85 today) means that exporters will be even more disadvantaged.

The USA is also the world’s biggest consumer of petroleum – using more than the combined consumption of the next two countries, China and India. The price of crude petroleum in Dubai fell from US$ 64 in January to US$ 23 in April. Although the price rose again, to US$ 43 in July, the lower value of the US Dollar means that the real increase is less than this. This means the income of the Middle East and Russia will be affected severely.

Different approaches

How have other countries coped with the economic downturn? The USA, China and Germany represent three different approaches to the problem.

Apparent economic growth, in the USA, before the pandemic, was based on short-term, low wage jobs. Once Covid-19 hit, the country experienced its fastest unemployment growth in history. In reaction, President Trump signed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which budgeted US$ 2 trillion (10% of GDP) to boost the economy. More than half of this went to companies, while less than a quarter went as compensation to poor people losing their jobs or otherwise affected by the crisis.

This stimulus package helped cushion the collapse of the US economy. However, the payments made to the affected poor people often went to pay immediate food and rent needs. Most of the consumer spending due to payments to individuals went to online delivery companies, such as Amazon and Uber, which employ workers on “gig” terms. They did not spend it in shops and supermarkets which employ permanent staff, so unemployment rates remain high.

Unfortunately, even this funding ended at the beginning of August. The government and the opposition (which controls the legislature) argued about a new stimulus package. President Trump wanted to spend only US$ 1 trillion, reducing payments to unemployed people. The opposition Democratic Party wants to spend US$ 3 trillion, mostly on benefits to the affected people and on government programmes, including schools. The two sides could not agree.

“The Democratic Party continues to insist on radical left-wing policies that have nothing to do with the China [sic] virus,” Trump said. On 9 August he signed four “executive actions” regarding payment of reduced unemployment benefit, a moratorium on income tax for poor people, relaxing rules on evicting tenants and action on student loans. Critics say the executive actions may not be workable.

“Six guarantees”

China, the world’s biggest manufacturing nation, the first to suffer from the Covid-19 pandemic, has seen its economy recover. According to “The Economist” magazine’s Intelligence Unit in Beijing, local government investment, in public medical facilities, city infrastructure, old community renovations, transport, power grids and telecommunications, drove construction growth. This, in turn, stimulated production of construction-related machinery and goods, driving up manufacturing output.

The Chinese government has revealed a “six guarantees” recovery plan, based on creating jobs, giving financial support to ensure livelihoods, protecting small and medium enterprises, food and energy security, stability of the industrial supply chain, and facilitating the path from lockdown to a vital social life.

The Standard Chartered Bank says that China’s government is prioritising social goals ahead of GDP growth by creating employment and indicating that fiscal policy will be its preferred way to stimulate the economy. Officials have suggested that they are willing to almost double the budget deficit to support gross domestic product growth, while allowing money supply and credit growth to reach higher levels. There also appears to be a clear shift in China’s strategy; moving from an export focus to paying greater attention to domestic demand, to releasing consumers’ potential, and investing in new and traditional infrastructure projects. It projects a growth rate of 2-3% this year, a surprisingly high outcome for an economy which shrank rapidly in the first quarter of this year.

“Green” recovery

Meanwhile, Germany, the biggest European economy, has put in place a radical “green” recovery plan. The € 130 billion plan consists of fifty measures designed to boost consumption and speed-up economic recovery. The Government of Germany’s actions will be structured on this recovery plan. It is based on three pillars: € 78 billion on short-term economic recovery (about), about €5,000 billion on investment in future-proof and green technologies, and, € 3 billion on European and international solidarity (in addition to the efforts of the European Commission’s recovery plan).

Reducing VAT by 3 percentage points (12 percentage points for the catering and restaurant sector) – to stimulate consumption and revive employment in businesses, particularly in the hard-hit food and beverage sector – will cost the government € 20 billion.

The short-term recovery plan includes a huge green effort: subsidies on consumption of renewable energies, together with a carbon tax, will move use to electricity from other modes. In the transport sector, subsidies for buying electric vehicles are doubled, and support is given to battery and charging infrastructure, modernising commercial vehicles, ships and aircraft, and to public transport and railways. The construction sector has € 2 billion allocated for energy efficient retrofitting to existing buildings.

A key point in the plan is the new green hydrogen (produced by electrolysis from renewable electricity) sector, for which the government is allocating € 3 billion to develop 10 GW of electrolysis units by 2040. Together with the budget for European and international solidarity, this will put Germany firmly in the lead in this technological area.

Lanka’s markets

In the second quarter of this year, the USA’s gross domestic product declined by 35%, and the government recorded 23 million people as unemployed, the highest rate in 80 years. In the European Union the GDP declined by 7%, and unemployment increased to 14 million. In Britain, GDP has declined by 9%, driving unemployment up to 2.5 million. In Russia, GDP dropped 8%, and unemployment rose to 1.7 million. Middle Eastern economies will slow by 5%, affecting migrant labour employment.

These are Sri Lanka’s biggest markets. This shrinkage will adversely affect Sri Lanka’s economy. Both exports, and foreign labour opportunities, will decline. With a collapsed tourism sector, this will allow the country little foreign exchange to buy the things it needs.

In this situation, what can countries like Sri Lanka do? There are a few simple answers to this question. First, reduce imports to match the reduction in foreign exchange sources. Second, find new foreign markets to replace the declining economies. Third, find new products to replace the ones currently being exported. Fourth, develop the domestic market for domestic products, to advance the economy.

Of course, walking the talk will be less simple. How can it be done? The path taken by the USA is the road to ruin, while Sri Lanka does not have the financial resources to emulate China or Germany – although it can emulate many of the measures they have put in place, on a far smaller scale. It remains for the state to create the policy parameters to drive recovery on new paths, using our existing resources, and developing indigenous knowledge. New technology will be a large part of this, but we must use it wisely. We have an educated population which can adapt itself rapidly to new skills. That is our biggest resource in this economic battle.

Vinod Moonesinghe


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Latest on IMF and debt restructuring- II



by Jayampathy Molligoda

Further to my article published in ‘The Island’ recently, IMF Executive board has just approved the EFF arrangement for Sri Lanka at its meeting held on 20th March ‘23. In the meantime, our Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) in consultation with the financial advisory group hired for negotiations have finalised the latest position of Sri Lanka’s Public Debt as at end 2022 just prior to commencement of debt restructuring negotiations with creditors. The financial advisory group, Lazard was hired by former President, Sri Lanka in May 2022, along with international lawyers Clifford Chance, to guide the government through the process of restructuring its debt, for which estimates range from $70- 90 billion. According to Reuter reports published last September ’22, Sri Lanka was expected to formally reach out to private creditors who hold about $15 billion in bonds. My understanding is ‘Lazards’ is now working on different permutations and combinations.

The purpose of this paper is to critically review the latest position on the debt restructuring negotiations, because various conditional requests and diverse views are being made by ISB bond holders, Bi -lateral creditors and other stakeholders. I hope our high powered ‘negotiators’ have the competence and commitment to seek ways of avoiding the adverse results stemming from the concerns expressed here that are likely to crop up in the debt restructuring process.

Latest conditional request from the group of bond shareholders:

Having perused the document uploaded to the Ministry of Finance (MOF website) recently, the total public debt stock has skyrocketed to US $ 83.6 Billion, which includes total foreign debt of US$ 45.6 billion and the local debt of 38 billion in US $ equivalent. The total debt as a % of GDP as stated in the above MOF doc is 128%.

Latest conditional request from the group of bond shareholders places a cap on domestic borrowing component in the overall gross financing need of the government budget @8.5%. And if the total deficit financing need is @ 13%, means a MINIMUM of 4.5% of foreign debt financing component. This places serious restriction to our earlier thinking of reducing the foreign borrowing component as well as indirectly places restrictions on earlier thinking of asking higher ‘haircut’ for foreign debt holders. Previously, there was no such requirement came from India and bilateral debt holders.

Resist touching banks’ domestic debt:

In the circumstances, my own view is we are reluctantly compelled to restructure local debt i.e.; TBs and, it’s inevitable that the local debt of US $ equivalent of 38 billion would also need to be taken into consideration for debt restructuring – otherwise there is no way of reducing the total public debt stock to the level that is required as per IMF conditions. This would create a serious issue for our ‘financial system stability’ and the deposit holders including pension funds are badly affected.

This cannot be allowed and therefore the government/MOF/CBSL/Lizards need to negotiate hard on this aspect. We need to convince through hard negotiations to try and get away without ‘haircuts for Treasury bills/bonds.

As far as Sri Lanka’s domestic debt is concerned, CBSL top officials view at that time was that they should be able to get away without ‘hair-cuts’. It could come in the form of re profiling debt, i.e., bundle up short term debt instruments to long term T Bonds and ask people to hold to Maturity-may be with a coupon payment; at least to be confined to CBSL debt, EPF plus ETF and Insurance holdings. They have to know fully resist touching banks’ domestic debt. Whether they can sell this to ISB and other debt holders is another matter.

‘Alternative economic approaches’ offered by eminent economists:

Having said all these negative narratives, my concern is whether we have any other viable and practical option as a solution except IMF supported programme? As stated in my article, former Chief Economist and Senior Vice President of the World Bank, and Nobel Prize winner, Joseph Stiglitz, has slammed the IMF for unleashing riots on nations the IMF is dealing with He has been a critique of IMF causing great damage to countries through the economic policies it has prescribed countries to follow, in order to qualify for IMF loans.

However, in my view, neither Stiglitz nor any other eminent economist has come out with a practical and alternative policy framework to overcome the most serious economic and financial crisis faced in the 75 years of Sri Lanka’s independence. Nevertheless, some contradictory views shared through ‘alternative economic approaches’ are that the only sustainable solution could have been based on domestic self- reliant effort supported by proper planning for accumulation, productivity growth and international competitiveness, supported where necessary by friendly nations. An eminent economist, having extensive knowledge on Federal Reserve banking/CB operations world over and development economics/finance has promptly responded to the writer that this question (alternative solution) should have been seriously considered before the decision to go for IMF assistance was taken and the pre-emptive declaration of the country’s debt default, but it is too late now. Social unrest is reaching the boiling point.

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Conflict resolution might be way out!



By Dr Laksiri Fernando

Sri Lankan crisis cannot be separated from the international crisis both in economic and political terms. This is a warning for the political leaders to resolve their differences and conflicts in an amicable manner. Holding (or not holding) of Local Government elections and the newly-introduced Advance Personal Income Tax (APIT) regime are the main contentious issues between the main political parties and their trade unions at present.

While there are only nine recognised parliamentary political parties in the Australian federal system, sixty-two political parties are recognised in the Sri Lankan parliamentary system giving rise to both superficial and unwarranted conflicts and competitions between them. As a result, there is no stability in the political party system. Where are the UNP, the SLFP, the Federal Party or the Ceylon Workers Congress today? All these main parties from the early years of independence have suffered crippling splits.

Conflicts and Conflicts

Intense political rivalries at the political party level are undoubtedly a reflection of the psychological mood and orientation of the public and the people. These rivalries are not uncommon to many other political systems including the developed democratic countries. France at present is one example while many parts of America have been inundated in this situation for a long time.

However, to my experience and observation, extreme politicisation and rivalries are much higher in the case of Sri Lanka. There has been a tendency among the people (both young and old) to look almost everything from a prism of politics. Even at social events or even family parties, mainly men, get involved in political debates. The drinking of liquor (excessively) at these occasions might be a contributing factor.

The world undoubtedly is going through a civilisational crisis. The war in Ukraine has become a mess and human disaster. The invasion by Russia was unwarranted even in terms security or prestige of its country. However, instead of resolving the conflict through peace and negotiations, the NATO countries and America have intensified the war through supplying arms and ammunition to Ukraine to continue a fight. The major failure has been on the part of the UN which has become hopeless in terms of conflict resolution and peace. There is a possibility of the war becoming a nuclear disaster.

This is not an isolated case. Humanity, civilisation, the so-called developed nations, and the UN have continuously failed to prevent war between Israel and Palestinians and many other wars and conflicts in the Middle East and Africa. These conflicts have given bad examples to many other developing countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Pakistan, etc. Similar conflicts have continued in the Latin American nations. This is the civilisational crisis today. Although humans have developed in terms of science and technology, they have terribly failed in terms of human relations, justice, peace, and conflict resolution. This is also one reason for the natural disasters and environmental problems.

Facets of Economic Crisis

Sri Lanka should not be callous in addressing the present economic problems. The IMF does not have a magic wand while those who oppose the IMF are misled by old leftist arguments. Sri Lanka has been a member of the IMF since 1950. If there are disagreeable conditions from the IMF, those should be discussed and negotiated. I was surprised to observe that many international media reported that the last general strike in Sri Lanka was held in opposition to the IMF! While the trade unions undoubtedly have many grievances, they should sober their positions and slogans to suit an amicable resolution to the present crisis.

The emerging international signals are continuously worrisome. Two major banks in America, Silicon Valley Bank, and the Signature Bank, have completely melted down. The signal clearly is for a world recession sooner than later. The repercussions are now shaking the Credit Suisse bank (the second largest) in Switzerland. If the government leaders in the country are trying to give a rosy picture after obtaining a small amount of IMF loan, and restructuring the debt repayments, it is a complete distortion of the situation.

The loan taking during the last ten fifteen years have been completely irresponsible. There was no transparency. There were no discussions to reveal the plans and objectives and to take inputs from independent specialists and/or the people. The political leaders and the top bureaucrats were not even keeping the accounts or information properly. When it became revealed that Sri Lanka is not able to fulfill the debt obligations, it was a shock to everyone. That was the result of the irresponsibility of the political leaders.

Still they move in the same direction of duplicity. The so-called debt restructuring is often pictured as debt cancellation. These restructured debts must be paid later while the government is still taking loans from countries and multilateral institutions. Apart from debt restructuring, the country needs to restructure the economy. Although some measures have been taken, no clear plan or programme is put forward before the people. The people’s support is imperative for any economic recovery. This is where the conflict resolution is necessary.

Relevance of Conflict Resolution

The last year 2022 was a mess both in political and economic sense. According to reliable figures the economy had contracted by 8 percent. This will not significantly change this year. A global recession will adversely affect the Sri Lankan efforts to resuscitate the economy and develop the country. These are the matters on which the political parties, trade unions and civil society organisations should come to a common understanding. That is one aspect of conflict resolution. However, there are so many other aspects.

Although the open war is over, the Sinhala-Tamil conflict is still a major obstacle for the country’s development and peace. The failure to understand each other, and respect other people’s values and culture is common even among religious, language, cast, gender, professional, regional (up-country vs. low country) and other groups. Under such a situation, peace and conflict resolution should be taught to children from the beginning of school years. There can be a mass movement and a massive effort to fulfill this task transcending political parties, divisions, and groups.

Let us take few examples. On the advice of the IMF, the present administration has declared that over 40 loss-making state institutions would be closed. To my view, this is a necessary measure to manage the economy better, and the support of all groups should be sought. Although not overtly expressed, there can be conflict of views on this and other matters. What are these institutions? What kind of an economic position that they are engaged in? These facts and information should be revealed to the public to open a healthy conflict resolution discussion.

Strengthening Positives

This does not mean that the situation in the country is completely hopeless. The younger generations are quite skillful with modern ideas and views as revealed through social media and new social engagements. Although they are highly frustrated about the present situation, they could be mobilised and motivated for new ventures and paths. It is unfortunate that the present university students are disoriented and discouraged. While curricula should be changed to modern directions, the medium of instruction should be English for future prospects. Sri Lanka should be a modern country and old views, values and practices should be discarded.

During the last two decades, the development trajectory had taken a distorted form. While large infrastructure (ports, airports, major roadways) is a must to the country, they should have been the second priority, giving much prominence to industrial, entrepreneurial, and export-oriented enterprises. What are the main pillars of the economy? Traditional exports (tea, rubber, coconut) have not improved enough with value additions. New exports (textile, garments, gems, and labour) are also a fragile pillar without long term agreements or understandings with importing countries.

Of course, tourism is a promising area although affected by the Covid and political instability in the country. Unless the two major current issues of local government elections and APIT tax are remedied amicably through conflict resolution, the tourism sector also would be badly affected.

On the question of elections, the government is now playing with the idea of a presidential election at the end of this year. Although a presidential election could resolve the de-legitimacy of the present President, the logical step is to have the local government elections first to safeguard and preserve democracy. There can be negotiations, but soon. Even in resolving the tax issue, there should be negotiations and the government can easily reduce some percentage of the tax while trying to resurrect the abandoned files of the people who were excluded from the tax net under the last government.

It is not good for the country to have continuous strikes, protests, and demonstrations that could lead to violence and destroy not only the reputation but also the economic recovery of the country. It is my wish particularly for the universities to commence their sessions/teaching soon and for the students to study well and contribute innovatively to the economy, country, society, and democracy. There should be amicable conflict resolution in this sphere.

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Doctrine of immunity in Emperor’s Clothes




Ranil Wickremesinghe has emerged as the chief “dramatis personae” in the current constitutional deadlock drama. Whether the stars had foretold the event is not known. He was never a man in a hurry.  He was cool as a cucumber when he was sacked as Prime Minister by the latter and seeking the help of the apex Court regained the position. He has chosen to confront the Supreme Court in what appears to be a battle of wits as to who has the whip-hand – the Executive President or the Supreme Court. The SC ruling in respect of the release of funds for the local government (LG) elections has opened the door for many a fundamental issue, not the least being the question of immunity and that of effectiveness and priority for SC decisions. The presidential circular does not list election expenditure as an essential item.  Indeed, a direct confrontation prima facie.

Elections Commission

One does not need much grey matter to realise that as far as the government is concerned, it does not have an iota of interest in conducting the relevant election. The pointers came in very clear terms through the “machinations” of the Government Printer, the IGP and the Secretary to the Treasury.  And in this time-consuming and futile exercise, the EC through its own volition reduced itself casting away its so-called independence to be nothing more than a pen-pusher – a far cry from the Deshapriya’s lion roar of yesteryear asking violators of election laws to be shot at the head.  Fair enough  for the EC to write to  the Secretary to the Treasury (the custodian of state coffers)  but when it was clear that there was a questionable delay, it had  a duty and responsibility to bring the issue to the notice of court to which it is bound by ruling to hold the elections. The Secretary to the Treasury is bound by the Constitution to perform his duties under the direction and control of his Minister and has taken an oath to uphold the Constitution. He has no leeway to pass the buck or to treat a SC ruling as subordinate to any other source.  Nothing of the sort has happened before.  The Minister of Finance may hold the office of President substantively but that does not ‘ipso facto’ imply that he enjoys the immunity he enjoys in his substantive office while performing duties in areas other than those in Presidential office. If   not anything else, this episode has the potential to become a dangerous precedent. It has to be immediately resolved once and for all.

Immunity of Parliamentary Proceedings

The question arises as to whether the immunity prescribed is limited to parliamentary proceedings. There is also the relevant issue of “absolute”and “qualified” immunity which has to be examined and argued with due reference to authorities such as Erskine May, the SL. Constitution and other such Constitutions. And who else is qualified to do it but the relevant professions, including the legal fraternity?  The question arises whether the immunity is limited to parliamentary proceedings. If so, any action initiated or proceeded with by the Hon. Speaker in entertaining a motion of “Privilege” and any follow-up action thereon in tabling it, etc,. could be construed as “contempt of court”    We have had the sad and unfortunate episode of Shirani Bandaranaike, which nobody wants to repeat and make SC judges  the hunting ground  of  politicians of one hue or another.  No-one wants our judiciary to be reduced to being a plaything of politicians.  The judiciary expects unequivocally and requires no repetition of the treatment of Shirani B or Neville Samarakoon.

Legal Fraternity and the BASL

The BASL has proudly felicitated President Wickremasinghe on completion of 50 years at the Bar (yet not in practice).  The country would not certainly seek to deny him the accolade. Yet,  the BASL and the “Black-coated” gentry in particular,  who thought it opportune to invade the courts of justice in their hundreds unsolicited to defend the Aragalaya  demonstrators without a fee almost exercising undue influence vicariously in the course of justice,  and the frenzy  in which they  took to the streets demanding the ouster of Mohan Pieris, was conspicuous by its absence in strength vocally and otherwise except through a tame letter.

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