Lanka will subsist on a diet of perpetual debt
by Kumar David
The thesis of this essay, conveyed within my 1,700 word-mandate, is that the world economy has entered a phase of near universal debt. Lanka’s inexorable overload of domestic and foreign debt is part our own making part footnote of the global story. Everywhere, mighty USA and European Union included, the state is mired in debt that will not vanish so long as Finance Capital (FC) rules the world. The surpluses created by economic activity are amassed by a few institutions and individuals. Thomas Piketty drew attention to inequity of wealth and income. The market capitalisation of the world’s largest 2,000 companies is $100 trillion, but the value of all the property (land, houses, other fixed assets) of the poorer 50% of the world’s population is just $10 trillion. The heft of bank balance sheets, private-equity, mutual and hedge funds, pension & social welfare coffers, sovereign wealth funds and holdings of personal wealth, leave one dumb struck by their magnitude. FC rules the world.
Recently, post the 2009 recession, Central Banks including especially the Fed in the US expanded money supply not by billions but by trillions. Governments issued bonds, that is borrowed from FC’s (money-market) gigantic holdings to splurge on fiscal deficits or “sold” Treasury Bonds to Central Banks, which printed money (electronically) to “buy” on never-never terms. Debts to Central Banks will never be repaid, simply rolled over in perpetuity. Central Banks also ‘Quantitative-Eased’ hundreds of billions to banks and private funds to lubricate asset purchases (equities and property) which merely ballooned an asset price bubble and exacerbated wealth inequality. I don’t want to stud this piece with statistics which readers will find easily enough on the Internet and will limit myself to three numbers. The US national (government) debt of $26.5 trillion exceeded US GDP during 2020 and will not decline in the foreseeable future – in Japan it’s 230%. Second, global government debt is $60 trillion but global GDP in nominal (not PPP) terms is $75 trillion. The third point is that the total debt of non-financial corporations, globally, is about 95% of global GDP according to the IMF.
A nominal currency (not PPP) comparison
This essay is intended for my non-specialist readers and the data gives a broad idea of magnitudes and distributions. It is not easy to gauge indebtedness of financial institutions as reliable data is hard to come by. And it is meaningless to tot up household debt globally because $1,000 has a different meaning for say the denizens of the USA as against an Indian or an Indonesian. The idea I would like you to take away is not only that States and Corporations are deeply mired in debt, but more important things will get worse not better in the 2020s decade. This is commonplace in countries where productivity is low and which will never export enough to cover imports plus investment for capital projects plus surpluses to accommodate graft for the political classes. But I put basket cases to a side to deal with chronic diseases of the mighty. I cannot within the confines of this essay deal with the US, the EU and China, the big three whose capital shapes the world, and I have to limit this essay mainly to the US
Classical Keynesianism held that when demand and employment were low and economic activity in decline, the state should intervene and prime the pump with monetary and fiscal injections. ‘Monetary’ means to hold interest rates down and lend (print) to would-be investors; fiscal stimulus is big spending by governments to build infrastructure and create employment. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped but it was really WW2 (capitalism loves wars, armaments production and sales) that did the trick. In theory, economic revival should allow the government to recoup its outlay via higher taxes and duties. The “Keynesian multiplier” was said to be greater than one. It worked in the glorious boom from 1945-1970 when capitalism shone and socialist ideas were put away in a dog-box. But Keynes-Thought lost its shine after the oil-shocks of the 1970s and welfare capitalism slumped into Stagflation – economic growth was stuck in the mud; high inflation could not be reduced and high unemployment persisted. The world did not learn a lesson and turn against capitalism. On the contrary, there came neo-liberalism; Regan, Thatcher, Pinochet and JR slashing welfare, smashing trade unions, privatising and swinging political philosophy to the far right. Except Pinochet, mostly within the bounds of democracy unlike ultra-right populism today.
The gurus of neo-liberalism like Heinrich Hayek, Robert Barro and Robert Lucas, theorised that the Keynesian-multiplier was less than one. Barro father of the now discredited ‘rational expectations theory’ said that if the state spent more, people will realise that higher taxes were on the way and would spend less, erasing the hoped for increase in demand. Nothing of the sort is happening today; reality has stood ‘rational expectations’ on its head. The US housing market is rising because of low interest rates (interest rates are negative in Japan). Consumer spending remains undamped without engendering inflation because the US consumer is tapping into a global, mainly Asian, dirt cheap by US prices, one-billion worker labour-market churning out goodies for pampered North American and European consumers. Inflation in the Eurozone is negative; Japan is in perpetual deflation. Fifteen dollars per hour! An Asian or south of the US-border worker will be lucky to take home $15 (LKR 2800) a day. What Barro and his ilk failed to take into account was much-integrated global goods, services and labour markets. US inflation stays stubbornly low because producers for the US market de facto pay minimal wages to their producers (workers). In any case governments and Central Banks can’t stimulate the economy in perpetuity, you can’t defy gravity forever.
Demand is slack in advanced countries because the one percent rich can only splurge that much on consumer goods and prefer to invest in assets, and secondly production companies are risk-averse in the face of Asian competition hence domestic investment in manufacturing remains weak. The pre-COVID picture was bleak since state revenue was slack in the rich world due to slow growth, and it was falling in the US thanks to Trump’s tax handouts to the rich. Post-COVID expenditure has risen even further due to large expenses on medical and subsistence grants and unemployment payments. Hence pressure for trillion-dollar stimulus packages. The end point is that substantial fiscal deficits have become a permanent feature. In the US for example the fiscal deficit for 2020 and 2021 taken together will be three to five trillion dollars. There is no way out except to borrow-print-hold interest rates low or negative, and live with debt for eternity. Eurozone stimulus will be hundreds of billions per years for many more years. This nexus of extra-loose monetary policy and unescapable fiscal deficit blurs the divide between monetary and fiscal policy; they merge. Government borrowing without constraint has got a new name, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Adherents of MMT dismiss concerns that excess borrowing will induce inflation or will bring countries to the brink of an abyss. They have no fear that if interest rates go up governments will have to default or that the financial system will die in convulsions.
I need to repeat the thesis that underpins my essay before moving on: The world economy has entered a period of universal debt – government, corporate and household. I now need to say a few words about high-finance in China; I am avoiding the term finance-capital (FC) when dealing with China because how financial interactions will unfold in the context of a state-led economy cannot be foreseen yet.
High-finance is moving into China on a not insignificant scale. I am on tenuous ground, but I make a ball-park guess that about 10% of global high-finance is networked with China – add 5% to 10% if Hong Kong is included. True, New York, London, Tokyo and Frankfurt dominate bank, investment-fund and equity-market capital. High-finance however is on the move; asset managers (BlackRock and Vanguard), giant investment banks (JP Morgan Chase) and others are setting up shop in China (HSBC is already there), and Ant Group’s Hong Kong stock market launch later this year will be the largest ever IPO, eclipsing Saudi oil giant Aramco’s recent listing. Let us imagine that global high-finance has a quarter of its roots in the PRC by 2030. Remember that China took over as manufacturing workshop of the world in 20 years from 1980 to 2000; finance is a great deal more fluid than industry.
High-finance will be affected if the reach of China’s financial sector becomes even half as big as its global manufacturing. Some of the influences that will underpin change in the decade of the 2020s are easy to discern. The stranglehold of the US dollar as world reserve currency and mechanism of payment will need to be broken. Within five years an alternative global payments system and a currency based on two or three of the following, gold, yuan, yen, Euro and US$, will need to be initiated. (The US is the only country that can run eternal deficits, print mountains of money and export its economic problems because the world remains hungry for dollars till the value of the dollar declines). Second, the world needs other payments mechanism to overcome the US stranglehold known as sanctions – Cuba, Iran, Hong Kong, China, Venezuela, Turkey and Russia are among affected countries. Third, Belt & Road expenditure will be facilitated by an alternative global currency and banking and payments mechanisms.
A few words about Lanka before I sign off. The merging of monetary and fiscal policy is already advanced. Prof Lakshman’s task is to stay on the phone borrowing from whoever will lend and burning the midnight oil ensuring that the printing presses keep rolling. We are familiar with Lanka’s Central Bank borrowing billions again and again from China, India, the IMF or money-markets to repay China, India, the IMF or money-markets, again and again! Debt keeps growing as interest compounds while capital indebtedness persists. The balance of payments will remain in the red if not forever, for the foreseeable future. I don’t know it can be reversed both because governments need to survive politically and there is no big-enough feasible economic strategy. I am certain China, India, Japan and the US will not let us sink on the balance of payments issue since none of them wants a chaotic and anarchic country in this geographic location. For this reason I do not see sudden collapse but slow irreversible decline.
This essay has turned into heavy reading; I feel sorry for myself. No one pays attention to well researched stuff that is not simple to skim and digest. Anything on the Sinhala-Tamil brawl or derogatory of persons, regimes or regime-opponents draws stampeding crowds. Oh well, what to do!
Govt.’s choice is dialogue over confrontation
By Jehan Perera
Preparing for the forthcoming UN Human Rights Council cannot be easy for a government elected on a nationalist platform that was very critical of international intervention. When the government declared its intention to withdraw from Sri Lanka’s co-sponsorship of the October 2015 resolution No. 30/1 last February, it may have been hoping that this would be the end of the matter. However, this is not to be. The UN Human Rights High Commissioner’s report that will be taken up at the forthcoming UNHRC session in March contains a slate of proposals that are severely punitive in nature and will need to be mitigated. These include targeted economic sanctions, travel bans and even the involvement of the International Criminal Court.
Since UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon’s visit in May 2009 just a few days after the three-decade long war came to its bloody termination, Sri Lanka has been a regular part of the UNHRC’s formal discussion and sometimes even taking the centre stage. Three resolutions were passed on Sri Lanka under acrimonious circumstances, with Sri Lanka winning the very first one, but losing the next two. As the country became internationally known for its opposition to revisiting the past, sanctions and hostile propaganda against it began to mount. It was only after the then Sri Lankan government in 2015 agreed to co-sponsor a fresh resolution did the clouds begin to dispel.
Clearly in preparation for the forthcoming UNHRC session in Geneva in March, the government has finally delivered on a promise it made a year ago at the same venue. In February 2020 Foreign Minister Dinesh Gunawardena sought to prepare the ground for Sri Lanka’s withdrawal from co-sponsorship of UN Human Rights Council resolution No 30/1 of 2015. His speech in Geneva highlighted two important issues. The first, and most important to Sri Lanka’s future, was that the government did not wish to break its relationships with the UN system and its mechanisms. He said, “Sri Lanka will continue to remain engaged with, and seek as required, the assistance of the UN and its agencies including the regular human rights mandates/bodies and mechanisms in capacity building and technical assistance, in keeping with domestic priorities and policies.”
Second, the Foreign Minister concluding his speech at the UNHRC session in Geneva saying “No one has the well-being of the multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious and multi-cultural people of Sri Lanka closer to their heart, than the Government of Sri Lanka. It is this motivation that guides our commitment and resolve to move towards comprehensive reconciliation and an era of stable peace and prosperity for our people.” On that occasion the government pledged to set up a commission of inquiry to inquire into the findings of previous commissions of inquiry. The government’s action of appointing a sitting Supreme Court judge as the chairperson of a three-member presidential commission of inquiry into the findings and recommendations of earlier commissions and official bodies can be seen as the start point of its response to the UNHRC.
The government’s setting up of a Commission of Inquiry has yet to find a positive response from the international and national human rights community and may not find it at all. The national legal commentator Kishali Pinto Jayawardene has written that “the tasks encompassed within its mandate have already been performed by the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC, 2011) under the term of this President’s brother, himself the country’s Executive President at the time, Mahinda Rajapaksa.” Amnesty International has stated that “Sri Lanka has a litany of such failed COIs that Amnesty International has extensively documented.” It goes on to quote from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights that “Domestic processes have consistently failed to deliver accountability in the past and I am not convinced the appointment of yet another Commission of Inquiry will advance this agenda. As a result, victims remain denied justice and Sri Lankans from all communities have no guarantee that past patterns of human rights violations will not recur.”
It appears that the government intends its appointment of the COI to meet the demand for accountability in regard to past human rights violations. Its mandate includes to “Find out whether preceding Commissions of Inquiry and Committees which have been appointed to investigate into human rights violations, have revealed any human rights violations, serious violations of the international humanitarian law and other such serious offences.” In the past the government has not been prepared to accept that such violations took place in a way that is deserving of so much of international scrutiny. Time and again the point has been made in Sri Lanka that there are no clean wars fought anywhere in the world.
International organisations that stands for the principles of international human rights will necessarily be acting according to their mandates. These include seeking the intervention of international judicial mechanisms or seeking to promote hybrid international and national joint mechanisms within countries in which the legal structures have not been successful in ensuring justice. The latter was on the cards in regard to Resolution 30/1 from which the government withdrew its co-sponsorship. The previous government leaders who agreed to this resolution had to publicly deny any such intention in view of overwhelming political and public opposition to such a hybrid mechanism. The present government has made it clear that it will not accept international or hybrid mechanisms.
In the preamble to the establishment of the COI the government has made some very constructive statements that open up the space for dialogue on issues of accountability, human rights and reconciliation. It states that “the policy of the Government of Sri Lanka is to continue to work with the United Nations and its Agencies to achieve accountability and human resource development for achieving sustainable peace and reconciliation, even though Sri Lanka withdrew from the co-sponsorship of the aforesaid resolutions” and further goes on to say that “the Government of Sri Lanka is committed to ensure that, other issues remain to be resolved through democratic and legal processes and to make institutional reforms where necessary to ensure justice and reconciliation.”
As the representative of a sovereign state, the government cannot be compelled to either accept international mechanisms or to prosecute those it does not wish to prosecute. At the same time its willingness to discuss the issues of accountability, justice and reconciliation as outlined in the preamble can be considered positively. The concept of transitional justice on which Resolution No 30/1 was built consists of the four pillars of truth, accountability, reparations and institutional reform. There is international debate on whether these four pillars should be implemented simultaneously or whether it is acceptable that they be implemented sequentially depending on the country context.
The government has already commenced the reparations process by establishing the Office for Reparations and to allocate a monthly sum of Rs 6000 to all those who have obtained Certificates of Absence (of their relatives) from the Office of Missing Persons. This process of compensation can be speeded up, widened and improved. It is also reported that the government is willing to consider the plight of suspected members of the LTTE who have been in detention without trial, and in some cases without even being indicted, for more than 10 years. The sooner action is taken the better. The government can also seek the assistance of the international community, and India in particular, to develop the war affected parts of the country on the lines of the Marshall Plan that the United States utilized to rebuild war destroyed parts of Europe. Member countries of the UNHRC need to be convinced that the government’s actions will take forward the national reconciliation process to vote to close the chapter on UNHRC resolution 30/1 in March 2021.
Album to celebrate 30 years
Rajiv Sebastian had mega plans to celebrate 30 years, in showbiz, and the plans included concerts, both local and foreign. But, with the pandemic, the singer had to put everything on hold.
However, in order to remember this great occasion, the singer has done an album, made up of 12 songs, featuring several well known artistes, including Sunil of the Gypsies.
All the songs have been composed, very specially for this album.
Among the highlights will be a duet, featuring Rajiv and the Derena DreamStar winner, Andrea Fallen.
Andrea, I’m told, will also be featured, doing a solo spot, on the album.
Rajiv and his band The Clan handle the Friday night scene at The Cinnamon Grand Breeze Bar, from 07.30 pm, onwards.
LET’S DO IT … in the new normal
The local showbiz scene is certainly brightening up – of course, in the ‘new normal’ format (and we hope so!)
Going back to the old format would be disastrous, especially as the country is experiencing a surge in Covid-19 cases, and the Western Province is said to be high on the list of new cases.
But…life has to go on, and with the necessary precautions taken, we can certainly enjoy what the ‘new normal’ has to offer us…by way of entertainment.
Bassist Benjy, who leads the band Aquarius, is happy that is hard work is finally bringing the band the desired results – where work is concerned.
Although new to the entertainment scene, Aquarius had lots of good things coming their way, but the pandemic ruined it all – not only for Aquarius but also for everyone connected with showbiz.
However, there are positive signs, on the horizon, and Benjy indicated to us that he is enthusiastically looking forward to making it a happening scene – wherever they perform.
And, this Friday night (January 29th), Aquarius will be doing their thing at The Show By O, Mount Lavinia – a beach front venue.
Benjy says he is planning out something extra special for this particular night.
“This is our very first outing, as a band, at The Show By O, so we want to make it memorable for all those who turn up this Friday.”
The legendary bassist, who lights up the stage, whenever he booms into action, is looking forward to seeing music lovers, and all those who missed out on being entertained for quite a while, at the Mount Lavinia venue, this Friday.
“I assure you, it will be a night to be remembered.”
Benjy and Aquarius will also be doing their thing, every Saturday evening, at the Darley rd. Pub & Restaurant, Colombo 10.
In fact, they were featured at this particular venue, late last year, but the second wave of Covid-19 ended their gigs.
Also new to the scene – very new, I would say – is Ishini and her band, The Branch.
Of course, Ishini is a singer of repute, having performed with Mirage, but as Ishini and The Branch, they are brand new!
Nevertheless, they were featured at certain five-star venues, during the past few weeks…of their existence.
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