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Sri Lanka debt unsustainable, should stop printing money, hike rates, taxes: IMF

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s public debt is unsustainable and the country should stop printing money, hike rates and taxes to prevent monetary instability from taking hold, the International Monetary Fund has warned.

Debt Unsustainable

The IMF Executive Directors after an annual article IV consultations said “the country faces mounting challenges, including public debt that has risen to unsustainable levels, low international reserves, and persistently large financing needs in the coming years.”

“Against this backdrop, they stressed the urgency of implementing a credible and coherent strategy to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting vulnerable groups and reducing poverty through strengthened, well-targeted social safety nets,” the statement said.

A country’s debt is usually deemed unsustainable based on a politically feasible monetary (interest rates) and fiscal (taxes and and spending cuts) framework, and requires debt re-structuring of some kind to keep interest rates at a manageable level.

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Sri Lanka 2020 deal talks hit a snag on debt sustainability: IMF spokesman

The current crisis may result in more monetary instability, the IMF said, after country cut taxes in 2019 and engaged record money printing to create a ‘production economy.’

“Unless the fiscal and balance-of-payments financing needs are met, the country could experience significant contractions in imports and private credit growth, or monetary instability in case of further central bank financing of fiscal deficits,” the IMF said.

Analysts had warned that under current monetary policy and deficits, with negative foreign assets of the central bank, Sri Lanka may lose control of reserve money and end up in market dollarization (Sri Lanka’s monetary meltdown will accelerate unless quick action is taken).

Printing Money

The IMF staff after annual Article IV consultations (report not published) said there had been a large amount of “central bank direct financing of the budget,” an euphemism for printing money.

Sri Lanka printed 1.2 trillion rupees in 2021, in part due to reserve appropriations and price controls on bond yield that led to auction failures.

However after October 2021 money is printed to sterilize reserve sales for imports to maintain a 200 rupee to the US dollar peg as well as a quasi-fiscal activity involving giving subsidies through printed money to expatriate workers.

Inflation has started to soar after two years of money printing which sent broad money up 40 percent in the period.

“Directors agreed that a tighter monetary policy stance is needed to contain rising inflationary pressures, while phasing out the central bank’s direct financing of budget deficits,” the IMF’s executive directors concurring with a staff assessment said.

Sri Lanka started to print money extensively in February 2020 to keep interest rates down, after cutting taxes in December 2019, ostensibly to kick start a ‘production economy,’ based on post-Keynesian principles.

In 2020 after a severe flexible exchange rate episode in March (a rapid shifting between pegged and floating regimes, with partial interventions that sends the rupee sliding) on top of tax cuts, new downgrades cut off Sri Lanka’s access to capital markets.

A downgrade also came in 2018 also after ‘flexible exchange rate’ episode. The downgrade via the flexible exchange rate and money printed to target ‘an output gap’ or a type of Keynesian stimulus, came despite a hike income and value added tax that brought the deficit now.

The IMF also urged tax hikes through both value added and income taxes.

IMF directors also called for the current 200 to the US dollar peg to be dropped in favour or a “gradual return to a market-determined and flexible exchange rate to facilitate external adjustment and rebuild international reserves.”

Monetary Reforms

Analysts and classical economists have called for reforms to central bank’s governing law to block non-rule based discretionary (flexible) policy and commit the agency to a rule of law involving one monetary anchor.

One option is a clean floating rate (no reserve building, no interventions in the fx market for imports or any other purpose) with a low inflation target not higher than 2 percent, (domestic anchor only) like most low inflation developed nations.

The second, more simpler option is a reserve building peg and no policy rate (unsterilized interventions) involving one external anchor, also known as a hard peg or curency, like Hong Kong and some East Asian nations to stop trade controls, exchange controls, currency collapses, high inflation and social unrest.

A third option is a similar arrangement with a wide policy corridor, and policy rate linked to the anchor currency – usually the Federal Reserves such as in the GCC areas and some other East Asian nations (currency-board-like-system), where the rate also changes.

A hard peg, which outlaws central bank financing of the budget, which led to the current crisis, is an automatic hard budget constraint. A hard peg – which Sri Lanka had from 1885 to 1950 would also stop the country from going to the IMF with external trouble.

Analysts have have pointed out that the ‘flexible exchange rate’ with dual anchors is a fancy name for an inconsistent, permanently depreciating crawling peg (or bbc peg) that has resulted in severe trade and exchange controls in Sri Lanka and elsewhere.

In Latin America such dual anchor regimes with reserve collecting flexible regimes, lead to severe currency collapses and repeated defaults including when there is a budget surplus, when the the US Fed starts to tightens monetary policy.

The IMF also called for current exchange controls to be lifted. IMF directors said Sri Lanka “to gradually unwind capital flow management measures as conditions permit.”

The exchange controls and liquidity injections had triggered parallel exchange rate or around 245 to 250 to the US dollar.

Bad weather and a resurgence of Covid-19 could also compound economic woes contribute and raise bad loans.

IMF Concludes 2021 Article IV Consultation with Sri Lanka

Washington, DC – March 2, 2022: The Executive Board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) concluded the Article IV consultation1 with Sri Lanka on February 25, 2022.

Sri Lanka has been hit hard by COVID-19. On the eve of the pandemic, the country was highly vulnerable to external shocks owing to inadequate external buffers and high risks to public debt sustainability, exacerbated by the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 and major policy changes including large tax cuts at late 2019. Real GDP contracted by 3.6 percent in 2020, due to a loss of tourism receipts and necessary lockdown measures. Sri Lanka lost access to international sovereign bond market at the onset of the pandemic.

The authorities deployed a prompt and broad-based set of relief measures to cope with the impact of the pandemic, including macroeconomic policy stimulus, an increase in social safety net spending, and loan repayment moratoria for affected businesses. These measures were complemented by a strong vaccination drive. GDP growth is projected to have recovered to 3.6 percent in 2021, with mobility indicators largely back to their pre-pandemic levels and tourist arrivals starting to recover in late 2021.

Nonetheless, annual fiscal deficits exceeded 10 percent of GDP in 2020 and 2021, due to the pre-pandemic tax cuts, weak revenue performance in the wake of the pandemic, and expenditure measures to combat the pandemic. Limited availability of external financing for the government has resulted in a large amount of central bank direct financing of the budget. Public debt2 is projected to have risen from 94 percent of GDP in 2019 to 119 percent of GDP in 2021. Large foreign exchange (FX) debt service payments by the government and a wider current account deficit have led to a significant FX shortage in the economy. The official exchange rate has been effectively pegged to the U.S. dollar since April 2021.

The economic outlook is constrained by Sri Lanka’s debt overhang as well as persistently large fiscal and balance-of-payments financing needs. GDP growth is projected to be negatively affected by the impact of the FX shortage and macroeconomic imbalances on economic activities and business confidence. Inflation recently accelerated to 14 percent (y/y) in January 20223 and is projected to remain double-digit in the coming quarters, exceeding the target band of 4–6 percent, as strong inflationary pressures have built up from both supply and demand sides since mid-2021. Under current policies and the authorities’ commitment to preserve the tax cuts, fiscal deficit is projected to remain large over 2022–26, raising public debt further over the medium term. Due to persistent external debt service burden,

International reserves would remain inadequate, despite the authorities’ ongoing efforts to secure FX financing from external sources.

The outlook is subject to large uncertainties with risks tilted to the downside. Unless the fiscal and balance-of-payments financing needs are met, the country could experience significant contractions in imports and private credit growth, or monetary instability in case of further central bank financing of fiscal deficits. Additional downside risks include a COVID-19 resurgence, rising commodity prices, worse-than-expected agricultural production, a potential deterioration in banks’ asset quality, and extreme weather events. Upside risks include a faster-than-expected tourism recovery and stronger-than-projected FDI inflows.
Executive Board Assessment

Executive Directors commended the Sri Lankan authorities for the prompt policy response and successful vaccination drive, which have cushioned the impact of the pandemic. Despite the ongoing economic recovery, Directors noted that the country faces mounting challenges, including public debt that has risen to unsustainable levels, low international reserves, and persistently large financing needs in the coming years. Against this backdrop, they stressed the urgency of implementing a credible and coherent strategy to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting vulnerable groups and reducing poverty through strengthened, well-targeted social safety nets.

Directors emphasized the need for an ambitious fiscal consolidation that is based on high-quality revenue measures. Noting Sri Lanka’s low tax-to-GDP ratio, they saw scope for raising income tax and VAT rates and minimizing exemptions, complemented with revenue administration reform. Directors encouraged continued improvements to expenditure rationalization, budget formulation and execution, and the fiscal rule. They also encouraged the authorities to reform state-owned enterprises and adopt cost-recovery energy pricing.

Directors agreed that a tighter monetary policy stance is needed to contain rising inflationary pressures, while phasing out the central bank’s direct financing of budget deficits. They also recommended a gradual return to a market-determined and flexible exchange rate to facilitate external adjustment and rebuild international reserves. Directors called on the authorities to gradually unwind capital flow management measures as conditions permit.

Directors welcomed the policy actions that helped mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the financial sector. Noting financial stability risks from the public debt overhang and sovereign-bank nexus, they recommended close monitoring of underlying asset quality and identifying vulnerabilities through stress testing. Directors welcomed ongoing legislative reforms to strengthen the regulatory, supervisory, and resolution frameworks.

Directors called for renewed efforts on growth-enhancing structural reforms. They stressed the importance of increasing female labor force participation and reducing youth unemployment. Further efforts are needed to diversify the economy, phase out import restrictions, and improve the business and investment climate in general. Directors also called for a prudent management of the Colombo Port City project, and continued efforts to strengthen governance and fight corruption. They noted the country’s vulnerability to climate change and welcomed efforts to increase resilience.

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Sri Lanka beats key IMF program targets for March 2024 amid rupee stability

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka has exceeded key quantitative targets set in an International Monetary Fund program for March 2024, based on preliminary data the Washington based agency said in a report.

The March data are not performance criteria on which reviews are conducted but are indicative targets which shows the progress of the program and are a stepping stone for a September review based on June data.

An indicative target for the primary balance (roughly overall deficit minus interest costs), was assessed at 316 billion rupees more than four times the 70 billion rupee target set in the program.

Primary balance can be a big surplus if the interest bill is high and capital expenditure is cut and is a type of crisis management tool after a central bank triggers a currency crisis by cutting rates with inflationary liquidity tools.

However, Sri Lanka’s Treasury has also kept a lid on most current spending. A state salary hike is however due after the currency collapse made life difficult for everyone.

Meanwhile more taxes have been collected from the people to finance the island’s bloated state.

A 750 billion rupees central government tax revenue floor has been exceeded to reach 837 billion rupees.

Central bank credit to government (outstanding stock) has been reduced to 2,691 billion rupees in March compared to a target of 2,800 billion rupees. In December the CB credit was calculated 2,742 billion rupees.

Net international reserves of the central bank were brought up to a negative 1,268 million US dollars exceeding the target of a negative 2,035 by almost 700 million dollars.

In order to collect foreign reserves, which is a type of appropriation of domestic savings of the people by the central bank (taking in deposits) and exporting it to the US and other countries to finance their deficits or by other agency debt in reserve currencies.

In order to collect such ‘deposits’ the central bank has to prevent them from being invested domestically.

It is achieved with deflationary policy through sell-downs of down its Treasuries holding to domestic banks or others, at a market rate, collecting interest from the government or repayments of re-finance credits, subject to any nominal changes in reserve money at a given exchange rate.

In 2024 the central bank allowed the exchange rate to appreciate, which can also reduce prices of traded goods boost real and nominal savings and make it easier to collect foreign reserves.

When domestic credit is weak it is easier to collect reserves. Reduced domestic credit and collection of reserves, including by private banks which then cannot be invested domestically, can push the external current account into surplus.

The central bank also met a 5 percent 12-month inflation target, with an achievement of 4.3 percent.

Sri Lanka’s economy grew 5.3 percent despite reserve collections, amid the stability provided by the central bank.

There were no central bank purchases of Treasuries from the primary market.

However the central bank injected overnight and term money to banks (not on a net basis) showing how easy it is for a rate-obsessed monetary authority to get around the requirement and create external instability again as soon as private credit recovered.

The central bank also allowed excess liquidity from dollar purchase to remain unsterilized for an extended period under its ad hoc pegging arrangement, getting a short term falls in rates, but triggering pressure on the rupee as a result in May and June.

It is not possible to collect reserves with a free floating exchange rate. (Colombo/June15/2024)

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Sri Lanka GDP grows 5.3-pct in first quarter of 2024 amid monetary stability

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s gross domestic product grew 5.3 percent in the first quarter of 2024 data from the state statistics office showed as the central bank continued to refrain from generating monetary instability.

Instead of printing money to cut rates under ‘flexible inflation targeting’ and printing money to boost growth by taking into account ‘potential output’ as permitted by its new monetary law, the central bank ran deflationary policy and also allowed the rupee to appreciate.

“The Sri Lanka economy experienced a more favorable economic condition[s] in the first quarter 2024, when compared to the first quarter in the year 2023,” the Department of Census and Statistics said.

“The high inflation had prevailed in the first quarter of year 2023, gradually reduced to a lower level by the first quarter of 2024 and this low inflation incentivized the economy by providing inputs at [a] much lower price.

The agriculture sector grew 1.1 percent in the first quarter of 2024, after also growing 1.6 percent last year.

Industry grew 11.8 percent in the first quarter, against a 24.3 percent last year.

The economy grew amid falling prices, the statistics office said in sharp contrast to the Anglophone macroeconomic claim that inflation is needed to boost growth, on which Sri Lanka has 5-7 inflation target has apparently been set.

Related Sri Lanka central bank pushing for high inflation target to boost growth

“Among ‘Industrial activities’, coinciding with the decline in input prices, the ‘Construction industry’ grew by 14.2 percent, parallel to this, the ‘Mining and quarrying’ industry too expanded by 18.3 percent during this quarter,” the Statistics Department said.

Sr Lanka’s services sector grew 2.6 percent, against a decline of 4.6 percent recorded last year.

The International Monetary Fund has also urged the central bank to give priority to stability.

Sri Lanka dropped the stability mandate in the earlier monetary law which was violated after the end of a civil war to push the country into serial currency crises especially after the International Monetary Fund gave technical assistance to calculate potential output.

Related Sri Lanka has a corrupted inflation targeting, output gap targeting not in line with monetary law: Wijewardena

Sri Lanka survived a 30-year civil war by giving priority to a stability mandate despite shortcomings in its operational framework but defaulted in peacetime amid activist monetary policy which denied monetary stability to the people. (Colombo/June12/2024)

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Sri Lanka’s NPP notes five-point crisis for economic growth sans details

Former JVP MP Sunil Handunneththi

ECONOMYNEXT — The leftist National People’s Power (NPP) has identified five crises that need resolving for Sri Lanka’s economy to progress, much of which emphasise a production economy targeting export growth though sparse on the detail on resource allocation.

NPP spokesman and former parliamentarian Sunil Handunneththi speaking at an event in Mulaitivu on Thursday June 13 said Sri Lanka is grappling with firstly, a collapse of the production economy, second, a budget deficit, third, a balance of payment crisis which has, fourthly, created a debt crisis, and finally, a resultant gap between haves and have-nots.

“We must first understand the crisis. We reocgnise five main crises that have the same impact irrespective of differences between the north and south.

“The first is the collapse of the production economy. We can see this historically. Agriculture that used to be some 30 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) has now fallen to 8 percent. Essential food is imported. We cannot produce the rice needed for the small population here. Things that can be made here are also imported.

“Second is the income crisis. For the people, their expenses are twice their income. The budget deficit is two or three-fold every day. Banks cannot give loans to businesses and industries because the government takes funds to address the budget deficit. The government takes most of the people’s savings for this,” he said.

The balance of payment crisis Sri Lanka is facing the third crisis, according to Handunneththi, which has triggered a debt crisis, in turn leading to a crisis of income disparity among the people.

“Third is the balance of payments crisis. Imports are two or three fold export income. The government has to take 11 to 12 billion US dollars in loans from foreign countries. When GDP is 80 billion US dollars, debt has gone over 100.”

“All this creates a massive gap between haves and have-nots. Without finding solutions to these crisis, there is no point distributing goods,” he said.

Handunnethi’s remarks appear to be departure from the NPP’s anti-corruption rhetoric which had centred its economic development policy agenda primarily on fighting corruption.

‘Fighting corruption’ and ‘recovering stolen assets’ have been popular slogans since the Aragalaya protests in Sri Lanka and the NPP has made it its central theme in its bid for power. The leftist outfit had also adopted a position that’s cautiously critical of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the reforms the international lender has prescribed for Sri Lanka in exchange for a 2.9 billion-dollar bailout.

However, NPP leadership had recently acknowledged the need to continue the IMF programme since the agreement has already been signed.

The Marxist-Leninist Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, which controls the NPP, though it was never in government barring a brief stint in an Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP)-led coalition in the early 2000s, has been instrumental in driving popular support against privatisation.

Three key policy pillars articulated by the JVP from 2001-2004 and embraced by mainstream politician Mahinda Rajapaksa’s administration in 2005 onward have been highlighted by experts.

From 2005, Sri Lanka halted privatisation, started recruiting tens of thousands of unemployed graduates into the public service every year with lifetime pensions, expanding an already bloated public sector and denying any benefit of a peace dividend to the country.

Sri Lanka also abandoned a price formula for fuel that had helped keep the rupee stable and inflation low from 2001 to 2003 even as global commodity prices went up from the ‘mother of all liquidity bubbles’ fired by the Federal Reserve from 2001.

From 2001 to 2003, state workers fell from 1.164 million to 1.043 million. By 2020, the public sector cadre has grown to 1.58 million with another batch of 53,000 unemployed graduates being paid tax money. (Colombo/Jun14/2024)

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