Sri Lanka haunted by illiberal ghosts of Mahinda Chinthana amid drought
ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka is facing several headwinds, amid talk of an impending economic crisis, which is coming from excessive reliance on illiberal Mahinda Chinthana style policies that have been embraced by the United National Party.
This is the bad news. The good news is that these can be dumped at any time to give citizens the freedom to take the country forward.
Sri Lanka has departed from Mahinda Chinthana policies in some ways. The rule of law has improved to some extent. There is less fear and more debate about many issues. But if the illiberals win the debate and freedoms of citizens are curtailed, there will be little progress.
It must be said that not all Mahinda Chinthana policies were bad. The central bank mostly kept the exchange rate steady and this external anchor gave low inflation for several years during the Rajapaksa administration.
It was a departure from the disastrous policies of the 1980s under the UNP involving continuous currency depreciation, high inflation, which the people from getting the full benefits of an open economy then.
In defending the peg, monetary tightening was forced on the central bank and inflation was kept relatively low. Especially in 2009 the rupee was also allowed to bounce back, leading to a very strong economy recovery. But the central bank failed to tighten policy in time in 2011 when conditions were much like now.
Inflationary Crawling Peg
A ‘flexible’ exchange rate or downward crawling peg may allow the central bank to save some foreign reserves and continue to inflate the economy, perhaps generating a property bubble as it goes along, but it will not help the poor.
"One virtue of fixed rates, especially under gold but even to some extent under paper, is that they keep a check on national inflation by central banks," wrote US economist Murray Rothbard.
"The virtue of fluctuating rates – that they prevent sudden monetary crises due to arbitrarily valued currencies – is a mixed blessing, because at least those crises provided a much needed restraint on domestic inflation."
This is good advice for the current administration of the central bank. There is no substitute to allowing interest rates to go up whenever the budget deteriorates or private credit goes up too much. Any resistance with printed money will lead to multiple negative outcomes.
Already inflation is too high.
Currency depreciation is a not a substitute for prudence.
This column warned several times that the current International Monetary Fund’s program was in jeopardy because it did not have a ceiling on domestic assets.
It is easy to drive a country into a crisis with even 5 percent inflation with a central bank that is subject to fiscal dominance and proven track record of sterilizing interventions.
The Treasury bill purchases to bring down longer rates in November was a disaster. The People’s Bank of China also tried a similar disastrous policy and paid a heavy price.
Curiously the IMF had allowed the central bank to keep to an inflation target while noting in its safeguards assessment that there were ‘inadequate limits on credit to government’ and that a Treasury representative was on the monetary board.
The best solution would have been to place ceilings on domestic assets and thereby impose ‘limits on credit to government,’ which would have nipped fiscal dominance of monetary policy in the bud.
The IMF did placed restriction on Pakistan’s central bank claims on government in the in program with Pakistan which had just been concluded with some success.
As a result of not limiting domestic the central bank was unable to build up foreign reserves and meet the net international reserve target.
Giving excuses about bond investors going out will not help, though it can be a factor. Ideally part or most of the outflowing debt should be absorbed by the credit system.
How can this happen? If a foreign investor sell, 10 billion rupees of bonds, and it is bought by a bank, that bank and the banking system collectively has to cut down its credit to other private borrowers
What happens now is that the foreign investor will buy dollars from the central bank as there are no large pools of dollars with commercial banks due to strict overnight limits, generating a liquidity shortage.
The liquidity shortage should put the brakes on domestic credit for a while.
But if that bank which bought the rupee bond from the departing foreign investor (or the bank which obtained the dollars for him is able to go the central bank and discount that bond or other bonds to create fresh money through the reverse repo window or by selling the bond outright to the Central Bank, don’t expect to safeguard reserves.
Some investors go partly because they do not see the credibility of the peg and they may be spooked by bad policy.
The Finance Ministry has been heavily interfering in the Central Bank, especially during the tenure of Arjuna Mahendran and it still trying to dominate policy now. This is a bad policy. In January, a massive amount of money was printed to repay a bonds.
How can a central bank collect reserves while printing money and keeping excess liquidity in money market which will drive credit sky high?
Sri Lanka may still be able to patch up the IMF by requesting a waiver of performance criteria. Key structural benchmarks also have not been met.
Here is an easy rule of thumb. If the domestic assets of the central bank keeps rising, there is an economic crisis underway. If it is stable or coming down there is no need to lose much sleep.
It is tiring to watch history being repeated.
Twin Ghosts of 2011
The ghosts of 2011 have come back to haunt Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka’s 2011/2012 balance of payments crisis was created by a failure to allow rates to go up when a drought hit the country, which made the Ceylon Electricity Board and Ceylon Petroleum Corporation borrow heavily from the banking system at a time when private credit was also strong.
Droughts cannot cause either balance of payments crises or inflation. It is state intervention through banking systems and central banks that creates inflation and currency depreciation. That droughts create inflation though supply shortfalls has been an enduring myth of cost-push inflation Mercantilism from classical times. That however is another story.
In modern Sri Lanka the path is as follows. Whenever a drought hits, the cost of power generation goes up. This requires a hike in power prices.
In the run up to the 2011 crises, there was a drought while fuel prices also rose. Fuel prices are also rising now. A barrel of crude which was around 40 dollars at the beginning of last year is around 55 dollars now.
Steve Hanke, a US economist who accurately predicted in the middle of last year that oil would hit 60 dollars around March 2017 based on the long-term oil to gold parity (the golden constant) now says oil will hit 80 dollars by the year end.
Sri Lanka’s 2000 BOP crisis and 2008 crisis was also largely caused by rising fuel prices not being market priced and being monetarily accommodated though the banking system and ultimately by the central bank. The 2004 currency collapse and inflation bout was also related to fixing oil prices with printed money.
There is no threat to the economy from rising oil prices except a slowdown of activity which will be also seen through a reduction in non-oil imports if higher prices are passed on through a price formula.
Following on the heels of Mahinda Chinthana and the earlier Rata Perata failed economic frameworks, this administration also failed to implement a fuel price formula, despite the petroleum ministry producing one and the IMF deal requiring one.
The finance ministry and the UNP economic policy hierarchy must clearly take the blame for this Rata Perata style failed move.
Not content with fixing fuel prices, the current administration also dispensed with the price formula for cooking gas mandated by the Supreme Court, which the Rajapakse administration implemented helping Litro Gas mint money, which was then mis-used elsewhere.
Now Litro gas is also making losses. So a Yahapalana ghost is dancing with the Mahinda Chinthana ones.
Finance Minister Ravi Karunanayake has now uttered the dreaded words, of all deceptive Sri Lankan politicians says: ‘the government is bearing the burden.’ Anybody from Mahinda Rajapaksa to Nimal Siripala de Silva to Anura Yapa to now Ravi Karunanayake had uttered this words, as they plan to double the burdens on the people.
No government can bear a burden. Governments can only spend taxes (taken from the people by reducing their purchasing power or pushing up costs), borrowings (pushing the burden to the next generation) or printing money which creates balance of payments crises and inflation.
It is through this deceptive trick that all post independent governments had deceived the people and robbed the poor through inflation and currency depreciation.
Eventually these cycles end up in not just raising the price of energy (which can come down later if oil prices fall) but all goods, as the currency depreciates.
There is no point in saying that petroleum utilities were making profits a few months ago or that the budget deficit is now low and therefore the banking system can absorb the shock. When Finance Minister say the ‘government is bearing the burden’ the shock is borne by the banking system.
The point is there is a fundamental change in the credit system. Energy utilities, which were paying back loans (essentially depositors in banks) are no longer doing so. SOE credit is rising. The depositors have now turned into borrowers.
Just because tax revenues are getting better and deficit is going down, do not expect mothing to happen. This is a shock to the system, which will hit the credit system every month.
Unless fuel prices are market priced, expect interest rates to go up, which will reduce private credit. If interest rates do not go up, expect more currency depreciation and inflation and forex reserve losses.
The many interventions in the last two budgets have been disastrous. Some have been weird illiberal interventions going beyond the Mahinda Chinthana.
These include licenses to import cars, licenses to import gold. Several ad hoc interventions which belonged in the loony bin were fortunately confined to the loony bin.
But damaging ones like directed credit has been given effect by the Central Bank, though the Governor has said it is a guideline and not a direction.
The central bank has also shown troubling signs of using administrative measures to control credit, including meddling with loan-to-value ratios. Sharply cutting loan-to-value ratios of three-wheelers will deny Sri Lanka’s Sinhala and Tamil communities’ access to credit and mostly the Muslim community, who generally rely less on credit due to religious objections will now be able to buy three wheelers.
Administrative measures while printing money and depreciating the currency is a deadly cocktail. It can lead to all kinds of negative effects such as property bubbles and bad loans.
One Ghost Slayed
After the disastrous hiking of state sector salaries going beyond the Mahinda Chinthana in 2015 – which was accommodated by the central bank with rate cuts and printed money causing the rupee to collapse – taxes have now been raised.
One good thing that the current government has done is to raise value added tax and remove exemptions. The last administration under P B Jayasundera systematically undermined VAT and made it into some voodoo failed system.
This move is in line with Yahapalanaya or Good Governance.
The tax hikes, which were politically difficult, has undone much of the damage to the country from the 2015 disastrous budget.
Fitch Ratings has also hailed the move. Investors have recognized it and it looks as if Sri Lanka can raise syndicated loan at a lower rate than last year.
As long as Sri Lanka can roll over maturing debt and continue to sell sovereign bonds no great economic crises will come. The real crises will come if bond investors refuse to roll-over a couple of maturing billion dollar bonds.
Much more needs to be done. The Nation Building Tax should be abolished as soon as possible. Corporate income tax has to move to East Asia levels of around 17 to 20 percent.
Trade taxes have to be brought down. Here also the ghosts of Mahinda Chinthana are still looming large though some liberalizations have been done.
Rather than taxing the people through VAT on healthcare, and electricity prices should be adjusted every month and fuel price controls should be lifted so that prices can change weekly or monthly. Losses at SOEs will undermine the tax hikes, which came at some political cost.
The subsidy on kerosene should be removed. The Rajapaksa regime raised Kero prices after discovering that a few industrialists were the biggest users. The current administration has cut it several times in suspicious ways.
This bring us to the next issue: corruption.
The One Day Match
It is not clear whether corruption is as bad as in the Mahinda Chinthana. Under the current administration most of the corruption seems to be originating from three key places.
In Pakistan there is a saying for administrations that are too quick to start corruption. They call it playing a one day match instead of playing a test match.
The bondscam was perhaps a T-20. It happened barely two months after the administration came to power.
One useful fallout was that the public was clearly able to separate the corrupt from the non-corrupt politician in the administration. That was very useful.
Contract rigging in road projects seems to be even more blatant than the Mahinda Chinthana. In at least one large road project, both bid suppression and bid rotation seem to have been used without any cover bidding to at least try to give it a semblance of legitimacy.
If there is heavy corruption, it is difficult to get good foreign direct investment from export competitive large companies. The retrospective taxes were a heavy blow to private investment and FDI. Like the expropriations of the Mahinda Chinathana, it will be difficult to recover from this loss of confidence and safety.
Relaxing foreign ownership of land will help.
Privatization is another missed opportunity. This administration is going on the path of the Mahinda Chinthana in not privatizing. Privatizing will be quick path to energizing global investors and showing that the country open to business.
Sri Lanka had – or still has – an excellent chance to kick start FDI by quickly awarding the Colombo East Terminal to the best qualified consortium. Some big names have come. It will be strong signal to all investors if this award was done transparently.
These are low hanging fruits. But it has apparently now been scuttle, with shifting goal posts and high powered economic committees playing the old games.
Not privatizing state firms and milking them through corrupt deals was another Mahinda Chinthana strategy that has come to haunt the Yahapalana administration.
This government also scuttled a coal plant and is now trying to build a massive diesel plant in the guise of an LNG plant.
That is not a Mahinda Chinthana policy really, though the Kerawalapitiya plant – the worst private plant perhaps the only one in the world without a guaranteed heat rate (efficiency level) – was built during the Rajapaksa administration.
The money lost to the country from this so-called LNG plants that will replace coal will be enough to repay the Hambantota Port loan in double quick time.
It is an inescapable fact that it is more profitable for corrupt politicians to bail out loss making state enterprises with tax money and then milk them through procurements, rather than privatizing.
Why should one privatize Lak Sathosa for example when billions could be milked every year in procurements of state enterprises? Privatizations at best will give an opportunity to collect a one-time commission.
The Auditor General had already exposed massive frauds at Lak Sathosa, during both the Mahinda Chinthana and Yahapalana administrations.
Price controls are another legacy of the Mahinda Chinthana – started by Bandula Gunewardene an economics teachers no less – which the current administration has used.
Finance Minister Karunanayake however must be commended for reducing import taxes on rice. This will help bring rice prices to a level close to international prices.
Though there is more civil society activism now, which is a change from the past, it is depressing to see Mahinda Chinthana policies being followed so faithfully by this administration.
It was Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr, French novelist and journalist who once said ‘plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose’ roughly translated to mean: the more things change, the more they remain the same’.
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This column is based on ‘The Price Signal by Bellwether‘ published in the March 2016 issue of the Echelon Magazine. To read Bellwether columns as soon as they are published, subscribe to Echelon Magazine at this link. The i-tunes app can be downloaded from here.