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Sunday April 21st, 2024

Sri Lanka new single borrower limits seen having ‘drastic effect’ on private credit

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s planned tighter single borrower limits are a necessary prudential measure but it will tend to crimp lending as banks try to curb loans to large borrowers, an industry official said.

Sri Lanka is planning to reduce single borrower limits to 25 percent of Tier I capital from 30 to 40 percent of total capital, Murtaza Jafferjee, Chairman of Advocata Institute, a Colombo based think tank told an economic forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

An analysis showed that for most banks the new SBL represented a 30 percent reduction, he said. The limit applies to group borrowing.

Drastic Effect

“This will have a drastic impact on lending,” Bingumal Thewarathanthri, Chairman of Sri Lanka Banks’ Association told an economic forum organized by the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce.

“This is bad news. The good news is that we are given three years to remediate the portfolio.

“So, 25 percent of Tier I is even for larger banks, for some banks it will come down by 35 to 40 percent. May be as an average 30 percent, SBL will come down.

“It will reduce the concentration. We completely understand that.”

About six banks in the country accounted for six trillion of lending, on a 10 trillion asset base and the balance 26 banks held about 4 trillion of the assets.

“Looking at the regional view, India is 25 percent, Bangladesh is 25 percent of Tier I, Thailand is slightly different,” Thewarathanthri said.

“We are an outlier in the region also. So we have to fix at some point. The question is should we fix it now?.”

In a recovery period, banks required space to operate, and getting capital next year may also be challenging he said with US rates also high.

“So, we see capital moving to the West,” Thewarathanthri said. “So we do not see large capital flows to the Sri Lankan banking sector immediately t in the first half. Timing-wise I do not know whether it is the right thing to do, the direction is definitely the right thing to do.”

Banks will have to share large exposures in the future.

“There will be more syndicates in the future,” he said. “And this will push smaller banks to mergers.”

Jafferjee said the rule was not imposed on state banks in the recent past which gave large loans to Ceylon Petroleum Corporation amounting to 100 percent of their capital or more.

Bank SOE-Nexus

The CPC was pushed to borrow from suppliers by authorities whenever the central bank cut rates with printed money to boost growth (target potential output under so-called flexible inflation targeting), despite not having significant dollar revenues, critics have said

The suppliers’ credits were then turned into loans from state banks as the letters of credit matured, officials have revealed.

The loans then made the entity run large forex losses as the currency collapsed from potential output targeting, even when fuel was market priced and the CPC had cash to buy dollars in some years, though in other years they have covered operational losses from subsidized fuel.

Related Shock revelation on how Sri Lanka’s CPC ended up with billions of dollar debt

In 2018 when politicians market priced fuel, the rupees were parked in state banks in repo deals, allowing them be loaned to other private creditors who imported goods, nullifying the effect on barring CPC from buying dollars in the first place, critics have said.

Sri Lanka’s CPC has been in the habit of borrowing dollars after printing money printing and a loan from Iran taken in the run up to the 1999/2001 currency crisis is still outstanding.

Under an International Monetary Fund this so-called Bank-SOE nexus is to be broken.

State bank dollar loans, given under Treasury guarantees, were taken to the government and is now a part of the national debt with the public called upon to pay more taxes to reduce “unsustainable” debt. They were

The new rule is likely to be applied to all banks with no regulatory forbearance.

Treasury Secretary Mahinda Siriwardana said under a new public finance management framework, broad improvement on the fiscal side is planned on multiple fronts.

Thewarathanthri said rupee lending to the government is likely to be excluded based on his understanding, and banks have also sought exceptions regarding dollar balances.

Sri Lanka’s private credit, which shrank in 2022 after rates were hiked, allowing foreign reserves to be built has now started to recover.

Lure of Credit

However, Thewarathanthi said banks were careful not to overburden customers with new loans and were careful to give loans which were immediately manageable, at time when bad loans were high.

“On credit to the private sector, the good news is we can see, month on month for the fifth month private sector credit growth is picking up,” he said.

“That is good news. But banks are reluctant on term lending at this point. They are supporting short term, supporting anything with underlying trade, underlying supporting documents. Gone are the days when you give 5-year working capital loans and large T-ODs.

“So banks are carefully looking at how the economy is stabilizing with NPL scenarios. So macro-stability is critical. Fiscal stability is critical – some work to be done.”

Policy consistency was also critical.

“We have got into situations where we have lent to projects and suddenly we realize that the tax concession is gone or a trade concession is gone. Or the land promised was gone.

“The hub concept is a classic one. There investors who got into the hub business, they realized it is not a hub. So, banks are careful in terms of understanding the policy consistency before you go into long term loans.

“Having said that there will be enough appetite from export credit agencies to look at large projects.

“Month on month it is growing. But banks do not want to grow at double digits when the economy is growing 3 percent next year. So you have to be careful, or again you might end up in an NPL scenario.” (Colombo/Dec04/2023)

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Widespread support for Sri Lanka debt workout, reform progress at IMF/WB meet: Minister

ECONOMYNEXT – There was widespread support for Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring and acknowledgement of progress made under an International Monetary Fund program, at meeting of the fund and World Bank, State Minister for Finance Shehan Semasinghe said.

“The strides made in our economic recovery and financial stability have been acknowledged as significant advancements towards our country’s prosperity by our stakeholders and international partners,” Minister Semasinghe said in an x.com (twitter) post after attending the meetings.

“Further, it was heartening to note the widespread appreciation and support for Sri Lanka’s debt restructuring process.

“We remain steadfast in our commitment to reaching the restructuring targets and confident of smooth progress in the continued good-faith engagements for a speedy debt resolution that will ensure debt sustainability and comparability of debt treatment.”

Sri Lanka ended a first round of talks with sovereign bondholders in March without striking a deal but some agreement on the basis for a deal.

An initial deal with bilateral creditors have been reached, but they may be awaiting a deal with private creditors to sign formal agreements.

International partners have appreciated reforms made under President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Minister Semasinghe said.

“It was great to engage in productive bilateral discussions with all of whom appreciated the recent economic developments, progress in debt restructuring, strengthening of tax administration, and ongoing governance reforms,” he said.

Sri Lanka’s rupee has been allowed to re-appreciate by the central bank amid deflationary monetary policy, bringing tangible benefits to people in the form of lower energy and food prices, unlike in past IMF programs.

Electricity prices were cut as a strengthening currency helped reduce the cost of coal imports.

Related Sri Lanka central bank mainly responsible for electricity price cut

The currency appreciation has also allowed losses to the Employment Provident Fund imposed to be partially recouped, helping old workers near retirement, as well as raising disposable incomes of current wage earners on fixed salaries.

Related Sri Lanka EPF gets US$1.85bn in value back as central bank strengthens rupee

The IMF, which was set up after World War II to end devaluations seen in the 1930s after the Fed’s policy rate infected other key central banks, started to actively encourage depreciation after a change to its founding articles in 1978 (the Second Amendment).

The usefulness of money as a store of value, or a denominator of current and future values then decline, leading to loss of real savings, real wages and increases in social unrest.

Before that, members who devalued more than 10 percent after printing money for growth or any other reason, faced the threat of suspension from the organization as punishment.

Sri Lanka’s rupee has appreciated to around 300 to the US dollar now from 370 after a surrender rule was lifted in March 2023.

But there is no transparency on the basis that economic bureaucrats are allowing the currency to gain against the US dollar (the intervention currency of the central bank).

The rupee is currently under pressure, despite broadly prudent monetary policy, due to an ‘oversold position’ in the market after recent appreciation made importers and banks to run negative open positions as the usefulness of the currency as a denominator of future value declined with sudden strenghtening. (Colombo/Apr21/2024)

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Sri Lanka choices recalled in Vietnam debate on monetary and fiscal options to target output

FIRST SIGNS: Fuel queues and shortages were developing in Vietnam in 2022 with a BOP deficit of $15.6bn in 3Q when rates were hiked to stop inflationary sterilization. Photo/Vietnamnet.vn

ECONOMYNEXT – Vietnam can grow 6.0 percent in 2024, with ‘policy support’ but there is a debate whether it should be done through fiscal (widening deficits/worsening debt or state spending) or monetary means, a top International Monetary Fund official said.

The IMF projects 6.0 percent growth for Vietnam in 2024 “as it rebounds from a challenging 2023,” Krishna Srinivasan, Director of the Asia and Pacific Department told reporters during the Spring Meetings in Washington.

Western Statism

“Now, in the case of Vietnam, I would say that there’s an issue about policy mix, whether you could get more support from the fiscal and rely less on monetary,” Srinivasan said.

“So there is an issue of policy mix which we’re talking, which we’ve been engaging the authorities with.

“I would say that policy support should be more favorable and that should, and along with external demand, help raise growth to 6 percent.”

Sri Lanka used both fiscal and monetary mix to boost growth from December 2019, triggering an external default two and a half years later.

Vietnam’s forex reserves fell below 3 months of imports in 2022 after the State Bank kept policy rates down by inflationary sterilization of forex market interventions.

The currency was then stabilized with rapid fire rate hikes and credit controls to dial back inflationary policy, just as long fuel ques started to form at petrol sheds, with angry riders already hit by rising prices due to Dong weakness. 
The return to market interest rates averted wider social unrest from being triggered by depreciation and further losses at state energy utility EVN, due to fixed prices amid soaring coal prices.

The State Bank of Vietnam later cut rates and relaxed credit controls as the BOP shifted to a surplus.

The government has since cut value added taxes. Public sector salaries are set to rise further this year, possibly as much as 30 percent, after earlier wage restraint. (Related Link: Public employee’s salaries to increase by 30 per cent from July 1: Minister)

State Driven Growth Options

The IMF also said in an Article IV consultation report released in October 2023, that fiscal metrics should be effectively undermined for ‘growth’ but more through income redistribution, and possible support for a fallout from a weak property sector.

Some Vietnamese property companies are reeling from expansion during earlier low rates and Covid-linked construction delays, which could also hit banks.

“Building on successful fiscal consolidation in recent years, there is fiscal space to provide further support,” an IMF Article IV consultation report released in October 2023 said.

“The government could scale up social safety nets that would boost growth and protect the most vulnerable households.

“Given the slowdown and the constraints faced by monetary policy, going forward, fiscal policy can take a leading role in supporting aggregate demand.

“For instance, the government could scale up social safety nets—and consider cash transfers to provide swift relief to poorer households.

“If the current turmoil proves more damaging to the economy and the financial sector, targeted support could be considered, including to help real estate developers restructure.”

Dong on thin ice

In 2023, Vietnam’s balance of payments was only marginally in surplus by 1 to 3 billion dollars a quarter, indicating that credit was still resilient after a successful ‘soft-landing’, and any further shocks from macro-economists can destabilize the external sector easily.

In the fourth quarter of 2024, Vietnam’s BOP was only 2.4 billion dollars in surplus.

Any extra spending or tax cuts which boosts the deficit due to attempts to engage in ‘macro-economic policy’ and expand government borrowings would lead to money printing under a fixed policy rate, reversing gains made by the State Bank over 2023, and pushing the Dong down, analysts say.

Western macro-economists believe that expanding government action (through the Treasury or central banks) to tinker with ‘aggregate demand’ can boost growth numbers instead of giving a chance for people and businesses to engage in real production of goods and services by providing monetary stability.

Collapsing currencies and external imbalances are then blamed on ‘current account deficits’ and ‘structural deficiencies’.

Such Keynesian and post-Keynesian beliefs have worsened since quantitative easing was normalized in the US after the Great Recession and ‘stimulus’ re-captured Western media attention despite the hard lessons of the 1960s and 1970s, critics say.

In Sri Lanka, the IMF taught a central bank that had already busted the currency from 4.70 to 131 to the dollar to calculate ‘potential output’ just as the country was barely recovering from a 30-year civil war.

Sri Lanka defaulted within 7 years of ‘data driven monetary policy’ (flexible inflation targeting with output gap targeting) and three currency crises later in peacetime amid increasingly aggressive macro-economic policy as consecutive stabilization programs reduced growth numbers.

Aggressive Macro-economic Policy

After using higher deficits and inflationary rate cuts in 2015 amid low inflation, inflationary rate cuts despite tax hikes in 2018 (fiscal policy is tight therefore monetary has to be loose mantra), macro-economists took a proverbial Keynesian bull by the horns and cut both taxes and rates from December 2019 saying there was a ‘persistent output gap’.

Related Sri Lanka fiscal stimulus to close output gap

Analysts say there is no real choice between monetary or fiscal deterioration to achieve macroeconomic policy desires of interventionists, in a country with a bureaucratic interest rate.

A policy rate, unless hiked, will automatically result in inflationary monetary operations as domestic credit picks up, irrespective of whether it is driven by private or state credit.

Any so-called ‘fiscal support’ can only be given without harming the exchange rate in a country that has a reserve collecting central bank with a policy rate, by liquidating any sovereign wealth funds or borrowing abroad and pushing up net external debt, analysts say.

By worsening external net debt levels, desires of macro-economists can be satisfied without harming monetary stability and the living standards of the population in general or nutrition of the children of the poorest sections of society by so-called exchange rate flexibility or debasement.

In Sri Lanka, potential output is now written into a brand new IMF-backed monetary law even before the first default workout is complete. Potential output is mentioned in every monetary policy statement, not stability. (Colombo/Apr20/2024)

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Sri Lanka’s Easter Bombings: A Preventable Tragedy

ECONOMYNEXT – Five years on, Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings has left us with more questions than answers.

Both the Gotabaya Rajapaksa government and now the Ranil Wickremesinghe tenure has been shown up poorly in terms of ensuring the masterminds and those who failed to prevent the bombings are bought to book.

As one sifts through various reports and discussions on the Easter Sunday bombings which took the lives of 315 and injured at least 600, one must, as Sunanda Deshapriya, activist and investigative journalist told a webinar recently, ask whether that tragedy was preventable.

If it was, then why was it not?

The webinar was organised by the Solidarity Movement for Justice and Truth (SMJT).

One interesting fact that investigators discovered, Deshapriya said, was that a phone number used by one of the bombers, was amongst a series used by the infamous ‘Tripoli Brigade’ that is alleged to be behind the Lasantha Wickrematunga murder.

This brings up the question whether the Easter bombers were connected to these covert groups within the Armed Forces which some observers have blamed for a number of violent incidents.

There were other questionable events. In an interview with TNL in 2023 former CID Head, Ravi Seneviratne claimed that though the visit to Vanathavilluwa by his officers investigating the destruction of Buddhist statues in Mawanella, was not public knowledge, the military intelligence had turned up there.
Deshapriya says, “We have to ask who ordered the MI to go there.”

In his interview, Seneviratne also said that Zaharan, the leader of the Thowheed Jamat that carried out the Easter bombings, first came to their attention in January 2019. They received tips of Zaharan’s whereabouts from civilians he said, and those were always that he had been sighted in various locations in the East.

However, following the Easter attacks the CID had realised that while they were looking for Zaharan in the East, he had been moving around in Wattala, Negombo, Mount Lavinia and Panadura. He alleged that while Zaharan seemed to have been secure in these areas, the CID had had no inkling of it.

The CID has informants everywhere, so why were they not aware that Zaharan was living in the Western Province, he asks.

SSP Shani Abeysekara is on the record as saying that the Intelligence operatives had “deliberately mislead the CID.”

Evidence indicates that former head of State Intelligence, DIG Nilantha Jayawardena, had wiped out his phone and laptop prior to handing them over the investigators.

“Why did he do that? When did he do that? What did it contain? There are many secrets about the Easter Sunday attacks that are yet to be revealed,” Deshapriya said.

He also states that “there are also many holes in Azad Maulana’s story on Channel 4.”

Despite these discrepancies, Deshapriya says that the volume of information about Zaharan available to the Security Forces, particularly the intelligence arm was quite substantial.

The bombings and the aftermath, the hysteria around the need to save the country and future generations, the demonization of the Muslim community all pointed to one goal; a regime change. Those fighting these past five years to bring the masterminds to book must also now, determine whether that heinous deed was intentional.

The Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) and the Commission of Inquiry (COI), both appointed to examine the events leading to the Easter attacks, concluded that if the Indian intelligence reports had been acted on, the bombings on April 21, 2019, could have been avoided, the report noted.

On April 19, the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR) released a report titled, ‘5 Years Since Easter Sunday Attacks: Still Awaiting Justice,” where it says that “various committees were appointed to collect evidence and provide a report of the findings.

‘A Presidential commission, a Presidential committee, and a Parliamentary Select Committee were appointed to investigate the Easter Sunday Attacks. The report produced by the Presidential Committee was not published while the Parliamentary Select Committee’s report was fully published, and the Presidential Commission report was partly published.

On 26th January 2023, the Right to Information Commission directed the Presidential Secretariat to make the presidential committee report public before 9th February 2023 after hearing an appeal filed by CSR. However, none of the major recommendations in the published reports have been implemented to deliver justice for the victims.”

“The reports reveal that authorities had sufficient time and enough intelligence to act on the suspicions and prevent the incident. SIS Director received intelligence reports from India on the 4th and 5th of April 2019 and again two reports on the 20th of April describing the possibility of the attack, naming the suspects, and the urgency of the terror attack.

Additionally, there was a dry run conducted five days before the bombings where a motorcycle was blown up using a remote-controlled device in Zaharan’s home base, and although the SIS learnt of the incident the next day, even after intelligence reports stated that Zaharan was planning a terror attack, proper investigations into this matter did not take place.

The amount of information that was received prior to the attack and the lack of action, investigation, and implementation of safety measures inevitably raised questions as to who was actually behind the attacks” CSR said.

“A less dysfunctional government might have still failed to connect incoming intelligence with the information on Zaharan in Sri Lankan police files, but it would have tried much harder,” it added.
The report goes on to note the lapses made by the Sri Lanka government’s leaders.

“Regardless of the number of intelligence reports both by the U.S and India, that had warned about imminent attacks targeting churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe both acted out of gross ignorance. Even, at the time the unfortunate incident has happened, the executive president Mr. Sirisena was out of the country and returned a considerable time after the incident.”

Fr. De Silva also asks as to how the Police would conduct an impartial inquiry into the role of the various personnel who were holding powerful positions at the time and still continue to do so.

Gen Salley remains as head of Intelligence. The DIG in charge of the area where the Katuwapitiya church is situated in that period was Deshabandu Tennekoon, who is now the Inspector General of Police. DIG Nilantha Jayawardene who was the Intelligence chief is now Senior DIG Administration, a post second only to the IGP.

“In seeking justice how can we engage with these leaders in power who are themselves accused of complicity in these incidents,” asks Fr. De Silva. “We are doubtful we can get justice without a change in the people holding office.”

As election fever hots up, the main opposition political parties are jostling with each other promising to bring the masterminds of the Easter attacks to book, under their regimes. Both the SJB and the JVP led NPP have put out official statements on the course of action they would take if elected to power.

Speaking at a zoom discussion organised by the Australia Sri Lanka Forum for Justice for Easter Victims on April 17, SJB’s Eran Wickremaratne said his party would introduce amendments to existing structures, to create an Independent Public Prosecutors Office to handle such cases.

The SJB plans to establish a permanent office with members of Scotland Yard and the FBI to work alongside local investigators to bring closure to the Easter tragedy, he said.

Meanwhile, the JVP led NPP presented a 7 point plan which would address the inaction of the authorities, and take legal action against all those directly and indirectly involved in the Easter Sunday bombings.
Both political parties have presented their proposals to Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith. Let’s hope they are not mere election promises!

The Easter Sunday victims have been political pawns these past five years, just as the many others who lost family members in the various conflicts the country has been through.
They too, are still awaiting justice.

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