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Tuesday May 28th, 2024

Sri Lanka, the Wedding Isle

ECONOMYNEXT – Every wedding is special for participants and ordinary for the rest of the world. The wedding between Devoushi Cooray and Jacob Stone was special to me for the lovely bride was my niece.

But the wedding would have been special to me even without that connection because of where it was held: a place of unparalleled natural beauty.

‘The Villa,’ in Bentota (town on the southwestern coast of the island about an hour’s drive from capital, Colombo) was originally a grand colonial house. Known as the Mohotti Walauwwa, it was remodelled by renowned Sri Lankan architect Geoffrey Bawa in the 1970s.

The Villa is a place of wide vistas, extensive gardens and beachfront dining facilities. The sea is a short walk away down a sandy, palm-fringed path. Inside, the pastel hued walls are adorned with paintings by local artists.

There were over 120 colleagues and friends who had come from overseas. For most of them, this was the first visit to Sri Lanka. They had come all the way from Australia , UK, US, France, Sweden, Spain, Germany, Bulgaria, the Netherlands, Hungary and Brazil.

They had come because they wanted to share the special moment of someone they loved, but all of them, without exception, were overawed by the location. Not only did they feel it was a perfect place for a wedding, they were appreciative of the Sri Lankans they met.

Despite a war for 30 long years, a devastating tsunami, two insurrections and an unprecedented financial crisis, the beauty of Sri Lanka still remains intact.

Sri Lanka is the oldest democracy in Asia and is the only country in the world where people physically fight each other to pay bills when they go out with friends.

Despite the financial crisis this custom still continues. This kind of generosity is extremely rare in the world today. The guests got to see a slice of it during their brief stay and that’s what I felt when talking to Jacob’s father Brad and his uncle, Greg.

Nothing could dampen their spirits, not even the rain which inauspiciously came down just when the bride’s father, Priyantha was delivering his speech out in the garden where the ceremony was being held.

He was able to continue, emotions notwithstanding, because a friend rushed in with an umbrella and held it for him until he was done. One could put it all down to the temper of the moment, the festivities of a wedding and so on, but I like to think that location had something to do with it. It was all about friendship, love, happiness, loyalty and the extraordinary and unique beauty of Sri Lanka.

I returned to Kuala Lumpur the following day. Reflecting on the wedding, the beautiful architecture and the exquisite landscaping, not to mention the innumerable bits and pieces of magic afforded by the lovely beach in Bentota, it occurred to me that what Sri Lanka needs is to develop basic infrastructure to turn all its many scenic locations into iconic stay-in destinations for tourists of all kinds.

Sri Lanka, in short, is a place you would visit to attend a wedding, for example, but will compel you to consider a repeat visit of a longer duration. It is a land that will absorb all sorrows because it is made of smiles that are inevitably infectious. Even in the worst weather conditions.

Indeed, Sri Lanka is an ideal wedding-location. Just imagine a wedding by the sea, a river, a lagoon or a splendid reservoir built hundreds and even thousands of years ago. You could have it up in the mountains overlooking rolling acres of tea, in the middle of a jungle, somewhere steeped in history evidenced by rich archaeological treasures or even in the middle of a cluster of humble villages peopled by those whose dignity derives from a long association with life lessons embedded in Buddhist philosophy. You could time it to coincide with the spectacle of a cultural pageant. Many options. All open-ended. I know that the happy couple would take away memories they would cherish all their lives.

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Sri Lanka reforms have started to yield positive outcomes: State minister

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s State Minister of Finance Shehan Semasinghe says reforms have lead to positive incomes, including an increase in reserves.

“The reforms have started to yield positive outcomes, reflecting significant progress in multiple areas. Sri Lanka’s gross official reserves have seen a significant increase, reaching USD 5.5 billion by the end of April 2024,” Semasinghe said on social media platform X (twitter).

“Additionally, the Sri Lankan rupee has appreciated by approximately 8 % against the US dollar so far in 2024. This will boosts investor confidence and enhances the country’s ability to manage external shocks and meet international obligations and enhance confidence on the economy.

“The appreciation of the rupee can help lower inflation and reduce the overall cost of living and make it easier for the government and businesses to service foreign debt, thereby improving our financial reputation globally. Further, will improve the trade balance by potentially reducing the trade deficit.”

Sri Lanka’s inflation was 1.5 percent in the 12-months to April 2024, measured by the widely watched Colombo Consumer Price Index, data from the state debt office showed.

The CCPI Index fell 0.8 percent, to 195.2 points in the month of April after falling 1.9 percent in March.

Sri Lanka’s central bank has been operating largely deflationary policy, since September 2022, except perhaps in December 2023, and also allowed the rupee to appreciate in the balance of payments surplus it created.(Colombo/May28/2024)

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Sri Lanka risks foreign retaliation over VFS visa deal

ECONOMYNEXT – The Maldives could take reciprocal action after Sri Lanka’s new system of outsourcing its visas, which requires the payment of “processing” and “convenience” charges of 26 dollars, even though the government does not collect any fees.

Maldivian authorities have reminded Sri Lanka of the long-standing bilateral agreement under which their citizens could travel freely between the two neighbours without any charges or bureaucratic barriers.

A one month stay is available without a fee.

Maldivians, who consider Sri Lanka their second home, often spend more than a month in the larger country, but are now required to pay 26 dollars to VFS Global, which has controversially been contracted to handle Sri Lankan visas.

“The Sri Lankan government will not charge a fee, but Maldivians still have to pay VFS after applying online for a visa,” a Maldivian government official said in the capital, Male. “This violates the spirit of our agreement.”

He said the new administration of President Mohamed Muizzu was taking up the issue with Sri Lankan authorities in both Male and Colombo.

In a worst-case scenario, the Maldives will be compelled to reciprocate the new cost of a Sri Lankan visa and charge Sri Lankans traveling to the archipelago. There are also expat Sri Lankans in the Maldives.

There are only a handful of countries to which Sri Lankan passport holders can travel without any visa restrictions.

Singapore is another country which could take action against Sri Lanka if the bilateral deal is found to be violated, according a source said.

Opposition parties have said in parliament that outsourcing the visa handling to VFS Global and their partners was a bigger corruption scandal than the bond scam of 2015 and 2016, when billions of rupees were stolen through insider deals. (COLOMBO/May 28, 2024)

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Sri Lanka’s WindForce Plc rated ‘BBB+(lka) with stable outlook: Fitch

ECONOMYNEXT – WindForce Plc said Fitch Ratings Lanka Ltd had assigned a ‘BBB+(lka)’ rating for the company with stable outlook.

“The rating reflects WindForce’s large exposure to Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB, BB+(1ka)/Stable) as the key offtaker. The Stable Outlook reflects Fitch Ratings’ view that risks of significant payment delays from CEB to WindForce has decreased, easing liquidity pressure,” the company said in a stock exchange filing.

The full Rating Action Commentary by Fitch Ratings Lanka Ltd:

Fitch Publishes Sri Lanka’s WindForce’s ‘BBB+(Ika)’ National Rating; Outlook Stable.

Fitch Ratings – Colombo – 22 May 2024: Fitch Ratings has published Sri Lanka-based independent power producer WindForce PLC’s ‘BBB+(Ika}’ National Long-Term Rating. The Outlook is Stable.

The rating reflects WindForce’s large exposure to Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB, BB+ (Ika)/Stable) as the key offtaker. The Stable Outlook reflects our view that risks of significant payment delays from CEB to WindForce has decreased, easing liquidity pressure. However, Fitch believes medium-term risks to weaker collections of CEB’s dues
remain, and this is subject to the consistent implementation of CEB’s cost-reflective tariff mechanism.

Key rating drivers

Improving Receivables Collection: We expect WindForce’s receivable days to remain at around 80 in next 12 months. This is based on our expectation that CEB will continue to settle its payables, following improvement in its financial profile from cost-reflective tariff revisions. WindForce’s receivable days fell to around 198 days by December 2023, from 348 days at the end of the financial year 31 March 2023 (FY23). The company says it received further payments in 1Q24 that improved its receivables materially.

Weak Counterparty Profile: WindForce’s rating is constrained by the weak credit profile of its key offtaker CEB, the sole electricity transmitter and distributor in Sri Lanka, despite CEB’s improved financial performance. CEB’s rating is ultimately contingent upon support from the Sri Lankan sovereign (Long-Term Local-Currency Issuer Default Rating (IDR): CCC-; Long-Term Foreign-Currency IDR: Restricted Default) and its weak credit profile.

WindForce derived an average 80% of its EBIT from CEB in FY23-9MFY 724, with balance coming from its Ugandan operations. We expect WindForce’s cash flow exposure to CEB to increase further in FY25-FY27 with the commissioning of a 1OMW solar project in Kebithigollewa and a 1OOMW solar power plant in Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

Risks to Cost-Reflective Tariffs: Fitch believes there are risks to consistent implementation of cost-reflective tariffs, affecting the credit profile of domestic power generation companies. This is because of the government’s competing priorities: managing inflation, CEB’s financial health and the state’s own finances. We have assumed WindForce’s receivables days will deteriorate to 100 by FY27 as a result, but a longer record of consistent implementation could support a moderation of these risks.

The Sri Lankan government has implemented a cost-reflective tariff mechanism since mid-2022, to ensure CEB’s operating costs and interest obligations are covered. The new mechanism supports break-even operating cash flow for CEB, as of its latest financial year. This has enabled CEB to clear part of its overdue payments to trade creditors over the past 12 months. The tariff regulator – the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka – approved lower tariffs by an average of 21.9% in its March 2024 review, which is a greater decrease than CEB’s proposal, reflecting the risks.

Investments Weigh on Free Cashflow: We estimate negative free cash flow (FCF) in FY25-FY27, due mainly to high capex and investments. This is despite improving operating cash flow from a shorter working capital cycle and newly commissioned projects. WindForce expects to invest USD12 million for the 30% stake in a LOOMW solar project in Hambantota in FY25-FY27.

Moderate Leverage; Adequate Coverage:
We forecast WindForce’s EBITDA net leverage to rise to 2.5x in FY25 (QMFY24: 2.0x) and 4.2x in FY26 on higher capex. However, interest coverage should strengthen to 3.7x in FY25 (9YMFY24: 3.1x) due to falling domestic interest rates even as debt increases. Sri Lanka’s monthly Average Weighted Prime Lending Rate fell to 10% by end-April 2024, from the peak of 28% in December 2022. Around 70% of
WindForce’s loans carried variable rates as of end-2023.

Steady EBITDA Margin: We expect the EBITDA margin to remain around 70% in FY25-FY27. WindForce’s power purchase agreements (PPA) offer long-term cash flow visibility, with a weighted-average remaining contract life of around 12 years, but production volume is affected by seasonal and climatic patterns. This is mitigated by its diversified portfolio, comprising wind (74MW), solar (38MW) and hydro (15MW) power plants, totalling to 127MW excluding associates and joint ventures.

Derivation Summary

WindForce is rated two notches below domestic power producer and engineering, procurement and construction contractor Lakdhanavi Limited (‘‘A(Ika)/Stable). The difference is on account of Lakdhanavi’s larger operating scale, and geographic and business diversification.

Both Lakdhanavi and WindForce have significant exposure to CEB. However, Lakdhanavi has operations and maintenance (O&M) services, manufactures transformers and switchgears, and offers galvanizing services. We also believe CEB is likely to prioritise payments to Lakdhanavi in a stress scenario, given Lakdhanavi provides O&M services to one of Sri Lanka’s largest power plants, and is investing in a large liquefied natural gas power plant, both of which are critical to CEB’s future strategy.

Resus Energy PLC (BBB(Ika)/Stable), a domestic power producer, is rated one notch below WindForce. WindForce’s higher rating is driven by a comparatively better liquidity position with sufficient cash flow to cover near-term maturities and better diversification in power generation sources and geographies.

Vidullanka PLC (A+(Ika)/Stable) is a renewable power producer with operations in Sri Lanka (35MW) and Uganda (13MW). WindForce is rated three notches below Vidullanka, despite the latter’s smaller scale. Vidullanka has lower counterparty risk and lower exposure to CEB, as 80% of its EBIT came from its Uganda projects in FY23.

Key assumptions

Fitch’s Key Assumptions Within the Rating Case for WindForce:

– Revenue to increase by 14% in FY25, mainly driven by commissioning of 1OMW Kebithigollewa power plant and 15MW Hiruras power plant’s first full year of operation;

– EBITDA margin of around 70% in FY25 and FY26;

– Receivable days at 80 in FY25;

– Capex of LKR2.5 billion in FY25 and LKR6.0 billion in FY26;

– Investments of around LKR2.0 billion a year in FY25 and FY26 in associate companies;

– Dividend payout of 80% of prior year profit.

Rating sensitivities

Factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to positive rating action/upgrade

-A sustained and substantial reduction in counterparty risk, as reflected in a significant improvement in CEB’s credit profile.

Factors that could, individually or collectively, lead to negative rating action/downgrade

-Deterioration in liquidity, including due to delayed receivables collection or challenges in refinancing;

-EBITDA net leverage above 5.5x for a sustained period;

-EBITDA interest coverage below 1.5x for a sustained period.

Liquidity and debt structure

Liquidity Subject to Counterparty Health: WindForce’s liquidity is subject to timely collections of dues from CEB. It had around LKR2.9 billion readily available cash and cash equivalents as of end-2023, with around LKR6.3 billion of unused but uncommitted credit lines from domestic banks, against LKR2.2 billion of debt maturing in the next 12 months. Maturing debt mainly comprises the current portion of long-term debt obtained to fund the investments in its power plants.

We expect the company to generate negative FCF in the near-to-medium term due to high capex. However, WindForce has adequate access to domestic banks, as most banks are willing to provide longer-tenured facilities for the company’s operating power plants that have more than 10 years remaining under their PPAs.

Issuer profile

WindForce is a leading renewable power producer in Sri Lanka, with total installed power generation capacity of about 163MW (including its share of associates and joint ventures) as of end-March 2024.

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