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Saturday January 28th, 2023

Sri Lanka’s 21st amendment to constitution an eyewash: opposition TNA legislator

TNA MP M A Sumanthiran/Facebook

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s 21st amendment to the constitution is an eyewash that has not stripped the office of the executive president of any of its powers as promised, opposition Tamil National Alliance (TNA) legislator M A Sumanthiran said.

Speaking in parliament during the second reading of the 2023 budget on Tuesday November 22, Sumanthiran said the 21st amendment allows the president to hold any number of ministerial portfolios, contrary to assurances made that it would serve as a check on the excesses of Sri Lanka’s all powerful executive presidency.

“This amendment was just an eyewash. It really did not make anything independent in this country. Nor did it strip the presidency of any executive powers,” said the MP.

The Jaffna district opposition lawmaker said that, since 2010, he has opposed the president – who is not an MP – holding the finance portfolio.

“When a person who is not a member of this house presents the budget, it seriously curtails this house’s ability to be in total control of public finance as the constitution stipulates in article 148,” he said.

Article 148 of Sri Lanka’s constitution reads: “Parliament shall have full control over public finance. No tax, rate or any other levy shall be imposed by any local authority or any other public authority, except by or under the authority of a law passed by parliament or of any existing law.”

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s holding the finance portfolio, said Sumanthiran, exposes the lie that the 21st amendment would be doing away with the 20th amendment and would be a return to the 19th amendment.

The 21st amendment, passed with 179 votes in a 225-member assembly, largely sought to do away with the previous major constitutional amendment, the controversial 20th amendment brought by the two-thirds majority government of Sri Lanka’s ousted ex-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa. The 20th had removed many of the checks and balances established by the 19th amendment, widely regarded to be one of Sri Lanka’s most progressive attempts at reform. President Wickremesinghe was then prime minister under then President Maithripala Sirisena, whose Yahapalana Government fulfilled an election pledge by introducing the 19th amendment aimed at curtailing the powers of the office of the president.

“Under the 19th amendment, the president could not hold any ministry, not even the ministry of defence. For the tenure of that president at that time – personal to him, to Hon Maithripala Sirisena, three named ministries were permitted in the transitional provision. Thereafter the president could not hold any ministries. But now the president can hold any number of ministries. In fact, he can hold all the ministries,” said Sumanthiran.

“This is another occasion in which we can expose that lie to the country, that some reform was made, that executive powers curtailed through the 21st amendment. No, no such thing was done,” he added.

Sumanthiran voted against the 21st amendment bill, despite the main opposition Samagi Jana Balawegaya (SJB) deciding to vote for the bill.

“Even the one positive thing that is being touted is the reestablishment of the constitutional council. That too we pointed out is a political body. It’s not the council of the 17th amendment. More members are from this house, which makes it political. And that body is tasked with appointing, amongst others, independent commissions,” the MP said.

Sumanthiran referred to a fresh controversy regarding a widely questioned move by the chairman of the police commission who had allegedly welcomed former Finance Minister Basil Rajapaksa when he returned to Sri Lanka after a private visit to the US. Opposition lawmakers and others have accused Basil Rajapaksa of being responsible for Sri Lanka’s present economic woes, and thousands of people took to the streets demanding his resignation along with that of his brother President Gotabaya Rajapaksa.

“The last couple of days we found how this supposed independent commission chairman has behaved. We saw the national police commission chairman going to the VIP lounge to receive a person who was chased out of this country for fraud, for large scale corruption. And who else but the chairman of the national police commission is there bowing to and welcoming him back,” said Sumanthiran.

“A few days before that, we heard the chairman of the office of missing persons saying that only a few people went missing and that all of them are missing abroad. That very office was established to investigate missing persons. And the government commissions – there are many – all of them have reported that over 20,000 have gone missing. That’s a conservative number. The chairman of the office appointed to this supposedly independent office says nobody has gone missing,” said the MP.

Justice Minister Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, said Sumanthiran, had explained the commission chairman’s remark as him not understanding the government’s prioritisation of reconciliation efforts.

“That creates another problem. Why should an independent commission chairman know what the government’s priorities are if he’s independent? Why should he comply with what the government wants to do? The government may not want to do that tomorrow. The government changes its mind day to day. But if this is an independent office, he has been tasked by law to investigate these tens of thousands of disappearances in the country and this is what he says. (Colombo/Nov22/2022)

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Sri Lanka utility to continue power cuts, regulator says no

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s state-run Ceylon Electricity Board has decided to continue power cuts, as the dry season hits the country despite orders to give 24 hours of power.

The utility said its Board “has decided to continue the demand management programme” and it has informed the regulator of this decision on January 27.

The Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka said it had not approved the power cuts “as it violate and affect the rights of 331,000 students sitting for the Advanced Level exams.”

Sri Lanka’s CEB has high running costs due to long term scuttling of planned coal plants by activists and lastly President Maithripala Sirisena.

‘CEB’s costs went up as demand went up since the last coal plant opening and steady collapse of the currency from 131 to 182 to the US dollar due to open market operations unleashed to suppress rates and operate a flexible inflation targeting by the central bank.

Even more aggressive liquidity injections after 2020 to target an output gap then busted the currency from 182 to 360 to the US dollar.

CEB has to use extra fuel from around February to April 2022 as the dry season hits reducing hydro power.

Sri Lanka’s Human Rights Commission has ordered the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation to supply fuel and banks to give credit for extra power.

Power Minister Kanchana Wijesekera has alleged that CPC officials agreed under duress and threat of jail sentence to supply fuel.

The CEB has to cut power in case demand outstrips supply to maintain frequency at 50 Hz to avoid cascading failures, according to sector analysts. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka president suspends parliament till Feb 08

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka President Ranil Wickremesinghe has suspended parliament till February 08, according to a gazette notice.

Parliament will re-convene at 1000 am on January 08.

President Wickremesinghe told party leaders that he would make a speech, officially declaring his intention to give effect to the 13th amendment to the constitution on provincial councils.

Provincial councils, a power sharing arrangement backed by India as a solution to the ethnic Tamil have not yet been given police and land powers. (Colombo/Jan28/2023)

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Sri Lanka, other defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators: Expert

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka other recently defaulting nations have widely differing debt indicators, and some other countries survive with even higher levels of debt, a US based analyst has said.

“If you look at the ratio of debt to GDP, the size of the economy the number is very high, mostly because there has been a lot of depreciation, so the debt in dollars keeps growing relative to GDP,” Sergai Lanau, Deputy Chief Economist at Washington based Institute of International Finance said.

“This is sometimes over-emphasized… but this ratio at 120 is a lot.”

He was speaking at a forum organized by the Bar Association of Sri Lanka.

“Just for a reference point about 6 or 7 years ago Italy’s debt was 120 percent GDP, there was a lot of concern in the Euro area and that is a country that has the ECB. So Sri Lanka at 120 is a lot.”

Italy however is in a monetary union with Euro which is a floating exchange rate without anchor conflicts and forex shortages and basic external payment problems.

Sri Lanka is trying to bring the ratio down to 95 percent by 2032 under an International Monetary Fund backed program, according to a leaked letter from India.

“Typically for many years there was as lot of emphasis on debt ratios, when people looked at debt restructuring – or at least economists,” Lanau said.

“And that is something that always puzzled bond traders who came from the corporate sector. For them it is all about the flows and gross financing needs.

“The IMF has shifted its focus a lot financing needs over the years and it is a less of a problem now.”

Ghana has defaulted and it is trying to reduce its debt from around 90 percent to below 60 percent by 2028. It is starting at a much lower level and correcting within a shorter period to an even lower level.

Sri Lanka’s debt ratio is high but it “may or may not be a constraint”, he said.

What the … was that?

The IMF’s default workout framework is a work in progress, which has changed over the years since mass defaults hit market market countries which were denied monetary stability through intermediate regimes especially in Latin America from the early 1980s.

Until 1980, when the so-called BBC policy (now called exchange rate as the first line of defence) where countries were encouraged to bust their currencies instead of withdrawing inflationary policy, sovereign defaults were not a problem.

“During the 1970s, the risk of sovereign default was not perceived as a major concern,” the IMF itself admits.

“Most “external arrears” generated by a country were created by exchange restrictions. For example, an importer might miss a payment because the authorities were slow to release foreign exchange.

“Sovereign default had not been a problem since the Second World War.

“Therefore, the IMF’s policy framework was not equipped to confront the complications that arose in the context of the sovereign debt difficulties that emerged in the 1980s.

“In fact, it took until 1980 for the IMF’s Executive Board even to agree that a default on sovereign debt should also be covered under the external arrears policy.”

Washington based policy circles began to prescribe, inconsistent, anchor conflicting intermediate regimes with aggressive open market operations to anyone who was willing to listen after the Fed floated, in the false belief that currencies fell due to ‘overvaluation’ and not liquidity injections.

Countries like Sri Lanka where there is no doctrinal foundation in sound money and no knowledge of classical monetary theory, were easy prey, critics say.

East Asia and Japan rejected such regimes. Malaysia is a prime example which despite not having a legal hard peg, fixed itself, repaid debt ahead of time, when tin and other commodity prices collapsed in the wake of Volcker tightening, while Latin America defaulted.

Elephant in the Room

A country with a soft pegged central bank (flexible exchange rate or intermediate regime) will see debt rocket each time it suppresses interest rates to target a policy rate and triggers a currency crisis.

Once a currency crisis hits, on one had the domestic currency value of external debt which is denominated in dollars protecting sovereign bond holders, goes up.

Interest rates of domestic debt also have to go up to stop the money printing and halt forex shortages which can widen the overall deficit in the short term.

The currency collapse also kills purchasing power and the real economy slows or contracts.

Once the credibility of the exchange rate has been lost, due to excess money injected the country loses the ability to settle both imports and debt repayment by exchanging domestic money for dollars.

The reserves (savings of past years) are used for current imports and debt repayments more money is injected to sterilize the interventions to maintain the policy rate, reserves collected over several years are run down in a few months.

Falling reserves, a depreciating currency then trigger rating downgrades (usually due to so-called exchange rate of as the first line of defence which saw downgrades in 2018 and 2020 in Sri Lanka) and sovereign bond as yields soar, and market access is lost, triggering a default.

As reserves dwindle further due to holding the policy rate with new money, more downgrades follow.

Countries with flexible exchange rates/flexible inflation targeting with market access can default at virtually any level of debt, critics say.

Market Access

Sri Lanka’s debt to GDP ratio shot up over 100 percent and lost almost all its reserves following a currency crisis in 2000/2001.

But at the time (or in earlier soft-peg crises in 1988/89 and earlier) the country did not have market access and bullet repayment debt.

In Sri Lanka bonds are big part of the country’s debt.

“Once you have lost market access there is virtually no level of gross financing needs that is sustainable,” Lanau said.

Analysts say the once market access has been lost, and the IMF declares that debt is unsustainable, which blocks the World Bank and ADB from giving loans, default is almost certain.

Argentina which has the archetypal soft-pegged Latin America central bank, which sterilizes interventions, strikes zeros off the peso at intervals and get into forex trouble.

“The country got into an IMF program in mid-2018, it was a very optimistic set of IMF targets, policy adjustments,” Lanau said.

“And this IMF program did not work and the situation got critical in August 2019 at which point Argentina defaulted.”

In March 2020 the IMF had presented a debt sustainability analysis where it was expected to to get its debt to 40 percent of GDP by 2030 and foreign exchange debt service to 3 percent of GDP, Lanau said, compared to 4.5 percent for Sri Lanka to make debt sustainable.

Ecuador which had a successful pre-emptive debt re-structuring, had debt levels of around 60 percent when it went talked to bond holders.

It was an ‘easy re-structuring, Lanau said.

It was a “lot about a bunch of maturities coming due in very few years as opposed to a very high debt ratio or a situation that was very unsustainable economically.”

Ecuador however is a dollarized country where its central bank effectively died in the 1990s after the sucre collapsed to 25,000 to the US dollar.

The Central Bank of Ecuador is no longer capable of creating forex shortages or driving the people to starvation and external debt is effectively in domestic currency.

Ecuador’s gross financing needs are now down to around mid single digits, while Sri Lanka’s has shot up to around 30 percent of GDP following the currency collapse.

Ecuador central bank was set up by Edwin Kemmerer, a US money doctor, with a gold peg (no obstinate policy rate) but was corrupted in 1947 by Robert Triffin, a US Keynesian who set up Argentina style central banks in several Latin America countries that frequently defaulted from the 1980s.

Sri Lanka’s central bank was also set up in 1950 by a US money doctor with broadly similar sterilizing powers.

Sri Lanka also started to depreciate the currency from around 1980 without withdrawing inflationary policy (an earlier re-incarnation of first line of defence strategy) triggering strikes, social unrest but no sovereign default due to lack of market access.

Sovereign defaults were mostly absent during the Bretton Woods era even in Latin America when countries maintained their pegs more or less with complementary monetary policy and the IMF also supported external anchors.

However after 1980 when the US tightened policy under Chairman Paul Volcker there were widespread defaults in pegged Latin American countries which did not hike rates in tandem or sterilized interventions (resisted the BOP) trying to operate independent monetary policy.

Latin America countries including Argentina that suffer currency crises typically have revenues to GDP of around 20 to 30 percent, overall deficits of around 5 to 6 percent (or even surpluses) when the central bank plunges the country into chaos and default by sterilizing outflows and trying to extend the credit cycle beyond that of the Fed.

Now there are a number of market access countries in Africa and Asia with reserve collecting central bank which are trying to operate flexible inflation targeting, another monetary policy which are in conflict with the balance of payments which are ripe for serial currency crises and default.

Clean floating central bank do not use foreign reserves for imports nor collects them. (Colombo/Dec27/2022)

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