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Tuesday May 28th, 2024

Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and COVID-19 pandemic reverses progress in SDGs – IPS

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s economic crisis and the effects of COVID-19 pandemic has made it difficult to finance Sustainable Development Goals reversing the progress the country made, a report said.

IPS said COVID-19 has reversed the progress particularly on poverty, inequality, and decent work.

“Financing SDGs has become the biggest challenge for Sri Lanka, becoming even tighter following Sri Lanka’s inability to access international bond markets after the sovereign default in April 2022,” a report by Institute of Policy Studies based in Colombo said.

“Given the enormous challenges to achieving the SDGs, those related to poverty and inequality; food security; economic growth and decent work; health and education; and energy must be prioritised.”

Full statement reproduced below:

Sri Lanka and the SDGs: Impacts of COVID-19 and the Economic Crisis
From IPS’ flagship publication, ‘Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2022’

• COVID-19 reversed Sri Lanka’s progress across several SDGs, particularly on poverty, inequality, and decent work.
• Similarly, the economic crisis is likely to adversely affect the SDG progress and pose several new challenges to their achievement by 2030.
• Financing SDGs has become the biggest challenge for Sri Lanka, becoming even tighter following Sri Lanka’s inability to access international bond markets after the sovereign default in April 2022.
• Given the enormous challenges to achieving the SDGs, those related to poverty and inequality; food security; economic growth and decent work; health and education; and energy must be prioritised.
• Resource mobilisation to secure both traditional and non-traditional SDG financing, including attracting private investments to SDGs, is vital.

Since adopting the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in 2015, successive Sri Lankan governments have taken measures to achieve the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 targets. Before COVID-19 struck, Sri Lanka recorded progress across several SDG targets, most notably: ending poverty and hunger (SDGs 1 and 2); improving access to health and education (SDGs 3 and 4); promoting gender equality and decent work, and reducing inequalities (SDGs 5, 8 and 10). The pandemic, however, reversed these advances, particularly on the SDGs related to poverty, inequality, and decent work. Similarly, the economic crisis is likely to adversely affect the SDG progress and pose several new challenges to their achievement by 2030. Against this backdrop, this Policy Insight discusses the impacts of the pandemic and the implications of the current financial crisis on SDGs in Sri Lanka, paying special attention to the SDGs related to poverty and inequality.

Impacts of COVID-19 and the Economic Crisis

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted many of the 17 SDGs, with some goals including SDG 1 on poverty backsliding the progress made over the past decade. As with other countries, Sri Lanka also reported notable adverse effects of the pandemic on the lives and livelihoods of its population, especially the poor and the vulnerable. While the pandemic has impacted many SDGs, and all three dimensions of sustainable development – economic, social, and environmental – the adverse effects on some SDGs, especially those related to poverty, food security, health, education and employment are more prominent.

Despite the setbacks during the pandemic (2020-2021), Sri Lanka has improved its overall SDG performance since 2016, as indicated by the SDG Index. As per the Sustainable Development Report 2022, Sri Lanka, with an SDG Index of 70, is ranked 76 among 163 countries. This is close to the overall SDG performance of Malaysia (SDG Index of 70.4) and ahead of countries like the Philippines, India, Bangladesh and Indonesia (see Figure 1). Moreover, the SDG Index for Sri Lanka is only slightly lower than the average for upper-middle countries (71.5%) and considerably higher than the average for lower-middle-income countries (61.8%), as well as the East and South Asian average (65.9%).

Figure 1

However, the progress of individual SDGs indicates major challenges to achieving several SDGs, including SDG 2 (zero hunger), SDG 3 (health), SDG 6 (water and sanitation), SDG 7 (energy) and SDG 9 (industry, innovation, and infrastructure), despite their moderate performance. Furthermore, SDG 8 on decent work and SDG 5 on gender equity and SDGs 15-17 have been stagnant in their progress, indicating significant challenges to achieve them by 2030. Only a few SDGs, such as those on education (SDG 4) and climate change (SDG 13), are shown to be still on track to achieve the goals on time. Nevertheless, Sri Lanka’s economic crisis will adversely affect the SDG progress and pose several new challenges to their achievement by 2030.

A combination of many factors caused the economic crisis, including the lack of foreign reserves, disruptions to the tourism industry starting from the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019 and the pandemic in 2020, tax cuts that resulted in a significant decline in government revenue and rising crude oil prices partly related to the Russia-Ukraine War and associated sanctions. While the economic crisis has affected the country’s entire population in some way or another, the poor and the ‘near poor’ are the most hit by the crisis. With high inflation, shortage of food and other essentials, and loss of livelihoods, the economic crisis is likely to reverse progress on the SDGs.

Poverty and Inequality
A World Bank study estimates that 500,000 people have fallen into poverty due to the pandemic. This has led to an increase in the USD 3.20 poverty rate from 9.2% in 2019 to 11.7% in 2020, implying a reversal in progress made towards poverty reduction in Sri Lanka since 2016. The study further finds that the extreme poverty level nearly doubled in 2020 from its 2019 levels (from 0.7% to 1.2%), and the poverty gap too has increased, indicating that the poor have become even poorer due to the pandemic. The study stresses the impact on employment such as job losses and a fall in earnings as the main contributory factors to the increased poverty rates.

Further, the World Bank’s Macro Poverty Outlook for Sri Lanka (2022) estimates poverty levels to have fallen slightly in 2021 from their 2020 level, but the forecast remains above the 2019 level for the next few years. However, the current economic crisis, especially soaring prices of food, fuel and other essential goods, along with adverse impacts on the livelihoods of many workers – particularly, the informal sector workers – means the risks of higher poverty are high. The poverty level can be expected to rise further in 2022, reversing the much-achieved progress in poverty reduction seen over the years.

Financing SDGs is Key Challenge

Financing SDGs has become the biggest challenge for Sri Lanka. On the domestic front, government expenses increased with the pandemic while revenues plummeted, primarily due to tax cuts introduced in 2019. On the external front, foreign income earnings from remittances and tourism dropped. Economic shocks such as the Russia-Ukraine crisis continue to disrupt the global economy, worsening the global macroeconomic climate. Other inflows, such as FDI into the country, have also reduced post-COVID-19 as the economic uncertainties have mounted. Financing has become even tighter following Sri Lanka’s inability to access international bond markets after the selective default of foreign debt payments in April 2022. All these issues have widened the financing gap to achieve SDGs.

Conclusions and Policy Implications

Given the complexity of SDGs and the enormous challenges to achieving them, it is desirable to prioritise the targets that are deemed most important. Prioritisation must be based on the country’s development needs and trade-offs between the targets. Given the enormous financial constraints and adverse implications of the economic crisis, it would be essential to prioritise SDGs related to poverty and inequality (SDG 1 and 10), food security (SDG 2), economic growth and decent work (SDG 8), health (SDG 3) education (SDG 3) and energy (SDG7). While various goal-specific measures are required to accelerate the progress of SDGs, some key steps are:

Securing Financing
Sri Lanka needs to prioritise resource mobilisation for traditional and non-traditional SDG financing.

Traditional SDG Financing: Domestic resource mobilisation is essential if Sri Lanka is to progress on SDGs. Generally, traditional SDG financing includes government financing and ODA from foreign governments. In Sri Lanka’s case, ODA has also been on a declining trend as it moved up the income ladder, while foreign aid now rightly focuses on covering the essential needs of the people first (e.g. food security, social protection, healthcare, power/fuel). In the medium term, however, there needs to be more emphasis on financing other SDGs, especially those related to education, employment, industry, innovation, and infrastructure. Attracting private investment to SDGs, too, will be vital.

Non-traditional SDG Financing: The Roadmap for Sustainable Finance in Sri Lanka, developed by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL), highlights some non-traditional instruments in SDG financing. These include green bonds specific to development projects based on environmental protection and climate change. Capital markets have recently become a driving force towards a sustainable future. Sri Lankan companies can explore the Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) bonds market. However, green bonds and ESG financing focus on the environment. Sri Lanka needs to expand spending on critical areas such as poverty alleviation (SDG 1), food security (SDG 2) and healthcare (SDG 3). Strengthening multilateral and bilateral partnerships would be crucial, particularly given the lack of fiscal space.

Strengthening Partnerships
Multistakeholder engagement – including government agencies, the private sector, and civil society organisations – is key to achieving SDGs and ensuring an inclusive process. Moreover, enhancing regional and global partnerships to mobilise and share knowledge, expertise, technology, and financial resources is crucial to supporting the achievement of SDGs.

South-South cooperation is also an avenue that needs to be further explored by Sri Lanka. Regional cooperation can help accelerate the progress of several SDGs, in particular, SDGs related to food security (SDG 2), health (SDG 3), energy (SDG 7), decent work (SDG 8) and climate action (SDG 13).

Addressing Data Deficits
While Sri Lanka has made much progress in terms of liaising with the relevant agencies to compile the required data, the lack of more up-to-date data at regular intervals (e.g. annual basis) and lack of disaggregated data (by gender, location, age, etc.) for many SDGs is a significant drawback for monitoring. Given these data gaps, improving the availability of high-quality, timely, reliable, and appropriately disaggregated data for SDGs is important. This requires enhancing the capacity of relevant agencies as well as strengthening partnerships among various stakeholders. There is also some scope for enhancing regional cooperation to improve statistical capacity in Sri Lanka and share knowledge and experience among these countries.

*This Policy Insight is based on the comprehensive chapter “Crises and Recovery: Meeting the 2030 Agenda on SDGs” in the ‘Sri Lanka: State of the Economy 2022’ report – the annual flagship publication of the Institute of Policy Studies of Sri Lanka (IPS). The complete report can be purchased from the Publications Unit of IPS located at 100/20, Independence Avenue, Colombo 07 and leading bookshops island-wide. For more information, contact 011-2143107 / 077-3737717 or email: publications@ips.lk.
To download more POLICY INSIGHTS from IPS, visit: https://www.ips.lk/publications/policy-insights.

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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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