There are winners and losers for every crisis. The new Finance Minister can definitely be a winner if he understands the problem and tackles the economic crisis upfront. He can become a success story if he does the right thing at the right time. Kumar Sangakkara in his Colin Cowdrey lecture said “In cricket, timing is everything”. It is the same for an economy. Sri Lanka is at the doorstep of an unprecedented economic crisis since independence. Both the Government and opposition have expressed views on this matter. However, if we fail to act now and make the right decisions, it is most likely that the crisis will fail us fair and square.
So today I am looking at discussing the possible solutions the new Finance Minister has at hand to overcome the situation.
First, we have to understand that we are already in a crisis. Importers and exporters are having obvious difficulties opening letters of credit (LCs) and people are buying gold to reduce the impact of currency depreciation and inflation on their money. Under these circumstances there is very little rationale in creating a picture that things are rosy. Our supply chains are also under severe turbulence due to adhoc Government interventions. This is further affecting our export capabilities. In our debt servicing, we have resorted to borrowing more with short term liquidity tools such as swaps and short term borrowings to repay our creditors.
Understanding the problem
As this column always highlighted, our economic problems are beyond debt serving and opening LCs. Those are just symptoms of the problem. Our economy is like a diabetic patient who has been living on high sugar with no exercise with a bad lifestyle for more than a few decades. Now the patient is in a coma and completely unconscious. This is a serious situation where we need some strong medication and a lifestyle change. Just a few pills of Vitamin C is not going to be sufficient to bring the patient back to some sort of normalcy.
The patient is diabetic because of a high inflow of sugar. Similarly, our economy is in the present crisis because of excessive Government expenditure on non-available resources. Simply, we do not have money to pay approximately 1.5 million Government workers, run an airline which costs about Rs. 24 billion just for four months which is almost half of our Samurdhi allocation for the year. We further do not have resources to run a petroleum corporation with losses of more than Rs. 100 billion, while continuing to depend on subsidised prices. Comparatively, the losses of the CPC are twice as high as our Samurdhi allocation which is an essential safety net for the country.
Secondly, we do not have the right institutions to manage economic governance. For example the debt numbers are parked all over SOEs (State Owned Enterprises). Such is the cost of mismanagement.
Thirdly, our economy is significantly unproductive. All our factor markets (Labour, Land, Capital) are completely inefficient with excessive regulation and protectionism coupled with rent seeking. As a result, in most industries our incentive structures are largely inefficient. Just take our judicial system. All stakeholders are incentivised to postpone the cases rather than reaching resolution quickly. Across other sectors the situation is the same or worse.
Like with the diabetic patient who is in a coma, in order to become better there has to be a lifestyle change. However before all that the patient has to be given immediate care to come out of the coma. This involves hospitalised care and the immediate medical treatment in order for the patient to be properly conscious. It is the same with our economy. At present no one is willing to lend us money as we haven’t proved that we are good for our money. Markets are not lending to us. Even the countries we have good relationships with and our decades-old international organisations are requesting some sort of an assurance to work with us. The only organisation who can provide some credibility and assistance is the IMF (International Monetary Fund). The IMF is not an alien body. Sri Lanka is a member of the IMF, and since the next day we formed our Central Bank and our Governor and the Minister of Finance, who are the representatives of this global body. The IMF has no magic formula but the Governor and the Finance Minister have to agree on an economic programme to establish transparency, accountability and make immediate but necessary adjustments. Simply, they will ask us to take measures to increase revenue and reduce expenditure. However, what is important is to make sure that the programme implemented by us is good enough and well disciplined and effective in order to prevent us going to the IMF again. We have gone to the IMF 16 times since we became a member of the IMF.
Secondly, in the short-term we have to let the price system work in the energy markets. Import of oil is our largest import and this needs to be priced properly. The market economy is nothing complex but is simply allowing the price system to work. There cannot be any magic formula for us to keep prices lower when the world market pieces are rising. Therefore allowing market prices to work will allocate the optimum utility for our resources.
Thirdly, we have to freeze Government recruitments and even offer a scheme for unproductive workers to leave which may help in some level to control expenditure. Currently 86 cents of every 1 rupee collected is taken away by the Government employees as their salaries. Needless to mention that it is not sustainable.
Implementing the above will give us some short term breathing space and prevent a full blown crisis. Same as the diabetes patient who was in a coma now became a little conscious. Then we have to make sure the patient does not go back to his old habits. So in the medium term setting up the right institutions for management of SOEs and restructuring and privatising some SOEs are of paramount importance.
At the same time allowing the price system to work requires strengthening our safety nets. The current Samurdhi programme is our main safety net programme which is a politically driven list. Those who deserve the Samurdhi are not in the list while those who have moved out of poverty are still in the list. So we have to have a digital Samurdhi system where cash transfers are prioritised. When market prices change there will be additional allowances added based on the price change and when prices go downwards those benefits will come down proportionately. So even the poorest in the society are given an opportunity to catch up and contribute back to the society and markets.
In the meantime deregulation of our factor markets as well as our product markets have to continue. The President appointed a commission to look into this and create a collective effort on deregulation of existing bureaucratic structures, regulations and proceedings.
By implementing these reforms the image and reputation of the country will be improved. As a result there will be a significant inflow of FDI.
Longer term solutions are similar to getting the diabetic patient to a healthy lifestyle. In the long run we have to provide a solution for our lands. Simply a digital land registry and transferring Government-owned land for productive use must be prioritised. Giving proper land titles will infuse more capital into the market and make our precious land more productive.
Similarly, our judiciary system has to be digitised and the resolving cases and contract enforcement has to be strengthened. Currently needless to mention our court system is very unproductive and inefficiency is rewarded.
In the meantime there has to be a better governance structure within the Central Bank to protect our currency. If we fail in our monetary policy the rest of the policies will fall apart.
Above are just a few recommendations. Given the nature of our problem there has to be strong medication. Serious economic reform along with making structural economic changes have to take place. Without reforms the chances of an economic recovery is unforeseeable. If the finance minister becomes a reformer, then all Sri Lankans will succeed and emerge victorious, when coming out of this crisis.