Belated economic reforms: Lankans to swallow more ‘painful medicine’

‘Accumulated issues in the past have now exploded

‘Time has come to put the house in order’

‘Dismal fiscal sector has caused imbalances in the macro-economy’

‘Engagement with IMF, a starting point in implementing critical reforms’

by Sanath Nanayakkare

The Ministry of Finance (MOF) said last week that Sri Lanka urgently needs to undertake difficult, but much needed and far-reaching reforms to address the accumulated and persistent issues in the country’s fiscal sector.

In a report titled ‘Fiscal Sector: Present Situation and Way Forward’, MOF pointed out that dismal fiscal sector performance has caused many imbalances in the macro-economy.

“Exceptionally low tax revenue, rigid recurrent expenditure, a large budget deficit, an accumulated and now unsustainable debt are the key concerns in the fiscal sector. Responsible and disciplined fiscal management has become more important than ever. In this process, the country and its citizens will have to go through a period of difficulty,” MOF warned.

The report further said:

“A strong social protection network is required for the vulnerable and needy segments as reforms will be painful.”

“The time has come to put the “house in order” and revamp the government’s fiscal operations to strengthen macroeconomic stability and facilitate economic growth in the medium to long term.”

“Deficit financing poses a critical challenge due to the shortfall of foreign financing following the loss of international capital market access. The resulting rise in monetary financing has caused severe macroeconomic imbalances.”

“The dismal performance of the fiscal sector over the years has contributed to macroeconomic instability and failed to support long-term growth. The excess aggregate demand generated by unsustainable fiscal deficits has resulted in elevated inflation, pressure on the balance of payments (BOP) and currency volatility.”

“Sri Lanka today is facing a severe BOP crisis with insufficient foreign exchange to buy essential imports such as food, energy,and pharmaceuticals, let alone meeting its debt service obligations. Sound macroeconomic fundamentals cannot be achieved without prudent and sustainable fiscal outcomes.”

“Accumulated issues in the past have now exploded and caused severe disruptions to the day-to-day lives of Sri Lankans, leading to widespread public displeasure and social unrest.”

“The fiscal sector performance in the recent past is characterised by exceptionally low government revenue, rigid recurrent expenditure, high budget deficits, and accumulated debt which is now unsustainable. The weak fiscal position has manifested in credit rating downgrades, loss of access to international capital markets and foreign financing. As a result, the government has increasingly relied on domestic financing of the budget, including monetary financing by the Central Bank, in turn leading to significant macroeconomic imbalances.”

“Government revenue declined particularly sharply in the last two years due to various reasons including the economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, import restrictions imposed to ease the external sector pressure, but

most importantly, due to the ultra-low tax regime introduced in late 2019 and COVID-19 related easing measures in early 2020. Even before these tax cuts, Sri Lanka was a country with one of the lowest revenue-to-GDP ratios in the world, and the tax cuts drove Sri Lanka closer to the bottom of this list.”

“The government’s decision to seek the assistance of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) will be a starting point and a catalyst in implementing these critical reforms with the support of the citizens and other stakeholders.”

While acknowledging the fact that government fiscal operations have played an important role in improving economic and social conditions in Sri Lanka during its post-independence history, MOF went on to say that, “Failure to implement required policy reforms at this critical juncture will be very costly. However, it will lay a strong foundation to create a resilient economy for future generations.”

Central Bank Governor Dr. Nandalal Weerasinghe said on Friday that the Central Bank has taken measures required to stabilize the economy by taking the right monetary policy measures in terms of price adjustments and by increasing policy rates.

“Now, the fiscal side also needs implementing critical measures such as increasing state revenue by way of raising taxes. There is complete understanding on improving macro-economic fundamentals and decisions will be made to address the BOP issue, debt sustainability and enhancing state revenue in order to turn around the economy to a more resilient one,” he said.

The Governor noted that sooner the social and political stability were restored, the better it would be for stabilizing the economy and shifting it to growth path.

In September 2020, responding to a downgrade in credit ratings from Moody’s, a global rating agency, from a B2 to a Caa1, Sri Lanka’s Finance Ministry hit back claiming that such a report was ‘unwarranted, premature and reckless’.

In November 2021, former governor of the Central Bank Ajith Nivard Cabraal said that debt restructuring was underway without assistance from IMF and said, “We have to manage our debt without using the word ‘restructuring’ in a frivolous manner.”

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