Changing Debt Profile of Sri Lanka 0 827

A Recent History

Over the recent past, the Sri Lankan general public has shown a great deal of interest in the subject of national debt. This has been due to expressions like the country’s “debt trap” and “debt crisis” used extensively in political debates and propaganda. The government in power as well as the opposition has blamed one another for bringing the country into such a debt trap or a debt crisis. A gripping fear of a possibility of debt default with all its adverse consequences has been widely generated. A generally accepted rule of thumb in measuring the gravity of a country’s debt problem has been to indicate the total outstanding debt as a ratio of the country’s GDP.

In this measure, the level of aggregated debt is related to a concept of total revenue generated during a financial year. Such national debt ratio can be considered equivalent to that of a corporate balance sheet ratio of debt to equity. Figure-1 captures the behavior of Sri Lanka’s Debt/GDP ratio during 2002-18. The data indicates that during key points in time, the debt levels have being significantly higher than what it is now. However, no one spoke of a debt crisis or debt trap at those times of high debt to GDP ratio – e.g. during the early 2000s. In fact, after 2004 the ratio has been generally below 100pct. In most years after 2004, the ratio was indeed below its current debt to GDP ratio of 83pct.

The total debt stock, as at 2018, remains at USD 73.7 billion. Of this the foreign currency debt is USD 36.4 billion – 49pct of total debt or 43.3pct of GDP. The remainder is LKR based debt stock. This is still manageable given that Sri Lanka can always roll over its existing LKR based debt without too much of a problem. The banking sector’s appetite for risk free assets is high and there are the captive sources like EPF and ETF. These indeed have been the natural long term players in debt markets.

Sri Lanka’s Shift to Commercial Borrowings

The portfolio of foreign currency loans is categorized into three sub sections, namely, a) concessional, b) non-concessional and c) commercial loans. Prior to 2013, 85pct of foreign borrowings was on concessional terms (see Figure-2). This has changed in 2009 with Sri Lanka successfully entering the international sovereign bond market in its debut. This also amounted to taking the pressure off domestic financing, which until then was the only source apart from donor funding that was available. The concessional external borrowings from multi-lateral agencies and bi-lateral funding sources have continued to be on a declining trend on a net basis since 2008.

Sri Lanka was pushed into international financial markets mainly due to the fact that concessional funding was not available after the country moved up to a lower ‘Middle Income’ country status from around 2004. In fact, IMF, IDA and the World Bank have taken Sri Lanka out of the “financially vulnerable” country status, on the grounds that the country as a ‘Middle Income Country’ has the ability to access international financial markets. Sri Lanka is not among the group of 37 ‘heavily indebted poor countries’ (HIPC), which are eligible for special assistance from the IMF and the World Bank.

As at 2018, Sri Lanka’s total foreign currency debt portfolio was USD 35.4 billion. Of this only USD 9.1 billion was obtained at commercial rates from financial market sources. The remainder is at concessional and non-concessional development funding rates. In other words 53pct of the foreign loans are commercial/non-concessional.

The foreign currency debt mix is dominated by USD borrowings given that our cash inflows from external revenue sources are also predominantly based in USD. This helps the country to manage any exchange rate volatility, as the matching of cash flows does not impact the debt servicing. In 2017, infact, 61pct of the total foreign debt portfolio comprised of USD, while the next largest was in SDR (20pct) followed by Yen loans (12pct) (Figure-3).

The bilateral debt component in Sri Lanka has contributed to modern infrastructure development much more than multilateral debt (i.e. WB). A closer examination of our foreign debt profile indicates that it has long term maturities. More than 75pct of the loan portfolio is maturing beyond 5 years (Figure-5). Market borrowings comprise only 39pct of the total. Refinancing of debt stock per se is not therefore, an issue. Debt servicing is the main concern.

External Debt Holders

The noise around the China debt trap too has found its resurgence since 2014. Given the investment into capital formation pursued by the then government, these investments were undertaken given the dilapidated and outdated infrastructure Sri Lanka had prior to the war ending. Therefore, such investments were paramount in order to create investor appetite for setting plants beyond the boundaries of the Western Province.

However, the data contradicts the China debt trap rhetoric created by politicians and non-academics as it is unsubstantiated and ill conceived; in fact the largest form of external debt is by way of International Bond issuances, while bilateral borrowings are from the ADB, World Bank, and Japan, while China comes in at 4th place (Figure-6). In this context what is important to understand is that all internal bonds are fungible and hence there is no financing risk but a mere cost of financing the stock of bonds.

Debt Servicing

Sri Lanka’s export earnings are one important source of cash flow which technically can be used to service the country’s current foreign debt. The higher the potential for foreign currency earnings through exports, the better it is. The country as potential lenders are unlikely then to be over-concerned about the borrower country’s capacity for repayment. International rating agencies would consider it good for Sri Lanka if our export earnings are growing on a year on year basis at a satisfactory rate. This also reduces the foreign exchange exposure attached with rupee based debt servicing.

Sri Lanka’s foreign currency denominated commercial debt as a percentage of exports, continued to show vulnerability as year on year growth of export earnings declined in 2009, 2012 and 2015. The volatility of our merchandise exports continue. The declines in export receipts (i.e. income) have added significant pressure on the ability to service foreign debt. This has made the cash flow conditions for foreign debt management per se challenging. The need is to secure USD cash flows/revenues from revenue generating activities and assets and / or cutting down USD import expenses further. This appears to be the path towards managing our ability to maintain this debt to equity mix.

Foreign Debt Servicing

The ratio of debt service ratio to merchandise exports is the ratio that gives us comfort on the ability to service our external debt payments (i.e. principal + interest). A country’s international finances are deemed healthier when this ratio is low and ranges between 10pct to 20pct. In other words, the lower the ratio the better, as it indicates that the country consumes less of export earnings to pay off its foreign debt. The ratio of total debt service payments to exports is therefore, an important measure of a country’s ability to service foreign currency loans/debt obligations. This ratio had remained well within the stipulated norms of 10pct-20pct from 2011 to 2015. The ratio has deteriorated, moving out of the applicable norm, from 2016reflecting the impact of bunching of repayments on medium term external debt. The decline of this ratio in 2018 reflects the impact of the rise in merchandise export revenues in that year.

By: Dr Kenneth De Zilwa

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BIZnomics Note Pad 0 515

China and India – the second and seventh largest economies in the world (two largest economies in Asia) – are slowing down in 2019. The GDP growth rate in China is expected to be 6.2 percent, down from 6.7 percent in 2018 – the weakest in 3 decades. The GDP growth rate of India is projected at 6.7 percent, down from 7.0 percent in 2018. Chinese policy makers are saddled with trade talks with the US government to remove the recently imposed two way high tariff while Indian policy reforms take a backseat in the backdrop of impending National Elections in June 2019.

British Prime Minister Theresa May suffered a setback as parliament voted against her BREXIT proposal. The loss throws more uncertainty on UK’s plan to leave the EU on March 29. The European Central Bank down grading its economic forecast for the Euro Zone for 2019 and 2020 due to persistent uncertainties and risks in the region, expect inflationary pressures to rise slowly as capacity diminishes.

The World Bank sees darkening prospects for global growth that will slow to 2.9 percent in 2019 in the backdrop of moderating international trade and investment, elevated trade tensions and tightening financial conditions. The World Bank observed that debt vulnerability in low income countries are rising. Debt to GDP ratio for low income countries have climbed and the composition of debt has shifted toward more expensive market based financing. The Bank suggests that these economies should focus on mobilizing domestic resources, strengthening debt and investment management practices, and building resilient macro fiscal frameworks.

Sri Lanka’s official reserves declined to USD 6,142 million by end of January 2019 from USD 6,919 million reported at the end of December 2018. Short term (within 01 year) liabilities on foreign currency assets remain at USD 6,547 million placing net reserve on a negative terrain. Selling rates of major currencies remained under pressure with import demand picking up in mid-February. The selling rate of the US dollar declined from Rs.180.28 on 15th February 2019 to Rs.177.59 a week ago.

US – China trade talks aimed at ending the use of new two way tariff continue in Washington following a no deal in the talks in Beijing during the second week of February. The US President has indicated that the March 01st deadline could be extended for an agreement to be reached. China and US have imposed duties on more than USD 360 million in the two way trade which has shaken the global economy.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) revealed that the GDP for South East Asia’s 5 major economies – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand – has declined from 5.1 percent in 2017 to 4.8 percent in 2018. The ADB highlights that South East Asia with 650 million people and one of the world’s fastest growing regions, faces several headwinds such as escalating US – China trade tensions and weakening local currencies.

By: Econsult

The Price We Pay For Not Understanding The ‘Price’ 0 798

In the book titled ‘Marx’s ‘Theory of price and its Modern Rivals’, Sri Lankan born and educated Prof. Howard Nicholas exposes the flaws in the many theoretical debates in money, price and inflation. This he does by revealing the inconsistencies and contradictions in economic theories submitted to explain price. This is nothing new in Sri Lanka and many developed countries attributable to the fact the certain economists, due to a false understanding, are misled on what price is all about. Therefore, let us examine this false interpretation and try to understand the real parts that from PRICE which we play in commerce.

According to Prof. Nicholas, Orthodox economists starting with David Ricardo have not quite understood the concept of ‘price’ and how it is computed. He argues that the explanation of price by Marx, who had a deep understanding of the capitalist system, is more logical and clear. To understand Price we have to first understand how commodities bearing a price tag are produced and marketed. Prof. Nicholas who refers to this process as the- Production Cycle’ explains that present day economists go astray since at the outset they focus only on the process of exchange, assuming individuals are naturally endowed with commodities. This mistake causes them to ignore cost of production and focus on individuals and their choices when explaining prices.

A second important point made by Prof. Nicholas in his book is that when explaining price, from the outset we need to bring money into the picture. This is, to explain prices as money- prices. When products calculate the values of their commodities, they do so in terms of money thereby setting money prices. Buyers of goods in markets make payment in accordance with these money- prices. According to economic orthodoxy, the prices that matters are relative prices. That is, the price of one product in terms of another and not in terms of money. In fact, although this may not be so apparent when reading standard economics text books, money has no role to play in the basic explanation of prices. It only makes its appearance when macro-economic phenomena, in particular the aggregate level of prices are considered.

The third major argument prof. Nicholas advances is that the basis for explanation of cost of production of the commodity as its money cost of production, needs to be seen as the labour time spent in production. This is what Marx referred to as the value of commodity. Labour time spent in production amounts to money costs, when money represents labour time by itself. This happens when money is used by producers, to depict the value of the product. The importance of explaining prices is perhaps best been by producers, to depict the value of the product. The importance of explaining prices is perhaps best seen by the present downward pressure on global prices, resulting from the massive technological change across the globe. Despite unprecedented levels of printing of currency by Central Bank of major countries, world inflation rate has continued to fall down. This underlines the importance of labour productivity in explaining price, and the incorrect explanation of money and price by economists. It may also be the clearest practical support for Marx’s price theory as seen by Prf. Nicholas

By : Dr Kenneth De Zilwa