17 November, 2018

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Belated Transfer Of CB Back To Finance Ministry Is Welcome, But Some More Follies To Be Rectified

By W A Wijewardena –

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

CB and state banks taken away from Finance Ministry

A confusing folly committed by the new government in January 2015 happened to be the listing of the Central Bank and other financial institutions away from the Ministry of Finance.

This was going against the tradition and also against the legal order. Thus, the Central Bank and related institutions were listed under the new Ministry of Policy Planning and Economic Affairs which functioned under the Prime Minister. Similarly, the state banks whose ownership is legally vested with the Secretary to the Treasury were listed under the Ministry of Public Enterprise Reforms.

This was an awkward arrangement that defied all logical thinking. As owners of the state banks, it was the Minister of Finance who was responsible for state banks. Yet, the new arrangement had effectively clipped his powers, making him accountable by law for things done or not done by his leader in government, namely, the Prime Minister.

Government displaying deafness on expert views

After this illogical allocation of institutions under different ministries was announced, this writer immediately drew the attention of the Government to its folly. In an article published in January 2015 under this series, this writer pointed out that the listing of the Central Bank under the Prime Minister was both legally and operationally unworkable.

This was because though it has been listed under the Prime Minister, the Central Bank has to do all its dealings by law with the Minister of Finance. Though macroeconomic management had been assigned to the Prime Minister under the new arrangement, he could not do it effectively since the two arms involving such management, namely, the fiscal policy and the monetary policy, had been under the Ministry of Finance and an independent Monetary Board, respectively. Hence, the Prime Minister as the Minister in charge of the CB was a usurper.

Macroeconomic management needs joint action

The objective macroeconomic policy is to maintain the total demand in the economy, also known as aggregate demand, at a level equal to total supply known as aggregate supply. But if the Ministry of Finance follows an expansionary fiscal policy then the aggregate demand will increase, defeating the objective of the tight monetary policy pursued by the Central Bank. With increased aggregate demand over aggregate supply, the economy will get overheated, making price stability a difficult goal and causing a consequential fall in the exchange rate.

Hence, both the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank will have to work very closely if they want to do proper macroeconomic management. To facilitate this close working arrangement, the Monetary Law Act has provided for the Secretary of the Ministry of Finance to sit on the Monetary Board functioning as a conduit for such cooperation. Hence, the umbilical cord connecting the Central Bank with the Ministry of Finance cannot be severed by a mere delisting of the bank from the Ministry.

Increasing the aggregate supply is not a function of the CB, but of the PM. Hence, when the PM took over the CB, he took over control of both aggregate demand and aggregate supply which cannot be done by the same institution. That is why in all the countries an autonomous central bank has been created to control aggregate demand in line with the changes in the aggregate supply. This was the macroeconomic anomaly created by the new government by listing CB under PM.

Apart from this, there are legal and operational issues created by the new arrangement.

Minister of Finance to be conduit of communications

It was also pointed out that from a legal point, the Minister of Finance in no way can divorce himself from the functions of the Central Bank. Thus, the Central Bank’s relationship with the government is through the Minister of Finance though it has not been explicitly spelt out in the Monetary Law Act.

But, in many recent central banking legislations such as those found in Bhutan or Nepal, it has been explicitly provided for that the government should communicate with the central bank only through the Minister of Finance.

In the inverse, the central bank too cannot directly communicate with the government and it has to do so through the Minister of Finance. Hence, the Minister of Finance is the protective barrier between the government and a central bank that assures its independence and thereby helps it to attain its goals.

The Monetary Law Act which is the legislation governing the Central Bank has stipulated the role of the Minister of Finance in relation to the Bank.

Minister’s role in key appointments to the Central Bank

Section 12 stipulates that the Governor is appointed by the President on the recommendation of the Minister of Finance. The three private members are appointed to the Monetary Board by the President again on the recommendation of the Minister of Finance in terms of Section 8(2)(c).

The salary of the Governor is also fixed by the President on the Finance Minister’s recommendation as per Sections 12(3). Under Section 14(2), the allowances payable to the other Board members are directly fixed by the Minister in consultation with the President. The concurrence of the Minister is needed for the Monetary Board to appoint Deputy Governors to the bank, as per Section 22. The Minister’s concurrence is also needed for the Monetary Board to release a Deputy Governor to serve in the government or as a director of a bank according to Section 23(3).

The Minister also has powers to recommend the removal of the Governor or private Monetary Board members (Section 16) to the President under circumstances stipulated in the section under reference. Similarly, the concurrence of the Minister is needed for the Monetary Board to remove a Deputy Governor under Section 23(2).

CB’s reports to the Minister 

There are a number of reports which the Central Bank has to submit to the Minister of Finance in terms of the Monetary Law Act: Annual Report of the Bank (Section 35(1)); a special confidential report whenever there are abnormal changes in the money supply or price level or economic disturbances threatening the monetary stability (Section 64(1)); continuation of the submission of those reports until the country is free from such threats (Section 64(3)); a special confidential report whenever there is a serious decline in international reserves (Section 68(1); a special confidential report before 15 September of every year to enable the Minister to prepare the annual budget (Section 116).

Currencies are Finance Minister’s prerogatives

The currency issue is a joint exercise done by both the Minister of Finance and the Central Bank under the Monetary Law Act. Every currency note issued by the Central Bank shall have the signature of the Minister of Finance in facsimile (Section 53(2)).

The Minister’s approval is needed for the Central Bank to prescribe the denominations, dimensions, designs, inscriptions and other characteristics of currency notes (Section 53(1)). A similar approval of the Minister is needed for the coins to be issued by the Central Bank in respect of metals, fineness, weight, size, designs, denominations and other characteristics (Section 53(3)).

A new Section 52A has been introduced to the Monetary Law Act in 1998 requiring the Minister to approve of the issue of commemorative notes and coins.

Section 39(c) stipulates that if the Monetary Board decides to transfer a part of its profits to the Government, the manner in which it should be done should be decided in consultation with the Minister. The Minister of Finance cannot issue directives to the Central Bank as in the case of other public sector institutions.

Yet, in terms of Section 116(2), if there is a difference of opinion between the Minister and the Monetary Board about the appropriate policy to be taken, the Minister can direct the Board to adopt the policy he prescribes by taking responsibility for the consequences of such direction.

Finance Minister’s powers are inalienable

This list is not exhaustive and does not cover the powers, duties and obligations of the Minister of Finance under other legislations such as the Exchange Control Act or the Banking

Act. However, they are all inalienable and therefore, the Minister is responsible to Parliament and to the nation for them. It may be an awkward position for the Minister of Finance to be responsible for work for which he has no role to play. Hence, though the objective of listing the Central Bank under PM is laudable, it is not workable under the prevailing legal structure. It will get into serious trouble in the event of a recalcitrant person occupying the portfolio of finance.

However, despite these representations, the Government continued to list both the Central Bank and the state banks in ministries other than the Ministry of Finance even after the general elections in August 2015. It compelled the Monetary Board and the top central bank officers to serve two masters which was an impossible task given their legal obligations.

A lost chance to rectify the folly 

When the new Finance Minister was appointed in mid-2017, the issue was raised again by this writer in another article in this series. In an article published in June 2017, it was pointed out that asking a wing-clipped Finance Minister to fly without the Central Bank and state banks under him was an impossible thing to do.

The article further argued as follows: “It was a mistake made by the Government to take the Central Bank and state banks away from the Ministry of Finance. It has led to conflicts, practical difficulties and legal issues. Without the Central Bank and state banks within the Ministry of Finance, the new Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera is like a bird whose wings have been clipped. Obviously, such a bird cannot fly, though the President had wanted that bird to make a quick upward flight lifting the economy also along with him.

“The appointment of a new Finance Minister was the last chance which the Government had had to rectify its earlier mistake. But that chance has not been used by the Government. The new Finance Minister and his State Minister are expected to take the slowing economy back to its long-term growth path within the next two years. Without powers, those posts are simply bloated glories with perks and official privileges. The country today needs concerted action and not glorious positions. Since the Government has failed to use this last chance wisely, the economic ship will continue to drift in the high seas without direction.”

Economic growth falling to lowest levels

As predicted, the ship of the economy continued to drift in the high seas. Economic growth continued to fall, while the exchange rate came under severe pressure for depreciation. None of the planned economic reforms could be implemented by the Government. The casualty was the economy which fell to an annual growth rate of 3.1% in 2017, the lowest such growth since the negative economic growth in 2001.

In these circumstances, the decision taken by the President to retransfer the Central Bank and the Securities and Exchange Commission to Ministry of Finance was a welcome development. Along with this, there are two other matters that have to be corrected.

Restore state banks too to Finance Ministry

One is the listing of the state banks back in the Ministry of Finance. There is no logical reason why they should be continued under the Ministry of Public Enterprise Reforms since they are not under any reform program. By law, the boards of these banks are to be appointed by the Secretary to the Treasury. Hence, these boards are accountable to the appointing authority and not to the Minister of Public Enterprise Reforms.

Make private banks pure private banks

The other is the divestiture of the shares owned by the Employees Provident Fund in private banks. The previous government craftily used the funds of EPF and other state owned funds to acquire the majority shareholding of private banks which amounted to nationalisation of such banks.

Today, board members and Chairmen of leading private banks are appointed by the Government, making them indirect state banks. Instead of correcting this error, the present good governance government too is continuing to enjoy the enormous economic power which it had got over these private banks.

The President should therefore complete his economic reform program by rectifying these errors as well.

*W.A. Wijewardena, a former Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of Sri Lanka, can be reached at waw1949@gmail.com

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Latest comments

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    I’m concerned about the ethicality of this move rather than technicality.

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    the real reason for the transfer whom many have forgotten is that though ravi was appointed minister of finance as a quid pro quo for generously contributing to party funds the central bank was taken away from him because the central bank had filed a money laundering case against him and the case was pending at the time
    however he could have transferred it back after the case was rightly or wrongly concluded in ravis favour

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    With the new economic plan of the president the PM is being reduced to the position of a lame duck. When considering the the accepted norms and in fact the stipulated regulations as stated in the article by former Deputy Governor of CB it is absolutely foolhardy for PM to vest these powers to himself.One reason could be that he had no trust or confidence in his former Finance Minister or in the wake of his triumphalism he took it for granted that no body would challenge his decisions and orders. In this respect we can see how craftily the former President MR, became self appointed as Finance Minister. PM should have taken a cue from him to perform better of course in the right direction by keeping the promises he made to the nation, by bringing all perpetrators before the Law. He could have then dictated a few terms to the President politely and would’t have got entrenched in this pig mire. Any way the Truth will prevail and like oil, will come to the surface.

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    The writer in the second para says ”going against the tradition.”but it should be quite the opposite. Following the traditions have shut all new thinking and developments. Do we have to still follow the Gamaralas in ploughing harvesting and threshing the traditional way.. The writer should by now understood what is ”out of the box thinking.Even if the CBSL and state banks are brought under FMs control he cannot work alone under Cabinet system of govt.,All major decisions should go through the Cabinet A very good example is that although the Cabinet and Parliament approved increase in sweep ticket prices to Rs.30 as proposed by the FM in the budget FM could not implement it. What is the use of having authority if you cannot work independently. At times economists come out with beautiful theories but they are difficult to implement.After Ahungalla railway crossing tragedy President Premadasa brought in bamboo gates and as long as the bamboo gates were there were no accidents.President Premadasa was a very practical man.We need such people in govt.,

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    nalmen: According to you the reason for taking away the CB from the then Finance Minister RAVK, was because there was a court case pending against him. It was very serious charge viz. Money Laundering. If this PM, Rani W was so concerned of that of taking over the CB, he should never have appointed a person who was at the time charged with “Money Laundering” as the Minister Finance. Don’t you think, that was more serious than taking over the CB? Also remember RavK was not exonerated of the charge, but was discharged allowing the AG to file fresh charges. You also should know what RW – the PM did after that. He brought Legislation in Parliament to prevent a case being filed against RviK. Please refer to Exchange Control Act No 12 of 2017. According to provisions there, if in any past cases, action to file case is not done within six months , no one can be brought before courts . Do you see how TREACHEROUS that action was? That is our PM.

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    Dr. Wijewardane: You are discussing an attaching of a medicinal plaster to a very small area of a big wound. I heard corruptions began with Mrs. B’s govt. Anyway, since 1948, politicians screwed up the system so that both sinhala youth and Tamil Youth died in thousands. Anyway, Everygovt knows that their ministers and politicians are not trust worthy at all. Mahinda rjapakse govt shared 75-85% of the budget money among the family. Ranil Wickramasinghe was no different. It is like handing the chicken coup to the fox. Ranil, Penthouse all were in the same boat. Mailk smarawockrama and KAbir Hassim four people from the UNP hierarchy emptied the banks. then take the officials. there is no acceptable way to appoint them. EPF chairman/CEO was a Accountatn from a Australian USed Dealership. what doe she knows about investment. Telecom chairman.what for, when nly the CEO is needed. Why so many times People Bank went bank rupt under every govt. Why Sri lanka air lines can not selelct a proper management and always PM has to appoint them. How do they understand responsibility. I heard some one appointed to the BOC was a PEON first. He was promoted upto the top post. but, Sri lanka had Economic PhDs, MBA graduates etc., Why it has to go down that much. Why President is scared to selelct an all party parliamentary committee to look over the Central Bank. Some JVP memebers, Some TNA members, Some MPS in UPFA and UNF are trust worthy. I do not know about UNP or SLFP. On the other hand, Itis OLD BOYS CLUS, aLWAYS THE WELL KNOWN THIEF OR THE ONE WHO WAS LICKING THE leADER A LOT THAT GET SELECTED. sO, WITHOUT sRI LANKA GOING BANKRUPT, THE CROOKED SYSTEM WILL NOT BE CHANGED. mAITHRIPALA sIRISENA GREW UP IN THAT SYSYTEM.

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