20 June, 2024


Current Economic Crisis & The Central Bank

By W.A Wijewardena

Dr W.A Wijewardena

Dr W.A Wijewardena

Economic crisis management: Consensual logical and consistent policy package is need of the day

An economic crisis hidden from the public’s view

Sri Lanka’s current economic crisis is no more a secret today. In a previous article in this series, this writer drew the attention of economic policy makers to its threefold manifestation. It was manifested on the foreign exchange front, fiscal front and the money and credit front which all led to slow down the economic growth.

The article under reference warned the policymakers that their response to the crisis was too short and too late. The crisis was hidden by both the Central Bank and the Ministry of Finance in their respective annual reports for 2014 released in mid-2015.

The Bank’s Annual Report for 2014 has expressed satisfaction about the present state of the economy in its opening sentence as follows: “In 2014, the Sri Lankan economy showed the resilience in the face of domestic as well as external challenges. Real GDP grew by 7.4 per cent in 2014, in comparison to the growth of 7.2 per cent in 2013.”

The Ministry of Finance, in its annual report for 2014 released two months after the release of the Central Bank Annual Report, reaffirmed the Central Bank’s claim that the economy grew at a higher pace. In fact, the Ministry of Finance took pride in the high growth – at 7.4% on average – the country had maintained during the last five year period from 2010.

Present Government cannot continue to blame previous administration and remain doing nothing

The crisis was of course not a creation of this Government, but an ailment inherited from the previous administration. But this Government was at fault by taking several missteps, as pointed out by this writer in the article under reference.

The sins it committed were the following: Not making a proper assessment of the economy despite the warning by independent analysts; signing off the inflated growth numbers produced by the previous administration in the reports it has put out; not disclosing the crisis to prepare people for hard choices and failure to take immediate corrective action to come out of the crisis.

The new Government was warned by independent analysts and think-tanks of the looming economic crisis. For instance, the Institute of Policy Studies or IPS, though an organ of the Government like the Central Bank, looked at them from an objective apolitical perspective. In its State of the Economy 2015 Report, IPS has said that the headline growth numbers and impressive infrastructure facilities have masked the real situation in the country.

Said IPS: “These (headline growth numbers and impressive infrastructure) masked some inherent structural weaknesses in Sri Lanka’s public investment led and external debt financed growth. As noted in Sri Lanka State of the Economy 2014 report ‘beyond the immediate headline macroeconomic numbers, the Sri Lankan economy continues to show skewed growth, high level of external indebtedness, modest export earnings growth and limited private sector appetite to expand the capacity’. Stacked against headline statistics, structural weaknesses in the economy, however, are not as readily explainable on election platforms.”

Not only at election platforms that they cannot be explained. Nor could they be explained even to people in power who always desired to listen to only good news praising their policies.

Central Bank should give apolitical advice

It was, therefore, unfortunate that the Central Bank, created by the nation to give impartial and apolitical analysis to the public and make its policies independent of politics, acted like an organ pleasing the ruling political powers. Now the crisis is looming large over the country, calling for firm action. But the authorities appear to be taking palliative measures to fix it. After nearly one-and-a-half years into power, the new Government cannot continue to blame the previous administration for the country’s economic ills. It should now have in place firm measures to put the economic house in order. If it has not, that is its fault.

A fiscal crisis at its worst

While the fiscal sector crisis was there all throughout, the external sector crisis and monetary sector crisis began to show symptoms as from 2012. The fiscal sector crisis manifested itself in declining Government revenue as a percentage of the country’s total output – known as Gross Domestic Product or GDP – in a background of an uncontrollably rising expenditure programme. Accordingly, the Government spent on consumption more than its revenue year after year demonstrating that it was a big spendthrift, quite oblivious of the limitations of its resource base. It continues to be so even today.

The profligacy in fiscal management that it had followed has added more to the country’s public debt. This created a severe debt service problem for successive governments. Thus, the money to be spent on the repayment of the principal and the payment of interest on public debt exceeded the annual Government revenue. This adverse development, along with the overconsumption of the Government and the need for maintaining the capital expenditure programmes at required levels, made the reduction of the budget deficit an impossible task for the Government. On top of these fiscal maladies, leading public enterprises made colossal losses continuously imposing an additional burden on the budget as well as the people of the country.

External sector crisis becoming critical

The external crisis of the country was more precarious and was suggestive of the country reaching an eventual doomsday. The Central Bank had repeatedly assured in its publications that the country had an inbuilt resilience, implying that it could come out of the crisis on its own without external support. Yet, the developments continued to weaken the sector, putting pressure on the rupee to fall in the market to record low levels.

The year 2015 was particularly a bad year for Sri Lanka. In that year, foreign exchange inflows to the country through exports and remittances declined, while outflows on account of the repayment of foreign loans and foreign investors quitting the government securities market increased. The trade deficit, manifesting a serious structural problem faced by the country, increased marginally from $ 8.3 billion in 2014 to $ 8.4 billion in 2015. This has been the level of Sri Lanka’s trade deficit over the past few years. Remittances which helped Sri Lanka to part-finance the trade deficit fell below $ 7 billion in 2015.

The Central Bank in a vain attempt at preventing the rupee from depreciation had sold $ 492 million in the market during the first two months of the year. Yet, it could not protect the rupee; nor could it preserve the foreign reserves of the country. Thus, in its own admission, in the first three months of 2016 alone, reserves have fallen from $ 7.3 billion at end 2015 to $ 6.2 billion at end March, 2016. The free reserves available to the country for meeting its urgent foreign exchange liabilities have fallen to $ 5.3 billion by the end of March, 2016. This is not a situation about which Sri Lanka should be complacent at all.

Central Bank contributing to crisis through illogical monetary policy

In the monetary sector, as argued by this writer in an article titled ‘Dilemma in Monetary Policy: Monetary Board caught in The Devil’s Alternative?’, there had been several missteps taken by the Central Bank to complicate the matters. In fact, the current foreign exchange crisis is a creation of the Bank’s illogical monetary policy.

The Central Bank has been following a low interest rate policy in the belief that it would bolster the economy. However, the results have been the opposite. The open market interest rates have risen far above the bank’s policy rates relegating it the status of a market follower instead of being a market leader. It has facilitated commercial banks and primary dealers to make arbitraging profits by borrowing at low rates from the Central Bank and lending elsewhere at high rates. Banks have reduced deposit rates immediately after interest rate cuts but maintained lending rates at the previous levels. Thus, the Central Bank’s low interest rate policy has enabled banks to make thumping profits in 2015. It also has boosted imports putting extra pressure for the rupee to depreciate in the foreign exchange market.

IMF Mission reaffirming economic ailments

These economic ailments have been reaffirmed by the Staff Team of the International Monetary Fund that visited Sri Lanka during the first two weeks of April, 2016 in a press release it issued after discussions with Sri Lankan officials. The mission has indicated that the real economic growth rate that amounted to 4.8% in 2015 would remain around 5% in 2016. It has warned that any attempt by Sri Lanka to increase its growth rate to medium term potential growth rate which is around 7% would depend on the country’s implementing a viable economic reform programme in the near term and removing bottlenecks for trade and investments.

The Government on its part has proposed a reform programme, according to IMF press release, to achieve high and sustained levels of inclusive economic growth, restore discipline to macroeconomic and financial policies, and rebuild fiscal and reserve buffers. This reform programme includes four key elements as follows.

First, it would improve the Government’s revenue administration and tax policy to enhance its revenue base. This should be a top priority given the falling Government revenue-GDP ratio. Second, it should strengthen public financial management. The IMF Mission has not spelt out what is meant by this but it normally involves a number of key action programmes: elimination of waste, setting priorities for expenditure programmes, curtailing consumption and generating savings and establishing pre and post impact assessment mechanisms for all Government expenditure programmes to ensure their effectiveness.

Third, the Government will undertake a State enterprise reform programme. This involves elimination of losses in loss-making enterprises, on one hand, and improving the efficiency of better enterprises, on the other. Fourth, the Government will undertake structural reforms to enable a more outward-looking economy, deepen foreign exchange markets, and strengthen financial sector supervision. This last element poses a serious challenge to the present Government. That is because it encompasses the whole economy, covering all the sectors including foreign trade.

The proposed ETCA to be signed with India and all other trade agreements to be negotiated with other key countries such as China, Japan, South Korea, EU and USA are included in this reform agenda. Thus, if ETCA with India fails, all other economy wide reforms as well as all other trade reforms too will fail.

IMF Mission: Be ready to tighten monetary policy

The IMF Mission has also warned the Central Bank that it should be ready to tighten monetary policy to eliminate pressure for the domestic inflation to rise and exchange rate to depreciate. Says the IMF Mission: “Given the long lags in monetary transmission and continued increase in core inflation and private credit growth, however, the Central Bank of Sri Lanka (CBSL) should be prepared to tighten policies further if these trends continue. The mission also recommends the CBSL take active steps to rebuild non-borrowed reserve buffers.”

What the IMF Mission says is that if the Central Bank decides to increase interest rates today, it would take a long time for the results to be realised. Hence, the Central Bank should take action to curtain inflation well in advance. What it means is that the Central Bank should have a long foresight in its policy determination. The Monetary Board which is charged with this task should not just look at today or even the near future, but the very medium term when it decides on its policy. Contrary to this wisdom, the monetary policy review issued by the Bank in March had purely concentrated on the past and decided to maintain status quo by being complacent about a temporary relief which the country had got in January 2016.

Taking a completely contradictory view to the wisdom pronounced by IMF Mission, Central Bank Governor Arjuna Mahendran is reported to have dismissed the need for monetary policy tightening, that is, increasing interest rates, in the future because he expected the economy to make a ‘soft-landing’ with core inflation in check. However, given the current worsening economic scenario, it is doubtful whether the economy would have a soft-landing. All indicators point to a nose-dive hard-landing for the Sri Lankan economy unless it gets into corrective measures promptly.

RBI Governor to Central Bank: Don’t get pushed into a game of musical crises

Markets expect credible and reliable announcements from the Central Bank. The statement made by the Governor appears to be pleasing to politicians who are for loose monetary policies. But the pressure in the market is building for interest rates to go up and exchange rate to fall. At the same time, whether the proposed tax reforms would improve the budget in the near term is uncertain. Given this situation, it is inevitable for the market participants to make a series of adjustments to protect their own interests. Such a development in the market is fatal to any central bank.

The Reserve Bank of India Governor Raghuram Rajan had left a useful piece of wisdom with his counterparts at the Central Bank of Sri Lanka when he delivered the Central Bank’s 65th Anniversary Oration in August 2015. He defined low interest rate policies as Unconventional Monetary Policies because they defied the conventional economic wisdom. Such low policies will encourage banks and private sector businesses to take unaffordable risks. He implied that when music is halted when the situation becomes bad, they get into a game of musical crises where participants are eliminated one by one from the scene. It leads to a bigger crisis because the low interest rate policies have failed to generate long term sustainable economic growth. Such economic growth comes from innovation and enhancement of efficiency through structural reforms. What it means is that an economy should create an environment conducive for investments to take place. He concluded his oration warning against competitive monetary easing as is being done the Central Bank today and getting pushed toward games of musical crises.

Thus, to realise desired results, it is necessary that Sri Lanka should adopt a logical and consistent policy package.

*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

  • 1

    Dr W.A Wijewardena

    RE: Current Economic Crisis & The Central Bank

    Thank you for repeatedly pointing out this deficiency and the impending crisis.

    1. “It was manifested on the foreign exchange front, fiscal front and the money and credit front which all led to slow down the economic growth.”

    “The crisis was of course not a creation of this Government, but an ailment inherited from the previous administration. But this Government was at fault by taking several missteps, as pointed out by this writer in the article under reference.”

    Is it a crisis yet, or still a concern? Concern is heading to a crisis?

    Crisis has two meanings: Danger and Opportunity.

    2. “Present Government cannot continue to blame previous administration and remain doing nothing”

    Absolutely. However, being politicians, they will blame the previous administration.

    3. “Not only at election platforms that they cannot be explained. Nor could they be explained even to people in power who always desired to listen to only good news praising their policies.”

    What is their average IQ? The average for the county is 79. Wimal Weeraewansa, MP, says 2/2 =0. Does Wimal Weerawansa believe there is crisis now? Did you ask a sheep?

    4. “Thus, to realise desired results, it is necessary that Sri Lanka should adopt a logical and consistent policy package.”

    Do you really believe that those politicians, who average IQ is 79 have the capability to follow a logical and consistent policy? Why?

    Only a crisis will force them to follow a logical and consistent policy. Will they still follow one?

    • 1

      This is a good article but timewothy is the steps that remain to be taken in order to come out of the pit the govt is fallen that deep.

      Just point at fingers at previous and the current cant bring anything forward.

      Hope IMF loan and GSP plus could bring some funds inwards to the country. Had Mastricht treaty NOT provided war torn Germany the funds, they could not have achieved the levels after the war – even if German prodctivity in general is said tobe 75% more then that of ours. Our people dont work the way germans, Japanese, chinese do. They just talk bla bla, not knowing that each one of the nation is to contribute by every means if contry to be taken forward

      • 3

        Thanks you, Dr. Wije. Please keep up your excellent work!

        You are quite right to say “After nearly one-and-a-half years into power, the new Government cannot continue to blame the previous administration for the country’s economic ills. It should now have in place firm measures to put the economic house in order. If it has not, that is its fault.”

        The corrupt and uneducated insider trader at the Central Bank Arjuna Mahendran is on a BORROWING AND SPENDING SPREE without any plan to reduce the national debt and stop the crash of the rupee. Sri Lanka will soon be in a Greece like Situation.

        It is appalling that Dr. Harsha De Silva and Eran Wickramaratne are also keeping their mouths shut on the corruption and stupidity at the Central Bank.

        But Dr. Wije. you do not pay enough attention to CORRUPTION and the way political corruption of the Ranil-Sira government has exacerbated and magnified the crisis due to appointment of corrupt and incompetent people to manage economy – Ravi K. and Arjuna Mahendran who are Ranil’s cronies.

        • 2

          The United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the Ministry of National Policies and Economic Affairs together with Ministry of Science, Technology and Research and several other agencies today launched the National Summit on Foresight and Innovation for Sustainable Human Development.

          A load of jargon, hot air and bull shit this UNDP confab – like Davos, distract Lankan Modayas from the real problem of corruption and looting of the poor and TRICKLE UP policies of WB and IMF!
          UNDP, World Bank, IMF all in the same distraction game,

          Need of hour is for Foresight, research and innovation to track OFF SHORE BANK ACCOUNTS and return looted monies to impoverished third world countries to educate the massed and hold corrupt politicians and their corrupt business partners accountable get rid of corruption that is stalling and destroying economy.

          Rather than focus on CORRUPTION and the need for development without CARS, yes automobiles that pollute..
          Lanka need good public transport.

          • 3

            Arjuna Mehndran should be fired and then investigated, along with his crooked son-in-law Aloysius. Mahendran is an ECONOMIC HIT MAN; a corrupt insider trader. So too was NIvard Cabraal – who was MR’s economic hit man.

            Mahendran is a derivatives and stock dealer and dose NOT have the qualifications to be Central Bank Governor. Sri Lanka is headed for economic disaster with this fellow at the CB.

            Ranil-Sirisena govt. is morally and intellectually bankrupt and people should protest on the streets and ask for the resignation of Mahendran and Ravi K before Sri Lanka faces a bigger economic DEBACLE.

            • 0

              You really are a dodo.

      • 2

        The World Bank calls itself the Knowledge Bank so why does not the Central Bank of Sri Lanka head, Mahendran, who is in Washington for the Spring meetings of the corrupt Bretton Woods twins ask WB and IMF to help them to go through Panama Papers and other off show accounts corruption lists and investigate and track down the stolen and looted funds of corrupt Sri Lanka politicians in off Show bank accounts?

        If the looted funds stolen by the former SL dictator Mahinda Jarapassa and his brothers, sons, cronies, including Nivard Cabraal, are brought back to Sri Lanka the country would be able to pay its massive national debt and stop the crash of the rupee..

        But the knowledge produced at World Bank and IMF is really to legalize corruption and the flight of capital and looting of the global south to the global north and institutionalized global and national INEQUALITY and poverty.

        Why do you think 63 individuals today control over half the world’s wealth as reveal by OXFAM at the rich man’s club meet in Davos?!

  • 6


    Central Bank lend low and borrow high..

    Alouysious is laughing all the way to the Bank.. How cool.

    Singaporean signed off the report which said 7.4 percent in 2014 and 7.7 % in 2015.

    That is incredible.

    But what was it in 2015?..IMF says it was barely 4 %

    And one sharp commentator pointed out to me that it is big O in the 1st quarter this year.

    Is our Yahapalana Economy heading for a recession?.

    Is that why Batalanda Ranil trying to strike a deal with Maharaja, behind the back of Bodhi Sira?.

    After begging in Beijin of course.

    Then again Sira is the most hated President by the great majority even more that Batalanada’s uncle, the first President of our Yahapalana Republic of Srilanka.

    • 2

      KASmaalam KA Sumanasekera

      “Singaporean signed off the report which said 7.4 percent in 2014 and 7.7 % in 2015.”

      Is he also from Sinhapura in Venga, Lata land? This is interesting. So he is a Sinha Le man.

      “Central Bank lend low and borrow high..”

      Taiwan did the same in the early years of its development process. The time depositors were paid 35% interests in some cases and lending it at less than 12%. Difference in interest rates was subsidised by the state.

      High real interest rates was part of Taiwan’s development management,
      and the basis of its high savings rates.

      You don’t have to copy Taiwan’s development model unless you cannot use your brain to find alternatives.

      Will you now go back to school and learn your basic economics? Wimal Weerawansa may be willing to help you with maths and economics tuition.

      Otherwise how is your life? Are you still looking for a Vellala Christian partner?

  • 1

    Reading through it appears that although the Central Bank should be independent Successive Governors have worked to satisfy their political masters who appointed them probably for personal gain. The worst came ten years back when the former Governor Cabral was appointed who was a politician a defeated candidate and a last minute cross over from the UNP. Obviously he had to please the politicians to keep his job otherwise what happened to Chief Justice Bandaranayaka would have happened to him. There should be a way to make them responsible for their action even after leaving because they are playing with our lives. Misrepresenting data/ facts is a crime.

  • 0

    Dear DR. Wijewardana,

    Thanks.Interesting article

    On comparison with Last Regim.

    All the requirements have already been fulfilled

    1. Legislature power
    2. Ministers and Deputy are more
    3. More ministries
    4. More councils
    5. Dynamic Powerful Prime minster
    6. Good governance President
    7. Same Armed forces
    8. Same Police
    9.Same parliament

    Sri Lankan Economy is declining day by day!!!!!. What are missing with ???

    • 1

      Your questions are answered in his article.

      They had to analyse it before – taking any decisions. Gravity of the problems were not considered by the new appointees. However, it was like not a pieace of cake, peace a shit I may say so, at the time, current governer took it over. Not even there is a legal department to function for Central bank… all was decided and discussed by the MR et al thinking that was their one of other family properties. Today, from the same cesspit, bugger to utter it that the country s economy was a piece of cake if the current rulers knew how to do the job … is shamelss irresponsible statement that again came from his both ends.

  • 1

    Govt.budgets add on taxes on people but do not propose ways of cutting down on unwanted public expenditure which is escalating.What action is taken in accountability at state owned enterprises, they are packed with henchmen at top management level.Here is a country where even beggars pay taxes to keep the corrupt in place.This explains the essence of the article, it is as simple as this.

  • 0

    No two words about it, the prime minister, the finance minister and the governor should be dumped into the Beira Lake. The wheeler dealers , crooks, fraudsters and manipulators are still laughing all the way to their treasure chests.

  • 1

    Thanks for educating us. I didn’t study economics, but I too believe Real economy of a country depend on power of manufacturing, levels of generating services, productivity, innovation and especially gov led economic strategies and frameworks. Reserve bank interest variations is only fine tuning of the economy, soft landing strategies US federal bank did.

  • 1

    You are correct that the Central Bank has acted incorrectly in trying to defend the Rupee and thereby the reserves have fallen from $ 7.3 billion at end 2015 to $ 6.2 billion at end March, 2016. The free reserves available to the country for meeting its urgent foreign exchange liabilities have fallen to $ 5.3 billion by the end of March, 2016, because of this foolish intervention.

    The Governor Arjuna Mahendran with his experience in Singapore should have known better, to allow the market forces to determine the exchange rate and instead of selling Dollars, he should have bought Dollars, to gradually under value the currency, to allow export growth and medium term strengthening of a slightly undervalued Rupee. This is the secret of success of China.

  • 1

    Who is running the Economy? Governor of the CB? Minister of Finance? Prime Minister? President? IMF? China? India? USA? Malik? Daya?

  • 0

    Former President and also the then Minister of Finance says: “The country was a piece of cake” when he handed over to the present Government. As I said earlier and many times, this Government has failed so far to “Evaluate” the real value of that “piece of cake” the got from the MR regime. That is why we hear contradictory statements been made by the PM, the FM and other Ministers at various venues and in Parliament too. But we, know how that “piece of cake” was very well made to benefit MR, his family and the goons. In real terms that “piece of cake” was a “Rotten” one and the People are now compelled to consume it. But I cannot understand why this Government cannot explain the “contents” or the “ingredients” that were used to make that “piece of cake”.

    As regards, we know how MR dealt with a Chief Officer of the Dept. of Statistics who refused to “concoct” the figures. Where is he now? If he is alive, can we hear from him regarding this “game” of compiling statistics?

    • 1


      “As regards, we know how MR dealt with a Chief Officer of the Dept. of Statistics who refused to “concoct” the figures.”

      Probably the chief officer was not trained (indoctrinated) by China.

      “Where is he now?”

      Was he exiled to China?

      “If he is alive, can we hear from him regarding this “game” of compiling statistics?”

      Simple, it depends how the ruling party wants to present their achievement. Give the compilers what would be the ruler’s desired outcome, they can work around the facts and present it in a way that would satisfy the gullible voters and supporters. Creative accounting at its worst.

      The problem is neither with compilers nor with rulers. Its about lack of audacity on the part of journalists,experts outside the establishment and mostly stupidity and ignorance of the general public.

      All in all, I am blaming you for not pro-actively seeking truth.

  • 0

    The long and short of it is that the central bank is playing an impossible game. Set the interest rates too low and savings are compromised. Set it too high and lending is compromised. What then should the interest rates be?

    The answer is that only the market can decide. The central bank fixing interest rates is akin to price fixing. It is akin to socializing money, which is one-half of every transaction, and Socialism has always failed historically.

    The future is clear. As long as the central bank continues to manipulate interest rates the economy will spiral from one crisis to the next, confused, and misunderstanding the true state of the economy.

    In order to solve the problem the following must be done:
    1. The central bank must allow interest rates to float and move where it will according to the market conditions. This will send the right signals to the market allowing it to plan and grow.

    2. The Sri Lankan government must propose a change in the monetary system to a non-fiat, commodities based system. Legal tender must be linked to, and backed by, gold and silver. The fiat currency system is coming to an end worldwide. The sooner we realize it is harmful for the economy, the better it will be. This will also have the desired effect of clipping the wings of government and imposing discipline in spending.

  • 0

    Has the (GDP) Economic growth mentioned over 5% previously helped the country to achieve any Economic development.Leaders of Previous regime still claim of the development carried out by them. Is there any economic return (dividends) on such investment. If an economist do an analysis on the cost benefit evaluation on those foreign funded large project what will be the outcome.

    Why cant the govt or any organization inform the people of these public policies

  • 0

    No one takes this guy seriously.His is a voice in the wilderness.If you want to take his opinions take it with a pinch of salt.

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