18 May, 2024


Gota’s Economic War: Ferocity Of The Enemy Makes The Challenge Frightening

By W A Wijewardena

Dr. W.A Wijewardena

The sick economy

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa – now fondly called Gota by everyone – inherited an underperforming economy. It was just like the economy which the previous administration had inherited from his brother some five years ago. As I had presented in this column repeatedly, the economy was turning from bad to worse since around 2013 and it was the job of the previous administration to put it on the right growth path. They were successful somewhat in constitutional reforms, but regarding the economy, their performance record had been far from the desired. Hence, the economy today is characterised by sad stories all around. Gota’s immediate challenge has been to convert them into pleasant and promising stories.

What are those sad stories that confront him?

Falling growth rate 

Three weeks ago, the Department of Census and Statistics, Sri Lanka’s official statistical bureau responsible for assessing the size of the economy and its growth rate, came up with the first piece of sad news. The growth rate in the third quarter of 2019 has been 2.7%, a little up above the previous quarter’s rate of 1.6% but pretty much less than the growth of 3.5% recorded in the corresponding quarter of the previous year. Thus, in the first three quarters of 2019, the real economic growth has been at a dismal 2.7%.

Accordingly, the year is likely to end up in a rate of less than 3% as has been predicted by international agencies. What is important for Gota is the predicted economic growth rate for the next three years which if no action is taken, would settle between 3 and 3.5%. If he is to meet the targets set in his manifesto, the growth rate should practically double to 6.5%. This is indeed a Herculean task for any economic planner.

The fragile external sector

The supporting drivers of economic growth have also been very weak. Exports in the first 10 months of 2019 have been virtually stagnant, recording a growth of only 0.8%. In the services sector, the main driver of growth – tourism – has not recovered from the depth to which it had fallen after the Easter bombings. In fact, its earnings have fallen by 21% in the first 10 months. Remittances which had been the single-most important relief for the country’s fragile external sector in the past have declined by 6% during the same period.

Both agriculture and services have been at a very low level of performance. The industrial performance has been a little better, but it cannot single-handedly rescue the economy. Hence, Gota must adopt a multi-pronged approach to expand agriculture, services, tourism exports, and remittances simultaneously if the economy is to remain on course with the planned targets.

The external debt overhang

The country’s external debt overhang is looming frighteningly over Gota’s administration. That has been the cumulative effect of the original sin committed by Sri Lanka ever since it had gained independence from the British. That sin was to borrow abroad to finance local investments in the absence of adequate local savings and invest in sectors that have contributed poorly to the country’s foreign exchange earnings.

As revealed by the Central Bank statistics, in the next 12-month period, the total foreign debt servicing commitments comprising both the repayment of the principal and the payment of interest will amount to $ 6 billion. This is made up of the government’s commitments amounting to $ 4.8 billion and those of the private sector by about $ 1.2 billion. The country’s liquid foreign exchange balances after taking out the illiquid gold reserves at end-November 2019 had been some $ 6.5 billion and if it is used for debt payments, its foreign exchange reserves would fall to a critically low level. Thus, Gota’s problem is slightly different from those of the private sector borrowers.

The latter may be having rupee funds to meet its commitments and its problem is lack dollars in the country. Gota’s problem is that he has neither rupees nor dollars to do so. Hence, he has no alternative but to borrow abroad to fill his coffers and use those proceeds to repay his loan commitments. This strategy, known as loan recycling and used by all the previous successive governments, would provide only a temporary solution to the country. It adds to Gota’s, woes and, if continued unabated, those of any future administration to come to power as well.

The need for using scarce money prudently 

But, just like the previous administration had been preoccupied by constitutional reforms and a hurry to bring the alleged corrupt deals of their predecessors to justice, Gota is also preoccupied by considerations other than the economy. He has to seek Parliamentary majority in a general election in a few months’ time. Hence, all governmental resources are now being diverted to attaining that goal at the expense of sound economic policies.

Accordingly, at a time when the Treasury was limping with a huge cash shortage, he has offered a costly tax cut to citizens and jobs for 100,000 Samurdhi kids. The first would drain the Treasury of a promised revenue flow of about Rs. 600 billion and the latter would impose an unexpected cost of Rs. 42 billion on his already fragile budget numbers. That latter amount is a lot of money equal to the annual administration budgets of some 14 state universities.

This is a serious choice to be made by a government which is planning to increase the university admissions by about a quarter by establishing 300 odd university colleges. The government does not have money for this and, hence, the available moneys will have to be spent prudently.

A ‘write-off-four months’ ahead 

As far as economic rebuilding is concerned, the next four months will be a write-off for Gota since his government has to fight a Parliamentary Election to secure majority. If the voting pattern at the recently concluded Presidential Election is repeated, his government has a good chance of securing a simple majority in Parliament. But what is being fought for now is not just the simple majority but a two-third majority. The latter is needed by him to amend the Constitution and revert to the governance structure that prevailed prior to 2015.

To attain that goal, his government has to postpone all the unpopular economic reforms that are necessary to come out of the present economic malaise. Hence, the economic war has to be temporarily kept aside until the conclusion of the scheduled Parliamentary Elections. Since Sri Lanka has no time to waste, that temporary recess will surely be fatal to the country’s economic rebuilding exercise.

Inadequate capacity for developing technology

Sri Lanka has a limited scope for creating economic prosperity for its people through historically prominent growth drivers like subsistence agriculture, three tree crops comprising tea, rubber and coconut, apparels and telecommunication services. All these sectors have now reached their saturation point with the available technology. Hence, any further development leading to increased additional wealth creation known as value addition in these sectors requires the adoption of advanced technologies.

Given Sri Lanka’s inadequate capacity for developing such advanced technologies in-house, the attainment of this goal is necessarily a medium to long term objective. Hence, in the initial stage of economic development, Sri Lanka needs to use technologies developed elsewhere. This was the strategy adopted by the four Asian tigers, namely, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong. That was done by attracting foreign direct investments or FDIs with high technologies on one side and forcing local universities to get affiliated to world’s reputed universities to develop its own technology, on the other.

A good example in the present era is Sri Lanka’s competitor in most respects, Vietnam. That country which was nowhere in the global trade map some 30 years ago is the home for large technology-based manufacturers like Nike, Samsung, IBM, Intel, Fujitsu, and HP today. According to the World Bank data, Vietnam’s high-tech exports in 2017 had been 41% of its manufactured exports. The comparable figure for Sri Lanka had been just 1% implying that it has a long way to go.

To attract high technology in the initial period of economic expansion, the strategy adopted by both South Korea and Singapore could serve as guidance to Sri Lanka.

South Korea’s technology policy

South Korea’s strongman President Park Chung-hee who held the post from 1963 till 1979 had a separate technology policy side by side with his industrial policy to acquire or develop new technologies and make them available to all sectors concerned to improve productivity and go for new areas of production. In this respect, technology had been recognised as a public good to be necessarily produced by the state.

It consisted of two aspects: one was to develop new technology through research and development and improve the technologies adapted from other countries. The other was to facilitate the use of technology for going for new products and improving the existing production practices. To develop technology in-house, new research institutes were setup, while encouraging the existing universities to undertake new research and development programs.

One of the institutes so setup was the Korea Institute of Science and Technology, popularly known as KIST, with the joint participation of both the Korean and US governments. This institute was later amalgamated with the Korea Institute of Science and is presently known as Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology or KAIST. Its success is gauged by the number of global patents it has got and its ranking within the top 50 universities in the world and at the 6th place among Asian universities. South Korea is a technology driven economy and its high-tech exports in 2018 had amounted to 36% of manufactured exports, according to the World Bank data.

Singapore’s going for a Western Oasis

In Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew forced all Singaporean universities to get affiliated with universities of repute in USA and improve curricula and research capability based on such collaboration. As a result, the National University of Singapore which was relatively unknown in early 1960s got itself elevated to the 22nd position in global ranking by 2018. In addition to developing in-house capacity for technological advancement, Lee adopted a policy of attracting FDIs with high technology to the country.

To enable the expatriates from the Western world to come and work in Singapore, a conscious policy to convert the country to a Western Oasis was adopted. In this policy, Singapore improved its environment, healthcare facilities, education and transport to be on par with any developed country so that the expatriates felt as if they were working in their own countries. This was a miraculous development and today, Singapore’s high-tech exports amount to about 52% of the manufactured exports, according to the World Bank data.

Industry 4.0

Both South Korea and Singapore are presently going through the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0 or 4IR. This is a term coined by the founder and Chairman of the Davos based World Economic Forum – Klaus Schwab – to distinguish the modern wave of high technology based global production model from the existing model of production using electronics and computers.

Gota’s problem is that Sri Lanka is still in the Second Industrial Revolution or Industry 2.0 or 2IR in which production processes are only partly mechanised. He has to make a leapfrogging from Industry 2.0 to Industry 4.0 bypassing Industry 3.0 or 3IR. This is challenging, but not impossible provided he adopts an appropriate policy package to wean the local businesses to the use of emerging technologies. Vietnam has begun this process by introducing a road map covering 2020 through 2030 in which all sectors in the economy, including education and healthcare, would go for new technologies.

Wake up and fight the war

I have discussed how Sri Lanka should go for Industry 4.0 in a previous article in this series under the title ‘Presidential Aspirants and Voters: Read IPS’s SOE 2019 before you make your next move’ (available at: http://www.ft.lk/columns/Presidential-aspirants-and-voters-Read-IPS-s-SOE-2019-before-you-make-your-next-move/4-688892). The following para from the article aptly describes the challenge before Gota: “In this context, State of the Economy 2019 (by the Institute of Policy Studies) makes the following remark: ‘It can be argued that Sri Lanka is yet to even come to terms with technologies of the third industrial revolution – electronics and information technology – leave alone those of 4IR. The reality though is the pace of change, or the quantum leap of technology from one revolution to another is so swift, that countries can no longer be complacent’.

What this means is that the world is waking up every morning with news of ‘next big thing’ hitting the market. A sleeper will find himself being overtaken by all others who are continuously awake and vigilant on the developments in new technologies”.

So, Gota should wake up and fight his economic war to a conclusion as he did in the case of his other wars.

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

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Latest comments

  • 16

    Can Sri Lanka win the ‘Economic War’? Apart from aspects addressed by Dr. W A Wijewardena, please also consider:

    1) Whether we have or will have in the foreseeable future ‘Social Peace’?

    2) Quality of our political and bureaucratic leadership.

    3) Not a single ‘management’ university in Sri Lanka has the internationally recognized AACSB accreditation which is considered the ‘gold-standard’ of ‘management’ education.

    4) CA Sri Lanka which is the regulator of the audit (Chartered Accountancy) profession in Sri Lanka has been proven to tolerate grave ‘professional misconduct’ within key sections of its membership. Despite the local affiliates of PwC and Ernst & Young being faulted for grave ‘Professional Misconduct’ by (i) the Supreme Court (ii) the Attorney-General (iii) Parliament’s COPE in relation to the scandalous SLIC privatization, CA Sri Lanka has still not concluded its purported investigation of my ‘complaint’ made as far back as 8 August 2005. Some of the ‘Partners’ of these firms during the period of SLIC divestiture are now ‘directors’ of ‘quoted’ companies. This is alarming since auditors are the first line of defence against corruption in all business entities.

    5) Poor supervision of commercial banks by the Central Bank’s (CBSL) ‘Bank Supervision Department’

    6) High interest rates applicable to SMEs, unconscionable profits of commercial banks and high level of NPLs.

    7) Absence of a ‘development bank’

    8) In the context of the private sector said to be the ‘engine of growth’, please consider the caliber of business personalities dominating the corporate sector.

    How has Wijewardena missed all these?

    Amrit Muttukumaru

    • 4

      Amrit Muttukumaru,

      “Can Sri Lanka win the economic war “

      “President Gotabaya Rajapaksa made a sudden visit to the Colombo National Hospital this morning where he inspected the work at the hospital.”

      To win a war, a nation must be healthy. It does not help when more and more of the population become sick, as they do not contribute and become a drag of the limited resources.

      The diabetes rates have increased from 1 percent to over 16 percent, with close to 40 percent being pee-diabetic , and being insulin resistant(IR).

      IR is the primary cause of many diseases. Hospitals just treat the symptoms, when people become sick. Making the hospital efficient will allow for more sick people to be treated. What is more efficient is prevention and treating the causes .

      Sugar, processed foods, processed carbohydrates and alcohol, are all poisons, leading to chronic diseases. Even the monks, the so-called 3rd Gem of the Triple Gem are sick. Clearly they are eating more than one meal a day, and lack exercise.

      People are sick and unhappy. Prostrating to-monks seem not to solve the problems, economic as well as health.

      • 2

        The smiling mass murderer GOTA and the 100 years old criminal enterprise – The GOVIGAMA Ruling Elite Mafia leadership and the members who have grown rich after looting the country for nearly 6-7 decades long, have no way to rescue the economy as the situation is grim beyond any redemption. The RACIST SLUTS-GOVI Mafia members are not masters in building a nation. They only destroy whats already built with other’s sweat and blood. Already, UNP-SLFP Govi Leadership have backed Gota’s Presidency through various means including by facilitating the un winnable GOTA with their newly engineered enemy -Islam and the Muslims and the cold war launched against them is going to put more BAD LUCK on the Racist Economy of the Sinhala Bowdda Rajya pushed downed the throats of unsuspecting dumb population throughout seven decades have brought only disasters than any good. Now clash it with the current World War 3 which is being staged by the GLOBAL SUPER CRIMINALS ( US, UK & Israeli) to which alliance GOTA belongs with the plans of destructing IRAN & Pakistan in a line of Muslim countries in the Zionist HIT-LIST as US General Wesley Clark said in an interview long time back, and the GOTA is a sure partner in it are all tell-tale signs of the coming disasters to racist Bowwdda Rajya. Any moment is a ticking a time bomb when the Ballistic Missiles are going to rain on MCC-pacted US bases in Sri Lanka. Lets enjoy the show… the chicken (70 yrs Racism) are coming home to roost…

  • 16

    Amrit Muttukumaru

    “Can Sri Lanka win the ‘Economic War’?”

    Not until the Sinhala/Buddhists stop their bloody quest for converting this island into a monolithic moronic state.

    Recently president, prime minister, the saffron brigades, ……… are pleased with their election performances, as Gota won 52.25% of the vote, followed up by their statements glorifying the wisdom of the majority voters and the candidate who made it possible for the majority Sinhala/Buddhist voters to vote for him the only Sinhala/Buddhist candidate it seems.

    The rest 47.75% of the voters seem irrelevant, disenfranchised, being ignored, condemned being unpatriotic, ………….

    When you have a president who says he has a vision and takes oath in the vicinity of Dutta Gamunu’s Vihare which is clearly a divisive action and immediately bans Tamil National anthem being sung at public events is a nightmare. Being obviously possessed by demons he cannot and will not be able to even visualise his own “Visions of Prosperity and Splendour”.

    In his pursuit of Sinhala/Buddhisisation of the entire island he is not only going to destroy this island’s meagre creative and productive resources but he is also going to make this country a failed state.

    Any vision on paper has to be supported by a broader sense of belonging, unity in diversity, …… it will do him good if he understood that Mussolini didn’t run trains on time. Well in his vision he completely forgotten about his role in war crimes committed between 1971 and 2015.

  • 9

    SRI LANKA is going to have a very bad Ecnomic time this year .
    No one can blame present government , if present government loan was 50 billion when handed over how can it become 100 billion if UNP paid the loans?
    No UNP never did anything to.the people or country, not a even one project , even mahinda ‘s started project they ruined and put all the money inside their pocket.
    All the money is with UNP and some SLFP who is now hiding inside flower but.
    Damning big cookies UNP .

    Use will.become Rs.200.00
    food will.become double.

  • 4

    Singapore, South Korea, Vietnam were all done when the country inhabitants were at an all time low, and eating out of tin cans and/or farming the fields at pittance (albeit personal and nationalistic happiness). The countries then had plenty of money to invest on the innovative venture.
    But Lanka at this current time will find it impossible to balance budgets when everybody already lives at, or attempts to live at 1st world standards (or pretends to), and forces the GoSL to attain That, or else.
    We have to thus step back for a decade or so into pre-colonial economy in order to succeed. But the only thing that can be done at this moment is for Sri Lanka to sell mostly to China, and give MCC to USA, and pay USA Tithe as appeasement for indulging in China. Tithe can be called Global-Monetary-Balancing-Act.

    • 3

      Man made debt on own purposes created DEBT mountains and tied down to China is a public secret. They failed to handled the economy though doctored numbers are in the journals and ended being unable to face the nation by 2015.
      The very same MISLED nation, by every means are made even stupidier in order to grab their votes. That way they have returned to power. That RELICS saga in so called sacred kelaniya temple has become a fairy tale of the book -with lacks of people being misled in volumes.
      Opposition leader Mr Sajith P has made it very clear even with WORLD press, they would love to go and worship those relics, and the chief inbument of Kelaniya Temple to be ready for that in the near future.
      No nothing like FACTs regarding the issue is in PRESS these days, since some POWERFUL hands are behind that.
      With sky high price hikes in day today needs, the situation has turned out to be worsend…. neverthelss with a hope, people mesmerise the WALL ARTs, and the family bandism of RAJAPSKEH. To me, all these are MEDIA displays and they will bring us to ANGOLA or SOMALIA sooner than later.

  • 4

    Arresting a begger women by The Railway staff is quite laughable, because of the Party who arrested are highly questionable with the millions we loose daily by our dead duck railway
    while many of our country’s institutions hsve been robbed mercilessly and all have gone scottfree.

    At least This poor women begged it , which may be very contradictory to come to terms with my opinion, my stance is she was donated with the money by people voluntarily.
    Please return her rightful money, release her and first find solutiona to these poor hungry people on the streets. Enforce new laws and arrest them only three months after the law is enacted and not forgetting a solution is offered to the beggars.
    We can niether kill stay dogs , Cats , male & female both need to be sterilized and with beggars we need to find a lasting solution., .almost all of them are desititutes, fraternities like the Lion and Salvation Army should be invited to solve this .

  • 7

    mrit Muthukumarana: Well said. I pointed this same aspect in my comment of Jan. 7th. The whole of Governing Function has become cancerous and beyond any hope of resurrection. The Legislature, Executive and the Judiciary, including the Law Enforcement have subjugated by power hungry , greedy Legislators, Bureaucrats, and the Law Enforcement personnel. Leaving out the “Legislators” where even 52 members have not passed their “O” Level, all others in the “Bureaucrat Brigade” are “Academics” and “Professionals. The present President, who advertised himself and talked big of setting the “House” in order, had to scummed, either by “Pressure” or “Volition” appointed a “High Bureaucrat” as his “Secretary” who was found “GUILTY” of “Corruption and Mismanagement” by the Judiciary and punished with a huge fine and “Debarred” from holding any Public Office. Next whom, this President included in his “First” visit to India, in his delegation? A previous Secretary of a “President” who has been found “GUILTY” of “Misuse” of Public Funds and sentenced to “Jail Term”. He is presently serving as an “Adviser” to the President. Did these two “TOP LEVEL” Bureaucrats have the “Integrity”, “Honesty” and common “Decency” to “Reject” the offer of employment in those positions? Presently, there is a “Debate” going on as to the question of release of the “Forensic Audit” report pertaining to “Bond Issues” conducted at a cost of Rs. 900 million by two internationally reputed “Audit” outfits. Why it cannot be tabled in the Legislature? AG “Objects”? Who is he? Is he above the Legislature to “Dictate”? With this “CANCER” spread across all Institutions of Governing and “Bureaucracy”, what hopes for Sri Lank of gaining and establishing a conducive “ENVIRONMENT” to win TRUST and Confidence of anyone within and outside?.

  • 3

    Do not be in a haste.
    The President is working on a lot of stuff, if things go well our kids and our foreign exchange can stay in Sri Lanka and obtain an equlllent degree for much less.I agree our unis must be affiliated like NUS .

  • 0

    The IMF prescriptions on “Economy War” was on Neo-liberal economy has ruin ours national development of sustainability. UNP Liberal policies are anti-Development means. Since 2015 Jan 8th entire economy was disintegrated by IMF guide line of Tax policies and devalued of national currency and increased of Central Bank interest RATE . These measures were an undermined Nation development of Island,that Trade, investment, Industries and Agriculture,its progress. Result of that country Nation Debt has increased into 75% of Island GDP . What has happen under UNP regime in uncertainties around the Island.
    By GR no needed that accepts go on talking and working of writer advice
    so-called Liberal mode of Economy. Its failure in histrionically of neo-liberalism .it has no life in living Economy.

  • 0

    Nothing to worry.We have many worldwide underwriters and undertakers to take care of.

    • 0

      The Political-economy and its development has No short cuts and as well has No miracle at all.
      The Party of UNP that leader of Ranil Wicks has ruin ours Economic Sovereignty withing short period of history that 4 years and half ….!?
      Rebuilding of National Economy of Lanka is need period of time.

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