Sri Lanka defaulted on its external debt of $51bn on April 12, and the country is now grappling with the economic consequences of insolvency. Access to foreign capital markets to raise much-needed loans to finance imports has been cut-off. The country’s finance ministry has asked international creditors, including foreign governments, to capitalize any interest payments or receive repayments in Sri Lankan rupees. Meanwhile widespread protests continue across the country against power blackouts and acute shortages of food, medicine and fuel.
Pakistan does not presently face the grim meltdown seen in Sri Lanka, but policymakers would be unwise to ignore the lessons to be learnt from the island economy. As the international institutional investor, Mattias Matterson of Tundra Funds noted, “Sri Lanka tried to defy economic realities, maintain a fixed exchange rate, refuse IMF support and instead chose capital controls. The result was pent up demand for US dollars, scarcity of essential goods, which caused havoc in the society and the local currency to plummet.” He observed that Pakistan has so far handled the situation better than Sri Lanka.
However, the delinking of the petroleum prices from the international market rates on February 28 this year harmed the stabilization process that the previous Pakistani government had been following until then. The PKR10 per litre cut in petrol prices and announcement of other subsidies, led to the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) program agreed upon with the International Monetary Fund (IMF), being put on hold. The Oil and Gas Regulatory Authority (OGRA) has proposed to reverse the cuts and raise petroleum product prices by PKR21 to PKR50 per litre, but Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif rejected the proposal on Friday. He appears wary of the “mountain of inflation” that could as a result be unleashed on the public, which may also erode the political capital of the newly formed government. Ironically, while in opposition, senior members of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN), criticized the fuel price cuts as being fiscally irresponsible.
Irrespective of OGRA’s recommendation being politically unpalatable, the government is likely to eventually comply with them in order to impose the fiscal discipline required for renewing the EFF program. With foreign exchange reserves depleting and more than USD50bn of external financing required over the next couple of years, support from IMF and bilateral loans from friendly countries, as well as access to international debt markets is vitally important.
Although the Pakistani Rupee has appreciated in the last couple of weeks from a low of almost 189 against the US dollar back to around 180, the perception of default risk in the international money markets persists. Credit Default Swap (CDS) premium for Pakistan – an instrument that is indicative of the risk of a country defaulting – that had risen from around 4 percent to 10 percent with the submission of a no-confidence motion, further increased to 12 percent soon after the formation of the new government.
With CDS at an all-time high, the implied rating by the international bond markets for Pakistan is at CC/Ca or two notches below the official rating of B-/B3, and only two notches above D default. Most institutional investors in the international money markets, including many hedge funds, are mandated not to invest in “hooks”, that is, countries with ratings that are CCC or lower. As things stand, Pakistan is effectively shut out of the international debt markets and in dire need of the support of allied countries.
The new government would be well advised to avoid raising public servant salaries and pensions, and providing other sops to the public that are not only unsustainable, but also likely to worsen public finances.
Pakistan must complete the EFF program in order to access international credit markets. The new government may want to seek better terms in the seventh review with the IMF, but it should avoid trying to depart from the broad outlines already agreed upon. Since timing is of essence, any extended period of negotiations would worsen Pakistan’s external position.
The Fund has indicated its support for Pakistan in pursuing policies that provide inclusive and sustainable growth, and are consistent with the EFF program. These include fuel price increases as proposed by OGRA, but so far rejected by the PM; power tariffs hike of 5 rupees per unit as agreed with IMF in the last review; no tax cuts; avoidance of imposition of import duties to control imports; and a firm commitment to continued SBP autonomy and a policy of inflation targeting. The new government would be well advised to avoid raising public servant salaries and pensions, and providing other sops to the public that are not only unsustainable, but also likely to worsen public finances.
The measures that need to be taken to move ahead with the EFF program may be politically difficult, but are necessary for Pakistan to avert the dire consequences of defaulting on external debt. There must be consensus across the Pakistani political spectrum to reject short-term political expediency in favour of policies that are based on robust economic fundamentals.