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CB Chief says debt challenge manageable but proper fix is higher exports and FDI

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Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy addresses the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) Sri Lanka-organised fireside chat last week. Moderator Stax Managing Director Dr. Kumudu Gunasekara (left) and panellist Hemas Holdings CEO Steven Enderby are also present


Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy last week expressed confidence that Sri Lanka can manage the unprecedented debt repayment challenge, owing to a wide range of initiatives taken, but the long term solution is boosting export earnings and Foreign Direct Investments. 

In his remarks at the American Chamber of Commerce (AMCHAM) Sri Lanka-organised fireside chat, the Central Bank Chief said that of the $ 5.9 billion foreign debt repayment outstanding in 2019, of which $ 2.6 billion is due in the first quarter, $ 1.7 billion was paid in January. Of the full year figure, $ 1.2 billion is on account of Sri Lanka Development Bonds (SLDBs), which would be rolled over, and a further $ 1.5 billion can be settled via the pipeline of bilateral and multilateral funding, whilst new sources of funding was required only for the balance. 

In terms of new funding arrangements, Dr. Coomaraswamy listed a $ 400 million SAARC Swap with Reserve Bank of India with an option to enhance to $ 1 billion. A $ 300 million arrangement with the Bank of China with option to extend it to $ 1 billion as well as $ 1 to $ 1.5 billion facility from the China Development Bank.  Additionally, the Cabinet has approved raising $ 2 billion via Sovereign Bonds, with a Panda Bond and/or Samurai Bond being among options. 

He noted that that the 50-day political impasse in the country derailed the previously lined-up borrowing program and a more favourable pricing, as it was just after Sri Lanka managing a staff-level agreement with the IMF in terms of the Enhanced Fund Facility (EFF) program. 

"The medium term challenge can be managed, though I would say we are actually buying time. The real solution is enhancing exports and Foreign Direct Investments," Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasised at the AMCHAM event, moderated by Stax Managing Director Dr. Kumudu Gunasekara.

He also said that apart from the foreign debt servicing, Sri Lanka's other challenge was growing domestic debt, with Rs. 980 billion raised by the Central Bank on behalf of the Government.  This heavy borrowing by the Government, according to the Central Bank Chief, also prevents a reduction in interest rates. 

The Central Bank directly lent Rs. 310 billion to manage its cashflow during the political impasse. However, the Government will repay the amount to the Central Bank by end February. 

He said that the Government is renegotiating the IMF program to secure greater flexibility, keeping in mind the State's social commitments. 

An IMF team is due on 14 February for a fresh round of negotiations, based on Sri Lanka's macroeconomic achievements as at 31 December 2018, as opposed to previous assessment capturing data only up to 30 June 2018.

According to the Governor, the Parliament’s approval of the Active Liability Management Act last year is a potential "game changer" , when it comes to managing the debt challenge going forward. 

With regard to a question on the ballooning foreign commercial borrowing of Sri Lanka, the Governor responded saying it was owing to Sri Lanka progressing towards a middle-income nation, as previously, as a low income country, it benefited heavily from bilateral and multilateral concessionary loans, which were as high as over 60% of the total foreign debt. From 2008, the commercial borrowings have taken that share.  

Dr. Coomaraswamy also clarified that the Central Bank is not artificially propping the exchange rate, nor defending any particular rate. However, it will not allow a disorderly movement either way. 

Focusing on the prospects of the economy, the Governor said that favourable weather and relatively low oil prices, which have always been "feel good factors" for Sri Lanka, augurs well for the economy.  He also stressed that under the previous regime, the country suffered owing to its anti-export bias, whereas the current Government is focused on a more export and FDI-oriented policy framework, with an aggressive push on Free Trade Agreements. 

He also said that the Government wasn't keen to create artificial growth. "Sure we can create a boom, but it is usually followed by a crash, and this is evident from the fact that Sri Lanka todate has had 16 programs with the IMF," Coomaraswamy recalled, adding that creating a more robust growth framework was more important.  

"The Government vision is clear, though implementation remains a challenge," he opined. 

Nevertheless, the Central Bank Chief said 2019 GDP growth forecast is over 4%, and noted that the Sri Lankan private sector needs to step up, which is a pre-requisite for FDIs to follow suit. 

Given the fact that 2019 is an election year, Dr. Coomaraswamy emphasised the need for fiscal prudence. "We are much closer to the precipice today than before," he added. 

Panellist at the AMCHAM Fireside Discussion and Hemas Holdings CEO Steven Enderby in his comments also emphasised that drawing more FDIs is key, for which the economy needs to meaningfully open up with greater private sector role. He cited success in this regard by India and Bangladesh, who liberalised their economies long after Sri Lanka. "India and Bangladesh have succeeded in overcoming their challenges to boost exports and attract more FDIs. I personally feel there are lot more internal issues to resolve to be truly competitive," Enderby pointed out. 

He said that THE sharp depreciation of the rupee in the last quarter of 2018 caused a huge impact on the private sector enterprises dependent on imported inputs, and consumer demand was dampened during and following the political impasse.  

"When you talk to foreign companies or those in Singapore as to why would they want to relocate in Sri Lanka, the emphasis is That lower cost isn't a convincing  argument but investors prefer political stability, policy consistency and greater efficiency which are strengths of Singapore," Enderby emphasised. 

ned during and following the political impasse.  

“When you talk to foreign companies or those in Singapore as to why would they want to relocate in Sri Lanka, the emphasis is That lower cost isn’t a convincing  argument but investors prefer political stability, policy consistency and greater efficiency which are strengths of Singapore,” Enderby emphasised. 

Pix by Chamila Karunathne

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