Home / Opinion and Issues/ Sri Lanka: A land like no other

Sri Lanka: A land like no other

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 22 September 2018 00:01

By Our Special Political Correspondent

Both Central Bank Governor Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy and Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera yesterday treading on very dangerous ground warned of a tendency of a further rupee depreciation against the US dollar within the next few weeks. Immediately the cost for forwards for foreign currency swaps went up by 20%. 

To many of us it reminded us how President D.B. Wijetunga got up one morning and announced that the two State banks were insolvent. Immediately, there was a run on the two State banks. 

When both the Finance Minister and the Central Bank Chief publicly say we cannot defend the rupee, two things happen immediately. Foreigners invested in rupees immediately look to bail out and locals having USD oversees don’t want to bring their dollars back and look to convert their rupees to USD. Overall it ends up in a disaster for the economy. 

We all know not only the Sri Lankan Rupee but also currencies of most Asian countries had depreciated during the recent past. The Sri Lankan Rupee has depreciated by 8%, while the Indian Rupee has depreciated by 13%, the Pakistan Rupee by 12% and the Indonesian Rupiah by 9%. 

Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, we are a small economy with a $ 90 billion GDP, unlike the other three economies that have export income more than our GDP. We all know the value of the rupee is determined by the foreign exchange market and primary determinants of the demand for currency are import and export of goods and services. 

All this chaos has disrupted the business of importers. Exporters also waste time in speculating, instead of making longer-term plans. They will borrow to keep dollars out, crowding out other businesses. Today for most companies their business plans and costs budgets have been disrupted. 

The Government to control the outflow of foreign currency has imposed a 100% cash margin requirement for LCs on non-commercial vehicles with immediate effect. While the imposition of minimum tax on vehicles less than 1,000 cc and market determinant fuel price formula has been successful in curbing excessive import growth so far, the taxes of luxury vehicles still remain the same. 

What is alarming is, a falling rupee will push up prices and kill purchasing power and economic activity. It seems increasingly unlikely that the 6.25% overnight rates seen in 2014 may ever come back. But we need to have a rate cut to boost growth. When the credit cycle turns, economic activity picks up. 

Of course there are many other factors that can drive economic activity in the short term. Business confidence is one. In well-managed countries, interest rates have been moving up, but growth is also there. Singapore’s and the US short-term rates have been steadily moving up. Singapore does not have a policy rate. It manages to grow without ‘rate cuts’. 

Ours is, however, very different; the Central Bank needs to find a way to create a buffer in the exchange rate, because there is now regular capital flight from time to time. The US will no doubt continue to raise rates, making the dollar more and more expensive to us. This buffer has to be done, even if we are not prepared to defend the rupee publicly. 

Sri Lanka has a small domestic production base of tradable goods relative to their level of consumption, and the dollarisation of domestic debt increase the probability of a financial crisis. Unfortunately for Sri Lanka, majority of its external liabilities consists of sovereign debt.

Political situation 

The political situation is also not helping our overall effort to create economic stability in the country. With President Sirisena taking pot shots at Prime Minister Wickremesinghe on a regular basis, business confidence has taken a heavy beating.

GDP is likely to grow at 3.7% in 2018 despite below-trend growth and mid-single digit inflation. This is however against a five-year average of 4.2%. The President, who is increasingly showing a willingness to contest the next presidential election in 2020, may after the Budget weed out the economic pundits managing the economy who have messed up and put his own to team to manage the economy, to give him an outside chance to become the common candidate once more. 

He has publicly criticised the effort of the UNP so far and even threatened action against Wickremesinghe’s cronies. He has publicly criticised the performance of the two State banks for dolling out money, especially to a builder with close connections to a UNP Minister. 

On the other hand the Joint Opposition (JO) led by Mahinda Rajapaksa is also plagued with big problems. The public protest held recently was a disaster by their standards. Basil Rajapaksa has publicly expressed his displeasure for staging a poorly-planned protest. The honeymoon for the JO is clearly over. There is clearly now resentment for another Rajapaksa within their ranks. This is how democracy actually works. 

However, what this country needs are good laws, strong institutions and political leaders who abide by the limits, however unwillingly, to protect Sri Lanka from sudden external shocks that causes economic hardships for the poorest of the poor.

Share This Article


1. All comments will be moderated by the Daily FT Web Editor.

2. Comments that are abusive, obscene, incendiary, defamatory or irrelevant will not be published.

3. We may remove hyperlinks within comments.

4. Kindly use a genuine email ID and provide your name.

5. Spamming the comments section under different user names may result in being blacklisted.


Today's Columnists

Challenges in preserving and promoting Pakistan’s Buddhist past

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The international media has been portraying Pakistan as a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism, especially after the Americans carried out a surgical strike there to kill international terrorist and fugitive, Osama bin Laden.

Government’s cohabitation stuck in the past or what?

Friday, 19 October 2018

The appointment of career judge Nalin Perera as the new Chief Justice, who has served in the judiciary for over 30 years, provides a snapshot into President Maithripala Sirisena’s thought process, amidst various stories of clashes with his coalitio

Profit before principle: Khashoggi and US-Saudi relations

Friday, 19 October 2018

The mysterious disappearance of a Saudi journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, from inside the Saudi Embassy complex in Turkey on 2 October and an array of circumstantial evidence surrounding his disappearance lead one to suspect that Jamal was possibly abduct

When shame and honour take the hypocritical centre stage

Friday, 19 October 2018

As human beings, we experience a gamut of emotions. These help individuals to express themselves, and authorities to exercise control over entire societies. The most common feelings engendered by our race span a spectrum from guilt and shame to fear.

Columnists More