Sri Lanka and the IMF: Myth and reality – Part 1

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The decision to go to the IMF for assistance rests entirely with the IMF members. However, the relationship between the IMF and its developing-country members under stabilisation programmes has not always been smooth

 

Sri Lanka’s first attempt to borrow from the IMF under an SBA was by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Coalition Government in 1964. By that time import restriction and capital controls had been carried out to the maximum and it was becoming increasingly difficult to introduce further restrictions without damaging the economy. Because of the nationalisation of the foreign-owned gas and petroleum outlets in 1961, Sri Lanka became the first country against which the US Government invoked the Hickenlooper Amendment requiring the suspension of US aid to countries expropriating US property without compensation. Following this, the international aid community virtually isolated Sri Lanka

 

“We cannot brush aside and completely ignore these international institutions; we can repudiate their terms only if we are prepared to face the far-reaching distortions”

“The Government’s effort to put its own house in order is not the result of IMF advice but is the obvious thing to do in the national interest”

– Dr. N.M. Perera, Finance Minister of the United Front Government, 1970-’75 

 


Sri Lanka is now in the midst of its worst macroeconomic crisis since independence. Whether to seek financial support from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in managing the crisis is a hotly-debated issue in Sri Lankan policy circles. The debate is largely ideologically-driven: strongly-held, opposing views are expressed without facts. 

The purpose of this paper is to demystify the debate by documenting and analysing Sri Lanka’s experience under IMF-supported macroeconomic adjustment programs, the economic circumstances that propelled the country to seek IMF support, and implications of these programmes for economic stabilisation and growth. 

The discussion focuses on two key issues emphasised by the current political leadership and the Central Bank to justify their attempt to avert going to the IMF: IMF dictates policy reforms at the expense of national policy autonomy, and the conditions attached to IMF programs are harmful to national development. The paper primarily adopts an economist’s perspective, but where relevant economics is combined with politics in order to understand the vicissitudes of Sri Lanka-IMF relations.

The paper begins with a short introduction to the role of the IMF in economic stabilisation reforms in developing countries to provide the context for the ensuing analysis. The next section provides as analytical narrative of the history of Sri Lanka-IMF relations. The following section examines the impact of IMF programs on the Sri Lankan economy. The final section provides concluding remarks with a focus on the current debate on entering into an IMF programme.

 

The IMF and economic stabilisation

The IMF was set up in 1945 to provide member countries with bridging loans to help them get over balance of payments difficulties. A member’s access to the IMF’s financing is expressed in terms of tranches, equal to 25% of its quota of the IMF. The first four trenches (‘reserve’ tranches, in total up to 100% of its quota) can be accessed free of charge at the member’s own discretion.

The IMF also has other concessional credit facilities introduced to help member countries in the event of unforeseeable economic shocks: Compensatory Finance Facility (CFF), the Buffer Stock Financing Facility (BSFF), the Trust Fund and Subsidy Account (TFSA) financing, Supplemental Reserve Facility (SRF), Contingent Credit Lines (CCLs) and Emergency Assistance (EA).

When a country borrows beyond the reserve trenches or eligible concessional credit facilities, it has to agree on a reform package to overcome its problems that led to seek financial support. These lending programs are called structural adjustment (or stabilisation) programmes. The policy measures prescribed by the IMF relating to these lending programmes are known as ‘IMF conditionality’.

The main structural adjustment loan programme is the Stand-By Agreement (SBA) facility, introduced in 1952. The key objectives of SBAs are to rebuild the external reserves, strengthen the fiscal position, maintain monetary stability, and fortify the domestic financial system. The length of the typical SBA programme is 12 to 18 months and loans are to be repaid within a maximum of five years.

The other IMF stabilisation facilities are the Extended Fund Facility (EFF) (established in 1974); Structural Adjustment Facility (SAF) (1982) and later remained Enhanced Structural Adjustment Facility (ESAF), and Poverty Reduction and Growth facility (PRGF) introduced in 1999 in place of the ESAF specifically to help low-income countries. These programmes have been established to provide support to comprehensive structural adjustment programmes that include policies of the scope and character required to correct structural imbalances over an extended period. Normally the duration of these programmes varies from three to five years, and repayment is over four to 10 years from the date of drawing. 

Under the structural adjustment programmes, the IMF releases funds by quarterly credit tranches. The country has to observe the quarterly programme criteria at each test data. The interest rate comprises two components: the service charge and a ‘fixed margin’ (an annual interest rate). The service charge is calculated weekly, based on a Special Drawing Rights (SDR) rate (applicable to all borrowings from the IMF) and the fixed margin is applicable to loans up to 300% of the member’s IMF quota and a surcharge is applicable to loans beyond that limit. The interest rate is normally about one third of the average rate applicable to sovereign bonds issued by the typical developing country.

Unlike the other multilateral and bilateral lenders who lend to the government of the borrowing country, the IMF always lends funds to the central banks of the country. The IMF loans to the central bank are strictly for the purpose of building international reserves to meet external payments. Therefore, borrowing under IMF programmes does not have any direct impact on domestic money supply and hence on domestic inflation. 

Entering into an IMF supported programme also acts as a catalyst to generate additional international financial assistance in three ways (Bird and Rowlands 2007). First, having a macroeconomic adjustment programme with the IMF is often a prerequisite for obtaining World Bank adjustment loans. Second, as part of entering into a stabilisation programme, the IMF arranges aid consortia of donor countries to assist the given country, Most of the donor funds harnessed under these consortia are outright grants or long-term loans that carry low interest rates. Third, credibility of the reform program gained by entering into an IMF programme helps raising funds at competitive interest rates from private capital markets.

The core of an IMF stabilisation programme is a ‘letter of intent’ that contains ‘performance criteria’ (conditionality) agreed with the IMF. The performance criteria vary from case to case, but typically centre on four key variables: budget deficit, the rate at which domestic credit is created, interest rates for both depositors and borrowers, and the exchange rate. In recent decades, the IMF has begun to focus on domestic pricing policy for petroleum products, when the domestic prices are badly out of line with world prices. 

In the typical developing economy where the local capital market is weak and access to foreign credit is limited, domestic credit expansion is largely driven by the budget deficit. In IMF reform programs the major emphasis is, therefore, placed on fiscal reforms, cutting the budget deficit through both government revenue reform and rationalising government expenditure. (There is a saying that the acronym ‘IMF’ stands for ‘It’s Mostly Fiscal’!) 

A straightforward reduction of absorption (expenditure) is likely to entail a decline in total output and employment unless wages are exceptionally flexible and labour and capital is highly mobile among economic sectors. Therefore, exchange rate depreciation is recommended to make tradable goods (exports and imports competing goods) relatively more profitable compared to ‘non-tradables’ (mostly services and construction). The expansion of domestic tradable goods production relatively to non-tradable production is expected to help maintaining growth dynamism of the economy in face of policy-induced contraction in aggregate domestic absorption (Cooper 1992).

The decision to go to the IMF for assistance rests entirely with the IMF members. However, the relationship between the IMF and its developing-country members under stabilisation programmes has not always been smooth. Much of the disagreements hinge on judgements relating to conditionality attached to the lending programmes. While the principle of conditionality is not generally contested, often there are strong reservations on the part of members about the design and application of conditionality. The national officials are typically more optimistic than the IMF staff and the favourable developments they anticipate could imply less difficult action. 

On the other hand, in some cases, the national government’s discontent could also arise because, in setting conditions, the IMF staff has the tendency go beyond the basic framework. For instance, they could get into details of exactly what expenditures should be cut or what taxes should be raised to reduce the budget deficit, instead of leaving the responsibility for meeting the targets with the officials of the country concerned by taking into account country-specific political as well as economic considerations. 

Negotiating a stabilisation programme in a crisis context has the tendency to give the unwarranted impression that a country is rushing into action with a weak negotiating position vis-a-vis the IMF. The governments may resent IMF conditionality because of the loss of sovereignty implied and also because of a belief that the IMF’s objectives do not necessarily coincide with those of the national government. 

In such a context, naturally there is a tendency on the prat of the governments to make the IMF a scapegoat for (to hold the IMF responsibility for) politically unpopular decisions taken by them or for their own poor economic management. Indeed, such scapegoating often lead many to believe that the IMF forces countries to take politically disagreeable, and sometimes economically costly, action (Cooper 1992, Bird 2007). 

 

Sri Lanka and the IMF 

Sri Lanka (then ‘Ceylon’) became a member of the IMF (and the World Bank) on 29 August 1950. It accepted the obligation for liberalisation of the current account transaction under the IMF Article VIII in March 1994. 

Sri Lanka did not recourse to IMF financing throughout the 1950s, given the healthy external reserve position built up during the Second Word War, which was subsequently buttressed by the Korean War commodity boom (1950-51) and the tea boom (1954-55). The country obtained IMF finance for the first time in 1961, and then in 1962, within the reserve trenches. 

 

1964: Trotskyite Finance Minister seeking IMF support

Sri Lanka’s first attempt to borrow from the IMF under an SBA was by the Sri Lanka Freedom Party (SLFP) and Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP) Coalition Government in 1964. By that time import restriction and capital controls had been carried out to the maximum and it was becoming increasingly difficult to introduce further restrictions without damaging the economy (Corea 1971). Because of the nationalisation of the foreign-owned gas and petroleum outlets in 1961, Sri Lanka became the first country against which the US Government invoked the Hickenlooper Amendment requiring the suspension of US aid to countries expropriating US property without compensation (Olson 1977). Following this, the international aid community virtually isolated Sri Lanka.

The pragmatic Trotskyite Finance Minister, Dr. N.M. Perera (NM) decided to approach the IMF. In September 1964, at the Annual Meetings of the IMF and the World Bank held in Tokyo, the Sri Lankan team led by NM consulted the IMF on the possibility of obtaining financial support under an SBA. The Government was defeated in the Parliament before the negotiations ended. However, according to a statement made by Dudley Senanayake (the Opposition Leader) at a parliamentary debate, the negotiation with the IMF failed well before because NM was not prepared to touch the politically-sensitive subsidy on rice (Hansard Vol 73, No. 13, 1767 c. 2898).

 

1965-70: Four back-to-back SBAs

During 1965-1970, the right-of-the-centre United National Party (UNP) Government obtained IMF financial support under four SBAs. The IMF conditionality of the Letters of Intent of these SBAs reflected the very nature of the mainstream development thinking at the time, which favoured import-substitution industrialisation with the Government directly playing a major role. 

Redressing the fiscal imbalance by rationalising expenditure, in particular reducing subsidies was the key focus. Reforming State-Owned Enterprises was not part of conditionality even though converting their losses had already become a big drain on the Government budget. Under the third SBA signed in May 1968, a Foreign Exchange Entitlement Certificate Scheme (FFECS), a dual exchange rate systems, designed to provide incentives to sleeted ‘non-traditional’ exports and to lift quantitative restrictions on selected imports at a premium above the official exchange rate (initially set at 44%). Other than this, there was no emphasis by the IMF on unshackling the economy from import restrictions and other direct Government intervention in the economy.

An important development in the policy scene during this period, which has not received only scant attention in the post-independence development history of Sri Lanka, is a failed attempt by J.R. Jayewardene (JR), the then Minister of State and Deputy Prime Minister, to seek IMF support for a major liberalisation reform. At the time the economy was in the doldrums because of the closed-economy polices pursued by the country from the late 1950s. JR ‘regarded the crisis as an opportunity to embark on a radical change in economic policies that would amount to a departure from the dirigiste policies’ (de Silva and Wriggins 1998, p168). 

He approached B. R. Shenoy, the Indian liberal economist (who had taught at the Ceylon University College in the late 1940s) for advice. Shenoy responded with a comprehensive policy blueprint for unshackling the economy (Shenoy 1966). JR presented the Shenoy report to the Cabinet but there was little chance of being adopted the radical reform package given the political adjustments and realignments within the multi-party Cabinet. He had to wait until the UNP’s election victory under his leadership in 1977 to implement the proposed reforms. 

( To be continued tomorrow)


(The writer is a Fellow of the Academy of the Social Sciences of Australia, and Emeritus Professor of Economics at the Arndt-Corden Department of Economics, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and can be reached via Prema-chandra.athukorala@anu.edu.au)

[In writing the analytical native of Sri Lanka-IMF relations during 1960-1985, the author has drawn heavily on the PhD thesis of J.B.A.D Jayalath, ‘The Political Economy of Adjustment and Stabilization: Sri Lanka’s Relations with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, 1960-1985’ (The University of New England, Australia, 1990). He has also benefited from discussions with Sisira Jayasuriya. The full paper will be available soon at https://acde.crawford.anu.edu.au/acde-research/working-papers-trade-and-development.]

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