Compounded crises: IMF the only way out

Economic crises are difficult to solve. In the case of a natural disaster, we know that it will come to an end at some point. We just have to manage for a short period until everything settles. By contrast, economic crises are different. They generally come in a package of five separate but intertwined crises if not managed well. It is clearly best to avoid crises, but when the crisis hits, and if we fail to manage it, the situation becomes significantly worse. Sri Lanka, unfortunately, seems to be managing the situation badly. 

What we are currently experiencing is the balance of payments crisis. Simply put, we don’t have sufficient US Dollars to import essentials, including fuel and medicine. As a result, the lifestyle that we used to live cannot be sustained as long as these conditions prevail. 

The second crisis just around the corner is the debt crisis. We have a $ 1 billion payment to be paid on 25 July and our usable reserves amount to only about $ 150 million. It has clearly come to the point where restructuring debt is unavoidable. Debt restructuring will be a painful process for creditors and debtors equally. This will have an unavoidable impact on the local economy. Additionally, the debt restructuring can be done with an IMF programme. The IMF is the only organisation that can bring credibility to a country that has proved that “it is not good for money”.

The critical question is, how is Sri Lanka going to finance its trade until we negotiate with the IMF and have an agreed-upon programme of restructuring debt? If we had sufficient reserves, we would at least have had a backup option, but we all know reserves are not built for day-to-day imports but for an emergency situation like Covid-19. The other option is to get support from bilateral partners until we finalise the negotiations. Even for that to take place, generally an IMF programme is essential as they need to have some assurance that the money will be utilised to import essentials but not to bail-out any bond holders. Hence it is essential to enter into an IMF programme as early as possible, rather than beating around the bush. 

In an ideal scenario, as a country we should have moved forward with reforms before going to the IMF seeking funds and advice. Indeed, if we had carried out these reforms at the right time, then we would not have needed to go to the IMF. But if we are not doing things correctly, it’s sensible to go to the IMF, not only because of the money, but for credibility and discipline. The current situation is that we are already late – and the clock is ticking. There are massive shortages nationwide, which have the potential to get worse. The Government is yet to be clear about whether we intend to have an IMF programme and even as this article is being written, the country did not even have a finance minister to initiate any such discussions.

The third crisis of the package is the financial crisis. Particularly in the process of debt restructuring, some of these bonds are held by domestic banks. So restructuring will affect the local financial system. Furthermore, most of the local banks have extended credit guarantees for State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) and it is likely that their debt will also be required to be restructured. So the impact on the financial sector can trigger a third crisis.

As these triple crises bear down, the political capital enjoyed by the Government will undoubtedly wear away. As a result, political instability will start kicking in. Especially in a country like Sri Lanka, where most essential services like fuel, electricity, and water are provided by the Government, the moment interruptions start, public resistance increases at a higher rate. In the Sri Lankan case, the political crisis has overtaken the debt crisis and the financial crisis. We are in the middle of a political and balance of payment crises and the other two crises are just a matter of time. 

The final crisis in the package is the humanitarian crisis. Especially if we fail to secure some funding lines without also delaying IMF negotiations, there is a risk of extended power cuts and further deterioration of living conditions. This can trigger a humanitarian crisis. If we drift to a disorderly default, as the Financial Times reports, “Disorderly default is the same as civil war.”

Already there are stories in the news about shortages of medicine and medical equipment and postponement of surgeries, all of which impact the humanitarian needs of the people. So urgent action is needed! However, Sri Lanka is in a complete state of dysfunction; there is no solid Government or cabinet ministers to make decisions, while public resistance keeps mounting. 

The nature of an economic crisis is that one crisis will keep instigating another and it’s not going to just go away. It takes a lot of time to overcome after things go out of control. 

We are very far behind and we need someone who really understands the depth of reforms needed and the work plan we have to adhere to. The general optimistic sentiment of ‘this shall too pass’ really won’t work here. We have expected the same to happen for a long time but it really hasn’t happened. 

Before we move to reforms, we need to keep in mind, for future reference, the cost of bad economic policy. Self-sufficiency, protectionism, intervening in markets, and ad hoc policy decisions are a recipe for a disaster and sadly we are facing one now.

We have to immediately increase interest rates and remove all surrender requirements by the Central Bank. In an economic crisis, dimensions are different. We have to immediately go to the IMF with a short- and medium-term plan with political consensus on implementation for the next five to eight years.

The problem and the solutions are already known. We need credibility, commitment to undertake reforms, and competence for execution of reforms to overcome.