The state has a long history of involvement in the economy in Sri Lanka; state ownership of utilities dates back to the colonial era. Post-independence experiments with socialism saw the expansion of the state into many new areas of business. Despite some reforms in the 1977-2005 era, state enterprises still account for a significant share of the economy.
The 2005-2015 period saw a halt to the privatisation process and a renewed wave of expansion in state businesses. Between 2009 and 2014 the number of SOEs grew from 107 to 245 while the number employed grew from 140,500 to a staggering 261,683.
Although the Department of Public Enterprises is supposed to improve governance in Public Enterprises (Commercial Corporations, Government Owned Companies and Statutory Boards), by its own admission only 55 SOEs come under its purview. The last available performance report (2014) indicates the 55 SOEs that were considered strategically important obtained budgetary support of Rs.126bn and treasury guarantees of Rs.47.6bn that year. Bank borrowings by these SOEs stood at Rs.471.2bn as at end 2014.
The size of the SOEs and the breadth of their activity make it an important determinant of the overall productivity of the economy. Consequently, the governance of SOEs will be critical to ensure their positive contribution to a country’s overall economic efficiency and competitiveness.
Ensuring that whether held nationally, regionally or locally – the state’s investments to actually deliver the societal outcomes desired is extremely difficult due to certain inherent problems.
1) Governments are run by politicians, not businessmen. Politicians can only make political decisions, not economic ones and these decisions will tend to be focused on short term publicity and benefits, ignoring long term consequences. An example is the launch of a company called Polipto Lanka to convert rubber and polythene waste to diesel. It was launched in 2009 amidst much fanfare but despite regular grants from the treasury it is yet to show any commercial results or even demonstrate that the process is economically feasible. Coincidentally, the launch took place a week before a general election. Polipto Lanka receives regular budget support from the Treasury; support for the last three years amounting to Rs.120m.
2) Governments use other people’s money; businesses must risk their own money. If a business does not earn a profit, the owner will need to keep infusing funds and this provides a powerful incentive to improve efficiency. The general public, whose money is effectively at risk in a state venture do not have the wherewithal or knowledge to hold managers or politicians to account. Politicians would prefer to postpone hard decisions than risk personal unpopularity, which is why state enterprises can keep running losses year after year.
The Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB) and Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation (SLSPC) have not reported a profit in the last five years, Mihin Lanka has barely made a profit since its inception, yet they continue to operate, the losses being paid by taxpayers because politicians will not risk bad publicity that may follow any attempts to reform them.
The Director General of Public Enterprises admitted as much in his report of 2009:
"We have found some boards take affairs of the enterprise very lightly regardless of their strategic importance even in a situation where PE [Public Enterprise] faces very difficult time. Since there is
no formal procedure to hold the chairman and the board of directors accountable, for their weak performance or unacceptable practices, some boards act with sheer indifference in discharging their responsibility."
3) State enterprises tend to be monopolies or restrict competition from the private sector. A business that faces no competition will find it easier to report profits. Where state businesses face competition the Government may grant SOEs preferential tax or other benefits that hinder the ability of the private sector to compete, causing deterioration in service or increasing costs to consumers. A few years ago VAT was imposed on large supermarkets but LakSathosa was exempted from this. The previously unprofitable LakSathosa started to make profits, while the efficient local supermarkets were penalised.
SOEs which operate as monopolies may not deliver an adequate level of service or charge excessive prices, which may lower the productivity/efficiency of the wider economy.
When Telecom was in state hands, obtaining a telephone connection, essential for business was a luxury that required a wait of several years. Thanks to liberalisation of phone connections, now they are available over the counter but businesses still struggle to obtain power connections and may have to invest in standby generators due to unreliability.
Energy costs (fuel and electricity) do not reflect the decline in global oil prices partly due to inefficiencies within the CPC/CEB (Ceylon Petroleum Corporation/ Ceylon Electricity Board), impacting on the competitiveness of business.
Inefficiencies in the state managed port terminals are a drag on trade but fortunately throughput at the privately managed SAGT (South Asia Gateway Terminal) Queen Elizabeth Quay is far greater and a boon to business.
The SAGT terminal has been ranked number one for terminal productivity in South Asia by the Journal of Commerce in the USA and ranked number four in the world. Because of the faster turnaround time ships prefer to dock at Queen Elizabeth Quay where it operates.
SOEs, especially those that lose money, are partly funded by banks. When a large chunk of bank lending is directed towards SOEs, the private sector will find it harder to obtain funds and higher interest rates could lead to a phenomenon referred to as "crowding out".
4) Governments cannot boost overall employment by hiring workers to the state sector. Giving people state-sector jobs may appear to create employment but this causes a problem because each new position brings with it a tax obligation that imposes a burden on the private sector, where wealth is generated and taxes paid. Effectively, since the salary of a public-sector employee reduces the amount of funds available to private employers, a job created in the public sector causes an offsetting loss in the private sector.
5) State-owned enterprises may enjoy hidden subsidies in a variety of forms including preferential borrowing costs, lower rents or taxes. Thus the actual costs will be higher than reported in the accounts and very difficult to quantify without detailed analysis. For example, imagine if ministries or SOEs had to pay market rents for the space in Government buildings that they utilise. Few would occupy the highly-valued areas they do now and would probably occupy less office space.
Indeed there is a massive opportunity cost of state- owned property in that they do not generate a net tax income for the state. If these properties were utilised by the private sector they would generate taxes as well as rents. Secondly, government office buildings in city centres create additional congestion. Given the current state of information technology, most government offices could and should be moved far from city centres. Hence, it is clear that the problems with SOEs are not limited to losses; their inefficiencies also can be a serious drag on the wider economy.
A more worrying issue is that the public is unaware of the full extent of the problem. The Treasury and other bodies that are supposed to monitor SOEs do so only partially and by all accounts ineffectively. Hence the question is - how much of public resources are being drained away in this financial black hole? The tax payers and citizens surely deserve better.
At a minimum, the Government needs to publish regular, comprehensive performance report giving the investments, outstanding debts and profits/losses of all SOEs. The question of reform needs to be urgently addressed and privatisation should remain an option.