Central Bank

Consumers rear-ended by reer depreciation?

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

What really is driving the currency weakness? The Central Bank must consider both fundamentals and monetary factors.

Sri Lanka’s currency has fallen rapidly over the last two months, raising fears of yet another crisis. Sri Lanka’s Rupee depreciation over the past six months against the US Dollar is at a much higher rate than the historic annual average of around 10% over the last couple of decades. A stable exchange rate reduces transaction costs and uncertainty in international trade, thereby stimulating trade. It is one of the most important macroeconomic variables in the economy; it affects inflation, exports, imports and economic activity. Budget deficits are the source of much instability. The painful tax increases that addressed this issue were expected to result in stabilisation of interest rates, exchange rates and inflation. The recent depreciation of the currency is therefore puzzling and worrying.

The problem seems to be in the new inflation targeting regime based on the Real Effective Exchange Rate. What this means is that Sri Lanka will target an inflation-adjusted exchange rate index relative to competitors to keep the Rupee competitive. It appears that the depreciation of other currencies has led the Central Bank to loosen monetary policy, causing the currency to fall. What are the implications of such a policy?

Export growth is correctly identified as critical for development, and the Central Bank objective seems to be to keep the exchange rate competitive; but is this necessary? Previously, competitive exchange rates were seen to be crucial for exports, but a recent paper published by the World Bank in 2015 (Depreciation without Exports? Global Value Chains and the Exchange Rate Elasticity of Exports) suggests this is changing (although the view is not universal; other studies seem to contradict this).

The paper finds that the emergence of global value chains (GVCs) has resulted in a decline in the effect of real exchange rates on export performance. This has been linked with the emergence of GVCs through the following three mechanisms:
1. Firms need to import to be able to export; therefore, their exports contain not just domestic but also foreign inputs.
2. Stable supplier-buyer links are valuable, so the cost of switching suppliers in case of a real exchange rate change in a given partner’s country becomes non-negligible.
3. Large leading firms account for an increasingly larger portion of world trade, and these firms may find it easier to hedge against real exchange rate changes along their production network.

The study finds that when firms’ share of imported intermediates is greater than 30 percent, the effect of real exchange rates on export participation fades. Thus, as countries become more integrated in global production processes, currency depreciation only improves the competitiveness of a fraction of the value of final goods exports. The objective of Sri Lanka’s new export strategy is to integrate to GVC. If this paper is correct, the currency may not play a significant role in improving our entry into GVCs.

As yet, Sri Lanka is not well integrated into global value chains; so does the currency depreciation help existing exports? This does not appear to be the case.

It appears that the depreciation of the other currencies has led the Central Bank to loosen monetary policy, causing the currency to fall. What are the implications of such a policy?

A Central Bank staff research paper by U P Alawattage in 2005 titled Exchange Rate, Competitiveness and Balance of Payment Performance examined the effectiveness of the exchange rate policy in Sri Lanka in achieving external competitiveness since the liberalisation of the economy in 1977. It analyses quarterly data covering the period of 1978:1 to 2000:4 and finds that the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER) does not have a significant impact on improving the trade balance, particularly in the short term.

The other major concern is the impact of the currency on domestic prices and confidence. For small economies, changes in the exchange rate can have an important influence on prices. It not only affects prices of imports but also import-competing goods, and local goods that are tradeable internationally. When the currency depreciates, local prices of these goods and services tend to rise quite quickly, and by a similar amount as the depreciation of the exchange rate.

When import prices rise, demand is driven towards domestically produced goods and services. In the absence of offsetting factors, this results in more pressure on local production capacity and a bidding up of prices. This leads to increased demand for labour and capital pushing wages and interest rates.

The direct effect of the currency depreciation will generally contribute to an overall price level increase in proportion to the share of tradeable goods and services in GDP. Published as a Central Bank study in 2017, a paper by S M Wimalasuriya titled Exchange Rate Pass-Through: To what extent do prices change in Sri Lanka? suggests that the exchange rate pass-through into import prices is around 50%; that is, import prices increase by about 0.5% (and those of other consumer prices by 0.3%) as a result of a 1% depreciation of the Nominal Effective Exchange Rate.

Therefore, the overall cost of living will rise further. Tax increases – VAT from 11% to 15%, PAL from 5% to 7.5% – and the currency depreciation over the last couple of years has already added significant costs to household budgets. Add to this increases in fuel, gas – all necessary due to increases in global prices – and the combined burden is huge. To add even further inflation through currency depreciation will impoverish many and increase popular discontent. Pursuing unpopular policies is sometimes necessary but the combination of depreciation amid fiscal tightening looks dangerous and perhaps even unnecessary.

Exchange rates can move for a range of reasons, which can be simplified into two categories: “real” factors, or in other words, changes in relative fundamentals; and “monetary” factors. “Fundamentals” would, for example, include changes in the terms of trade and productivity, while “Monetary” factors are changes in the money supply.

In practice, policymakers may find it difficult to distinguish how much of a movement in the exchange rate is due to changes in the fundamentals and how much may be inflationary (or deflationary), although in the current situation, monetary factors seem to be the cause.

Thus, in Sri Lanka, where inflation expectations are not well anchored, the prudent monetary policy response would be to tighten rates, at least until there are grounds for being more confident that it was the fundamentals that had changed. The immediate political considerations suggest the same action.

A currency’s exchange rate contains important information about the country’s monetary position and the credibility of domestic monetary policy. The popular perception of the current stance is that it is either weak or out of control. For businesses, it is creating a new level of uncertainty, which is not being helped by ad hoc administrative measures (increasing LC margins on cars for example) to arrest some of the effects. For consumers, it fuels inflation, adding to the woes of fiscal tightening.

The Central Bank should revisit its inflation-targeting regime and tighten rates to stabilize the currency.

Is a Currency Board solution to depreciating rupee?

Originally appeared on Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Sri Lanka’s rupee depreciated rapidly over the last month. The Government has claimed the problem is mainly due to global pressures and has reacted with a series of import restrictions on vehicles, consumer durables and perfumes. Bankers report that similar controls were imposed in 2009 during another episode of devaluation.

Currency instability has been a recurring phenomenon in Sri Lanka.Money is the medium of exchange, and a sound, widely accepted currency promotes trade. Trade was vital to ancient Rome which introduced a uniform currency throughout their empire. Historically, the use of money arose due to the inconveniences of barter. Money serves three fundamental purposes:

  1. It is the medium of exchange: Money is used for trading goods and services. In the absence of money trade could only take place through the cumbersome process of barter.

  2. Unit of account: Money is the common standard for measuring relative worth of goods and services.

  3. Store of value: It is the means by which wealth is stored. Without money people would need to store their wealth as goods, which is cumbersome and expensive.

Money oils the wheels of trade; it is obvious that it performs its functions best when its value is stable. If the value of money fluctuates widely it undermines it’s fundamental purpose. A simplistic example drives this point home.

Imagine being contacted by a broker about a 2,500-square-foot house, only to visit and find a house half the size. The prospective buyer would have very little trust in the broker. This is purely hypothetical given that a foot is a foot. Since its definition is unchanging, 2,500 square feet means the same today as it did 20 years ago.

Whatever the level of trust buyers have in their brokers, square footage will never be a factor; that is, unless the length of the foot is allowed to “float,” and its length declines. Suddenly, 2,500 square feet could very well mean 1,500 square feet in real terms, and trust in brokers will plummet.

This illustrates the effect of an unstable currency. Sound money has underpinned the growth of Singapore and Hong Kong. What lessons do these hold for Sri Lanka?

Hong Kong has a Currency Board, which means all currency issued in the territory must be at least 100 per cent backed by foreign reserves. Singapore’s monetary policy, although no longer a fixed board (which it once was) retains the key characteristics of a currency board. A currency board is similar to a fully backed gold standard.

As the currency is fully backed by hard reserves it is freely convertible and immune from depreciation. The exchange rate can remain fixed but in practice many countries that run currency board arrangements allow a small fluctuation in the exchange rate to reflect trading conditions. The exchange rate may also be revised periodically, to ensure it remains consistent with the underlying fundamentals of the economy; which is what Singapore does.

The currency board guarantees the convertibility between the local currency and foreign currency at the foreign exchange rate in the currency board system. The local currency is linked with the foreign currency by the guarantee of convertibility and the fixed exchange rate. Therefore, the confidence in the local currency is linked with that in the foreign currency by the currency board arrangement, and the local currency acquires the properties of the foreign currency with respect to the basic functions of the money.

The Currency Board cannot create money, except when actual reserves are available nor can it lend money to the Government, usually described as printing money (or, euphemistically, quantitative easing).

Since the Government cannot borrow from the Central Bank (a source of ‘easy’ money) it must rely on taxes or debt to finance spending, which imposes a degree of fiscal discipline. This in turn results in low inflation. As the money supply also changes only with movements in reserves, interest rates remain fairly stable and are generally low.

Currency board systems assure convertibility, instill macroeconomic discipline limiting budget deficits and inflation, provide a mechanism that guarantees adjustment of balance-of-payments deficits, and thus create confidence in the country’s monetary system,

In other words; the perfect way to impose discipline when grappling with difficult financial problems.

For this reason Currency Boards were adopted in several East European countries when transitioning from Communism. The transition from communism caused severe monetary shocks in Eastern Europe. To manage the transition several countries including Estonia, Lithuania and Bulgaria implemented currency boards with great success; inflation declined and economic growth picked up.

IMF studies show that historically, countries with currency board arrangements have experienced lower inflation and higher growth than those with other regimes. The lower level of inflation is explained partly by the greater monetary discipline imposed but also by the greater level of confidence engendered by adopting the Board.

Note that a Board is not a simple exchange rate peg (which is what Sri Lanka had pre-1977) the requirement for the currency to be fully “backed” by reserves, the restriction on lending to the state and a long-term commitment to the system usually enshrined in law are crucial differences that underwrite the stability of the currency.

To date no currency board has had to be abandoned as a result of a crisis. The Asian currency crises of 1997 provided a severe test: all currencies of SE Asia depreciated rapidly except those of Hong Kong and Singapore. The worst affected was the Indonesian rupiah which dropped from $1=Rp2,400 to $1=Rp14,500, the Thai Bhat fell more than 50% and the currencies of South Korea, the Philippines and Malaysia were all battered.

Alone amongst its neighbours, the Hong Kong Dollar was unaffected, despite repeated speculative attacks. Although Singapore allowed its currency to depreciate by around 20%, to adjust to the relative weakness of its trading partners during the crisis, it was a matter of choice by policy makers rather than an event forced on them by circumstances.

Currency boards were once the norm. Invented by the British they provided the stability that allowed foreign trade to flourish throughout the Empire. With the decline of the Empire the boards were gradually dismantled by the newly independent states, except in a few places such as Singapore and Hong Kong.

Adopting a Currency Board would address Sri Lanka chronic currency problems and provide the platform for long term growth.