Public Policies

Game of charades: The lackadaisical implementation of price controls on basic foods

Originally appeared on Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The Government has imposed price controls on a number of basic foods in order to control the cost of living. For the purpose of study, we wanted to ascertain the products subject to controls, as well as the prices at which they were supposed to be sold.

A list of price controlled items is a straightforward piece of information that should be readily available to any consumer.

Unfortunately, this does not appear to be available anywhere. The website of the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) lists a few items; gas, cement, milk powder, chicken, rice, and pharmaceuticals. The other items were not listed.

The information on the CAA website is outdated (eg. A controlled price from 2014 is listed for chicken although chicken was removed from the list of controlled items in April 2017). On inquiring from the CAA over telephone, we were asked to refer to the website. A list was eventually compiled after a field visit to the CAA by extracting the relevant information from copies of the gazettes.

How are price controls to be enforced if a list of items subject to control is not readily available?

The proper approach would be to ensure that list of controlled prices is displayed at every outlet, so customers know if they are being overcharged and can then make their purchasing decisions accordingly.

Having compiled a list, we compared the controlled prices with the weekly market prices published by the Department of Census and Statistics in its survey of the main markets in the Colombo district in the period September 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.

It is evident from the table we have collated that the controlled prices are not being followed in most instances.

The surveys of traders by Breakthrough indicate that 67% of retailers and 46% of wholesalers react to raids by the CAA by temporarily adjusting prices. They later revert to business as usual. Trying to enforce retail level price control across the informal trade and public markets is a practical impossibility. The CAA annual report (2014) states that 22,402 raids were carried out that year and 25,287 in 2013. This is small fraction of 205,573 retail outlets (general as well as those specialised in food, beverages and tobacco) in the country.

In any case if the controlled prices were strictly enforced, then the usual distortions such as shortages and queues would become obvious with unpalatable political consequences.

The CAA is successful in enforcing prices on items supplied by large businesses or corporates such as in cement or milk powder. Whether this actually keeps prices low is questionable.

Large businesses are relatively easy to monitor and they are open to pressure to supply even at a loss; on the implicit understanding that they will be allowed to recoup this at some point, as noted in the articles included in the appendices to this report. It is very clear that the only item consistently being sold at the controlled price is milk powder produced by a multinational. Wheat flour, which is also produced by large corporates tends to track the controlled price closely. The majority of the other items were being traded at prices above the controlled price.

During the period under survey, price controls were imposed on Nadu rice (December 26, 2017) coconuts (December 6) and revised on dhal and kata (December 6) with minimal impact on prices.

The impact of taxes on prices is particularly interesting. When some taxes were reduced in November 2017 (dhal, potatoes, Big onions), prices declined on these items over period of weeks, sometimes falling below the controlled price. When taxes were later raised (potatoes to Rs.30/kg on February 24, B onions to Rs.40 on May 2) prices rose again eventually breaching the controlled price. In the case of dhal prices eventually fell below the original controlled price (159/kg) following the reduction in tax – but prices did not respond significantly when the controlled prices was reduced to Rs.130 (December 6, 2017).

This underlines the case for reducing specific food taxes if there is any serious intention to control prices.

It is also worth noting the difference in prices between imported and local items, potatoes, and big onions. Locally produced items are not subject to tax or price control, but when available, these retail at prices higher than the controlled price and are sometimes higher than the (taxed) imported items.

Instead of attempting to protect agriculture through taxes (which raises prices for consumers) the government should facilitate the modernisation of the sector, supporting investments that improve productivity (eg. mechanisation, drip irrigation, greenhouses, quality seeds etc).

Using controls to reduce prices does not appear to work.

Addressing the inefficiencies within local agricultural is the sustainable way to lower prices: increased productivity raises farmer incomes and lower consumer prices in the long term.

The scheme itself is ill-conceived and there seems little intent or capacity to enforce. Reducing taxes, increasing competition and productivity in local agriculture is a surer path to lower consumer prices.

Updated Price List

“Price Controls in Sri Lanka: Political Theatre”, a new report by the Advocata Institute finds that consumer price controls lead to unintended outcomes including lower quality.

To read more on Price Controls and download full report: www.research.advocata.org/pricecontrol

A video documentary: https://youtu.be/zG5hV94G7Qc


#StrikeSL; A call for rail privatization?

Originally appeared on The Daily Mirror and Daily FT

By Anuki Premachandra and Dilshani Ranawaka

THE BACK STORY

The Railway strikes are over. At least for now. On August 8, several railway unions called a sudden strike in the afternoon hours, right before tired office commuters would flock the Fort railway station to head home after a long day’s work. For the rest of the week, the railway trade unions crippled a key part of the transportation system in the country. The headline “Railway strike continues” overwhelmed papers, news and social media alike.

This was the 14th time since 2017 the railway unions decided to strike, putting their demands ahead of the needs of more than 350,000 daily commuters. But this time, commuters have had enough! Angry commuters turned against the unions and the government, some even calling for the privatisation of the train service. This most recent 5 day strike is said to have caused a departmental loss of 64 million rupees leading to an increase in future railway ticket fares by 15%.

Is the call for rail privatisation practical? Financials of Sri Lanka Railways (SLR) for the past few years show that the losses made are as persistent and routinely as the losses made by Sri Lankan Airlines.

If SriLankan airlines is in “restructuring” basket, why isn’t Sri Lanka Railways?

DECIPHERING THE FINANCIALS

Sri Lanka Railways Performance Reports and Central Bank Annual reports show that SLR has been incurring operating losses of 7.7 billion rupees in 2015, 6.8 billion rupees in 2016 and 7.5 billion rupees in 2017.

A big component of Recurrent Expenditure, that makes up a portion of ‘Operating Expenditure’ is salaries and wages. This recent train strike by railway trade unions erupted due to a demand for higher salaries for railway staff. Recent pay sheets published by the Ministry of Transport’s Media Division, shared vehemently via Social Media, show that the monthly earnings for certain categories of staff at Sri Lanka Railways are many times the wages of the average worker in the private sector.

Sri Lankans are naturally outraged that the money pumped into the system both as commuters and taxpayers are having such a poor return of an inefficient service and sudden strikes.

Another side of the coin are the low fares charged by the commuters. Fares per kilometre range from 50 cents to a maximum of Rs.2 for 2nd and 3rd class travel. 1st class fares range from Rs.1.60-3.60 per kilometre.   

The result is that railway revenues are not even sufficient to cover the salaries of workers.  In 2016, salaries exceeded revenue by 32%. This is not a recent problem. Expenditure of the railways exceeded revenue by 52% in 1968, roughly the same as 2016.

Successive governments have preferred the status quo over bold reform, which will face resistance from both unions and commuters.  

But reforms are needed. What are the options?

IS THERE A SOLUTION IN PRIVATISATION? 

Given political realities, wholesale privatisation is not a realistic option. Even if politics can be maneuvered - an unlikely scenario - the government would be hard pressed to find a private investor willing to take on such a large and risky investment.

The World Bank in a discussion paper on railway restructuring and privatization, identified certain significant models driven out of case studies of the developing world, that could be applicable to Sri Lanka. A few successful reforms are to offer stocks to separate companies (based on various scenarios such as geographical factors, purpose etc.), design multi-phase enterprise development programs and, restructure and concession loss making SOEs.

In the case of SLR, the restructuring process could be through Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs). Realistically, short-term reform objectives should be to introduce competition where possible, and structural reforms that increase accountability.  Private sector involvement could help in areas such as freight, real-estate management, catering, and tourist or “luxury” coaches as experimented earlier. A system that welcomes private involvement and breaking the state monopoly is the long-term solution to service delivery issues on railways.

A likely success strategy is to get the private sector involved in a more advanced train service altogether. Work on the Colombo Light Rail project is currently underway and this is an example of where the asset’s ownership will lie with the state, but the private sector will run the operation of it.

Currently,  the SLR operates as a monolith department.  It’s official classification makes it a notable absentee from the list of 55 ‘strategically important’ state enterprises compiled by the Finance Ministry.  

A first step towards accountability is to split the rail track and station operations from the actual running of train services. This allows for an environment where private operators could enter into train operations and other services on their own terms, resulting in a more competitive system. Competition will no doubt increase service delivery and choice.  

The alternatives are not entirely new and like in the past, even this limited proposal will be opposed by the unions. But, reforms tend to happen in crisis; when people reject old ideas and look for new ones. With organic calls for privatisation, that time may be approaching for Sri Lanka’s railways.

Sri Lanka Railways: A snapshot of issues and ideas for improvement

Originally appeared on Daily News

By Ravi Ratnasabapthy

Several railway trade unions launched a lightning strike last Wednesday over salary anomalies. The strike was called off after four days but hundreds of thousands of commuters were stranded. Angry commuters took to the streets, some called for privatisation of the railways.

Sri Lanka faces a huge problem with public transport which is driving commuters to use private transport. A study by W.J. Weerawardana [1] estimates that 65% of the road space is used by 38% of the passengers; the increase in the use of private vehicles is the major cause of traffic congestion.

At rush hours and school times the traffic is almost at the point of gridlock. Parking is a also a problem. If even a half-decent public transport option were available many more commuters would use it

Standards of service at the railway are shoddy and reforms to railways must form a part of a larger plan to fix public transport. A summary of some key issues follows, with some ideas for improved services.

SLR Financials Table
  • The railways lost 6.7bn in 2016 (7.7bn in 2015). The railways appear to have been losing money since 1947 [2]. The expenditure of the railways exceeded costs by 10% in 1950 but by 1968 this had grown to 52.4%. The wages policy of the government and the policy limitations imposed by the government in the pricing of passenger and goods transport were factors that contributed to this situation [3]. This has not changed much: in 2016 costs exceeded revenues by 49.4% (2015: 45.09%) for broadly similar reasons.
  • Fares per kilometre range from 50 cents to a maximum of Rs.2.00 for 2nd and 3rd class travel. 1st class fares range from Rs.1.60-3.60 per kilometre.
  • Revenue does not cover even salaries. Salaries exceeded revenues by 31.89% in 2016 (28.9% in 2015).  
  • Only 42% of the trains run on time (39% in 2015). Delays exceeded 10 minutes for 43% of the trains (46% in 2015).
  • The assets of the railway or poorly utilised. Income from leases of railway land was Rs.119.58m in 2016. Lease arrears not collected amounted to Rs.1.8bn at end 2016 [4]. The Auditor General notes [5]: “Lands  about 12,000 acres in extent belong  to  the Department  of  Sri  Lanka Railways had remained idle for about 150 years without giving on lease or utilizing for another purpose”

COMMENT:

Fares are priced well below operating costs, the trains grimy and overcrowded. Maintaining rail fares at uneconomically low levels is politically attractive but has lead to the deterioration of the rolling stock and infrastructure due to a lack of funds for new investment.

There has been a steady increase in passenger numbers from just under 100m in 2011 to 136m in 2016, but the service does not appear to have been able to respond adequately to new demands for expanded services or improved quality.

Based on the current operating and cost structure fares would need to double to just to meet recurring expenses and rise still further if the capital expenditure is to financed.  The Government spent Rs.30bn on capital expenditure in 2015. (2014: Rs.34.6bn, 2013: Rs.20.2bn). While a significant fare increase is needed and may be accepted if accompanied by improved service, passengers cannot expect to pay for inefficiency. For example, the COPA [6] has questioned excess staff recruitment (of 1588) and payment of overtime in contravention of the Establishment Code.

Thus there is a need to restructure of operations to improve service quality and efficiency. In a lecture delivered last year at the Chartered Institute of Logistics & Transport, Dr Priyanka Seneviratne claimed SLR’s weaknesses stem mainly from lack of timely investment in fleet replacement, technology, and workforce development in the past. The Ministry of Internal Transport [7] confirms that 65% of the rolling stock is over 30-35 years old which increases the likelihood of breakdowns, increases maintenance costs and impairs service quality.

Dr Senevirate identified the following measures to enhance revenue:

  1. adjusting fares and tariffs to better reflect costs and improved services;
  2. leasing more real estate and advertising space at market prices, and
  3. partnering with the private sector to provide freight and ancillary services such as catering, courier, and real estate management.

The railway currently partners with the private sector to provide a luxury carriage on selected routes. This could be expanded to cover other routes or possibly even to a whole train, covering for example additional services at peak times to cater to office commuters. Service contracts where, for example, railway catering is contracted out could provide increased revenues and improve service. Operations of toilets, canteens could be handled in a similar manner. Idle land could also be redeveloped in partnership with private developers. 

The dilemma is ensuring that a public-private partnership is beneficial when corruption is endemic and state capacity is limited. The following principles are an outline of process that should be followed:

  1. Open bidding- public-private partnerships must be procured by competitive tendering.
  2. Public consultation: submission of the draft invitation to tender and the draft contract to public consultation, which should be advertised in the newspapers and in electronic media, informing the arguments for contracting a partnership, the scope and term of contract, its estimated value, setting a minimum period of thirty days for comments and suggestions.
  3. Capacity and institutional integrity in contract design. Some PPP contracts can be extremely complex and public officials may be overwhelmed. Capacity building within the public sector is essential. Setting up an independent PPP advisory unit within government staffed by competent people is advisable. Judicious use of external advisors may be necessary, depending on the nature of the contract.
  4.  Where possible standardising parts of the contract reduces conflict, enhances, predictability, minimises misspecification and reduces transaction costs. 
  5. Public disclosure of principal contract terms.
  6. Post implementation monitoring of contracts to ensure value is delivered.

Sri Lanka’s railways are a drain on the treasury. With tight budgetary constraints the Government will face increasing difficulties in allocating adequate resources to maintain, let alone develop, the railways.  The railway is an important component of transport infrastructure and improving its efficiency will contribute to the overall productivity of the economy.

Creating competition and private participation in the in the supply of services, utilisation of idle assets and supply of railway infrastructure could enhance efficiency and improve service. The Government should explore these options.


[1] Weerawardana W.J., Reduction of traffic congestion in Colombo city by improving public bus transport.

[2] Enhancing the Efficiency of the Sri Lanka Railways and its Contribution to Transportation, Sisira Kumara, Economic Review Aug/Sept 2011

[3] Ibid

[4] Auditor General’s Department, Annual Report 2016

[5] Report of the Auditor General on Head 306-Department of Sri Lanka Railways-Year 2015

[6] First Report of the Committee on Public Accounts (from 01.01.2016 to 07.04.2016).

[7] Ministry of Internal Transport, Performance Report 2014

Do we need more people in public service?

Originally appeared on The Daily FT

By Shyranthi Dhurairaj

Additional secretary National Policies and Economic Affairs, Mr Asanga Dayaratne announced recently that the government will be appointing 20 000 graduates as Development Officers (DO) this month. This decision was taken after interviewing 57 000 graduates who had graduated on or before 31st December 2016. Additionally, the Cabinet will recruit 7500 more graduates after the elections in August 2018 who will also be absorbed in as DO’s later. 

Why are these graduates being hired? It appears that this is a make-work programme. As per recent press reports, it appears there are no real vacancies to hire people but since these graduates are demanding jobs, jobs are being created by the state. The number of DO’s in Sri Lanka is 50 904 (2016 data). This new recruitment drive will increase the number by almost 40%. Such a sharp increase may mean other costs – they will need office space, furniture, computers and other facilities.

We may view this charitably, why not give the unemployed jobs? The question is who pays for this?

Sri Lanka’s budget is already overstretched, the country has run a persistent budget deficit, averaging over 7.7% of GDP since 1990. The deficit has been met partly by borrowing, which is why the debt-to-GDP ratio has averaged 89.1% during the same period, almost double that of our peer group. The recent increases in taxes, VAT, income tax and others were needed to bridge the deficit. If more people are to be recruited, the salary bill will rise and there will be a need for increases in taxation. It will not be immediate, the tax increases will come a little later, but eventually it will need to happen, just as the recent tax increases followed increments given to the public sector in 2015.

What is happening here?

The government is giving jobs to graduates, but then taxing people to pay for it. All that is happening is money is being transferred from the general public to newly-hired graduates. The graduates will be happy but the public who sympathise with their plight may not realise that the salaries of these people will eventually be paid by them.

People forget that they pay tax every time they go to the market. VAT, import duties add a lot to the cost of a shopping basket, or to a meal in a restaurant. 

Are people getting richer? No. Will the graduates who get jobs be better off by having the public pay for this?  What if the private sector creates jobs? Salaries would then be paid by businesses that hire people from the profits that they earn. The public will not be paying the salary bill. Instead the businesses will, from whatever they earn from their customers.

In fact there are many unfilled vacancies in the private sector. While the public-sector is overstaffing, there are 497 302 open vacancies in the private-sector. A local agricultural entrepreneur based in Polonnaruwa stated, “It is very difficult to find semi-skilled workers to operate our machinery, because their attitude is such that they would rather stay home until they get a government job”.

The problem is that the jobs available don’t meet the expectations of the graduates or that graduates lack the needed skills for these jobs currently open in the job market.

What the government could do is assess the skills demanded by the job market, and invest in retraining these graduates. The retraining will be a one-off cost but, the graduates will have a productive job – in places where they are actually needed and there are no long term costs burdened on the public.

Some graduates don’t like jobs in the private sector. An unemployed graduate from Ruhuna University stated, “I am a graduate from Ruhuna University. I’ve been unemployed for three years and is waiting for a government job. I am not interested in a job from the private sector, so I have never applied for one. Government jobs are secure and unlike private jobs, they provide a pension.”

What they, and the public must understand is that taxpayers cannot finance this anymore. There are many other problems that also burden taxpayers including losses in State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs).

To create better jobs, the Government can facilitate new investment; especially in new sectors by cutting red tape and improving the business environment. The sustainable way to better jobs is through new investment, not make-work programs.

Overstaffing infographic.png

Bringing sanity to public finances

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Ad-Hoc policies have created unsustainable long-term spending commitments. A medium-term expenditure framework can discipline policymaking.

Sri Lanka has experienced a large and persistent budget deficit, averaging over 7.7% of GDP since 1990. The deficit has been met partly by borrowing, which is why the debt-to-GDP ratio has averaged 89.1% during the same period, almost double that of our peer group. The government has attempted to close the deficit through painful and unpopular tax increases; but amid the rising cost of living, public patience for this has already worn thin.

With elections looming and the popularity of the government sinking, there is a danger they will revert to giveaways without considering the impact this will have in the longer term. Giving jobs or salary increases to state workers is a popular short-term gimmick, but involves long-term commitments: salary payments over the life of the employee, often followed by a pension. With 1,358,589 people already on the State payroll and a further 600,000 drawing pensions, this is no longer sustainable. Salaries and pensions alone consume half of government revenue.

The accumulated ills of various shortsighted measures have taken the country to the brink of default. There is an unprecedented ballooning of foreign debt repayments over 2018-22 amounting to a massive $14.9 billion. To put this in context, the current IMF facility is only $1.5 billion.

The maturing debt is too large to be repaid, so must be rolled over, which means we need to borrow to repay. In order to do so, we must maintain investor confidence. Failure to do so will lead to higher borrowing costs – something we cannot afford. Moody’s ranks Sri Lanka among the countries most exposed to an interest rate shock. Interest payments already consume around 36% of government revenue, an increase in rates will put severe pressure on the budget.

The accumulated ills of various shortsighted measures have taken the country to the brink of default. There is an unprecedented ballooning of foreign debt repayments over 2018-22 amounting to a massive $14.9 billion

Moody’s warns, “Persistently high government liquidity and external vulnerability risks continue to pressure Sri Lanka’s credit profile, and specifically measures to build reserves and smooth the profile of external payments may be insufficient to stem imminent government liquidity and balance of payments pressures starting in 2019, when large international debt repayments come due and Sri Lanka’s three-year International Monetary Fund Extended Fund Facility programme concludes."

This is why the Finance Ministry has pushed through unpopular tax hikes and increased fuel prices. Foreign lenders will look at the country’s finances to assess its ability to repay; so in the short term, there is no sensible alternative but to collect more taxes. The real problem, however, is not tax but runaway spending; over 2000-16, total spending grew at a compounded annual rate of 12% (from Rs335,822 million to Rs2,333,883 million), with the deficit following suit (Rs119,396 million to Rs640,326 million). Foreign financing of the deficit grew from Rs495 million to Rs429,130 million in the same period. It is government spending not taxation that ultimately determines the total burden of government activity on the private sector. Although spending may be financed by borrowing or printing money (instead of taxes), all government spending is ultimately a call on resources that have alternative uses, or involves transfers from one group of society to another.

Debt is simply taxation postponed, with interest added. Money printing can tide over in the short term, but ultimately results in inflation and currency depreciation. The need, therefore, is to reign in expenditure, which must start with a proper plan.

Large businesses routinely plan for 3-5 years, but the government relies on an annual budget, which is produced by a bottom-up approach – i.e. the various departments submit their estimates of expected expenditure, which are then amended and collated centrally. Planning and policy is geared to the annual budget cycle, and little attempt is made to prioritize spending.

Debt Balloon and Yawning Deficit.png

Planning must move away from annual budgets to a Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF), three-to-five year rolling plans, the important features of which are as follows:

  • Extends the timeframe of budgeting from 1 year to 3-5 years.
  • Projects the future cost of existing programmes and approved policy changes (baseline).
  • Establishes hard spending limits – fiscal targets (i.e. deficit or total spending).
  • Establishes a procedure for proposing any new policy initiatives.
  • Rolls the MTEF forward each year, adding a year at the end.

The Treasury can work backwards from revenue, assuming no changes in the tax structure and the deficit target to arrive at the overall spending limit. Matching this with projected costs of current programmes will indicate if there is space available in the budget for new policy initiatives. Fiscal space is the difference between baseline projections and the government’s spending target; if there is no space, no new programmes can be accommodated, unless some existing programmes are cut.

The overall spending limit is a ‘hard’ limit, but within the overall limit, reallocation can take place. This forces the Cabinet to consider spending priorities – where should limited resources be allocated? The Cabinet can determine soft ceilings for ministries that need to ‘win’ competitively on the basis of plans submitted.

Although spending may be financed by borrowing or printing money (instead of taxes), all government spending is ultimately a call on resources that have alternative uses, or involves transfers from one group of society to another

The Treasury needs to reward credible plans, so those that provide performance measures, specify outcomes, outputs and costs should receive more funding. Performance measures help make the case for budget allocation and enable monitoring of programmes. Performance measures are based on the following parameters:

  • Inputs: Measures the resources used to provide government services, such as personnel, operating expenses and capital.
  • Activities or output: Measures what an agency does, the number of applications processed, the number of passengers carried and kilometers of roads paved.
  • Efficiency: Measures the cost per unit of activity such as cost per patient, cost per student or cost per child vaccination.
  • Outcome: Measures how well objectives are met. These are usually the ends of government such as safety, health or educational improvement.

Expenditures must be driven by policy priorities, but disciplined by budget realities, which means sudden and unplanned announcements cannot be made. The result is greater policy predictability, a focus on outcomes, priorities and expenditure management.

Conceptually, this is simple, but implementing it in practice is a daunting task involving a lot of political negotiation (to get ministers to agree to spending limits) and administrative work in estimating future costs, revenues and measuring performance.

The trickiest political negotiation involved is in allocating the spending limit according to priorities. This exercise is the most important – with an annual incremental budget, no one is forced to question the ‘base cost.’ With a hard spending limit to be allocated among departments, questions on priorities come to the fore. The other obstacle is weak capacity within the government, both the bureaucracy and among ministers, which means that external technical support is needed to implement this, which is fortunately available through donor programmes.

Bridging the deficit.png

More than 16 African countries have adopted an MTEF, with Ghana and Malawi pioneering it in 1996. Since then, other countries in the region have followed. Implementing may be done in stages, starting with key spending units. In Malawi, the deficit contracted from 15% of GDP in 1994/5 to 5% by 1998/9, partly due to the MTEF. According to the World Bank (2013), by the end of 2008, more than two-thirds of all countries had adopted an MTEF. To work, the MTEF must become the government’s budget process and control the details of spending. Expenditure limits are agreed to by incoming governments giving intra-party policy consistency.

Properly planned expenditure means little need for periodic, ad hoc adjustments to taxes, which are witnessed at every budget, and even in between budgets through gazette notifications. Unexpected tax changes wreck havoc with the plans of businesses and households alike. Greater visibility will increase overall levels of confidence among lenders and investors.

When an MTEF is implemented well, public expenditure is limited by the availability of resources, budget allocations reflect spending priorities, and public goods and services are delivered cost-effectively. MTEFs, therefore, offer the prospect of achieving the three high-level objectives of public expenditure management: aggregate fiscal discipline, allocative efficiency and technical efficiency. Reaching this is an incremental process, but with good technical support, it is possible. The earlier this is adopted, the better.

Attracting FDI: Sorting out contradictions in policy

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The article originally appeared on the Daily News on 15 May 2015

The BOI is reportedly developing a new investment policy for Sri Lanka with the help of a panel of experts.

This is a welcome move, but the investment policy needs take a broad view in order to remove some of the impediments to investment that stem from different sources. Two in particular, the policy on land ownership by foreigners and the visas for foreigners have become a source of confusion and a barrier to investment.

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is widely used by developing countries as a tool to solve their economic problems. FDI can create employment and result in the transfer of technology which contributes to long term growth.

In countries where unemployment or underemployment is a prevalent the creation of new jobs is a priority and a good enough reason to attract FDI.

Even more important is technology transfer, a broad term that encompasses not only equipment but technical know-how, organisational, managerial, marketing practices and other skills that the employees of a firm learn while working with a foreign partner. When employees move to other firms they take these skills with them, which results in the skills being diffused into the local labour market, improving its productivity.

The transfer of knowledge is not limited to direct employees; foreign affiliates can also diffuse technology and skills to domestic suppliers, customers and entities with which they have direct and indirect dealings.

To ensure that local inputs meet their stringent technical requirements, foreign affiliates often provide the local suppliers not just with specifications but sometimes also with assistance in raising their technological capabilities.

Naturally, as countries have become more aware of the benefits of FDI an intense 'global race' for foreign investment has developed and Sri Lanka should ensure that it is not left behind.

In order for a country to be more attractive to investors (both local and foreign), there is a need to put in place measures to ensure an enabling environment by reducing so-called hassle costs, which is why the BOI was set up as a central point for all paperwork.

Access to land is necessary for investment but recent shifts in policy on land have caused concern.

The purchase of land by foreigners was prohibited in 1963, under the Finance Act. In 1992, the Exchange Control Act repealed the Finance Act allowing the purchase of land by non-residents on payment of a 100% tax.

The growth of tourism in Galle and the southern coast since the mid 1990's, particularly the development of a new concept of 'boutique hotels' may be traced to this event. Prior to this Sri Lanka focused mainly on mass tourism, the change in land ownership policy attracted a different type of investor, who brought with them a new concept of selling to niche markets. The 100% transfer tax on land was repealed in 2002. This, together with the tax amnesty of 2003 created a boom in property.

Up to that point the policy on land followed a clear trajectory towards greater liberalisation. Then followed a series of policy flip flops. First the 100% land tax was re-imposed in 2004. The tax was initially applied only to foreign nationals but was later extended to local companies owned by foreigners.

Then an announcement was made in November 2012, during the budget speech, that the sale of land would be banned. No legislation was enacted but the land registry simply refused to register any transfers due to the uncertainty causing much annoyance and confusion amongst investors.

Parliament finally enacted the Land (Restrictions on Alienation) Act No. 38 of 2014 in October 2014. This banned the sale of land to foreigners and companies where 50% or more of the shares were held by foreigners. Foreigners were allowed to lease land but a 15% tax was to be imposed on the lease rental for the entire term of the lease.

If a firm entered into a 99 year lease, it would be required to pay 15% of the total lease rental payable over the 99 years immediately as tax. In effect the firm would be asked to pay 15 years rent, up front as tax. Moreover, the tax was applied retrospectively, from January 2013.

On a short term lease of a year or two, a 15% tax may be tolerable but for any investor who is here for the long term, the type of investor that the country needs, the tax is prohibitive. Should investment slow there may be knock-on effects on areas such as tourism. Boutique hotels, being small, sell through word of mouth, to friends and associates of the owners. If foreigners are made to feel unwelcome they, along with their friends and family, are likely to start looking elsewhere for their annual holidays and winter escapes.

The spirit of the new Act appears aimed at restricting the access to land for foreigners, first by outright prohibition on sale and second by imposing an extortionate tax on leases, creating an effective barrier to investment.

Inconsistent with such a restrictive law is provision for the Minister with the approval of cabinet to grant exemptions to the Act. Therefore in practice foreigners can buy whatever they want, provided they have the blessings of the appropriate politicians and government officials. Analysts say that such wide discretion is designed to encourage what economists call 'rent-seeking' behaviour or in common parlance, corruption. Similarly confusing are the visa rules. On one hand the country wants to attract talent from overseas, initiatives such as Work In Sri Lanka have been launched to encourage skilled people from overseas to relocate but the country still denies work visas to foreign spouses of citizens. These are foreigners already resident in the country, many have skills that can be utilised productively, yet they are denied the right to work.

Although the sale of land is restricted, the Government still seems interested in promoting the sale of flats in high rises to foreigners-flats situated on or above the fourth floor of a building are specifically exempt from the restriction on the sale of land to foreigners. It does not seem to have struck anyone in authority that foreigners may not be interested in buying flats if residency visas and dual citizenship are hard to get. If the foreign spouse of a Sri Lankan has to give up a career in order to relocate the attractiveness of the country will diminish.

Some countries do restrict ownership of land and work permits are required almost everywhere but the rules need to be sensible investment is not to be deterred. Coherence, consistency and simplicity in policy will promote investment. 


Ravi Ratnasabapathy trained as a management accountant and has broad industry experience in finance. He is interested in economic policy and governance issues. 

Tea & Hoppers - Fixed Prices, perverse incentives [Podcast]

By Anushka Wijesinha

In my latest podcast, I talk about tea and hoppers; two of my favourite food items, and indeed of most Sri Lankans. But the government now dictates how much shops can charge me for these – and its a pretty fantastic, lower price than ever before – milk tea at Rs 25, plain tea at Rs. 10, and plain hoppers at Rs. 10. As a consumer, I should be pretty happy right? “Not if it’s causing unintended consequences!”, the economist inside me is saying.

In this article titled ‘The Problems of Price Controls‘, The Cato Institute – a prominent libertarian think tank in the US, asserts that,

“price controls reduce quality, create black markets, and stimulate costly rationing”.

We are seeing this play out right here in Sri Lanka. Last month, we saw one of the most intrusive and bizarre examples of administered prices (or price controls) being introduced by a government in recent times. This was on tea, and hoppers, served anywhere in the country, to be enforced by the Consumer Affairs Authority. What this has done is cause perverse incentives among those making and selling these items. Using poorer quality ingredients, shaving off quantity, skimping on the add-ons. Government-imposed fixed prices not only completely violates basic economic freedoms enjoyed by firms – like the freedom (and ability) to use price to signal quality or differentiation – but it is also notoriously difficult for a government to enforce fully and fairly. We must do more to make policymakers and bureaucrats understand that badly thought out public policies cause perverse incentives by economic agents, and this helps nobody. Listen to the podcast by clicking play below, or visit it on Soundcloud 


Anushka Wijesinha is a development economist and a consultant to a host of governmental and non-governmental organizations in Sri Lanka.  He has previously worked at Institute for Policy Studies, The World Bank and the presidential commision on taxation.  His writings on economics are found on his blog -- The curionomist.  You can follow him on Twitter @anushwij