State Enterprises

Keeping track of our state enterprises

Originally appeared on the Daily News

By Aneetha Warusavitarana

The Sri Lankan government is currently in a rather confused state of having lost track of the number of state enterprises it runs.

While the Ministry of Finance tracks the financials of 55 key SOEs, the government does not have an official number for the enterprises it runs. The Annual Report of the Ministry of Finance states that there are 400 and this is true to a certain extent. In the Advocata Institute’s 2019 report on the state of state enterprises, it has identified 424 principal SOEs, 84 subsidiary SOEs and 19 sub-subsidiary SOEs; bringing the total to a shocking 527 entities.

While it is bewildering that the government runs a minimum of 527 entities, the losses sustained by these enterprises are a greater cause for concern. When looking at the financials of the 55 strategic SOEs (which account for only 10.4% of the 527), the cumulative losses for the period of 2006 – 2017 amount to a massive Rs. 795 billion.

Reform promises

Apparently, the government has taken note of this. Reform has been promised by a variety of politicians at pivotal political moments. The election manifesto of President Maithripala Sirisena stated,

“I will implement a plan corresponding to Singapore’s Thamasek model to regularise the Management of State owned strategic institutions and sectors such as state banks, the harbour, energy, water supply, airports and transport.”

This is essentially a good starting point. Under the Singaporean Temasek model, one holding company is responsible for countries’ public enterprises. This is a model that has worked, with variations being adopted in other countries.

The Indonesian variation of the model has one holding company for each sector – given that Sri Lanka is a much smaller country it is possible that we could manage with one holding company.

The benefits of adopting this model lie in the accountability it creates. Having a holding company creates distance from the government and its SOEs, reducing chances for political intervention. It’s important to note that the Prime Minister has also expressed his support for this model, which meant the policy had buy-in from both sides of then unity government. While the Temasek model is a step in the right direction, if we want our SOEs to be efficient, privatisation is where the final solution lies.

On that note, the ‘privatisation of state-owned enterprises’ was mentioned early in the 2016 budget speech. The speech highlighted the loss-making nature of SOEs and the negative impact this it had on the budget. The solution mentioned was the use of ‘corrective measures’ to transform SOEs into commercially viable enterprises.

The methods recommended were selective, market-based pricing mechanisms for public utilities, rationalising of recruitment and exploring public-private-partnership opportunities.

The budget speech of 2017 also stated that steps would be taken to make SOEs viable business entities through cost reflective pricing structures and operational autonomy.

It went further, committing to the listing of non-strategic enterprises such as the Hyatt, Grand Oriental Hotel, Waters Edge, West Coast, Manthai Salt, Hambantota Salt and Hilton. The rationale was that the money raised could be used for debt repayment. Notably, both the budget speech of 2018 and 2019 were silent on the topic of SOE reform.

Working under the assumption that these promises were made in good faith, there is the question of why reform never materialises. It is possible that we have been trying to run before we can walk. While SOE losses have to stemmed, it may be better to have smaller, digestible phases of reform than a large reform agenda which will never move beyond a statement or speech.

Reform is vital, but should realistic

A key point highlighted in the recent IMF staff report was the losses sustained by state owned enterprises. Three main SOEs; the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC), the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) and SriLankan Airlines have recorded a combined loss of 1.3 per cent of GDP in 2018, compared to 0.5 per cent of GDP in 2017. The report also puts the financial obligations of non-financial SOEs at 11.8% of GDP.

Given rising losses and the urgent requirement for some level of action to be taken, it may be that the government should focus on smaller, more achievable reform that lies within the realm of political possibility. In Advocata’s 2019 report on the state of state enterprises, a few key reforms were identified.

These reforms were chosen because they are politically feasible and because they will have a targeted impact on the root causes behind SOE losses. Two of the main reforms are detailed below.

  1. Conduct a survey of all state-owned enterprises: it is impossible for the government to regulate or monitor these entities, when the government is uncertain of the scope of its responsibility. Once the survey is completed, the government can institute basic reporting procedures.

  2. Strengthen COPE, COPA and the Auditor General’s Department: these institutions are the main source of accountability for state-owned enterprises and as such should be given a mandate which allows them to take sufficient action.

Once these steps are taken, the government could expand its reform agenda to encompass the OECD principles of corporate governance, which include clearly defining the state’s role as an owner, establishing an effective legal and regulatory framework for SOEs, ensuring transparency and disclosure, while emphasizing the state’s responsibility to stakeholders. In short, the OECD guidelines will nudge SOEs towards a path of transparency and efficiency.

However, in the short term, the first two reforms mentioned above remain crucial.

SL SOE Count

The COPE reports

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

The Parliamentary Committee on Public Accounts (COPE) reports on state enterprises

The COPE, a key oversight committee, is by its own admission under-resourced. It lacks staff, particularly for audit and legal support. They also lack IT systems and, apparently, even a proper office. Despite these limitations and the fact that the reports are not comprehensive, they have examined a limited number of issues in a few institutions. These reports are a devastating critique of the state of governance, underlining the need for a re-think in the role of the government.

Excerpts from the reports are as follows:


As per the Auditor General’s report on the SLPA (2016):
“The Authority had conducted the architectural and construction activities of the international cricket stadium in Suriyawewa on behalf of the institute of Sri Lanka Cricket. According to the contract agreement entered into between the contractor and the Authority on the said construction, a sum totalling Rs5,838 million, inclusive of the interest amounting to Rs2,881 million, had remained payable to the contractor by the Authority up to 31 December 2016 in respect of the said constructions made under the variation order (emphasis added) of the contract for construction of the Hambanthota Harbour.”

Note: A variation order is an alteration to the scope of works in a construction contract in the form of an addition, substitution or omission from the original scope of works. While these are not unusual in large projects, it is bizarre to treat work on an entirely new and unrelated project as a variation in a port construction contract.

“Despite the non-availability of any verification that the said sum would be borne either by the Treasury or the institute of Sri Lanka Cricket, the sum had been accounted in the financial statements of the Authority as being receivable from a Government institution, but the receipt of that sum remained doubtful”(ibid).

Separately, the third COPE report observes that Sri Lanka Cricket owes the State Engineering Corporationan amount of Rs818 million on 7 projects as at 31.12.2015.


An overdraft facility of Rs245 million and a long-term loan facility of Rs150 million were granted to a customer for a construction named Kandy City Centre on 30 January 2009 and 27 January 2009, respectively. However, these loans were classified as non-performing loans after 3 months. Though the customer agreed to pay the loan in installments of Rs1 million per month, it was decided to offset the loan against the monthly rent to be paid on behalf of the People’s Bank branch housed at Kandy City Center.

However, even if the customer repaid the loan in monthly installments of Rs1 million each, the bank would have to wait for 62 years to recover the outstanding amount. The chairman stated that several such unsystematic transactions had been done.

Note: As per CBSL guidelines, ‘Credit facilities repayable in monthly installments: when 3 consecutive installments, principal and/or interest, have not been paid’ are to be classified as non-performing loans.

The loan granted in January 2009 was classified as non-performing within three months of disbursement, which indicates that there was no attempt at repayment. Subsequent to COPE recommendations, Rs20 million had been recovered. Legal action had been instituted, but the defendants did not appear in courts when the case was called on 1 December 2016.

Credit approval in a bank should go through multiple levels of authority – the branch manager, credit officer, credit committees, board committees and risk management committees – depending on the size of the loan. A loan in excess of Rs100 million would typically require approval at the highest levels. The chairman’s comment of ‘unsystematic transactions’ seems to indicate serious control weaknesses, further examples follow.

The Ja-ela Bank branch had granted three loan facilities and three overdraft facilities to a customer, his spouse and an enterprise; and subsequently, these loans were categorized as non-performing.

I. At the date of 12.11.2013, the outstanding balance of Rs619,867,345 of the three overdraft facilities and one loan facility could not be recovered.

II. The chairman stated that legal action has been taken to recover more than 60% of the loans that had been granted in an unsystematic manner and discussions are being held with regard to the remaining portion of the loans.

Note: Subsequent follow-up by COPE indicates that the husband and wife were directors in a company engaged in property development. Loans had been obtained in the names of the individual directors and the company. The unsettled balance of these loans was Rs197 million and the interest to be collected was Rs503 million, making the sum total due to the bank Rs700 million by September 2016.


Rs7 million had been paid to a private party in 2002 to purchase land to construct this holiday resort. Thereafter, the Kataragama Divisional Secretariat informed that the land belongs to the government and that it had been obtained on a 30-year lease from January 2008 for an annual lease of Rs460,000. However, the sum of Rs7 million paid to a private party had not been recovered.

Note: Following the COPE report, legal action had been instituted in the Gampaha District court for recovery of the Rs7 million. The question as to why the title was not properly checked prior to purchase remains unanswered.

The contract had been awarded to a private company for Rs27,464,632 (without VAT) in June 2012 for the implementation of the project within 8 months. The company had paid a sum of Rs248,600,000 (without VAT) to the contractor and the period of the contract had been extended on four occasions. Though over four years have lapsed since the awarding of the contract, the contractor had failed to carry out the contract properly. The work of this institution has currently been suspended and it has submitted an appeal.


A sum of Rs11 million out of Rs29 million had been received for renovating 30 rooms of a holiday bungalow belonging to the Authority had been for work not done and overpaid taxes. According to the report obtained by the Authority from ICTAD, a loss of nearly Rs5 million has been incurred. Steps had not been taken to recover that amount from the contractor or the officer who approved the payment.

A sum of Rs3.2 million had been paid to suppliers based on three letters, which the suppliers had produced stating that they had provided dozers to construct the Kalpitiya Mohottuwasama Jetty. This payment had been made without a certificate of fixing work hours according to the daily meter reading by an officer of the authority.

Even though the Kalpitiya integrated Tourism project commenced in 2008 on an estimated cost of Rs5.5 billion in order to construct holiday resorts with 4,000 rooms and infrastructures facilities to be completed within 5 years, not a single room had been constructed despite an expenditure of Rs88.7 million at December 2014.

Four hotels had been selected close to the Hambantota International Cricket Stadium (which was selected to host cricket matches for the 2011 Cricket World Cup), to develop accommodation facilities.

It was revealed that this sum of Rs7.3 million, a portion of the 4% interest of a loan obtained by the Peacock Beach Hotel from the Bank of Ceylon, had been paid out of the Tourism Development Fund on a number of occasions. According to the documents furnished to this committee, the approval of the minister in charge had not been obtained to make the payments.

Note: A letter appended to the COPE report provides some explanation of the circumstances of this payment. It indicates that the four hotels had to be upgraded to four-star status in order to host the 2011 World Cup matches. The hotels had apparently informed the SLTDA that there was no commercial viability to the exercise and requested that the government subsidise the interest cost on the loans required to finance the upgrade.

The cost of upgrade for three hotels is indicated as being “Rs414 million”. The upgrade cost of the fourth hotel was apparently not available. The letter was written by the Director General of the SLTDA and addressed to the Secretary of the Ministry of Tourism had been copied to the Bank of Ceylon, People’s Bank and Hatton National Bank. The interest rates on the loans were supposed to be 12% and the SLTDA was supposed to pay 4% as a subsidy. Based on these figures, the subsidy for the three hotels would amount to Rs16.5 million annually, assuming loans to the values indicated were granted. It is not known if this was the case and if further liabilities exist.


There was a cost escalation of 338% in 11 water supply projects that were funded by a bank loan of Rs54 billion. The board has received an unsolicited foreign-funded project, and work has commenced without a contract. Strangely, the NWSDB has been appointed as a sub-contractor on the project by the main contractor, to the value of $64 million (it appears that the unsolicited proposal was accepted by the NWSDB and the work has later been sub-contracted to the NWSDB itself).

Lanka Mineral Sands Ltd. spends money on tasks that are contrary to the objectives of the company – Beach Park The company’s welfare funds have been utilized for the construction of roads and buildings in various other areas in contravention to the objectives of the institution. Information pertaining to spending Rs40 million for the construction of the Hambantota Beach Park and spending money for making improvements to the Devinuwara Maha Devale have come to light.

A veil of incorporation or a shroud of secrecy?

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

SOEs incorporates under the companies act

State-owned Enterprises (SOEs) in Sri Lanka come in a bewildering variety of forms, ranging from departments, authorities, boards and state corporations, to limited companies. The traditional forms are the first four, which are usually created by a special act of parliament. The advantage of this is that it creates direct accountability of the SOE to the parliament.

When SOEs are formed through acts of parliament, they are subject to the stringent financial and administrative regulations of the state and are obligated to report to the parliament.

The Companies Act is intended for use by private businesses and the principal accountability is to shareholders. There is no obligation under the Act to comply with the regulatory and accountability mechanisms that govern state entities.

The Auditor General reports that, unless the majority of shares are owned by the government, even the audit of limited companies is beyond their purview. Therefore, the recent trend for increasing numbers of SOEs to be incorporated under the Companies Act instead of by an act of parliament is unusual. A list of 452 state entities includes 149 incorporated as limited companies, a fact that the Auditor General (AG) has drawn attention to in his Annual Report of 2016:
“In recent years, it was observed that a considerable number of limited liability companies have been incorporated under the Companies Act by certain Public Enterprises and the universities even sometimes without the approval of the Cabinet of Ministers.”

Another trend is the evolution of complex corporate structures within SOEs, some having multiple subsidiaries and associate companies. The list includes 100 subsidiaries and 19 sub-subsidiaries. Is there a rationale for this? A perusal of the COPE and Auditor General’s reports reveals some systemic problems (examples are highlighted in the boxed sections).

Even within the private sector, complex corporate structures present governance challenges as risks can lie undetected within subsidiaries/associates. These risks, if left unchecked, can expose the group to significant liabilities, and the same is true for SOEs. Vigilance of subsidiary activity is essential for risk management and compliance, but as the AG notes:
“However, it was observed that most of the Public Corporations do not exercise their controlling power over the subsidiaries although their members constitute the majority of the Board of Directors” (Auditor General, Annual Report, 2016)

A classic example is the Ceylon Electricity Board, which has some 22 associate companies, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries. Such structures are difficult to penetrate, obscure transparency and leave room for corruption.

The subsidiaries may provide goods and services to other companies within the group via transfer pricing arrangements instead of open tendering. When the directors or key management of these companies are also employees or associates of the parent body, it gives rise to serious conflicts of interests that are difficult to avoid; a point highlighted by the first COPE report.

The failure to disclose details of related party transactions (with subsidiaries) was one of the reasons that compelled the AG to qualify the audit opinion on the financial statements of Ceylon Electricity Board for 2013.

The Ceylon Electricity Board had eight contracts with LTL Project (Pvt) Ltd , a related party to build transmission lines and strengthen infrastructure. The value of four contracts amounted to Rs5.9 billion; the values of the others were not disclosed in the report. Contrast this with the governance of listed companies. Local listed companies are now required to have a Related Party Transactions Review Committee made up of independent directors who must review and report on related party transactions to the Board. The CEB has failed to disclose details even to its auditors! In some cases, it appears that complex group structures have evolved to conceal transactions, hide assets, divert revenue streams or simply enrich connected parties; the very reason such structures are also encountered in instances of money laundering. Some selected examples appear below.

If we leave aside for the moment the government accountability mechanisms and simply view SOEs as businesses, how good is their governance record? The critical tests for a private company are the auditors’ report and timely publication of reports. An analysis in the COPE report of 2014 showed that, of 46 institutions that were reviewed, only 15% had unqualified or clean audit reports. A full 75% of reports were qualified, while 4% were disclaimers of opinion and 6% failed to submit accounts. Things were not much better in 2017. The AG notes that, of 218 entities reviewed, only 80 (36%) received ‘clean’ audit opinions.

These are shocking revelations and the problems appear to be systemic. The complex structures created under the Companies Act seem to provide a shroud of secrecy that hampers oversight and enables systematic corruption. A select list of examples is listed here. The government should shine some light on the dark corners of these SOEs, first by compiling a full list of entities and second by implementing basic regular reporting structures to establish a minimum degree of control.

Electricity Piracy


The Committee on Public Enterprises undertook a study on the members of the Boards of Directors of 20 subsidiary companies operating under the Ceylon Electricity Board and observed that the same person represents the Boards of Directors of many of those companies.

For example, the Committee observed that the chairman of the Ceylon Electricity Board is a member of Boards of Directors of 6 subsidiary companies, which enables him to take different positions in regard to the same issue, thus jeopardizing the main aim of the Board to provide electricity to the consumers at an affordable price. The following traits of the subsidiary companies operating under the Ceylon Electricity Board were identified: Taking steps to retain a majority of dividends in those companies The Ceylon Electricity Board has no control over those companies. It was observed that the meetings of the Board of Directors of those companies are not represented by an official of the ministry or the Treasury. Those institutions are informed only of matters of specific importance Even though the Ceylon Electricity Board holds a majority of shares of these companies, they are reluctant to be responsible to the Board.

At Arm’s Length?


The People’s Leasing Property Development Company, a sub-subsidiary company of People’s Bank that was established through the People’s Leasing Finance Company, has made 13 construction works worth Rs1.96 billion.

An unusual payment of Rs11,000 per square foot, exceeding the ordinary payment of Rs6,000 per square feet, was made in the case of these construction works. Further procurement processes have not been followed, and a Bill of Quantities has not been prepared.

The chairman has stated that a decision has been taken not to award construction contracts to this company at the moment and to carry out construction work by People’s Bank itself.

Unauthorised Formation Of Subsidiaries To Perform Services For The Group?


1. Maganeguma Emulsion Production Company (Pvt.) Limited
2. Maganeguma Consultancy and Project Management Services Company (Pvt.) Limited
3. Maganeguma Road Construction Equipment Company (Pvt.) Limited
4. Expressway Transport (Pvt.) Company

“It was discovered that neither the ministry nor the authority possessed any information regarding the methodology that had been adopted in establishing the aforesaid companies as per the decision taken by the Cabinet. It was further discovered that share certificates and records of minutes were not available, and that annual general meetings had not been conducted.”

COPE requested a report from the Attorney General around all matters related to the ownership of these four companies, on the matters that should be examined at ministry level and on the significant matters that should be examined in a criminal investigation. (COPE Report, 2014)

Dud Number


“Even though Sri Lanka Telecom had purchased 75% of shares of Sky network Ltd. for Rs108 million to obtain the frequency required for the continuation of service related to WiMax technology, the company had been closed down after a couple of years with no adequate business activities done on the ground that the technology had become obsolete. The transaction looks suspicious as the said company, which had been formed in 2006, had carried out no business activities other than retaining a frequency until it was purchased by SLT in 2008. It was also revealed that Rs10,468,000 had been paid as director fees during the period in which the company did not function and the person who had been paid as such had happened to be a director at Sky network Ltd”. (Page ix) (COPE Report 2014)

Wholesale No Transparency


“It was revealed that account details of C.W.E. Construction and C.W.E. Securities had not been submitted to the Auditor General despite reminders being sent and replies to only 13 out of the 26 audits queries had been submitted to the Auditor General.” (3rd COPE report p7). COPE also notes an instance of selected employees drawing two sets of salaries, from CWE and its subsidiaries (p10).

Monster monopolies

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In this weekly column on The Sunday Morning Business titled “The Coordination Problem”, the scholars and fellows associated with Advocata attempt to explore issues around economics, public policy, the institutions that govern them and their impact on our lives and society.

Originally appeared on The Morning

By Dilshani N Ranawaka

Rukshani, is a small business owner running her own grocery store. Her peak hours of business are when everyone gets back home from their jobs around 7-8pm after working in Colombo. Unfortunately, she has been struggling to make ends meet as of late, due to power cuts that are also scheduled in her area around the same time as her peak hours. With just candles lit during these hours, refrigerators and coolers switched off, it adds an additional cost for her to operate her business.

Thilina, who works in Colombo faces a challenge of getting back home as the workers of the Railway Authority have decided to go on strike asking for a pay raise. Even though trains are over-crowded, they are unfortunately the fastest way of commuting back and forth. Alternatively, Thilina has to resort to the next best solution in his capacity; buses, which incurs an additional cost to reach home.

How is that Rukshani and Thilina have no say over the situation? Why does Rukshani have to suffer losses during the peak hours of her business and why should Thilina have to look for alternative transportation for something they are capable of paying, but somehow is beyond their control?

Trains and electricity are two vital services for the day to day functioning of the country. Why do these authorities continue to function when they are failing to provide reliable and efficient services to their customers who pay for these services? They have a monopoly over this service, hence they exploit it.

As of 2017, Sri Lanka Railway (SLR) sums up for Rs. 7.5 billion in losses. The Central Electricity Board (CEB) projects of Rs. 89 billion in losses for 2019. An island-wide poll by Sparkwinn Research, commissioned by Advocata Institute indicates that 81% of the sampled population are not satisfied with the performance of the State Owned Enterprises (SOEs). As the numbers have spoken, people are clearly not in favour of having these underperforming SOEs.

Poll on SOE satisfaction

Would a private institute still run under these terrible, burdening losses?

The issue mainly starts with the monopolistic control over services complemented with organized trade unions within these public institutions. The fact that these services do not have competition, offers a fundamental background for wage increases and other demands that usually result in strikes which influences the entire population.

The initiation of these services dates back to the years when the private sector had inadequate resources to facilitate these services. In such conditions, the government established these entities for the benefit of the population. However, due to the monopolistic nature of these establishments, workers were able to unionize forcing the government to lose control over these institutions.

To add on to the burden of failures, is the fact that all these are controlled and heavily subsidized by the government. The lack of incentives to improve their efficiency and productivity are therefore felt heavily by the government.

There are common practices of addressing the issues on monopolies of the economy. Incentivizing merger policies, regulating and controlling the quality of these monopolies and price caps are some of the methods developed countries use to provide better services.

The “P” word; “privatization” is a taboo in Sri Lanka, although it is commonly agreed that the process of privatization paves the way towards an answer to address these issues that burden the entire economy.

“Privatization” in Sri Lanka is identified as “transferring an institute from public ownership towards private ownership”. This is only one such form of privatisation and is known as a “complete privatization”.  However, there exists various forms of privatizations such as transferring assets, Public-Private Partnerships and franchising.

Path towards privatization

The process of privatization should be methodological. Montreal Review (an independent online magazine) identifies few principals that would lead to an efficient privatization process.

  1. The purpose of privatisation

  2. The need to review different methods of privatisation

  3. The extent of the privatisation

  4. Recognising constraints

  5. Finding a buyer

  6. Implementing an investor friendly environment to attract investors

How the United Kingdom excelled in their privatization process of trains and telecom are case studies which could be replicated in Sri Lanka. The United States government remained in control of quality control and maintaining standards while the operations were handled by private sectors. On the other hand, the United States had successfully privatised industries with natural monopolies such as water and electricity supply by the privatization of operations with the government remaining in control of providing the role of maintaining standards while removing excess burden on the budgets.

However, given the extensive amount of State Owned Enterprises (SOEs), an initial step towards privatization could be to list down possible institutions or even better, towards creating an index which could be a measurement towards qualifying for privatization process.

Can we breakdown these natural monopolies? Are monopolies simply an excuse that gives the governors the luxury of political lobbying? Something to think about.

“The very term “public consumption products” is an absurd one. Every good is useful “to the public”, and almost every good may be considered “necessary”. Any designation of a few industries as “public utilities or services” is completely arbitrary and unjustified”  - Murray Rothbard, a prestigious American Economist.

In state business, the agency problem is on steriods

Originally appeared on Echelon

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

Inefficiency in state enterprises is a common, if not universal, problem. Citizens are often frustrated by poor service at public institutions. Public hospitals are free, but how many senior executives use them? When holidaying overseas, Sri Lankans will use the railway, but when was the last time they rode on Sri Lanka’s subsidised railway?

Where there is a choice – private hospitals or cars – people may escape poor state services by using alternatives; but the poor aren’t as fortunate.

However, there is no escape from the cost of inefficiency. Inefficiency and waste in state enterprises must eventually be paid for, either by high prices (needed to cover all the waste) or higher taxes. Why is this common in Sri Lanka, but less so in developed countries? The issue is with governance, specifically the problem of agency.

The principal-agent problem is common to any enterprise, private or public, not directly managed by its owners. When an owner manages a business, the interests of the business and the owner are perfectly aligned. When the owner hires a manager to run the business, problems arise if the interests of the manager conflict with that of the owner.

When an owner manages a business, the interests of the business and the owner are perfectly aligned. When the owner hires a manager to run the business, problems arise if the interests of the manager conflict with that of the owner

The problem with state enterprises is that, apart from the standard agency costs of a business, they also suffer political costs. We will come to this presently, but in effect, two sets of costs must be managed for a state enterprise to function effectively, so the regime of governance needs to be much stronger than for private entities. In Sri Lanka, the governance regime is a lot weaker, leading to underperformance and abuse.

Shareholders, the ultimate owners of a company, as principals, elect the management to act and take decisions on their behalf. Managers are supposed to employ the resources of the business in a manner that will maximize shareholder wealth. The manager’s best interest, however, is to divert these resources to enhance their personal status (through perquisites such as chauffeured limousines, business class travel) and maximise their own wealth (through excessive pay or corruption).

An example may be seen in recent news reports of a payment of Rs75 million paid to senior managers of People’s Bank and allegedly excessive payments to the top management of SriLankan Airlines. According to a COPE report, the ETF has paid incentives amounting to Rs74.8 million and bonuses of Rs44.5 million, contrary to treasury circulars. Another instance is Hunter and Company PLC, where the auditors were dismissed when they insisted that disclosure was necessary with regard to a bungalow that was being used by key management personnel. Later, a shareholder of the company moved to convene an EGM to call for an explanation from Hunters’ directors with regard to the “disappearance of a Rs2.5 million cheque in favour of a Mr Mahesh Gajanayake and about directors’ remuneration over and above the limit set out in the company’s Article 107”.

The reduction of agency costs is regarded as the essential function of company law and corporate governance.

State ownership creates its own agency problems, which are caused by the separation of politicians and bureaucrats who oversee SOEs from “the citizens” on whose behalf the enterprises are ostensibly owned. This creates an extra level of agency.

SOEs are ultimately owned by citizens, but run by managers, who are controlled by politicians. Politicians determine or otherwise influence the appointment of key management and must hold the managers accountable.

Unlike shareholders, politicians have not invested their own money in the business. As they have no stake, there is no particular interest in ensuring that it is well run. Politicians, however, have incentives to direct SOEs to achieve economically inefficient objectives for political purposes, giving rise to political costs. These may be benign, if policies enhance social welfare, even if they fail to maximize shareholder value, but most often they are malign, favouring political allies at the expense of public welfare.

The real owners, the citizens, have no voice and little interest in how the business is run.

Citizens are the ultimate “owners”, but cannot exert any meaningful oversight as:
(a) they have no legal standing as owners; and
(b) the fragmented nature of the “ownership” creates a collective action problem: no one citizen, even ones who are seriously interested, has an incentive to bear the costs required to monitor the managers.

Oversight is costly, as time and effort must be spent monitoring performance if malpractice is to be detected, a task made more difficult as citizens lack ready access to information. As no direct rewards accrue to a diligent citizen from such action, there is little incentive to expend the effort to do so; they will depend on politicians for this. As discussed previously, politicians have no incentives to do so.

The main mechanisms to address these two layers of agency costs are general corporate laws on the one hand, and general political and legal institutions on the other; but for reasons discussed later, they are weak.

Therefore, the performance of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) suffer from both political costs (i.e. costs associated with the control of firms by politicians who have political goals that differ from economic efficiency) and agency costs (i.e. costs resulting from managerial pursuit of private benefits at the expense of the firm), leading to chronic inefficiency and underperformance.

As observed above, the agency problem is present in all corporate entities, but it is important to note a fundamental distinction between private shareholders and citizens.

Investors in private companies take a risk when they put money down, but it is one taken of their own volition. Shareholders subscribe voluntarily to shares; they are not compelled to invest.

Generally, people only invest in private companies if they know and trust the management. If the business does not perform to expectations, they will earn a lower return. If it fails, the shareholders will lose, but it is their own money, voluntarily invested, that is lost.

With SOEs, the important difference is that, unlike in a company where willing investors are taking conscious decisions, the investment in an SOE is by citizens who contribute involuntarily and unwittingly. Taxation is compulsory, and in the form of indirect taxation, all citizens contribute to SOEs.

In the most extreme case, if shareholders are disgusted and can find no remedy, they still enjoy a final option: exit. They may sell their shares. For citizens, unless they choose to migrate, there is no exit option.

Businesses must risk their own money when they go into trade, but governments risk other people’s 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. If the owner is incapable of improving the business and is unable to infuse more funds, a mismanaged business will eventually close.

SOEs in Sri Lanka, however, enjoy implicit state guarantees and funding via state banks, which undermines even the threat of bankruptcy as a source of managerial discipline. The continuous accumulation of losses is only possible because of this factor. An example is SriLankan Airlines, which has accumulated losses of $1 billion and a negative net worth, but continues to operate with funding from state banks. For context, the current IMF facility (stand-by arrangement) is $1.5 billion.

As citizens lack the interest or wherewithal to monitor SOEs, efficiency is entirely dependent on the system of governance. Distorted incentives and weakened mechanisms present structural challenges to efficiency.

Investors in private companies take a risk when they put money down, but it is one taken of their own volition. The investment in an SOE is by citizens who contribute involuntarily and unwittingly.
  • Patronage
    Politics in Sri Lanka is based on patronage. Ministers face pressures from constituents for jobs or favours. State sector jobs are especially prized for status and security. Politicians believe that granting jobs is a necessary condition for re-election. In general, lawmakers and ministers in Sri Lanka across party lines and ideological divides view SOEs as providing avenues to create employment.

    SOEs incorporated as limited liability companies enjoy greater autonomy in the management of their affairs, allowing the minister to bypass treasury or budget restrictions placed on recruitment. In the case of state banks, it is possible for the minister to exercise patronage by directing lending on preferred terms to selected constituents.

    This leads to problems of over-staffing. The more staff are hired, the greater the potential votes, leading to the chronic over-staffing evident in many SOEs. The allied problem is nepotism – the recruitment of people based on relationships instead of ability. Recruiting unsuitable candidates weakens the general level of competence within the SOE, which adversely impacts performance.

    Therefore, patronage is particularly harmful as it has a dual impact on performance; the hiring of excess staff adds to unnecessary costs, while nepotism leads to diminished efficiency.

    A COPE report highlights how the State Engineering Corporation recruited 4,512 employees when the available vacancies were only 41. The problem is pervasive. The Secretary to the Treasury Dr. Samaratunga noted that recruitments to SOEs take place without the approval of the Management Services Department of the Treasury. “All SOEs across the government—public corporations, statutory boards or government-owned companies—have effected recruitment without proper approval of the management services”.

  • Corruption
    Corruption is endemic in Sri Lanka’s political system. The root of the problem lies in campaign finance. Changes in the 1978 constitution removed limits on campaign spending and the need to disclose sources of funding. This has led to a massive increase in spending with candidates seeking to outspend each other in order to win. Those who succeed come into office having either made major investments or incurred significant debts, usually a combination of both. This creates an in-built incentive for corruption. In the absence of strong governance mechanisms, it is hardly surprising if MPs do not succumb to temptation. spending a good deal of their time in office either recovering election spending or raising funds for their re-election campaign. This explains the scramble for positions in the government, which allows control over resources. The greater autonomy of SOEs makes them particularly tempting targets.

Greater efficiency can only be expected through better governance, which requires addressing fundamental weaknesses in the political system and adopting a comprehensive system of corporate governance for state enterprises

The Secretary to the Treasury has noted that SOEs have a “general lack of governance practices, lack of accountability mechanisms, issues associated with lack of clear policy and legal frameworks, and weak supervisory roles played by the management and board of directors”.

Many countries have adopted comprehensive corporate governance practices to strengthen the governing bodies that oversee and control (shareholders or owner meetings, board and management, internal monitoring structures), while defining clear rules of engagement between the different actors, as well as increasing transparency and accountability towards stakeholders.

These are lacking in Sri Lanka, and the overall system of governance still seems inadequate to hold SOEs to account.

Perverse incentives and weak governance greatly increase political and agency costs of state-owned enterprises. It is, therefore, not surprising that a study by Lalithsiri Gunaruwan found that “inefficiency is a common feature in all Sri Lankan SOEs, across all organisational categories”. Greater efficiency can only be expected through better governance, which requires addressing the fundamental weaknesses in the political system and adopting a comprehensive system of corporate governance for state enterprises.

SOEs in Sri Lanka : Beyond "Profit & Losses"

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.

A version of this article originally appeared in “The State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka” Report as well as The Island.