The State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka

Behind the invisibility cloak: Sri Lanka’s hidden state-owned enterprises

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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

Is the Government aware it has gazetted 527 SOEs?

Unveiling an invisibility cloak of the state was the first task I did as a fresh graduate. Behind 55 strategic State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) identified by the Ministry of Finance (MoF) lies another 450+ SOEs making their contribution to the “Coordination Problem”.

SOEs in Sri Lanka

Even at face value, it seems unlikely that a small country like Sri Lanka needs the government to run a pool of SOEs as large as this. Interestingly, the MoF doesn’t have a count of all its SOEs, with the Annual Report only mentioning that there are 400+ SOEs. However, there are at least 527 SOEs, subsidiaries and sub-subsidiaries gazetted. To be specific, the 527 SOEs can be broken down to 424 principals, 84 subsidiaries and 19 sub-subsidiaries.

Of the 400+ SOEs that the government is aware of, the Department of Public Enterprises tracks the profits and losses of only 55 SOEs, which they have identified as ‘strategic’.

This raises two questions.

  1. Why doesn’t the government know the number of enterprises it runs? Anyone running a business should at the very least know the number of organisations it is in charge of.

  2. Why does the MoF only track 55 SOEs? What are the losses that come from the remaining 450?

Let’s take the Ministry of Power and Energy and Business Development for example. The ministry’s losses add up to a cumulative net-loss of Rs. 363,945Mn during the past 11 years. The ministry governs 4 principal SOEs, 6 subsidiary SOEs and 12 sub-subsidiary SOEs adding upto a total of 22 bodies.

When one further explores these subsidiaries, it is quite logical to ponder the rationale for these categorizations. For instance; the Ceylon Electricity Board has two subsidiaries under it. The first subsidiary Lanka Electricity Company (LECO) has three sub-subsidiaries LTL Transformers, LTL Energy, and LTL Galvanizers. The second subsidiary LTL Holdings (Pvt.) has another sub-subsidiary LTL Energy (Pvt.). Is it any wonder that we have erratic power supply? A convenient way to track all these entities would be to establish all of them under one subsidiary; LTL Holdings.

It is time we question the logic of establishing so many SOEs, given that their profits and losses are not tracked, and a majority do not even publish annual reports. When the losses incurred by these entities are added to the equation, it is clear that there is large-scale mismanagement taking place.

The multiple layers of incorporation (principal, subsidiary and subsidiary bodies) enhances the divisibility of responsibilities. Furthermore, the problem with having too many entities makes it hard for them to be monitored. Since SOEs are governed by the state, the debt burden is weighed heavily on the government and then transferred to the taxpayer.

Moving beyond the profits and losses of these enterprises, an equally shocking fact is that out of the 527 SOEs that have been gazetted to date, information of their purpose (classification as commercial and non-commercial entities) of 284 SOEs is not freely available, and cannot be found from government sources.

Can these 527 enterprises be utilized or do a majority need to be shut down because of their losses? The government cannot afford to keep bailing out its mismanaged enterprises - the fiscal space simply does not exist.

The first step to addressing the problem of SOEs, is to figure out the number of entities the state governs. A bi-annual census of SOE conducted by the Department of Census and Statistics, with detailed reports (a current requirement fulfilled only by 55 SOEs) on every SOE is a must.  It is only from here, when the government has an idea of the extent of the problem that we can move into questions of improving accountability and introducing better governance structures.

The question remains, when the government is unaware of the number of entities it is responsible for, why should citizens pay for their loss making, inefficient, institutional excess?  

Sri Lanka has a total of 527 State Owned Enterprises out of which regular information is available for only 55. The inefficiencies and mismanagement which riddle our SOEs are explored in the Advocata Institute's new report  “State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka- 2019". To read more on SOEs and download full report visit www.advocata.org.


Dilshani Ranawaka is a Research Executive at the Advocata Institute whose main research areas are public finance, behavioural economics and labour economics. She can be contacted at dilshani@advocata.org or @dilshani_n on Twitter.

Sri Lanka’s political system: A Failure of Governance

Originally appeared on Groundviews

By Ravi Ratnasabapathy

This essay examines failures of governance in Sri Lanka. Although discussed within the context of State Owned Enterprises (SOE), they affect many other aspects of public life.

The weaknesses in the governance of SOEs stem from those embedded within the larger political system. These problems can be assessed by an examination of the political system, understanding the incentives of actors and the effectiveness of institutions in directing these towards the public good.

Some examples of general weaknesses in the political system

  1. The power of interest groups

  2. Campaign finance

  3. Weak parliament and committees

  4. Citizens as shareholders

The power of interest groups

People may commonly assume that political actors are mainly concerned with public interest and that the state exists to carry out the wishes of the public.

Unfortunately, the State is made up of people and the dominant motive in people’s actions in the marketplace – whether they are employers, employees, or consumers – is self-interest.

When individuals become politicians they do not suddenly abandon their personal interests and turn into public-spirited individuals who make morally correct decisions in the ‘public interest’.

While most people will base some of their actions on charitable instincts only in rare cases are these likely to be primary motives. Politicians are no different, acting to please interest groups that support them, pushing policies that lead to re-election and pursuing other personal agendas.

 Politicians take collective decisions. They are made by politicians on behalf of the public, and not by the public themselves. All decisions involve a trade-off in costs and benefits but when an individual makes an economic choice, they experience both the costs and the benefits. Thus, they will only act if it is in their interest.

In collective decisions, whether they involve giving jobs to graduates or building a road, the beneficiaries (e.g. graduates, road users) are not always the people who bear the costs (taxpayers or homeowners whose property is lost). Further, in a market transaction both sides have to agree, if either disagrees, they can walk away. In political decisions those who disagree cannot walk away, they are bound to accept the decision and bear whatever costs the collective choice demands.

Therefore collective decisions, unlike individual ones, carry wide implications. Good politicians should weigh overall costs and benefits on our behalf to determine if ‘social welfare’ might be increased by the right choices. The question is do Sri Lankan politicians have the motive; or even the capacity, to do so?

When political decisions are made how do we determine what is ‘best’ for ‘the people’? Society is complex, made up of different groups with different interests. The young may be interested in education and jobs, but pensioners may be more concerned with old age security and health care. An ageing population may vote for increased pensions, but if this is achieved at the cost of lower spending on education the young may lose. Different decisions involve different stakeholders with varied interests, making it difficult to identify a single ‘public interest’.

When collective decisions are taken a choice will be made between many competing sets of interests: but only one set of interests can win. Politicians face conflicting pressures from lobbyists, businesses, family and friends. Those with the greatest leverage will win. This is not the same as saying that policies that bring the greatest social benefit will win.

Small, homogeneous groups (trade unions like the GMOA or businesses) find it relatively easy to organise and have a great deal to gain or lose when collective decisions go for or against them. The opposite is true with large groups, such as consumers or taxpayers.

With large groups the impact of collective decisions on a single member is small so they have little incentive to lobby. Being so diverse, they are also difficult to organise.

The result is that concentrated interest groups have a powerful incentive to organise and campaign for policies that will specifically benefit them. By contrast, the general public, with very diverse interests, have little motivation to put effort into public debate.

The protective tax (roughly Rs.10) on a loaf of bread may not amount to much to a consumer but to the flour millers this represents a gain of around Rs.20 billion a year.

When particular groups manipulate policy to win preferential tax or legal privileges this results in a substantial transfer of wealth from the public to privileged groups. In Sri Lanka the practice is widespread; witness the plethora of special tax concessions (about 200 according to the Finance Minister) exclusive import licenses, permits and protective tariffs.

Campaign finance creates incentives for corruption and poor governance

Limits on campaign spending and the need to disclose sources were removed in the 1978 constitution, opening the floodgates. This excludes the majority of citizens, including the educated, from politics.

There are no accurate estimates of the cost of an election campaign but a former Secretary General of Parliament recently stated that this was in the region of Rs. 60-70 million. Conversations with other commentators produced estimates between Rs. 50-100 million, rising to Rs 150 million for those fighting for preferential votes.

The proportional representation system has increased constituency size (campaign costs are proportional to constituency size) while the preferential voting system intensifies political competition (not only must candidates battle other parties, they must also fight within the party). The combination has sparked an arms race in campaign spending.

While costs are lower outstation they are still substantial and far beyond the lawful earnings of an MP who earns a monthly salary of Rs. 54,285/- plus other allowances of around Rs160,000/-.

Politicians turn to wealthy backers, some connected to the underworld, to fund campaigns and provide labour-in return for political protection or rewards. The result is that a group selected on the basis of access to cash and a workforce – not intellect or ability – enters Parliament. Moreover, the need to recover campaign spending means they come into office under obligation to their sponsors, carrying an inbuilt incentive to corruption.

This has undermined the technical capacity of the state; how can proper policy be formulated if the politicians and bureaucrats are ill-qualified to perform the necessary analysis? The bureaucracy has an important role in policymaking, providing objective assessment of policy options, drawing on experience and practical considerations. Unfortunately, decades of nepotism have sapped its capacity. The concept of independent policy analysis does not exist in Sri Lanka, leaving a vacuum vulnerable to capture by special interest groups.

Weak Parliament and committees

Political actors will pursue their own interests, but functional governance systems can check the worst of these impulses. The most important is parliament, which works through questioning government ministers, debating and the investigative work of committees, principally the Committee on Public Expenditure (COPE) and Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) which scrutinise expenditure.

Unfortunately, serious deficiencies exist. Engineering crossovers in return for political office reduces Parliament to a rubber stamp. Thus there is little incentive for MPs to take Parliament seriously. Many don’t even attend.

An analysis showed that less than half the MPs attended at least 75% of the sessions. Even those who attend remain in the house only for the first hour. Attending funerals or weddings is the priority; they recently voted themselves a new monthly allowance of Rs.100,000 for gifts at functions. Once elected, the goal is Cabinet appointment, as this presents opportunities for gain or furthering political careers. Once ensconced, the incentive is to enjoy office, not to risk the privileges by questioning authority. The multiplication of the Cabinet is driven more by the need to lure opposition MPs to maintain a rubber-stamp majority than strictly functional requirements.

The committee system is also weak. Until recently they were ‘Consultative Committees’ chaired by a Minister and structured to aid the executive than hold it to account. With the major overhaul of the system [1] by the Yahapalanaya government – a significant if little known reform in the last three years – these are now known as ‘Oversight Committees’ and their function is now much better geared to scrutiny and accountability-but much more needs to be done.

COPA/COPE are under-resourced; their reports complain of a lack staff (particularly audit) and proper IT systems. Further, the government is not required to act on the recommendations of these committees (although ministers must now respond to findings) within any stipulated period of time, leaving the accountability loop open.

Despite many limitations, these committees have uncovered multiple grave malpractices that point to fundamental control weaknesses. The fact that only a minority of institutions seem able to furnish an unqualified audit report suggests much more lurks undetected.

Citizens as shareholders

If politicians do not hold SOEs to account can citizens, the ultimate “owners” exert any meaningful oversight? Unfortunately not because:

  • They have no legal standing as owners;

  • 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, and time and effort must be spent on monitoring performance if malpractice is to be detected. This task is 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; citizens depend on politicians to do this. As discussed previously, the politician has no clear incentive, especially since they are not held accountable for poor performance.

The main mechanisms to address these two layers of agency costs are corporate laws and political and legal institutions. The weaknesses of the political institutions have been discussed above and corporate law are rarely enforced on SOEs.

To take a few simple examples; of the 55 large SOEs only ten had published an annual report for 2016, as per the 2017 report of the department of Public Enterprises. (The law requires publication within six months of the year’s end. Timely disclosure is essential in a robust corporate governance framework as it provide the basis for scrutiny for stakeholders.) Thirty were two or more years in arrears.

Sri Lankan Airlines has suffered a Serious Loss of Capital [2], but the legal procedures that must follow have been ignored. Even the labour laws are not enforced-the JEDB has unpaid EPF liabilities of Rs.323m but earns no sanction.

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

Conclusion: a dysfunctional state that serves political interests

The political process incentivises corruption. A weak governance regime means little accountability and few checks on government spending. In addition, limited technical capacity means policy is open to “capture” by special interests. The combination is deeply dysfunctional: a parasitic system that transfers wealth to the politically connected through corruption and rent-seeking.

The weaknesses in the political system are discussed here in order to place the context within which the agency and political costs of SOEs are experienced. Poor oversight magnifies these costs. In combination with the perverse incentives of politicians it gives rise to the blatant breaches of fiduciary responsibility that occur, repeatedly in the COPE reports.

All political systems need to mediate the relationship between private wealth and public power. Those that fail have dysfunctional governments, captured by wealthy interests.

The ramifications of this are far-reaching. Although a full discussion is out of place here, structural weaknesses could explain why a massive expansion in state activity has yielded minimal visible benefits to citizens. Between 2005-15 total government spending quadrupled (from Rs.584 billion to Rs.2,290 billion) with little noticeable improvement in essential services; transport, health, education or waste disposal.

The money is swallowed up in a massive administrative machine. There is endless duplication in the 32 cabinet ministries, 3 non-cabinet ministries, 107 departments, and 24 spending units, 452 SOEs just at the centre. Most developed countries make do with about 20 ministries.

The problem with endemic corruption is that public officials, both bureaucrats and politicians, may redesign programmes and propose projects with few public benefits and many opportunities for private profit.

In Sri Lanka, patronage wins elections which may be why we have 166,588 peons and 25,645 drivers in public service (but only 19,612 medical officers and 32,399 nurses). The public sector workforce ballooned from 850,267 to 1.35m between 2005 and 2016.Salaries and pensions consume almost half of all tax revenue. Much other government expenditure has been funded by debt: but it is only now; when debt is repaid-and taxes rise, that the true cost becomes apparent to the public.

Structural problems require structural solutions; changing the identities of the people who hold public office will not suffice.

A concerted effort to improving oversight is needed, to overcome the resistance from within (as it is not in their interest). The National Audit Bill to strengthen the Auditor General’s role to increase accountability was only passed in July 2018, after being held up since 2003. Requests to open the COPE/COPA hearings to the public by the Committees’ themselves have gone unheeded.

Improving accountability and governance within State Owned Enterprises is important because of the large leakages that take place, but this will address only the subset of a larger problem.

Sri Lankan intellectuals have long placed great faith in government but given the quality of governance the role that the state should play in public life should be reassessed. The governance mechanisms are what ensure that state activity delivers benefits to citizens. A state that exhibits high levels of governance may be trusted to play a larger role, whereas one with weaker governance should only play a smaller role.

Keynes stated the function of government: it should do only what the people could not do at all, not what it could do better than the people. Our objective should be a state that performs a limited and well-defined number of tasks to which it is suited and has the requisite capacity.


[1]. Ministers are now required to submit responses to committee findings (previously they could be ignored), COPE follows the convention of being chaired by an opposition MP and non-COPE members of Parliament may now observe its proceedings

[2]. As per Section 220, if it appears to a Director of a Company, that the ‘net assets’ of the Company are less than 50% its ‘Stated Capital’, then the Board, within 20 working days of such fact becoming known to the Director, shall call an Extra-ordinary General Meeting of the Shareholders to be held, not later than 40 working days from the date of calling of such Meeting. Sri Lankan Airlines has lost the entirety of its capital and now has a negative capital.


Sri Lanka has a total of 527 State Owned Enterprises out of which regular information is available for only 55. The inefficiencies and mismanagement which riddle our SOEs are explored in the Advocata Institute's new report  “State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka- 2019"

To read more on SOEs and download full report visit www.advocata.org

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.

Reforming State Owned Enterprises - Q&A with Razeen Sally

Razeen Sally is Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the Notional University of Singapore. He is Chairman of the Institute of Policy Studies, the main economic-policy think tank in his native Sri Lanka. Previously he taught at the London School of Economics, where he received his PhD. He has been Director of the European Centre for International Political Economy, a global-economy think tank in Brussels. He has held visiting research and teaching positions at Institut D’Etudes Politiques (Sciences Po) in Paris,

Australian National University, University of Hong Kong, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore and Dartmouth College in the USA. He was also Chair of the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Competitiveness. He is an Adjunct Scholar at the Coto Institute and is on the advisory boards of the Institute of Economic Affairs (UK) and Centre for Independent Studies (Australia).

He is a member of the Mont Pelerin Society. Sally’s research and teaching focuses on global trade policy and Asia in the world economy. He has written on the WTD, FTAs and on different aspects of trade policy in Asia. He has also written on the history of economic ideas, especially the theory of commercial policy. His new book on Sri Lanka will be published in 2017

 

Razeen Sally, a Professor at the National University of Singapore, shared his experience about the experience of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in South Asia and East Asia with Advocata, a Colombobased think tank promoting free market. While privatization is the best option to reduce the burden of state enterprises on society and improve t h e i r p e r f o r m a n c e , s u b j e c t i n g them t o competition, shielding them from politicization can also give benefits, he says in this interview.

There seems to have been an epidemic of state enterprises after World War II, especially in newly independent countries like Sri Lanka. When did state enterprises start to emerge in the world and in Sri Lanka? What is the historical background to SOEs?

In Sri Lanka as in India, many state enterprises date back to mid-1950s when the government policies took a turn towards to more intervention, more protection and using the state to promote investments in heavy industry and other areas. In this respect, the S.W.R.D. Bandaranaike government was following what the Nehru government was doing in India. So, the SOEs were intended to be the spearhead of economic development. And of course in Sri Lanka, this was really ratcheted up under Mrs. Bandaranaike’s government in 1970, when the state intended to take control of the commanding heights of the economy.

What were the intentions of the architects of SOEs? Have these objectives been met?

The answer is clearly no. The idea was to use the SOEs as part of an alternative model of economic development.

The model people had in mind was Soviet Union and its five-year plan. And here there is a contrast with what was done in the East Asian countries and what was done in South Asia. South Asia went for heavy state-led investment, nationalisation, for various government internal controls and external protection - import substitution. And this model clearly failed, which led to later market reforms, from 1977 in Sri Lanka and from 1991 in India.

The East Asian countries - some of them actually had SOEs - like Taiwan. But on the whole they didn’t nationalise rampantly and they relied much more on the private sector to be the engine of economic development. It was part of a different model which was more open to international trade, which had fewer domestic controls, which had macroeconomic stability and so on.

I would argue that the old model, which had nationalisation and SOEs controlling significant parts of the economy, definitely failed. And you see the costs of failure of SOEs in Sri Lanka. There are 250 or more SOEs, some that are hugely loss-making, that are a drain on an already depleted exchequer, that are heavily politicised, that crowd out private investment and that constrain consumer choice. So, it is a bad deal all around.

Why do so many state enterprises get into trouble and end up becoming burdens on the tax payer? Is there an inherent problem in the incentives or structure behind the SOEs that leads them on this path?

the world, state enterprises fail because there are disincentives to competition.

They are shielded from competition. They have a close link to the state. They are highly politicized. Appointments are not made on merit. The market is rigged in their favour, on prices and on production. Often they are protective from international competition as well as domestic competition. For all those reasons they fail.

And they are a drag on the economy, on the exchequer and on consumers - they limit competition. There are of course, exceptions.

One can point to a minority of SOEs in a few countries in the world that have not prevented fast and successful economic development. One thinks in particular of the government-linked companies (GLCs) in Singapore. Singapore, which is a fantastic and successful economy, still has large companies that are majority state-owned, that are grouped under Temasek - the state holding company - and are commercially viable. Some of them have done very well competing internationally. Singapore Airlines is perhaps the best example.

That they have been subjected to competition is the basic answer - and in a small economy like Singapore, which is highly open to the world. It is the most open economy of any size in the world with trade at close to 400 percent of gross domestic product (GDP).

The GLCs that play in the international market place are subject to fierce international competition in the market place. That’s true of Singapore Airlines, that’s true of the port services authority and that’s true of state-owned banks and so on. Over the decades the government has put in place the mechanisms to separate ownership - that is to say by the state - from the management, of commercial enterprises. In other words, they’ve been depoliticised to a large extent. It would be wrong to say that all SOEs in all countries have failed.

That’s not true. For the most part it is true. But a handful of exceptions are there. Singapore is the one that really stands out for exceptional pieces. But it’s very difficult to try and replicate in a country like Sri Lanka, what Singapore has done - in a country where politics is much more extrusive, where it is much more difficult to depoliticise the running of SOEs and also much more difficult to subject them to competition from domestic players and also from international players. Malaysia has a holding company called Khazanah, which is similar in some ways to Temasek in Singapore.

This holding company houses a number of leading SOEs in Malaysia, which accounts for about one third of Malaysian output. At least one of them is a big player in Sri Lanka. The Malaysian GLCs don’t perform nearly as well as Singapore GLCs - for two reasons. Firstly, they are less subject to competition and secondly, they are much more politicized. However, some of them are actually not too bad or are reasonably good because they have been shielded more than the others from politics.

What can be done?

The first best solution to the running of SOEs in Sri Lanka is to have a timetable to privatise. So yes, would use the ‘P’ word without feeling embarrassed about it. The obvious economically efficient solution is to privatize as many of the SOEs as possible over a realistic period of time. We know that politically this is not on the cards at the moment.

So the ‘P’ word is not used. As a matter of expediency that’s understandable. But I think as a medium to long-term objective, privatisation should be the way to go. However, now we have to get the second-best scenarios and second-best solutions. If large-scale privatisation is not feasible, what can be done in the short term, over the next one or two parliamentary terms, to improve the current dismal situation of the SOEs that won’t be as good as and as efficient as full privatisation, but might deliver a better result than what we have at the moment?’ In other words, improve the running of the enterprises; make them more commercially viable, more productive. In this scenario, we have to look at the other countries that have better practices. So Singapore comes to mind and so does Malaysia.

So we should look at the Temasek and Khazanah models of having a state holding company for SOEs. The lesson I would draw from the best example, which is Temasek, is that first you subject them to all-round competition, including international competition. And second, you put in place mechanism to depoliticise them as much as possible. In other words, separate ownership from management.

That’s the starting point. Then we can ask ourselves, ‘What should be the criteria for making these principles real?’ I was at a conference in Goa to discuss Indian reforms and I was part of a group that looked at this Temasek - Khazanah type of a model. And the local participants were interested in what lessons could there be for India, which is also not in the game of big privatisations.

As a first step, there is no point setting up a state-owned holding company and calling it something that’s done on the Temasek or Khazanah model if you’re not going to change the current operating procedures. So, the point is to have serious reforms, even if you can’t do privatisation. So what can you do? Firstly, identify the enterprises that essentially operate in a commercial sphere, where there is some competition already or where there could be more competition. If you have a state-run monopoly or oligopoly, then don’t put it in such a holding company.

Keep it separate. Because that’s probably going to be more politicized anyway there may be other public policy objectives that will get involved in the running of that enterprise. So keep that to one side. Rather, put in this basket enterprises that are commercial. So, that would include SriLankan Airlines, Mihin Air and the Sri Lanka Transport Board (SLTB) but not the Ceylon Electricity Board. So, in other words, don’t put all SOEs in this holding company, only put some of them that operate in a commercial sphere.

These should be corporatised with initially majority state’s ownership. Then you should start introducing the minority equity participation. And Temasek is interesting because, in the key enterprises, the government still retains the majority equity, therefore control. But they have actually gradually beefed up the minority equity in most of the Temasek enterprises.

That’s also a boost for the stock exchange or financial markets. And in some cases with nonpriority enterprises, they have actually taken the private sector stakes to a majority of equity and the government has retained only a minority of equity - and in some cases actually exited altogether. But in the meantime, the government could be with the minority equity - up to 19 percent. Maybe when the time is right politically, move into the majority private ownership. But the holding company should include airlines, buses, telcos and whatever is commercially viable and subject to competition.

We talk of loss-making state enterprises hurting the people. Are there other fallouts of badly managed SOEs? What’s a reasonable way of counting the total costs of SOEs on the economy?

Losses are the tip of the iceberg. And of course there are other SOEs in other countries that are hugely profitable. But that’s not an indication of overall economic efficiency. They are profitable because they have monopoly rents. They are not subject to normal competition.

So, I think the cost of SOEs that operate in rigged markets is the costs that fall on the consumer because of lack of competition. These might be difficult to quantify. We are talking of usually higher than normal prices, restricted product variety, often restricted supply of the product or service in question. I think probably the biggest losses to the economy are the losses that come from lack of competition.

When the Public Utilities Commission was set up here by Prof. Rohan Samarajiva, the law provided that you cannot replace the entire board in one go. Two or few members can be appointed for one year. What is your opinion on a procedure of that nature?

You could try to introduce independent directors. Having independent anybody in Sri Lanka is very difficult at the moment. Some of the Temasek companies have had foreign CEOs. Mind you SriLankan had a foreign CEO when it tied up with Emirates. What happened to him? You could try to maybe have a regulation that there should be a minimum number of independently appointed directors to the boards of these companies and to the boards of the holding company as well. So, the government appointees would be restricted to a certain number and there would be some mechanism to appoint some of the rest.

But of course they would have to be qualified. There is no point appointing a lawyer who leads someone’s political campaign without prior commercial experience to be an independent director of a commercial enterprise. That’s one thing to play around with that.

We have seen companies like Temasek advertise globally. So do you suggest that some people could also be hired globally?

Yes. Target the diaspora as well. See whether you could attract some of the qualified people from the diaspora to be directors of these companies, CEOs or the senior management.


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