Trade Liberalization

Can the ECT buoy the Colombo Port?

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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

Sri Lanka’s location at the midpoint of international trade routes, positioned at the centre of the Indian Ocean, is a fact that we probably know by heart. But what’s important is the question whether we are exploiting this position. Our ports and good policy decisions are the tools that allow us to change geography into tangible benefits. The performance of the Colombo Port has been exemplary. It recently handled its seven millionth container and was ranked the fastest-growing port in 2018. However, with the Colombo Port operating at approximately an 80% capacity, this growth and the benefits it brings have an expiration date.

What is the ideal role of the government in the shipping industry?
The government should most definitely not be both a player and a regulator. Right now, the Government plays both roles, and the potential for a conflict of interest is enormous. It also means that it is increasingly difficult for competitive neutrality to be maintained. However, the government should not be completely removed from the industry. The role of the government lies solely in being a landlord and regulator, for if the Colombo Port is to grow while remaining efficient and profitable, regulation is required to address anti-competitive practices, monitor performance, and enforce standards. Of course, when advocating for government regulation, one wants to steer clear of the miles of red tape that the government is fond of. A caveat of this argument is that a balance be struck, so that regulation does not stifle innovation or investment.

What makes economic sense?
Establishing the hard and soft infrastructure a port requires is a capital and time-intensive task. There also needs to be strong commitment, which the Government lacks. Colombo International Container Terminal (CICT), which is a joint venture between China Merchants Port Holdings Company Ltd. and the Sri Lanka Ports Authority (SLPA), signed a BOT agreement in 2011. The terminal was operational by 2013. In comparison, the construction of the breakwater for the Jaya Container Terminal (JCT) run by the SLPA took four years, from 2008 to 2012. CICT developed an entire terminal in less time than it took the SLPA to construct the breakwater for its existing terminal.

Lack of direction and consensus from decision makers in government have resulted in the East Container Terminal (ECT) – a strategically important terminal remaining unused and idle. It is clear that the Government needs to step aside and allow the private sector to come in. This is evidenced by the performance of the South Asia Gateway Terminal (SAGT), which is operated on a BOT basis with the Government of Sri Lanka and a consortium of local and international establishments, which was awarded the “Best Terminal in the Indian Subcontinent Region” for the third consecutive year in 2019 and won the “Best Transhipment Hub Port Terminal of the year” at the Global Ports Forum.

Percentage change in TEU handling from 2016 to 2017 (Source:  Ministry of Ports and Shipping, Performance Report (2017), compiled by the Advocata Institute)

Percentage change in TEU handling from 2016 to 2017 (Source: Ministry of Ports and Shipping, Performance Report (2017), compiled by the Advocata Institute)

When comparing the success of the different terminals, the same conclusion can be drawn. Looking at the comparison of the number of Twenty-foot Equivalent Units (TEUs) handled by the terminals from 2016 to 2017, the CICT is the best performer. Interestingly, while both SAGT and CICT have enjoyed an increase of 10.9% and 19.3% in TEU for 2017, JCT has witnessed a 4.3% drop. The privately-operated terminals outperforming the SLPA Jaya Terminal speaks volumes.

Seaports are interfaces between several modes of transport, and thus they are centers for combined transport … they are multi-functional markets and industrial areas where goods are not only in transit, but they are also sorted, manufactured and distributed. As a matter of fact, seaports are multi-dimensional systems, which must be integrated within logistic chains to fulfill properly their functions.
— United Nations Conference on Trade and Development

Ripple effects of private ownership

This definition by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development succinctly describes the importance of ports and port infrastructure, and accurately shows how ports cannot work in silos. They are an integral component in a wider network of business, infrastructure, supply chains and employment. If we want profitable and efficient ports, we need similarly performing ancillary services.

Ancillary services and ports enjoy a symbiotic relationship. On one hand, ancillary services are series of economic activities which provide services and create employment; which are dependent on the port. On the other hand, the port benefits from efficient ancillary services as they make the port and its terminals more attractive to clients and boosts its own performance.

Ancillary Services Colombo Port

Ancillary services include logistics, bunkering, marine lubricants, freshwater supply, off shore supplies and ship chandelling, warehousing and many more. These services, and their ability to grow is affected by the general functioning of the port, and therefore is affected by the ownership of the terminals.

For a port to survive, ancillary services need to constantly innovate and remain productive. There is no need for this article to expound on how the government is not the place to go to when in search of innovation. This is clearly the forte of the private sector. This is backed up by the fact that so far, private ownership of terminals and profitability go hand in hand. In short, if profitable and productive terminal creates a well-functioning port, allowing ancillary services to grow; then we should be looking to the private sector for investment and not the government.

What is happening with the ECT?

As mentioned above, the Colombo Port is fast growing. However, if you were to look at the Colombo Port from one of the many high rises in the Fort area, spotting the East Container Terminal would not be difficult – it’s the only terminal with nothing happening. No cranes, no ships, no activity.

The East Container Terminal is not significant simply for its disuse. Compared to the West Terminal, it is situated in the middle of the new port and the old port of Colombo. This gives it an advantage as it is closer to all other terminals and moves inter-terminal cargo a smaller distance. This gives it an important edge as inter-terminal cargo is an important component of transshipment. The depth of the ECT, at 18m allows it to handle container shipments, adding to its value. In short, the ECT has a clear operational advantage.

It is evident that the country has lost out in this scenario. In a port that is as fast growing as the Colombo port, the decision makers of this country have, for a variety of reasons, not developed the ECT. The Sri Lankan government has taken many stances over the years. It both invited expressions of interest and business proposals for the development of the ECT and cancelled tenders, insistent that the ECT will be run by the Sri Lanka Ports Authority – sending mixed signals to interested parties, and effectively ensuring that investors are reticent, and development of the port has stalled.

Politics have dictated the government’s decisions on the ECT, and the result is that the country has lost out. In shipping the government has an important role to play in regulation and ensuring standards are adhered to, but it cannot be both a player and a regulator. The performance of the JCT in comparison to the private terminals makes it clear that government is not as effective as the private sector, it should limit itself to the task of regulation. In conclusion, the ECT should be opened for private ownership as soon as possible, following the precedent set by the BOT models of the CICT and SAGT.

Aneetha Warusavitarana is a Research Analyst at the Advocata Institute. Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. They conduct research, provide commentary, and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka. She can be contacted at or @AneethaW on twitter .

SL is running out of input-led ‘perspiration’ growth: Sally

Originally appeared on Daily FT

Shortages of labour, land and an ageing population mean that Sri Lanka’s opportunities for rapid catch-up growth are diminishing and institutional transformation is needed for innovation and output-led growth, a top economist has said.

The first stage of growth involves a poor country catching up with more advanced economies, using inputs like cheap labour and land, involving ‘perspiration’. 

“Once you become middle-income, especially the upper middle income categories, your growth rate inevitably slows down; this model no longer works,” said Razeen Sally, the Associate Professor of the Lew Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore.

“We are already seeing that in Sri Lanka. The population begins to age. You have less availability of labour - particularly cheap labour. Capital becomes more expensive. Wasting capital becomes more obvious, land becomes scarcer.”

Sally was speaking at an event in Colombo on ‘Asian capitalism and what it means for Sri Lanka’ organised by the Advocata Institute, a free market think tank and Echelon, a business magazine.

Inspiration vs. perspiration

When a country exhausts catch-up growth, a second stage involving innovation, which economist Paul Krugman called ‘inspiration’ or output-led growth, was needed.

“Now you have to use your brains much more, less your sweat or brawn,” Sally said.

Output-led growth requires liberal institutions and a different type of entrepreneurial capitalism.

Economists and thinkers had defined free enterprise and capitalism in different ways.

Economist Adam Smith believed that if people had freedom to produce and consume, with secure property rights, then the market economy would flourish with increased specialisation driving efficiency. 

“Specialisation goes deeper and if you do it across borders with freer trade, it goes wider.”

This was ‘Smithian’ growth. It was not about technology as such and describes the catch-up phase.

Friedrich List, a German, wrote his ‘National System of Political Economy’ against the economics of freedom of Smith. 

While Smith believed in free trade and removing state blockages to entrepreneurship, List advocated state support for business through protectionism and a variety of state interventions for young and upcoming countries like Germany to catch up with a leader like Britain.

“And that is an argument for state intervention and industrial policy, particularly to support infant industry - so-called - that has been used in countries like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan,” Sally said. “And that argument finds it echoes here in Sri Lanka.”

Marx in turn had an apocalyptic vision, that capitalism would destroy itself while Weber had an almost religious view. 

Joseph Schumpeter, an Austrian finance minister and banker who became a professor at Harvard University and one of the top economist theorists of the 20th Century, observed another pattern.

Constant change vs. equilibrium

In contrast to standard neo-classical economics which is about a stable equilibrium, Schumpeter’s economic system is highly dynamic. Capitalist economies are constantly changing. Everything is being disrupted and re-created. It is disruptive innovation which has parallels to Anichcha in Buddhism, which means impermanence. It is about constant change the central agent of which is the entrepreneur. 

“What Schumpeter’s entrepreneur basically does is beg, borrow or steal ideas and turn them into marketable, profitable products - goods and services,” Sally said.

“So you take inventions, and rarely is the inventor the innovator and turn them into innovations. An invention is a new idea. And an innovation is turning that into something for the mass market, which makes profits, which generates investment, which creates jobs and livelihoods.

“Most of the really big ideas of the past like gun powder, the printing press and algebra had come from China and the Middle East. But they were not innovated in China and the Middle East,” said Sally. 

“They were innovated in Europe by European entrepreneurs in the commercial revolution and subsequent agriculture-industrial revolutions that Europe had but China and the Middle East did not. That is a genuine puzzle.”

Creative destruction

Schumpeter talks about “perennial gales of creative destruction” which is at the heart of his capitalist economic system. 

“So capitalism is not about stable equilibrium, but about creative destruction,” Sally said. “New entrepreneurs swarm around new ideas, inventions. And they turn them into innovations at crucial junctures, in the process destroying old incumbent industries.”

IBM was disrupted by Microsoft and Apple, who will in turn be destroyed by different technologies from more nimble firms. If the system is open enough, this kind of creative destruction will happen.

“In other words we cannot have prospering capitalism without this kind of disruption, which can be socially very disruptive,” Sally said. “This can upend politics, society and indeed the world.”

In poor Asia there was room for catch up growth but the opportunities dwindle as countries become richer so they must move to Schumpeterian growth, which means improving productivity.

Schumpeterian growth

“You want to improve the efficiency of your inputs, particularly your land, labour and capital. So it is not the quantity or mass of them but the quality or efficiency.”

Malaysia, Thailand and China had an urgent need for innovation-led growth. Middle Asian countries were seeing conditions similar to Japan in the 1970s and South Korea in the 1980s, when they exhausted the catch-up period. 

The Asian re-emergence of the last century was based on imitating the West, which was fine in the catch-up phase. Sally said in the first phase, it was possible to grow with weak institutions and rule of law and even corruption.  But the changes needed to go forward does not happen automatically.

“You need to be open to international trade,” Sally said. “It is crucial. You need to improve labour markets, primary and secondary education, you need to improve hard infrastructure.

“Friedrich List would argue that you also need industrial policy. The reality is that results are mixed. Asian Tiger countries have used a combination of policies from the Adam Smith and Friedrich list textbook, but not from the Schumpeterian textbook.”

Liberal institutions and complex reforms

“But when you come to that second stage, when you really need to boost your factors of production, your overall productivity and innovation, not only do you need to get your basics right, you need to improve the quality of your institutions,” Sally says.

“You need to improve the quality of your financial system including regulations, education, skills,  better public administration, a more efficient judiciary and legal system, a tax system and bankruptcy procedures, going well beyond the basics.”

The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index was a reflection of how good the business climate and institutions were. Only Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea were in the global top 10. Taiwan was 15. All are part of rich Asia. For middle and poorer Asia to join this club their institutions must be as good but Sally says improving financial systems, legal systems and educations systems is politically difficult and complicated.

“Improving institutions depends on politics,” Sally said. “So I have my doubts about Asia being successful in the future as it has in the past.” 

There was a growing belief that China’s ‘Mao and Markets’ system, where a few people at the top made decisions, may allow it to overtake the West. But doubts remained whether real innovation could take place. Sally says there were questions whether people in the top would really give up the power and rents that can be earned in an autocracy.

Sally says innovation is happening in Asia, especially in the digital space. Young people in Asia are adopting digital technologies quickly. In China, a number of tech companies were emerging. The venture capital market in China for tech was now worth $ 60 billion a year, the same as the US.

China was now promoting some state and private tech firms aggressively in a type of industrial policy. But less efficient state firms were a drag. There was also a crony private sector. Productivity growth was slowing.

Power shift

Meanwhile, the so-called Pax America which provided a relative stable geopolitical environment which allowed Asia to grow was changing, Sally said. There was a possibility of a Chinese-led ‘Pax Sinica’ emerging under different rules.

The US had maintained the peace in Asia and prevented China, India and Japan from getting into a major war with each other. After 9/11, the US became increasingly fixated on the problems in the Middle East. Obama was reluctant to intervene in Asia and Trump, a ‘gut isolationist’, is even less engaged. Another possibility was a power vacuum, which could lead to a major conflict. Meanwhile, it was not a foregone conclusion that the US would continue to pull back and a Pax Sinica will come.

Meanwhile, Sri Lanka had not initiated the major reforms required and was coming increasingly under China. Sri Lanka’s current administration had initially got the basics wrong and had to go to the IMF. It was now sticking to a broad program agreed with the IMF in getting some of the basics right.

But no major reforms had taken place in land, the banking system or education. The reform window was closing and perhaps had already closed, he said.

Advocata's submission for the Budget 2017

Echelon Magazine, Sri Lanka's premier business magazine published excerpts of Advocata Institute's Budget submission for 2017



Summary recommendations
1. The immediate policy priority should be to restore emphasis on exports: Liberalise the trade and investment framework to attract FDI.

2. Public sector reforms to cut costs are vital. While tax increases may be unavoidable, the additional burden on the public must be minimised: Reforms for the public sector to reduce its size, cut corruption and improve efficiency are essential.

3. The current tax structure is incoherent and chaotic. It must be reviewed and policy grounded on sound fiscal and tax principles including fiscal adequacy, administrative feasibility, simplicity, transparency and stability.

Despite a significant improvement in the first half of the year, meeting Sri Lanka’s budget deficit for 2016 will be challenging. A significant amount of fiscal consolidation will still be needed over the next few years if the government is to achieve its stated goal of reducing the budget deficit to 3.5% of GDP by 2020 or indeed meet its commitments to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which is likely to create considerable uncertainty over the likelihood of further tax increases.

Given the difficult environment and ambitious targets, the government may be tempted to resort to ad hoc, short-term measures to deal with fiscal crises as they arise, creating a volatile business environment, eroding confidence and leading to a lack of predictability in revenue targets. This, in turn, results in further ‘quick fixes’.

This is a vicious cycle that must be broken if consistency and predictability is to be restored to the tax system. This is possible if the government adopts a framework of evidence-based policymaking, and we urge that this be done as a matter of priority.

Making policy that is based on evidence is not easy, but it is possible to draw on the experience of countries such as the UK, which have adopted such an approach. Frameworks that governments can follow to build and support a system of evidence-based policymaking are available, and the government should seek specialised assistance to implement a structured approach. This will help ensure consistency and predictability in policy, improving business confidence.

Policy making must be an ongoing process, and consultation and assessment should not be limited to a period a few weeks before the budget. Poorly researched policy may cause unintended consequences and result in policy reversals. While all suggestions must be considered, many are likely to come from sectors seeking privileges. These must be carefully researched, subjected to wider consultation and adopted only if overall benefits to society outweigh costs. Some of the complexity and anomalies in the tax code may be traced to the accommodation of various special interest groups.

In achieving its fiscal targets, the government cannot limit its focus to raising taxes. Breaking from the pattern of the past, equal or even greater emphasis must be placed on the reduction of expenditure, reviewing not only the scale of spending but also the scope of the government.

An economy drive eschewing extravagance, the elimination of corruption and waste through increased transparency, and open processes must necessarily form a part of this exercise. Sri Lanka’s leaders frequently cite the example of Singapore. Fiscal prudence has been a hallmark of Singapore’s governing philosophy and successful management of the economy – an ethos that must become a watchword for Sri Lanka’s rulers. The Singapore Civil Service’s “Cut Waste Panel” and “Economy Drive” offer useful practical lessons in managing costs and could be adapted for Sri Lanka.

The tax system must be simplified, widening the base and increasing compliance. The finance minister’s commitment to this is laudable. The remainder of this submission seeks to outline a few key issues and offer avenues for the administration to explore. We believe these ideas are worthy of careful study and could yield outcomes that will assist in stimulating growth, reducing the budget deficit, and simplifying and rationalising the tax system.

Restore policy emphasis on exports

Lacking a large domestic market and possessing few natural resources, exports offer the best opportunity for rapid development.

Successful integration of the manufacturing sector into global production networks has played a key role in employment generation and poverty reduction in China and other high-performing East Asian countries.

The market-oriented policy reforms of 1977/8 were based on this rationale and served the country well, resulting in a notable diversification of the commodity composition of Sri Lanka’s exports and a consistent improvement in share of world manufacturing exports until the late 1990’s.

However, protectionist pressures began to build in 2001, and from 2004, the relatively open trade policies of the past were explicitly and systematically reversed. A policy paper by the World Bank titled “Increase in Protectionism and Its Impact on Sri Lanka’s Performance in Global Markets” shows that, today, through the proliferation of a variety of para-tariffs, Sri Lanka’s tariff policies are just as protective as they had been more than 20 years earlier.

The present protectionist import tax structure has serious costs for Sri Lanka’s economic welfare and growth; Sri Lanka’s exports relative to GDP have declined, as has its share of world exports. Sri Lanka has fallen significantly behind its competitors. Vietnam, which was on par with Sri Lankan exports in 1990 with $2 billion per annum, today exports $162 billion versus Sri Lanka’s $10.5 billion.

A bulk of Vietnam’s exports is driven by foreign investment and a globally competitive agriculture sector that emerged in the wake of a liberalisation drive that moved away from ‘self-sufficiency’. FDI firms account for 71% of Vietnam’s and 44% of China’s exports. The lesson is clear: To boost growth and create productive employment, Sri Lanka should cut barriers to trade and investment, and focus on attracting export-oriented FDI.

The most important reforms needed are listed as follows:

1.Trade policy reforms: Move from the present chaotic tariff structure towards a transparent, uniform tariff structure
• Unify the existing Customs duty and the plethora of para-tariffs (PAL, VAT, CESS, Customs Surcharge) into a single Customs duty at the individual Customs code level, and then reduce Customs duties across the board to a uniform nominal rate of 15%. Moving towards a low, uniform tariff structure has the potential to increase tariff revenues. This would speed up Customs clearance and reduce the potential for corruption as it reduces the discretion of Customs officials and makes the trade regime predictable.
• On the export side, remove all cess as it reduces the effective price received by exporters, and thereby discourages exports. There is no evidence to suggest that these cesses promote local downstream processing of primary products that are now exported in ‘raw’ (unprocessed) form.
• Join the Information Technology Agreement of the WTO to create free trade in electronics, which will attract FDI to this sector.

2. Foreign direct investment reforms
• Restore the role of the Board of Investment as the ‘one-stop shop’ for investment approval/promotion (as envisaged in the BOI charter). This requires repealing the Revival of Underperforming Enterprises and Underutilized Assets Act (2011) and the Strategic Development Projects Act (2011), or passing new legislation to supersede these two acts.
• It is, of course, necessary to rationalise the fiscal incentives offered to investors, but there is a strong case for providing export-oriented foreign investors with time-bound tax holidays and investment tax allowances beyond the tax holiday period. There is evidence that tax incentives play an important role in influencing location decisions of export-oriented (efficiency-seeking) FDI, especially where competing countries still offer them, provided of course that the other preconditions are ‘reasonably’ met. (The evidence used in recent policy reports by the World Bank to argue against tax incentives comes from studies that have not made a distinction between ‘market seeking’ and ‘export-oriented’ FDI). Removing all tax incentives, while other negatives continue to weigh on the overall competitiveness in investment and trade, may be counterproductive.
• Sri Lanka has to improve property rights to draw investment. The guarantee against nationalisation of foreign assets without compensation provided under the Article 157 of the present Constitution needs to be maintained under the ongoing constitutional reforms.
• Avoid the current practice of ‘domestic value added’ [which is defined as per unit of domestic retained value (wages + profit + domestically procured intermediate inputs) as a percentage of growth output] as an evaluation criteria in approving investment projects.

The very nature of the ongoing process of global production sharing (production fragmentation) is that per unit value added of production plants located in a given country within vertically integrated global industries (such as electronics and electrical goods) is usually very thin. The contribution of such production to domestic output (GDP) depends on the volume factor and the ability to produce for the vast global market, not on per unit value added.

In some traditional industries that use diffused technology (such as garments, footwear, travel goods), there is opportunity to increase per unit value added by forging backward linkages, but this is a time-dependent process and depends on export volume expansion. In the garment industry, per unit value added was around 20% at the beginning, but is now over 60%. Backward-linked knitted textile production and other ancillary input industries (hangers, buttons, labels, packaging material) have emerged as the volume of export expanded, creating sizeable demand for such inputs.

3. Macroeconomic policy
Trade, investment and labour market reforms need to be accompanied/complemented by macroeconomic policies to regain international competitiveness of the economy. Relying solely on nominal exchange rate depreciation for this purpose is not advisable, given the massive build-up of foreign-currency denominated government debt. Also, given the increased exposure of the economy to global capital markets, large abrupt changes in the exchange rate could shatter investor confidence, triggering capital outflows.

What is required is a comprehensive policy package encompassing some exchange rate flexibility and fiscal consolidation, which requires both rationalisation of expenditure and widening of the revenue base.

The current import-substitution policy retards growth and hurts consumers.

The present policy stance and import tax structure have drawn capital, labour and land to high cost, and highly protected import substitution farming and agricultural processing activities with low or negative economic rates of return. Sri Lanka’s food prices are higher than in the region due to high tariffs imposed to achieve self-sufficiency, hurting the poor and possibly contributing to malnutrition particularly of poor children. At a time when the government is burdening people with higher taxes, it is imperative that attempts be made to reduce food costs; revising this policy could contribute significantly to lowering the cost of living.

An example of this policy is rapid growth of maize and soybean cultivation over the last 10 years. These are not traditional crops and were not cultivated on any scale prior to 1998. These are used primarily as raw materials for the production of animal feed. Subjected to heavy protective tariffs, the cost of these locally produced crops are far in excess of world prices and directly related to the high cost of local poultry products. Instead of reviewing a flawed agricultural policy, the government has reacted to high retail prices of poultry by introducing price controls.

The policy of protecting the local sugar industry has had a similar impact and should also be subjected to review. The protective policy toward wheat imports has resulted in increased retail prices of bread, despite a collapse of world wheat prices by 50% since 2013.

The above highlights just a few key issues; there are many others. The government needs to study the impact of its trade and agricultural policies on consumer prices, and review its policies to maximise benefits to society as a whole. The ill effects of poor agricultural policy are not limited to higher prices, and their unintended consequences may extend to the human-elephant conflict and the recent spread of chronic kidney disease. The review of policy needs to be holistic.


Cumulative public debt and the high budget deficit have been key drivers of macroeconomic instability in Sri Lanka. Higher government borrowing not only wreaks havoc in the government’s finances, but also crowds-out private investment by pushing up interest rates. Sri Lanka also operates a “Mega State” apparatus, with a massive public sector, unproductive/loss-making state enterprises and an oversized peacetime military that further diminishes the fiscal position.

The massive increase in public sector employees starting from about 850,000 in 2005 to around 1.27 million by 2016 also has knock-on effects on the political economy, with both major parties now having to pay homage to this large voting bloc by promising unfunded and unsustainable goodies such as salary increases and other benefits – what analysts term ‘an auction of non-existent resources’ – at each election.

While most commentators emphasize enlarging the tax net to address fiscal imbalances, Advocata believes that reducing the size and scope of the state is more pressing. While political space for reforms may be limited, public opinion is increasingly skeptical of loss-making state enterprises, which is an argument reformists in government could use.

Advocata urges policymakers to look into following avenues of reform:

Addressing the debt burden

The government’s debt/GDP ratio is 75%. Debt service costs (interest and capital) accounted for 90% of government revenue in 2014. The previous year’s debt service cost actually exceeded revenue; the ratio in 2013 was a whopping 102%. Interest cost alone amounted to 37% of government revenue in 2014.

Sri Lanka regularly runs a primary (before interest payments) budget deficit, which means recurring expenditure is being funded by debt, a situation that is clearly unsustainable. Sri Lanka’s debt ratios bear some uncomfortable parallels with those of Greece, just before the outbreak of the debt crisis.

Restructuring the debt to extend its maturity and reduce interest rates could provide some relief, but disposing of unproductive state assets and using the proceeds to reduce debt is a more permanent solution and we offer a few ideas below.

Reforming SOEs

Disposing of loss-making and unproductive state-owned enterprises (SOEs) is a way of easing the debt burden and preventing further deterioration of the fiscal position. The outstanding SOE debt to banks is at Rs757 billion, more than four times what the government spent on health services in 2015. Some SOEs have accumulated so much debt that even privatisation may not be possible. These could simply be shut down with generous severance payments to employees, which will be cheaper in the long run.

Reform of SOEs need not be limited to loss-making enterprises. SOE’s often employ significant resources in terms of labour, land and other factors of production, which could be better utilised. Conducting a comprehensive productivity study would allow the government to determine which ones to shut down, which ones to privatise and which ones could be held under ownership at a government holding company in the model of Singapore’s Temasek Holdings.


Reactivating “Dead Capital”: State-held land

The Land Reform Commission was vested with about 987,000 acres, some of which could be used for more productive purposes. Additionally, government ministries, schools and other facilities occupy prime real estate blocks in major cities like Colombo, which greatly outweighs their economic value.

As an initial step, accounting of property rents at market values would allow the government to get an accurate sense of the value of the dead capital that the government is occupying, which could be put to more productive use. The Colombo Dutch Hospital project and the clearing of the Army headquarters for commercial activity are examples of how dead capital in government-held land could be activated for more productive use. The government should draw up a Land Asset Sales Programme, an orderly and coordinated programme to dispose of surplus or underutilised land. The proceeds from these sales should be used to reduce national debt. The sales programme must be run in an open and transparent manner by an independent body free of political influence to minimise corruption.

Public-private partnerships for infrastructure

Converting existing infrastructure such as highways into Public-Private Partnerships could raise funds to pay down the loans that were used to finance them. Operational rights could be auctioned in a transparent manner to private investors. New infrastructure projects should be on the basis of a Build Own and Operate (BOO) model or Build Operate and Transfer (BOT) model, which has been used successfully all over the world to finance infrastructure projects.

Restoration of the National Procurement Agency (NPA)

The NPA was established in 2004 to streamline procurement, reduce waste and corruption, and ensure better transparency and governance by centralising procurement under an independent body. The agency was believed to have been effective, which lead to it being shut down, allegedly for political reasons, in 2007. Its operation should be revived and its independence guaranteed.

The defence budget

Spending on defence has grown from around Rs144 billion in 2009 to an estimated Rs306 billion in 2016, a massive increase in a time of peace. Due to the politically charged nature of the expenditure, this has been the ‘elephant in the room’. While acknowledging that immediate demobilisation or salary cuts are not feasible, continuous growth in defence expenditure seven years after the end of the war is something that requires questioning.

It is one of the largest items of expenditure, and discussion of this subject must no longer be avoided. Cutbacks in capital expenditure and hardware are necessary. More generally, a national plan to downsize the military should serve the long-term interest of all communities in Sri Lanka.

Voluntary retirement schemes

The state currently employs over a million people and an additional estimated 220,000 workers employed in SOEs. Some analysts put the figures much higher. In total, the public sector accounts for about 15% of the total labour force.

The public sector pensions and salaries bill for 2015 was Rs717 billion, representing 49% of government revenue. The weight of the wage and pension bill has crowded out priority expenditure in education, health and essential infrastructure, and even operational expenditure necessary to enable employees’ effective functioning. Not only do the salaries and entitlements of these workers burden the fiscal position of the government, it also mops up scarce labour from the private sector. By this account, Sri Lanka probably has the largest state sector in the world.

The dependence on excess labour also means that state agencies become reluctant to invest in new technologies or procedures in fear of backlash or simply not knowing where to allocate the labour.

Reforms in this area are not going to be easy, as the 2002 UNP government discovered to its peril. However, the current levels of state sector cadre places a massive strain on the fiscal position.

The government should commission a report on the labour requirement for the state sector. While attrition and a hiring freeze are preferred methods of cadre management, for some sectors and institutions, Voluntary Retirement Schemes (VRS) may be possible. To manage pension liabilities, a new contributory pension scheme should replace the current defined benefit scheme for any new recruits to the public service.

Reform of energy utilities

Sri Lanka’s energy utilities are a source of macroeconomic instability, and reforms to the sector are long overdue. While detailed studies for longer-term reforms must be undertaken as an interim measure, re-introducing the pricing formula for fuel and extending the formula to electricity will prevent large imbalances from building up. For the electricity sector, an immediate move to daylight saving time could reduce night peak load demand by as much as a third, with consequent reduction in thermal energy generation. In Sri Lanka, the discussion is private participation in electricity centres around fixed contract IPPs. In many other countries, however, this model is now considered outdated, the world has moved on to integrated energy markets. A study by the Pathfinder Foundation carried out in 2007 provides a useful starting point for ideas on moving to energy markets.



Recent budget statements by successive governments, including the present one, have not been in keeping with sound principles of taxation. While recognising the unique political moment in which the new administration operates and the politically expedient measures that were taken to create that political moment, continuing to ignore principles of fiscal discipline can only lead to further imbalances.

The following principles serve a guide to sound tax and fiscal policy:

Fiscal adequacy
The overarching objective should be that sources of revenue, taken as a whole, should be sufficient to meet the demands of public expenditure. Revenue should be elastic or capable of expanding or contracting annually in response to variations in public expenditure. Most crucially, any new benefit or relief measures offered must be fully funded. Government finances are in a dire state, they should not be made worse; ill-conceived proposals in the past have contributed to the structural weakness of the fiscal position.

The adoption of a medium-term budget framework to prioritise, present and manage both revenue and expenditure over a multiyear framework is desirable. It can help demonstrate the impact of current and proposed policies over the course of several years, and ultimately achieve better control over public expenditure.

Rules in the Fiscal Management (Responsibility) Act may be tightened to reinstate budget discipline, and ensure fiscal responsibility and debt sustainability.

Simplicity, administrative feasibility and transparency
Tax laws should be capable of convenient, just and effective administration. Tax codes should be easy for taxpayers to comply with and for governments to administer and enforce. It is far simpler to adjust rates to existing taxes than bring in new types of taxes.

Any changes needed to the tax code should be made with careful consideration of established practices and open hearings. Each tax in the system should be clear and plain to the taxpayer. Disguising tax burdens in complex structures to deceive the public, the preferred approach by politicians in the past, should be avoided. Simplicity will close loopholes for tax evasion, reduce the scope for corruption and minimise administrative costs.

By and large, taxes should neither encourage nor discourage personal or business decisions. The purpose of taxes is to raise needed revenue, not to favour or punish specific industries, activities and products. Minimising tax preferences broadens the tax base, so the government can raise sufficient revenue with lower rates.

Taxpayers deserve consistency and predictability in the tax code. Governments should avoid enacting temporary tax laws, including tax holidays, amnesties and retrospective changes. The periodic revision of taxes via gazette notifications should be avoided. Put simply, a good tax policy promotes economic growth by focusing on raising revenue in the least distortive manner possible.

Sin taxes need re-thinking

While our proposals are mostly concerned with broad issues of policy, we have made an exception for ‘sin taxes’ because of their importance to the exchequer.

‘Sinful’ items such as alcohol and tobacco have traditionally been taxed heavily and are the second-largest source of tax revenue for the state. A review of these policies could develop their effectiveness and improve collection. The present government, continuing the practices of the past, has now raised taxation to prohibitive levels. This may be counterproductive because, while high taxes do deter consumption, excess taxation may drive consumers to dangerous illicit substances, and support a thriving illegal alcohol and cigarette industry.

The link between higher taxes and substance abuse is that the use of highly hazardous home brews concocted from medicinal drugs, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals also need to be examined.

Both in Sri Lanka and even in developed countries, it is a tendency for lower income groups to consume cigarettes. In Sri Lanka, there is an additional tendency for lower income groups to consume cottage industry products and items like beedies. Further research needs to be done on the link between education and awareness as opposed to the assumption that cigarette and alcohol consumption is merely a function of affordability or a broader lifestyle/environment and an awareness issue.

High taxes on cigarettes have lead to a massive increase in the lightly taxed Beedi industry, as well as expansion in illegal cigarettes. Customs statistics indicate that beedi volumes have risen from 1.1 billion sticks in 2007 to 3.2 billion sticks in 2013, while cigarette volumes declined from 4.6 billion sticks in 2007 to 4.0 billion during the same period.

Studies carried out by the Institute of Policy Studies make a case for rethinking alcohol taxes, principally to move to a structure of taxation by volume, which will increase state revenues while modifying consumption habits.

The government needs to reconsider its policies for the taxation of both alcohol and tobacco in light of all available evidence. Recent experiences in India and Pakistan highlight the problems with outright prohibition.


On PM's economic statement: most important is to liberalize trade and investment

By Ravi Ratanasabapathy

The article first appeared on the Daily News

The Prime Minister’s statement on the economy to parliament on October 27 struck many a right note and has the ingredients to take the country to the goal of doubling per capita income by 2025.

Most important was the promise of reforms to liberalise trade and investment, to attract foreign investment and restore emphasis on exports.

It is important that the sentiments expressed in the Prime Minister’s statement must follow with practical yet bold economic policy reform. A detailed policy document has been promised and would hopefully contain the necessary implementation plans.

The rest of this brief note is aimed at understanding the policy pronouncements in the context of Sri Lanka’s political and socio-economic priorities.

Improving the business and investment climate

The statement promises a lot: simplifying the process of registering a business, getting construction permits, electricity connections and bank credit, registering property, protecting minority investors, the payment of taxes, trading across borders, the enforcement of contracts, the resolution of insolvency and reforming labour laws.

The Prime Minister’s target to bring Sri Lanka into the top 70 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business Index by 2020 is welcome. Sri Lanka currently languishes at 110 in the index amongst 185 countries and its position has actually dropped by one place under the current administration. Policy reform to increase the ease of doing business is uncontentious and will draw broad political support from across the spectrum.

However the government must be bolder. Whilst ease of doing business has improved in the last few years, Sri Lanka can do much more to expand general economic freedom in the economy. The Fraser Institute, which publishes the annual index of economic freedom ranked Sri Lanka 111 among 160 countries. The index now ranks countries in the region like Nepal higher in terms of economic freedom than Sri Lanka with India only just behind. Beyond just looking at ease of doing business, Sri Lanka should also focus on other aspects of economic freedom including removing of outdated and arbitrary regulation, reversing recent follies such as Soviet-style price controls and truly living up to the promises of liberalising international trade and investment. In this vein, the proposed establishment of a single window for investment approval in the Prime Minister’s speech is a welcome move.

Sri Lanka can emulate, and where necessary adapt, the best practice policies from other countries such as New Zealand and Australia which rank highly in terms of economic freedom

Trade liberalisation: repeal of the Export and Import Control Act

The Government promises to repeal this archaic piece of legislation and replace it with new legislation based on that of Singapore. If implemented in the true spirit of Singapore’s legislation, this would be extremely positive.

Singapore is generally regarded as a free port and the Government only restricts the import of goods seen as posing a threat to health, security, safety and social decency. Around 99% of imports to Singapore are duty-free.

The policy statement makes reference to “a low tax regime”, the lessons from East Asia and other parts of the world is that the tariff regime needs to be low and uniform. This minimises loopholes, corruption and simplifies customs processing. A low uniform rate of duty eliminates disputes with classification and enables documents to be processed on a self-declared basis (with customs only focusing on misstatements of price and quantities) which results in faster, simpler clearing of goods.

While sentiments to keep a low tax regimes are laudable, a commitment for a low uniform tariff policy should be the goal.

State enterprise reforms and financing of infrastructure

The proposed debt/equity swaps of the Mattala Airport and the Hambantota mark an important step towards reducing the Government’s debt burden. The Government should also convert other infrastructure projects such as the highways into PPP projects by auctioning operational rights.

The statement promises investment in infrastructure in logistics to improve connectivity to global supply chains. Whilst we all welcome investments in critical infrastructure, all new projects should be implemented through public private partnerships to prevent further accumulation of public debt.

The report published by the Advocata Institute on “The State of State Enterprises in 2015” shows that the state has over 245 enterprises in its books, of which only a small number actually reported their financial position. The proposed formation of a Public Commercial Enterprise Board to manage SOEs and the creation a Public Wealth Trust, a centralised body to hold the shares in SOEs is therefore timely. Hopefully these mechanisms may prove to be the first step in imposing accepted reporting practices and better management of State enterprises. Sri Lanka can learn from Singapore’s state enterprise holding company Temasek and other experiences around the world.

Additionally, the listing of the shares of SOE’s on the Stock Exchange would also impose discipline in reporting and is something the Government should explore. Minority stakes could be offered to the public which would raise revenue to the state, allow public participation in SOE’s and broad-base the CSE; even while the majority stake is still controlled by the Government.

The recent announcements regarding the closure and amalgamation of Mihin Lanka into SriLankan Airlines is encouraging but the previously announced partial privatisation of the debt-ridden airline has not yet materialised.

The proposed Public Enterprise Commercial Board should be given a wide mandate to restructure and reform SOE’s including assessing the strategic need for such enterprises, the closure of unviable enterprises and to privatise enterprises where there’s enough commercial interest. The new structure will hopefully be just the first step on the long road to improve overall accountability and governance of these state enterprises.

It is unlikely a one size fits all solution would work for reforming all state enterprises in what would inevitably become a politically charged issue. However the public appetite for bold reform in this area is high with the realisation that the cumulative losses over the last ten years amongst the 55 strategically important enterprises amounted to Rs.636 billion.

Some areas of concern: SME’s rural agriculture

Several proposals including the one to expand SME finance through quantitative targets enforced by the Central Bank must be viewed with caution. Dirigiste lending to push bank exposure further to higher-risk sectors may boomerang on lenders, especially public sector banks, resulting in losses. Any difficulties SME’s may face with access to credit need to be examined carefully and appropriate solutions developed in consultation with financiers.

The establishment of rural modernisation boards and agricultural marketing boards will need to be examined more closely. No details are available so the exact role of these bodies is not clear but the current flawed agricultural policies have pushed up food prices for consumers. Sri Lanka’s food prices are the highest in the region and the priority should be to lower the cost of living through appropriate reforms to the sector.

Apart from a few areas of doubt the overall economic statement is broadly in the right direction and if properly implemented could boost growth and improve the welfare and prosperity of Sri Lankans. The government however has a demonstrable problem with policy inconsistency over the last few years, even amongst its own ministries and between Ministers of the same party. Whilst some diversity of opinion is expected from a coalition government, some of the policies enacted in the recent past have run counter to this and other broad policy pronouncement from the Prime Minister.

These broad ideas will hopefully pass the implementation test and we await the publication of the detailed strategy document.

The writer is a Fellow of the Advocata Institute, a fee-market think tank based in Colombo.