Press Release

Perverse incentives and a lack of accountability lead to rampant corruption in State

A new report by The Advocata Institute, titled “The State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka: Systemic Misgovernance” identifies the systemic issues that plague state-owned enterprises (SOEs) leading to substantial losses. This flagship publication builds on the analysis and data from the first ‘State of State-Owned Enterprises’ report which was released in 2016.

The essays in the report attempt to analyse the causes for the structural weaknesses and propose simple recommendations to establish basic central government control over SOEs and improve accountability.

Figure 1

Figure 1

The report identifies the lack of an official government definition of state-owned enterprises as a point from which many systemic issues arise. The lack of a definition means that the government does not have an authoritative list of all SOEs. To fill this information gap, the Advocata Institute has compiled a list of all known state enterprises, their subsidiaries and their subsidiaries.

Figure 1 provides a quick overview of the data, emphasizing the excessive number of state enterprises.

The structural problems of state-owned enterprises emerge from the problem of multiple actors (bureaucrats, politicians and citizens) with conflicting interests. This makes state owned enterprises vulnerable to mismanagement and corruption because of potential conflicts between the ownership and policy-making functions of the government, and undue political influence on their policies, appointments, and business practices.

The report finds that internal control, monitoring and governance frameworks appear inadequate to deal with these problems – of the 527 entities regular information is only available for 55. Even obtaining a complete list of entities proved to be a challenge. Financials are routinely late and only a minority obtain ‘clean’ audit reports. In 2017, the total losses incurred amounted to LKR 87.78Bn. To put this value in context, the government budget allocated LKR 44Bn for Samurdhi payments in the same year.

Extracts from reports of COPE and the Auditor General which are included in Advocata’s report highlight repeated instances of fraud, mismanagement, corruption and negligence. The issues no longer appear to be isolated incidents of opportunistic behavior by individuals or occasional lapses in control but point to deeper, structural weaknesses. While internal control and accountability mechanisms are important in checking abuses, they are insufficient in themselves.

The report elaborates on how a trend for SOEs to be incorporated as limited liability companies allows politicians to bypass treasury or budget restrictions and evade parliamentary accountability. Complex corporate structures provide a convenient shroud for abuse. A review of the reports of the Auditor General and the Committee on Public Enterprises paints a dismal picture of systemic failures of governance leading to gross misappropriation of public funds.

The reports concludes with three main recommendations:

  1. Compiling a comprehensive list of all SOEs and setting basic reporting procedures

  2. Strengthening COPE and COPA

  3. Implementing the OECD Principles of Corporate Governance

“A lack of accountability is leading to flagrant abuse within SOE's. The Finance Ministry must act urgently to prevent it spiraling out of control” says Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Resident Fellow of Advocata and co-author of the “State of State Enterprises in Sri Lanka” report.

The immediate antidote to corruption is increasing and improving transparency and accountability. The ideal reform of the recommended three to address the problems that plague are SOEs is to introduce and enforce the OECD Guidelines on Corporate Governance.


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

Advocata Institute to host Asia Liberty Forum 2019

Over 200 participants, comprising leading academics, policy makers and intellectuals from over 30 countries will come together in Colombo, Sri Lanka for the 2019 Asia Liberty Forum to discuss challenges facing the Asian region and to learn from each other on how to most effectively advance free-market reforms.

Asia Liberty forum is an annual event by the United States based Atlas Network, co-hosted in partnership with Advocata Institute.

The Asia Liberty Forum will be held from the 28th of February - 01st of March at the Hilton Colombo and is the largest gathering of pro-market think tanks, business leaders, professionals, high net worth individuals and policy leaders in Asia. It’s a platform to discuss and present policy solutions for economic concerns in Asia and Sri Lanka.

The 2019 Asia Liberty Forum (ALF) will be held at the Hilton Colombo, from 28th February to 01st March 2019.  Prof. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, Vice Chancellor of the Ashoka University, India, will deliver the keynote address on ‘Freedom at Risk’ at the Freedom Dinner on the 28th of March, while other dignitaries, business leaders and academics will grace the event.

Themes explored this year includes the State of Capitalism and freedom in Asia, privacy issues in the digital age,  fast-tracking courts, currency depreciation and urbanization.

Distinguished speakers at the forum include, Prof. Razeen Sally (National University of Singapore); Prof. Rohan Samarajiva (Chair - LirneAsia); Dr. Ajay Shah (National Institute for Public Finance and Policy, India); Nighat Dad (Digital Rights Foundation, Pakistan) Dr Tom Palmer (Atlas network, USA) , Dr Christer Ljunwall (ENC Global, China) and Dr. Ross McCleod (Australian National University) amongst others.

The Asia Liberty Forum is a rare opportunity to meet, network and interact with some incredible minds in the field of economics and policy. For more information on the forum, speakers, schedule and tickets visit www.alf19.com.


Ailing rupee and Price Controls may lead to a shortage of Milk Powder

A cup of tea is every Sri Lankan’s morning mantra. This might not be the case much longer as Sri Lanka may face a shortage of milk powder as several leading milk powder importers are reported to have taken a collective decision to suspend imports. The recent depreciation of the rupee has caused a significant increase in import costs and importers say they are now unable to sell at the controlled price, hence the decision to suspend imports. The same impact will be felt in other industries subject to price controls. The pharmaceutical industry withdrew eleven drugs from the market citing similar reasons.  

The currency has depreciated by 10% in the past two months and over 20% in the past year, which will raise landed costs of  import products significantly. Importers of goods subject to price controls will continue to be squeezed as their price margins reduce and this will eventually lead to a halt in imports, like in the evident case of milk powder.

Imported milk powder is taxed at a total of 45% in Sri Lanka, with the objective of protecting local farmers and achieving self-sufficiency in milk products. Despite this self-sufficiency goal, local production meets below 40% of the total domestic milk requirement, considerably below 80% levels in the 1970s. Therefore, majority of the demand in milk products is met through imports, mostly from New Zealand and Australia. Over the last decade, in 7 out of 10 years, imports of milk powder has grown at a higher pace than the growth in local production.

Milk Powder Taxes.PNG

Additionally, in May 2018, changes to existing Price Controls on Milk Prices have raised the controlled price for milk powder to Rs. 345/400g pack and Rs. 860/1kg pack. This price control was enforced by the Consumer Affairs Authority, despite a rise in the global prices of milk. Global milk powder prices fell in 2015 and 2016 and climbed in 2017 and 2018 and now the cost of one metric ton of milk powder in the world market is US$ 3250-3350.

Furthermore, the depreciating rupee, now valued at Rs. 184 to a dollar has only continued to worsen the situation, making it more expensive to import milk powder.  “Importers of milk powder are squeezed between the tax (which raises costs), the controlled price which sets a ceiling at which the product retails, and now the depreciating rupee which further raises import costs” says Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Resident Fellow of the Advocata Institute.

The floor price encourages production which the market is sometimes unable to absorb, leading to gluts which cannot be converted to powder (the only long term storage form of milk) due to the controlled price.

A recent report by the Advocata Institute, Price Controls in Sri Lanka, emphasizes the contradictory trajectory of policies in the dairy industry. This tangle of taxes and controls comes at a cost to consumers. Our costs are increasingly becoming apparent by visible shortages of milk powder in the market.

Key Recommendations

  1. High import taxes lead to massive costs for milk powder importers. Changing this would not only mean cheaper milk for consumers, but also cheaper raw materials for downstream processors such as the biscuit or confectionery industry.

  2. The removal of the Maximum Retail Price would allow for a higher level of healthy competition among both importers and local dairy manufacturers, allowing market forces to decide prices.

  3. It is necessary that the government recognises that given the several supply constraints, the objective of self sufficiency is not realistically attainable in the Sri Lankan context. Thus, authorities should recognise the importance if imports in meeting demands of consumers and implement well-thought out measures to level the playing field between importers and domestic producers.

Price controls dominate political debate but may not help consumers

A new report by The Advocata Institute, titled “Price Controls in Sri Lanka: Political Theatre” finds that consumer price controls lead to unintended outcomes including lower quality. Politicians have imposed price controls on a variety of items in the belief that capping prices will lower costs but our survey shows that they are of limited value in controlling the cost of goods.

According to a limited survey carried out by Advocata, a comparison of controlled prices (over a ten month period) against retail prices as per the open market weekly average retail prices, showed that of 13 basic groceries only one (milk powder) was being consistently sold at the controlled price throughout the entire period. No one, not even the Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA), possesses a comprehensive list of items subject to price control.

Price Controls.PNG

Serious enforcement seems confined to items produced by multinationals or large corporates (milk powder, cement, cooking gas) which are administratively easier to police. In contrast, there only appears to be token enforcement in the unorganised sector. Loose enforcement prevents the most obvious symptoms of price controls from manifesting but at the expense of consumer choice and quality. Where price controls are enforced (eg: cement, milk powder) it is done so in consultation with the industry, leading to a stickiness in prices. Retail prices are slow to rise when world market prices rise but are equally slow to fall when world market prices decline.

The report also highlights how the Government’s approach to prices is schizophrenic; taxes are imposed that raise costs but the same products are then subject to price controls, supposedly to lower prices. The survey seems to indicate that price controls are of limited value in reducing costs and damage markets by preventing the supply of products rising to meet demand. They can cause significant welfare losses, a deterioration in product quality, a reduction in investment and, in the long run, higher prices.

A survey of traders indicate that 67% of retailers and 46% of wholesalers react to raids by the CAA by temporarily adjusting prices. They later revert to business as usual. Traders even claimed that paying fines for non-adherence was more profitable than retailing products at controlled prices. This was particularly true in the case of small tea and hopper sellers.

Tea and Hopper shops were subject to an arbitrary price control in 2015, but it is rarely enforced. At best, the control is useless and at worst, it works against these small entrepreneurs legitimate business activity and opens up potential for clandestine business. Advocata strongly believes that this control should be abolished.

Key recommendations of the report:

  • Little serious attempt appears to be made to impose the price controls on basic foodstuffs, particularly in the public markets. The controls encourage sub-optimal behaviour including the sourcing of poor quality or substandard items. Abolishing the controls will have minimal impact on prices while improving choice.  

  • Taxes, specifically the Special Commodity Levy and CESS play a significant role in raising consumer prices. Creating the fiscal space for simplification of the system, moving to uniform rates and the lowering taxes of taxes should lead to lower prices.

Price controls, tend to have unintended consequences and product quality can suffer
— Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Resident Fellow of Advocata and co-author of the “Price Controls in Sri Lanka” report

This report highlights that price controls are of limited value in reducing costs. They can cause significant welfare losses, a deterioration in product quality, a reduction in investment and, in the long run, higher prices. Advocata strongly believes that fostering competition and improving productivity are the best form of price control in Sri Lanka.


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

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

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


The Government should rethink price controls on bottled water

In an extraordinary gazette notification released earlier this week, the Sri Lanka Consumer Affairs Authority (CAA) imposed price controls on bottled water, to be enforced starting today (Oct 5).

Advocata notes that this decision will introduce distortion into the market possibly resulting in lower quality or shortages. As more than 120 companies battle for a foothold in Sri Lanka’s competitive bottled drinking water market, worries over unsafe and low quality products is concerning.

The maximum retail prices enforced through this gazette are as follows:

Control Price.PNG

In principle, the action of setting maximum prices on goods and services is known as a “Price Ceiling”. These are meant to “protect” consumers from being exploited.  Yet the reality may be different. A publication slated to release next week by Advocata, “Price Controls in Sri Lanka; Political Theatre” reveal that for the items surveyed price controls do not serve the intended purpose. Coupled with loose enforcement, consumer price controls in Sri Lanka have skewed the market towards a preference for lower quality products. The Price controls on water bottles, will likely to do the same.

According to a basic survey carried out by Advocata, market prices of bottled water for a 500 ml bottle, prior to the enforcement of the price control was as follows:

Market Price.PNG

The bottled water industry has 120+ entrants in the market. This means that until today, consumers had the choice of purchasing a 500ml water bottle at Rs. 45, Rs. 50 or at Rs. 80. Consumers were given the choice to buy bottled water as per their personal preferences and budgetary constraints. This is no longer the case.

In Sri Lanka, bottled water is regulated by the Ministry of Health through the Food (Bottled or Packaged Water) Regulations, 2005 framed under the Food Act No. 26 of 1980. There had not been major health and quality related concerns until 2016, where a CAA directive indicated that plastic mineral water bottling standards were enforced starting September 1, 2016 following the authority detecting several brands using low quality plastic bottles.

The likely result of the introduction of this new price control -- limiting the sale of a 500ml water bottle to Rs.35 -- is that producers have to now cut down on production costs, to reduce the final cost per bottle. Low production cost lead to the sourcing of low quality raw materials, in this case; water and plastic.  It also unclear whether the price controls also apply to glass bottles, which may be priced out of the market.

“In responding to price controls, the usual case is that producers would resort to producing low quality products in order to remain within the vicinity of the controlled price” says Ravi Ratnasabapathy, Resident Advocata Fellow and co-author of “Price Controls in Sri Lanka” report.

Advocata urges the government to engage relevant stakeholders and reverse the decision to unnecessarily intervene in an already competitive market.