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IMF makes observations on Sri Lanka’s mounting economic challenges

  • 05 Mar 2022
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The executive board of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has noted that Sri Lanka faces mounting challenges, including public debt that has risen to unsustainable levels, low international reserves, and persistently large financing needs in the coming years.

Against this backdrop, they stressed the urgency of implementing a credible and coherent strategy to restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability, while protecting vulnerable groups and reducing poverty through strengthened, well-targeted social safety nets.

The IMF directors made these observations following the conclusion of the Article IV consultation with Sri Lanka on February 25, 2022. They emphasized the need for an ambitious fiscal consolidation that is based on high-quality revenue measures.

Noting Sri Lanka’s low tax-to-GDP ratio, they saw scope for raising income tax and VAT rates and minimizing exemptions, complemented with revenue administration reform. Directors encouraged continued improvements to expenditure rationalization, budget formulation and execution, and the fiscal rule. They also encouraged the authorities to reform state-owned enterprises and adopt cost-recovery energy pricing.

Directors agreed that a tighter monetary policy stance is needed to contain rising inflationary pressures, while phasing out the central bank’s direct financing of budget deficits. They also recommended a gradual return to a market-determined and flexible exchange rate to facilitate external adjustment and rebuild international reserves. Directors called on the authorities to gradually unwind capital flow management measures as conditions permit.

They welcomed the policy actions that helped mitigate the impact of the pandemic on the financial sector. Noting financial stability risks from the public debt overhang and sovereign-bank nexus, they recommended close monitoring of underlying asset quality and identifying vulnerabilities through stress testing. Directors welcomed ongoing legislative reforms to strengthen the regulatory, supervisory, and resolution frameworks.

They called for renewed efforts on growth-enhancing structural reforms and stressed the importance of increasing female labor force participation and reducing youth unemployment. Further efforts are needed to diversify the economy, phase out import restrictions, and improve the business and investment climate in general.

Directors also called for a prudent management of the Colombo Port City project, and continued efforts to strengthen governance and fight corruption. They noted the country’s vulnerability to climate change and welcomed efforts to increase resilience.

Sri Lanka has been hit hard by COVID-19. On the eve of the pandemic, the country was highly vulnerable to external shocks owing to inadequate external buffers and high risks to public debt sustainability, exacerbated by the Easter Sunday terrorist attacks in 2019 and major policy changes including large tax cuts at late 2019.

Real GDP contracted by 3.6 percent in 2020, due to a loss of tourism receipts and necessary lockdown measures. Sri Lanka lost access to international sovereign bond market at the onset of the pandemic.

The authorities deployed a prompt and broad-based set of relief measures to cope with the impact of the pandemic, including macroeconomic policy stimulus, an increase in social safety net spending, and loan repayment moratoria for affected businesses. These measures were complemented by a strong vaccination drive. GDP growth is projected to have recovered to 3.6 percent in 2021, with mobility indicators largely back to their pre-pandemic levels and tourist arrivals starting to recover in late 2021.

Nonetheless, annual fiscal deficits exceeded 10 percent of GDP in 2020 and 2021, due to the pre-pandemic tax cuts, weak revenue performance in the wake of the pandemic, and expenditure measures to combat the pandemic. Limited availability of external financing for the government has resulted in a large amount of central bank direct financing of the budget. Public debt [2] is projected to have risen from 94 percent of GDP in 2019 to 119 percent of GDP in 2021. Large foreign exchange (FX) debt service payments by the government and a wider current account deficit have led to a significant FX shortage in the economy. The official exchange rate has been effectively pegged to the U.S. dollar since April 2021.

The economic outlook is constrained by Sri Lanka’s debt overhang as well as persistently large fiscal and balance-of-payments financing needs. GDP growth is projected to be negatively affected by the impact of the FX shortage and macroeconomic imbalances on economic activities and business confidence. Inflation recently accelerated to 14 percent (y/y) in January 2022 and is projected to remain double-digit in the coming quarters, exceeding the target band of 4–6 percent, as strong inflationary pressures have built up from both supply and demand sides since mid‑2021.

Under current policies and the authorities’ commitment to preserve the tax cuts, fiscal deficit is projected to remain large over 2022–26, raising public debt further over the medium term. Due to persistent external debt service burden, international reserves would remain inadequate, despite the authorities’ ongoing efforts to secure FX financing from external sources.

The outlook is subject to large uncertainties with risks tilted to the downside. Unless the fiscal and balance-of-payments financing needs are met, the country could experience significant contractions in imports and private credit growth, or monetary instability in case of further central bank financing of fiscal deficits. Additional downside risks include a COVID-19 resurgence, rising commodity prices, worse-than-expected agricultural production, a potential deterioration in banks’ asset quality, and extreme weather events. Upside risks include a faster-than-expected tourism recovery and stronger-than-projected FDI inflows

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