Mar 2, 2010

From one crisis to another

Dr Ashfaque H Khan

This article briefly reviews two years of economic performance of the present government. What it inherited, what it informed the IMF and the people of Pakistan, why it went to the IMF, and where we stand now - are the subject matter of this article.

Pakistan positioned itself as one of the four fastest growing economies in the Asian region during 2000-07 with its growth averaging 7.0 per cent per annum for most of this period. As a result of strong economic growth, Pakistan succeeded in reducing poverty by one-half, creating almost 13 million jobs, halving the country's debt burden, raising foreign exchange reserves to a comfortable position and propping the country's exchange rate, restoring investors' confidence and most importantly, taking Pakistan out of the IMF Programme.

These facts were acknowledged by the present government in a Memorandum of Economic and Financial Policies (MEFP) for 2008/09-2009/10, while signing agreement with the IMF on November 20, 2008. The document clearly acknowledged that "Pakistan's economy witnessed a major economic transformation in the last decade. The country's real GDP increased from $60 billion to $170 billion, with per capita income rising from under $500 to over $1000 during 2000-07". It further acknowledged that "the volume of international trade increased from $20 billion to nearly $60 billion. The improved macroeconomic performance enabled Pakistan to re-enter the international capital markets in the mid-2000s. Large capital inflows financed the current account deficit and contributed to an increase in gross official reserves to $14.3 billion at end-June 2007. Buoyant output growth, low inflation, and the government's social policies contributed to a reduction in poverty and improvement in many social indicators". (see MEFP, November 20, 2008, Para 1)

A cursory look at the above stated acknowledgement is sufficient to see that the government deliberately misguided the people of Pakistan by presenting a totally distorted picture of the economy. While it could misguide the people of Pakistan for domestic political consumption, it had no option but to tell the truth to the international financial institutions as these facts were known to them.

Even the government did not inform the people of Pakistan that it obtained the IMF Programme on the basis of past performance. Pakistan received the extra-ordinary funding from the IMF under the fast-track Emergency Financing Mechanism which was meant for the countries "that have a strong track record of sound policies, access to capital markets and sustainable debt burdens but need rapid help to overcome financial crisis". (IMF Survey, October 29, 2008) Thus, a government which starts its inning on distortion can never bring stability in the economy. Most of its time and energy would be consumed for covering up of its failure.

The present government inherited a relatively sound economy on March 31, 2008. It inherited foreign exchange reserves of $13.3 billion, exchange rate at Rs62.76 per US dollar, the KSE index at 15,125 with market capitalisation at $74 billion, inflation at 20.6 per cent and the country's debt burden on a declining path. The government itself acknowledged in the same document that "the macroeconomic situation deteriorated significantly in 2007/08 and the first four months of 2008/09 owing to adverse security developments, large exogenous price shocks (oil and food), global financial turmoil, and policy inaction during the political transition to the new government". (Para 3 of the MEFP, November 20, 2008)

What went wrong? Why one of the fastest growing economies in the Asian region until two years ago has been totally forgotten in the region? Firstly, the speed and dimension of exogenous price shocks (oil and food) were of extraordinary proportions. Secondly, the present government found itself totally ill-prepared and clueless in addressing the challenges arising out of the shocks. While rest of the world was taking corrective measures and adjusting to higher food and fuel prices, Pakistan lurched from one crisis to another.

Despite peaceful election and a smooth transition to a new government, political instability persisted. For a protracted period there were no finance, commerce, petroleum and natural resources and health ministers in the country. The government lost six precious months in finding its feet. It gave the impression of having little sense of direction and purpose. A crisis of confidence intensified as investors and development partners started to walk away. The stock market nosedived, capital flight set in, foreign exchange reserves plummeted and the Pakistani rupee lost one-third of its value. In short, Pakistan's macroeconomic vulnerability had grown unbearable. It had no option but to return to the IMF for a bailout package. There were no Plan A, B and C. There was only one plan, that is, to return to the IMF.

While the country was moving rapidly towards the IMF, the ministry of finance had prepared the plan to bring $4 billion by June 30, 2008 through four transactions. A kick-off meeting was scheduled on April 23, 2008 at the ministry to give a final touch to the various roadshows. These transactions were cancelled on April 20, 2008. Who ordered the cancellation of $4 billion transaction? This cancellation prompted balance of payment crisis and the rest became history.

The economy continues to remain in intensive care unit and is breathing thanks to the injections from the IMF, World Bank and Asian Development Bank. The economy is not on the radar screen of the government and as such the economic managers have no relevance in the current political set up. The exit of Shaukat Tarin is a classic example. At least he tried his level best to inject financial discipline but paid the price of teaching prudent financial management. No matter who replaces Shaukat Tarin, the economy would continue to lurch from one crisis to another until and unless the government brings the economy at the centre stage.

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