Sri Lanka announces budget, sees recovery by the end of 2023

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Labourers load food items into a delivery lorry near a main market in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Reuters

The crisis-hit Sri Lankan economy can turn around by the end of 2023 if budget policies, which are not limited to the International Monetary Fund’s recommendations, are followed, President Ranil Wickremesinghe said on Monday.

IMF recommendations have only been looked at to stabilise the economy, Wickremesinghe, who is also the country’s finance minister, told parliament, delivering the first annual budget since he took office in July.

The budget included measures aimed at reducing the government’s deficit as Colombo seeks to secure an IMF bailout package to help the country recover from its worst financial crisis in decades.

Soaring inflation, a weakening currency and low foreign exchange reserves have left the island of 22 million people struggling to pay for imports of essentials such as food, fuel and medicine.

Mass unrest forced the previous president and prime Minister out of power, and the country remains vulnerable to political instability as fears of a global recession have added to the problems for an economy that suffered a catastrophic contraction.

Wickremesinghe laid down several medium-term targets for the government: increasing international trade as a percentage of GDP by more than 100 per cent, annual growth of $3 billion from new exports over the next 10 years as well as attracting $3 billion in foreign direct investment over the same period.

He also said the government plans to reduce debt to less than 100 per cent of GDP over the medium term and achieve economic growth of around 7-8 per cent.

“With a lot of taxes already implemented, on the revenue side the budget primarily seems to be aiming towards tax administrations, reducing the leakages and broadbasing the tax net,” said Trisha Peries, head of research at CAL Group.

Analysts said tax collections would be critical for the country since it is unlikely to be able to cut expenditure massively in an effort to fund the welfare schemes while the government’s ability to meet its interest payments will also be watched.

The World Bank estimates Sri Lanka’s economy will contract by 9.2 per cent in 2022 and 4.2 per cent next year.

Sri Lanka’s economy could recover in the “latter part of 2023”, the central bank said recently, adding that this would be dependant upon policymakers implementing reforms quickly and effectively.

Sri Lanka signed a staff-level agreement with the IMF in early September but needs to get financing assurances from multiple creditors, including China and Japan, to secure disbursements.

A deal with the IMF is also essential for Sri Lanka to access bridge financing from the World Bank and other multilateral sources if it is to have enough foreign exchange to pay for imports.

After stabilising the economy, the government needs to steer it back towards growth or risk a repeat of the political unrest that forced President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to flee the country and resign in July.

“For the moment, I think the government has taken the right actions to reach an IMF deal, however SOE (state-owned enterprise) reforms and expenditure management is going to be something that needs to prioritised just as much as tax collection,” Peries said.

Sri Lanka unveils a budget on Monday attempting to put the South Asian government’s finances in order, with reforms to advance a $2.9 global billion bailout from the island’s worst financial crisis since independence in 1948.

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s first full-year budget to parliament will include measures aimed at helping Sri Lanka restructure its debt, increase revenues and trim spending as it works on the bailout with the International Monetary Fund, analysts say.

“This is a budget that is being presented at a time Sri Lanka is facing an unprecedented crisis,” said State Minister for Finance Ranjith Siyambalapitiya.

“More than 70% of families are asking the government for support and the economy is estimated to shrink 8.3 per cent this year,” he said in a statement. “This budget will present a political and economic way forward for the country.”

The World Bank estimates Sri Lanka’s economy will contract by 9.2 per cent this year and 4.2 per cent in 2023. The nation of 22 million people plunged into crisis this year as a loss of tourism revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic compounded tax cuts and years of economic mismanagement, leading to a severe dollar drought.

Unable to pay for critical imports, Sri Lanka struggled to buy essentials such as fuel, and the public faced soaring inflation, a rapidly depreciating currency and sharply shrinking growth.

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