EDITORIAL: The most critical, albeit baffling, revelation made by the Governor State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) Jameel Ahmed was not referred to in the 23 January 2023 Monetary Policy Statement (MPS) but was in response to a query on exchange rate flexibility.
He contended that the open market rate at which dollar is available is speculative (read artificially jacked up by market players though Ahmed admitted that the report identifying which banks were involved in this activity thereby generating windfall profits of around 100 billion rupees is available and the guilty will be penalized) and once the ninth review negotiations with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) are successful, thereby unlocking the Fund tranche as well as all pledged assistance including multilaterals and bilaterals (particularly friendly countries) the rupee will stabilise.
It is unclear whether the Fund will agree to deferring the ongoing exchange inflexibility policy that cannot be supported by the release of dollars in the market as was the case in 2014-17, given the appallingly low foreign exchange reserves of 4.6 billion dollars as of 13 January 2023 prior to tranche release or whether this is merely wishful thinking on the part of the economic team leaders.
Be that as it may, the Governor’s statement that once dollars are released by lenders the rupee will stabilise would no doubt have generated serious concern amongst independent local and international economists as it may hint at the country following the same flawed policy that was prevalent during the previous PML-N tenure when reserves propped up mainly by external borrowing were released into the economy to shore up the rupee.
The outcome of this policy was disastrous that accounted for the highest-ever current account deficit of nearly 20 billion dollars when the Khan administration was sworn in.
The Monetary Policy Committee decided to raise the discount rate by 100 basis points, from 16 to 17 percent, while presenting a dismal stagflation scenario: inflation pressures are broad-based and if unchecked could feed into higher inflation expectations over a longer than anticipated period (read higher than the 21 to 23 percent projected in the 25 November MPS) coupled with incoming data suggesting broad-based and sustained moderation in economic activity (a decline of 5.5 percent in large-scale manufacturing in November that could also be higher than projections as firms cut production against the 25 November MPS noting an LSM production that was flat relative to last year).
The fallout of stagflation “downside risks to the SBP’s baseline growth outlook for this year have increased” or, in other words, the growth projected at 2 percent in the previous MPS is not likely to be achieved.
The MPS notes that the committee reiterated its “November 2022 assessment that the short-term costs of bringing down inflation are lower than the long-term costs of allowing it to become entrenched;” entrenched defined in economics as prices unlikely to return to earlier levels.
The period under consideration was not identified; however, it is relevant to note that in May 2022, the Consumer Price Index registered 13.8 percent increase (a rate that reflected massive subsidy on electricity tariff and petroleum products announced by previous Prime Minister Imran Khan on 28 February and not withdrawn till end May early June) while the rate has hovered above 20 percent since June last year.
In addition, the use of the word ‘entrenched’ may not be quite appropriate for two reasons: (i) both electricity and petroleum products are heavily taxed in this country and hence part of the reason for this entrenchment, if any, must be attributed to reliance on low-hanging fruit or easy to collect indirect taxes; and (ii) ignores the fact that the MPS dated 25 November 2022 raised the policy rate also by 100 basis points and the CPI rose from 23.8 percent in November to 24.5 percent in December while the Sensitive Price Index (July-December) rose from 17.17 percent in 2021-22 to a whopping 28.21 percent in the comparable period of 2022-23.
The question is whether the 100 basis points raise ostensibly to “anchor inflation expectations and achieve the objective of price sustainability to support sustainable growth in future,” is remotely likely to achieve these two salutary objectives. Given the ongoing monetary and fiscal policies, the answer disturbingly has to be in the negative.
Finally, in a damning indictment of the country’s fiscal policy, the MPS correctly notes that “the current fiscal policy is inconsistent with monetary tightening.” This is considerably more strongly-worded than the observation in the MPS dated 25 November 2022 that “maintaining fiscal discipline is needed to complement monetary tightening, which would together help prevent an entrenchment of inflation and lower external vulnerabilities…anchoring inflation expectations is important to achieve the medium term inflation target of 5-7 percent by December 2024 and requires coordinated monetary and fiscal policy efforts.”
To put the record straight, monetary tightening through a raise in the policy rate that is not adequate to deal with the ongoing inflationary pressures while keeping tight inexplicable control over the interbank exchange rate and thereby widening the differential with the open market rate at which foreign exchange is actually available can hardly be classified as monetary tightening.
In the past, unlike the Ministry of Finance, that is susceptible to political considerations, SBP genteelly complied with IMF conditions; however, this does not appear to be the case at present; and the Governor’s acknowledgement that the success of ninth review negotiations is crucial and the lead in the negotiations is being taken by the Ministry may be the harbinger of even tighter monetary conditions as well as higher taxes through a revisit to the proposed mini-budget ordinance under consideration.
Copyright Business Recorder, 2023