Caught in the debt trap

THE 22nd IMF programme, circular debt, G2G loans and an imminent 23rd programme lurking around the corner. It reminds one of Jaws the movie, where danger creeps unseen and dread is prevalent amongst all. ‘Borrow more to borrow even more’ versus ‘earn more to borrow less’. Two very different courses, yet interchangeably deployed, admittedly intermittently, in varying blends, over the past 40 to 50 years, have shackled the nation to the debt trap.

Omnipresent in this murky blend, not unlike other debt-laden markets, are what the West terms as ‘economic hitmen’, who pursue self-interests, ostensibly for the greater good. These interests are then propagated scientifically, justified, and then, with the clever manipulation of economic data, communicated to every handheld device.

While economists and financial experts take turns at solving what has now become a complex equation, perhaps it’s time to go back to the basics, which may be termed as Solution 101 — ‘earn more and borrow less’ — a solution which is admittedly easier to state than actualise. It is a course which may well require our urgent attention and, most importantly, political convergence that entails all major political parties, irrespective of their manifestos, unanimously agreeing to sign off on a ‘charter of economy’ that marks milestones at five-year intervals — starting with ‘earn more and borrow less’ to ‘earn more and not borrow at all’ to, ultimately, ‘earn more and build reserves’.

Simply put, this charter may be a 15-year plan for this nation’s way forward and a performance measure to determine the economic achievements of each successive government. Politics and the economy must at all costs be separated in the interest of the nation.

It’s time to go back to the basics, which may be termed as Solution 101 — ‘earn more and borrow less’.

Pakistan’s debt story is interwoven with the country’s 75-year journey. We entered the first IMF programme in 1958 and, since then, it has been one programme after another, while institutional and G2G debts have continued to grow simultaneously. As of Dec 31, 2021, combined foreign currency loans are more than $90.5 billion. The story of Pakistan’s debt is incomplete without taking into account domestic debt, which by the end of December 2021 had crossed Rs26.7 trillion (roughly $151.5bn based on the Dec 31, 2021, closing rate), resulting in total debt in excess of $242bn or around 77 per cent of GDP. There is also the circular debt, which grew from Rs161bn in 2008 to over Rs2.46tr by March 2022. It continues to grow, putting, oil, gas and power supply at risk.

A consolidated picture of Pakistani debt on a per person basis depicts the debt journey. Each Pakistani, irrespective of age and gender, carries upon their shoulders a debt burden of nearly Rs190,000, while devaluation and interest adds to this figure by the day. Pakistan must borrow to pay back its borrowings and borrow to pay back the interest on its borrowings. Bluntly put, we are no longer borrowing for growth, but to service and repay borrowings.

The government may be able to service local currency debt by raising taxes, at the cost of stunting growth; however, foreign currency earnings will have to be significantly enhanced through exports, remittances, privatisation and foreign investments, and imports will have to be managed to make the equation work. Without a balancing act, the debt cycle will grow to untenable levels.

Tough decisions and belt-tightening are essential. The country’s policy framework, which has relied on imports, belies the requirements of a paradigm shift in thinking. The emphasis needs to shift to the development of a robust agro economy, making Pakistan not just self-sufficient in food, thus ensuring future food security, but also a country that can be a global supplier of food. If oil can be extracted (at a cost) and countries can rise to heights unthinkable in the 1960s, surely, agro extraction (at a cost, undoubtedly) can become a source for sustaining growth, which in due course can accelerate industrial growth for a balanced economic model.

The cycle of boom-and-bust can only be broken if there is a meaningful shift in the policy framework. Granting subsidies without assessing the long-term consequences, or imposing heavy taxation regimes, which impair growth, must be examined and thought through. To quote Winston Churchill: “I contend that for a nation to try to tax itself into prosperity is like a man standing in a bucket and trying to lift himself up with the handles.” While building a strong SME and labour-intensive industrial base, with the aim of capitalising on the shifting industrial trend in China, is equally important, a focused approach, which entails start-to-finish government support — some call this the ‘ease of doing business’ — must be given top priority.

Competitive markets drive global agendas where Pakistan will have to situate itself and measure its competitiveness. What has not worked before will certainly not work going forward. It is imperative that we plan for future generations to provision for a fulfilling and debt-free life of progress, prosperity and security. We have heard the endless discussions of experts and also novices who have little understanding but who use economic jargon to impress with ‘solutions’. But why has nothing, or very little, worked? Framing policies, ensuring competency and challenging dogma require political consensus and hard work.

Freedom comes at a price and it’s a price we must pay someday. Climate change is upon us, where food security and water management will remain on top of the global agenda for decades to come. Gainful employment for our ever-growing and young population will be challenging. With over 366 million mouths to feed by 2050, surely this must be our primary concern. Debt and more debt are certainly not a solution. It is the problem!

The writer has been in the financial services industry for nearly four decades.

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