CPEC a Game Changer

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 29th June 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-29/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/29-Jun-2015/cpec-a-game-changer)

HNPI declares CPEC a Game Changer

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is one of the most discussed topics in Pakistan of late. Several aspects of the proposed “super project” have been examined. It is rightly placed as a game changer for not just Pakistan or the region but one with the potential to change the global economic, military and strategic landscape. Before moving ahead on the topic let’s recall that CPEC is a series of projects worth $ 45.6 billion, aimed to connect Gwadar port in Pakistan strategically located on Arabian Sea just outside the Strait of Hormuz, with Northwestern China (Xinjiang) via Khunjrab (last town on the Pakistani side) along-with several development and uplift projects for transportation, energy and technical infrastructure in Pakistan. An extensive development and uplift of road and rail links is envisaged with energy pipelines decorating the “new silk road”.

In simple terms the plan is to provide the world with a new silk road for global trade, places so strategically that it makes it the most cost-effective and quickest route. The port fees, access charges and transportation revenues alone would be worth billions of $ for Pakistan. If proper policies are implemented, the industrial and business developments particularly along the routes can turn Pakistan into a global economic powerhouse.

It was against this backdrop that this writer was honored to be invited by the Mr. Absar Abdul Ali, director of the prestigious Hameed Nizami Press Institute (HNPI) as a keynote speaker to participate on a seminar on the subject. Mian Iftikhar, the head of the Engineers study forum worked extensively with his team to invite a bouquet of experts from various fields. The result was a brilliant seminar which thoroughly covered almost all the aspects relating to CPEC. Though all the speakers were learned and did justice to their subject, Engineer Iftikhar ul Haq and Mrs. Naheed Ghazanfar from UET covered areas largely neglected re CPEC. The latter explained the technical details of the construction and potential of tens of thousands of jobs resulting from the construction projects alone. Her experience of having already worked with Chinese on critical projects came in handy there. In addition to the above the following points were also discussed at the said event.

A common perception has developed amongst the masses of late that CPEC is all about the road network being built to link Gwadar with China. This is not true as one can see from the list of the projects envisioned under CPEC and shared on these pages before by this writer. While undoubtedly the road and rail links are of fundamental and strategic importance with long-term revenue generation potential and the ones which can be the catalyst for a geo-political shift in the region, they are not this project is all about. Infact most of the projects are related to technical and energy infrastructure projects. To put it in perspective, more than 70% of the proposed $ 45.6 billion investment is expected to be spent on these projects.

In addition to the benefits to Pakistan, the strategic benefits and significance of CPEC to China were also extensively discussed which includes the following:

Firstly China is heavily dependent upon the oil from Gulf. CPEC will reduce the transportation distance from 16,000 km to just 5,000 km for its oil imports of which 8-% is transported via ships while 60% comes directly from gulf, resulting in substantial economic savings, more business all around the year and neutralizing the threat of blockade by political rivals.

Secondly CPEC will also give China unparalleled access to the untapped and raw energy rich markets of Central Asia and Afghanistan, These regions are collectively seen as the next big thing in energy and natural resources terms. China envisions utilizing this for securing its energy needs for the next century as well as placing itself as the world leader re energy security by having similar influence and control on the future energy sources as the one currently held by America over the gulf.

Thirdly CPEC will also allow economic benefits to flow to lesser developed and troubled regions of western China including Muslim-majority Xinjiang. Also the enhanced security ties with Pakistan and economic developments, China hopes to eliminate the unrest in Xinjiang.

Last but not the least CPEC will provide China an additional key port, an opening to the world from its western side and the capability to blockade the oil supplies to any future adversaries by having a key naval port at Gwadar. The current attempts to encircle and contain China would therefore become redundant.

Moreover while it must be appreciated that the controversy over the three land routes planned to link Gwadar to Xinjiang is old and settled now with the Government promising to complete the western route passing largely through the underdeveloped Balochistan and KPK first, it is also a lesson for the decision makers. There are outside efforts led by India to disrupt the CPEC, evident by the now well publicized news of a RAW division established with starting allocation of $ 3 billion for the sole purpose of disrupting CPEC. Chahbahar port of Iran and Dubai port of UAE are at risk to become redundant with huge economic costs to them once CPEC is fully operational.

This unfortunately aligns Iranian and Emirati interests with Indian. Moreover quite obviously, the strategic great game with aims of containing China translates into USA having its interests in seeing through it that CPEC does not become successful. With the vested interests of all these regional and global players at stake, it is advised that all local stakeholders be taken into confidence and CPEC branded as a national project instead of belonging to any one party. We must remember that no outside efforts to disrupt can be successful without genuine internal dissatisfaction.

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk

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Education: The neglected step child?

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 15th June 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-15/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/15-Jun-2015/education-the-neglected-step-child)

Education: The neglected step child?

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

For almost four decades after independence, Pakistan was economically ahead of its’ arch-rival and estranged neighbor India despite the huge market and mass of the latter. 1990’s brought about the reversal with India leaping ahead and now reaching a situation where it has placed itself much ahead of Pakistan economically. While we often refer to the economic exploits of India and commonly cover reasons such as the IT boom and missed opportunities by Pakistan, have we ever thought that perhaps the real reason was education?

Yes, education that has been neglected by every succeeding Pakistani government. On the other hand, the Indian policy makers realized the importance of quality education and ensured appropriate steps were taken to develop their huge human resources, on the basis of which their current economic apparatus is booming. Their continuous investment in education bore fruits and placed India as a leader in IT outsourcing from where it really took off. Rather than becoming stagnant, Indians continued to invest in education with substantial results in bio-technologies, medical and education industries besides others.

On the other hand, while Pakistanis continue to outshine Indians and most of the world on an individual level, the overall state of affairs of its education sector, particularly public sector education, remains dismal. While we often criticize the rising unemployment levels, the lack of quality human resource availability remains a concern for local businesses. Most business owners complain that even the available human resource is not up to the international standards they’re competing against. Add to this the high illiteracy and we are faced with a dire situation demanding immediate corrective measures.

Infact, if you look at all major economies, with the exception of most Gulf countries relying on oil, they’re based on educated and trained human resources. Gone are the days when hard labor alone could turnaround national economies. Without continuously developed and upgraded education, no nation can hope to compete on the modern global stage. What’s more inspiring is that being a Muslim seeking education is mandatory even at the cost of hardships.

Furthermore as the right to education is a fundamental right of every human being recognized by the United Nations, perhaps the member countries should sought to deliver this key right to their citizens. The good thing is that the decision making circles in Pakistan have started saying the right things about education, of late. The problem is the lack of implementation.

All major political parties in Pakistan acknowledge the above facts and affirm their commitment to improving the human resources development in the country via education to ensure less disillusioned youth are attracted to extremism fuelling law and order problems for the nation. Similarly owning to political competition when Mian Shahbaz Sharif led Punjab government proposed substantially increasing the education budget, a feat it did not actually achieve, the PPP’s federal government proposed a budgetary allocation of 7% which was again something of a political statement which was not implemented.

However, it were the high hopes from the electoral promises of Mian Nawaz Sharif led PMLN in the 2013 general elections campaign with promises of 4% allocation of the GDP (not the budget) to the education sector that made segments of intelligentsia excited. Unfortunately it was again not to be. While the 14% increase for education in the 2015-16 budget proposed through the finance bill is a positive step in the right direction, the promised height of 4% of GDP still remains a dream.

Infact the manifestos of all major national parties including PTI and PPP committed to increasing the budgetary allocations for education. The upcoming Sindh and KPK budgets would reveal how much of those promises would be kept. Moreover, post 18th amendment the education sector has largely been within the ambit of provincial governments. This is not to make light the significance of a proper federal allocation to education sector setting a precedent and direction for the provinces to pursue.

What’s tragic is that although it is an established fact that investment in education lays the long-term foundation for economic prosperity and reduction in acute poverty, none of the parties in power have been able to meet their promised increases for the education to date. Unfortunately, election promises have become wish lists. Revenue constraints are almost always cited as a major constraint despite under-utilized budgetary allocations in several sectors including developmental. While one can respect the genuine constraints, perhaps better management of available resources can free up additional revenues for the neglected education sector. Similarly the ever increasing allocations to political gimmick based schemes can serve the nation well if utilized in educational sector.

Rightly or wrongly, some argue that given the improved quality of life, political awareness and a demanding populace resulting from a higher outlay on education, the traditional political class particularly from the rural belts across all political parties, ensure that the declared goals to invest in education by their respective parties are not met. Their common interests in this case ensure an unwritten alliance across the board. It is upto the policy makers and top leadership of these parties to take corrective measures to dispel this notion.

One thing is for sure, if we want to develop Pakistan into a sustainable and independent modern economy, there is no other option but to invest heavily in education and human resource development. This in due time will rid Pakistan of the both extremes it is currently facing as a properly educated nation would realize and implement the way of balance being the best course, as told to us by the greatest leader of all times, Prophet Muhammad PBUH.

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk

Budget: An Objective View

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 08th June 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-08/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/08-Jun-2015/budget-an-objective-view)

Federal Budget: An Objective View

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

The wait is over. One of the most awaited events of year, the federal budget was announced on Friday, 05th June 2015. The incumbent government has claimed it to be a historic one as all governments do while the opposition saw only red as the oppositions normally do. The reality however lies somewhere in the middle. There have been some positive steps that should be appreciated while others are left to be desired.

To understand the current budget better we need to review the performance of the last fiscal year as per the Economic Survey 2014-15 released by the finance ministry. As per the data released, inflation has reached the lowest level of this decade with substantial improvements in the foreign exchange reserves. This has resulted in State Bank of Pakistan reducing the discount rate at 7%, the lowest in last four decades.

While the issue of sukuk bonds and receipt of loans and donations were a direct result of governmental decisions, the improvements mentioned above were largely due to a key factor not affected by the governmental policies, that was the reduced oil import costs and resultant reduced inflation in the country due to material reduction in oil prices in the international market. Furthermore, manufacturing and agriculture sector which are the prime drivers of economy and employment opportunities haven’t shown the improvements expected. Private sector is sluggish and the cherished dream of the Tax-GDP ratio in line with the developed economies remained a dream.

With this backdrop and an economic growth rate of 4.24% the federal budget 2015-16 was supposed to overcome the shortcomings mentioned above and in several article before. Some key proposals were provided on these pages on Monday, 1st June 2014 in an article titled “Budgetary Dreams”. It was good to see some of the proposals getting implemented like the announcement of rebate on solar-panels and provision of concessionary loans to small farmers for some solar-powered projects. Similarly the incentives to the construction industry and rebates announced for the rice manufacturers are positive steps too. What’s interesting is that incentives announced has been for small farmers owning less than 12.5 acres of landholding, thereby substantiating the perspective that those over this threshold should have been brought within the tax net.

On the other hand, the critical proposals including bringing agricultural sector within the tax net and using the proceeds to subsidize provision of free or low-cost water and electricity to the sector has been ignored. Creating a new body for providing seeds, fertilizers and all other necessities to farmers at discounted prices due to the volume of business with the mandate of buying all crops from the farmers at the Government approved rates and supplying them to various industries and markets, thereby ensuring the farmers getting their dues while the stockists’ induced shortages and inflation getting stemmed out has not been implemented either.

While almost a 14% increase has been announced in the federal budget for education, which must be appreciated, the promised level of 5% of budget still remains a dream. Similarly the research and human resource development proposals have not been incorporated into the budget despite their importance for a modern national economy. As elaborated in previous write-ups, the impact of this allocation may not have been very drastic in terms of volume post 18th amendment but it would have been a strong signal and precedent for the provinces to pursue.

There was a hue and cry over a paltry 7.5% rise in the salaries of federal employees particularly considering the inflation levels. While the finance ministry has defended this citing certain limitations, there is much left to be desired and an increase of at-least 15% was very much realistic and achievable.

However the most shocking oversight was yet again ignoring the proposals of broadening tax base that has been presented to the various ministry officials for over a decade now. Once again the computerized national identity card (CNIC) has not been declared as the National Tax Number (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Number (STRN) for all citizens. This could not only have made it extremely easy for any Pakistani to start a business having both the NTN and STRN, hence promoting a culture of entrepreneurship but would also have helped broaden the tiny existing tax base as the number of filers and ultimately taxpayers are forecasted to increase with the increasing documented nature of the businesses.

Continuing from this, the proposal of focusing more on a progressive direct tax regime is deferred once again. While there is no substantial change in the ratio of the direct taxes to indirect taxes, the positive reductions on the focus on indirect taxes is missing. The current policy of relying more on indirect taxes in the shape of customs duty, sales tax, federal excise duty, petroleum levy, gas infrastructure cess, natural gas surcharge and others will give rise to inflation and increased productivity costs leading to lower exports and purchasing power. The costs of this policy certainly outweigh the benefits. Similarly the volume over tax rate policy could have helped increase the tax net and the tax to GDP ratio by substantially reducing the tax rates, making it economically feasible to pay taxes instead of using the costly means to avoid them.

Although the budget is supposed to be a benchmark to act as both a planning and a control tool, this has not been the case for quite some time now. With all sorts of mini-budgets and flexible forecasting, the budget has been reduced to a mere constitutional formality that is met every year. Let us hope that the most important proposals not incorporated in the proposed budget may get the attention of our lawmakers and make way into any policy changes.

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk

The Cherished Dream of Budget

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 1st June 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition)http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-06-01/page-9)

(Onlinehttp://nation.com.pk/business/01-Jun-2015/the-cherished-dream-of-budget)

The cherished dream of budget

 (Budgetary Dreams)

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

“I have a dream”. These were the famous words uttered at a junction of history which saw a drastic change in the United States of America. With the budget looming around the corner, this scribe too has a dream to share with the readers.

The dream starts with the federal budget of Islamic Republic of Pakistan having just been announced. There are widespread celebrations across the country, for many of the promised reforms have been delivered with path for a longer term change laid down. Pakistan Muslim League’s government has fulfilled its commitments despite some very challenging circumstances. Some of the major reforms and steps taken along-with their justifications, as outlined by the finance minister Mr. Ishaq Dar are detailed below.

Tax Facilitation: Several steps have been taken to reform the taxation system and structures. Firstly the computerized national identity card (CNIC) has been declared as the National Tax Number (NTN) and Sales Tax Registration Number (STRN) for all citizens. This has not only made it extremely easy for any Pakistani to start a business having both the NTN and STRN, hence promoting a culture of entrepreneurship but is also expected to help broaden the tiny existing tax base as the number of filers and ultimately taxpayers are forecasted to increase with the increasing documented nature of the businesses.

Corporate and Agricultural Exemptions: Furthermore exemptions on various businesses as well as the agricultural sector have been withdrawn. This is expected to generate substantial additional revenue as these sectors constitute 30 to 40 percent of national economy as per various studies. These sections have previously been out of the tax net without any substantial benefit to the GDP despite the relaxation. Therefore the Government has now decided to instead facilitate the farmers to increase the productivity as outlined below while ensuring the agricultural sector is brought within the tax-net.

Tax Volume over Margin: Moreover to make taxation less cumbersome and support the initiatives aimed at broadening of the tax base, the strategy of volume over margin has been pursued in that the tax rates have been drastically cut for both individuals and businesses to the lowest level in the entire region. This has not only positioned Pakistan as one of the most tax-attractive destinations in the region with substantial forecasted investments expected to create job opportunities in the country particularly in the power, agriculture and textile sectors but has also created an incentive for businesses and individuals to pay their due taxes, being less cumbersome than the cost of avoiding it with the threat of stringent possible penalties.

Free electricity & water for Agriculture: Another long-awaited major reform to turnaround the ailing economy in an agricultural country has also been taken. Keeping in view of the fact that the Indian Punjab’s output and productivity has been surpassing Pakistan’s and contributing materially to the Indian economic strategy, the Ministry of Finance has given its strategic vision to place Pakistan as the agricultural leader in the region. Water and electricity are declared free for agriculture for those farmers having small holdings or renting the land. The taxes raised from agricultural sector are mostly reserved to fund this initiative.

Further Agricultural Reforms: Furthermore a new body has been created to buy all crops from the farmers at the Government approved rates and supply them to various industries and markets, thereby ensuring the farmers will get their due while the stockists’ induced shortages and inflation can be stemmed out. Furthermore all seeds, fertilizers and other necessities can be brought through this body at discounted rates which has already listed all major quality suppliers in its approved lists. The volume of potential business has motivated suppliers to offer discounted rates in the hopes of additional business increasing their profitability and helping them expand, in turn creating more job opportunities.

HR development & Educational Reforms: To promote the culture of learning and human resource development, the listing criteria of stock exchanges now includes a requirement for the companies to annually spend atleast 1% of their total revenue on the education and/or professional trainings of their workers. Also, new non-corporate businesses spending more than 2% of their turnover on the education and training of their workers are offered tax rebates. These steps are topped up by an increased budgetary allocation of 5% to the education. The impact of this allocation is not very drastic post 18th amendment but is a strong signal and precedent for the provinces to pursue.

Further reforms to support HR development, Education & Entrepreneurship: Supporting the drive for education and entrepreneurship, Government has required all banking institutions to lend interest-free, atleast 5% of their total business to students and startups without any guarantees. To provide assurances to the banks, a fund has been launched backed by insurance to provide monthly returns to the banks to compensate for the loss of interest income while the fund along-with the insurance serves to act as a guarantee for abnormal bad debts in this sector.

Short-term Energy Reforms: Besides the CPEC and other energy projects, to address the severe energy shortage in the shorter term, the solar energy sector has been given a tax-break for five years with a requirement to cap margins at 15%, in order to ensure the benefits of the cost reduction will be passed on to the masses. This step is expected to assist in resolving the severe energy shortage problem in the shorter term as the cost of setting up solar energy systems has been one of the biggest hindrances in its widespread use despite Pakistan’s climate been extremely conducive for it. Furthermore windmill energy sector has also been extended the same favor to capitalize on its potential for cheap electricity generation with minimal initial investment and running costs.

It was here, that this writer woke up. The sadness on missing many more positive reforms engulfed me but the realization struck that this is the same sadness that engulfs every Pakistani post budget every year. Let’s hope and pray that this year will be different.

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, CFA Charterholder, experienced fellow Chartered Certified Accountant and anti-money laundering expert with international exposure who can be reached on Twitter and www.myMFB.com @OmerZaheerMeer or omerzaheermeer@hotmail.co.uk