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

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

Gas-Shedding: 18th Amendment Strangulating Pakistan

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 29th December 2014

(E-Paper (Print Edition): http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2014-12-29/page-9)

(Online: http://nation.com.pk/business/29-Dec-2014/gas-shedding-18th-amendment-strangulating-pakistan)

Gas-Shedding: 18th Amendment Strangulating Pakistan

Prof Dp

By: Omer Zaheer Meer

Energy is the lifeline of any modern economy and country. The great games of regional and global powers mostly revolve around securing energy sources for their nations due to various other implications. From USA’s past reliance on some Arab countries to China investing heavily in African Nations, these’re all efforts to ensure energy security. The energy needs not only impact a country’s economic outlook but the entire modern national life.

Despite well-known electricity and water woes due to years of mismanagement, Pakistan has been blessed with natural gas reserves commonly referred to as “Sui Gas” by common man, linking it to the largest natural gas field of Pakistan located in Sui, Balochistan. Until recently the mismanagement in this energy sector did not bite the masses much due to abundant reserves discovered in the past. However nothing lasts forever. Unfortunately a lack of strategic foresight, inadequate investments for exploration of more reserves and improper management of limited resources by encouraging CNG fuel have, besides other factors, led to a state of crisis-like shortage of natural gas in Pakistan. The worst affected is Punjab.

As winter approached the gas outages started increasing for domestic, commercial and industrial users. With the winter almost peaking now, the situation has become unbearable with only 4/5 hours maximum availability for domestic users while outage for industries varies in number of days. SNGPL (Sui Northern Gas Pipelines Limited), the company catering to gas supplies in Punjab is facing a shortfall of 700 MMcfd which is almost 27% of the total requirement as per the official Government figures while unofficial sources placed the shortage at 40%.

The impact has been horrible for Punjab. Households are struggling to cook, wash and in some worst affected areas to perform minor tasks as ablution. Industry is hit hard with exports falling resulting in layoffs. All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) recently made public plea for exemption from gas load shedding claiming exports of the textile industry alone dropped 4% to $3.4 billion in the last quarter. Textile production has already dropped by 25% in the province due to gas shortages while 2,000 plus surgical manufacturing units have been lying closed too. Many industrialists have threatened to move out if the situation persists. Thousands of households have become unemployed as a result of the above. Agriculture sector while less affected directly due to more reliance on electricity has also been negatively impacted indirectly. This situation is leading to lesser efficiency, unutilized capacities, wasted labor hours, increased unemployment, lost revenue and lost taxes.

To fully appreciate the economic impact one needs to realize that despite abundant claims to the contrary, Punjab actually contributes 65 % of the national GDP and contains 60% of all national industry with more than 48,000 units on record and many unrecorded. It also houses 56% of the national population. We need to ask ourselves whether any country can progress economically while strangulating 65% of its GDP? The answer is an unequivocal “No”. The severe, non-uniformed and negatively biased gas load-shedding in Punjab is effectively leading to an economic strangulation of the national economy. The question then is how did we reach here and what can be done about it?

First of all the 18th Amendment resulted in a highly negative impact for Punjab as the actual needs and population based requirements were totally ignored in favour of giving precedence to the province where a well-head of natural gas was situated over the rest of Pakistan. This apparently was another short-sighted knee-jerk reaction aimed at the unrest in Balochistan province. Secondly the much needed exploration investments were not done on the scale required. Thirdly the scarce resource was wasted mercilessly for short-sighted benefits by encouraging the nation to use CNG (compressed Natural Gas) as alternate fuel to Petrol (Gasoline Fuel). The drive succeeded due to the immense price disparity in the fuels with highly attractive savings on 2.5 times cheaper CNG. Even within CNG sector, mismanagement peaked as licences were issued as if of a local sports club. Last but not the least even the incumbent administration like the ones before it, procrastinated on the steps it decided to remedy the situation. The much trumpeted import of LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) has been delayed to March 2015 per Government sources.

As far as rectifying the situation is concerned many steps are needed. First of all immediate focus should be shifted to serious exploration of more indigenous energy resources. The management of existing resources needs to be planned properly while taking into account the impact of any action-plan upon all sectors of economy and public life. For the short-term the alternate energy sources to be utilized should be quickly planned and spurred into use. A constitutional amendment is also needed to ensure a just treatment across Pakistan. All federating units should bear their share of the brunt to make the situation more bearable for everyone instead of piling up the entire burden on just Punjab. Other federating units should be educated of the overall economic benefits to them as a result of Punjab contributing more to the national exchequer, the benefits of which will be passed on to them in the form of the increased share of income as per 18th Amendment. They should also be made aware that there are already dissenting voices in Punjab questioning whether Punjab should also follow a similar policy at large re crops and right of way as is enforced on it regarding natural gas. This certainly would be a very unwelcome and costly scenario for other federating units.

Another issue to consider is the protection of the consumer. Throughout the world largest consumers are given rights and privileges. However, despite being the largest consumer of power and gas, Punjab has no control over the quantum, duration and usage of either gas or power. This needs to be addressed in manners suggested above and with at least equal if not more say of the largest consumer in the affairs affecting it the most. All people are asking for is a just treatment for everyone as strangulating Punjab is effectively strangulating Pakistan.

The author is Director of the think-tank “Millat Thinkers’ Forum”. He is a leading economist, chartered financial analyst, qualified 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