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

IMF-driven Policies: Destroying Economy

The following article has been published in Daily Nation, dated 16th March 2015

(E-Paper (Print Edition): http://nation.com.pk/E-Paper/lahore/2015-03-16/page-9 )

(Online: http://nation.com.pk/business/16-Mar-2015/imf-driven-policies-destroying-economy )

IMF-driven Policies: Destroying Economy & inciting Revolts

 Prof Dp

 By: Omer Zaheer Meer

Pakistan is going through an economic slump; some would even argue a meltdown. With rampant lawlessness, terrorism, rising inflation and severe electricity and gas load management especially for industry, the economy is in dire need of a revival. Many of these problems were inherited by the incumbent administration from the previous PPP government with the economy on the verge of collapse. It was against this backdrop that the PMLN government decided to go to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for a $ 6.7 billion loan.

The IMF offered a package based on austerity, asking to cut subsidies in a very short duration, seeking reduced public spending and privatization of national institutions like PIA in addition to devaluation of Pak Rupee.

These measures led to unbearable levels of inflation, making an already tough situation worse. Even the prime constituency of the incumbent Government, the business community has been protesting but at the end of the day they will still be able to simply pass on the effects to the consumer. It’s the masses that would ultimately be hit the hardest. With the industry already in tatters due to the energy crisis, law and order situation and ever increasing input costs, they are shifting base overseas resulting in a flight of local capital. The gigantic increases in the power tariffs until recently were serving to worsen an already dire situation for the local industry. On the other hand national institutions, instead of being revamped and properly managed are being planned to be sold off in non-favorable conditions when they could end up being sold for peanuts.

POL products are treated as a cash-cow for revenue generation, ignoring the super-inflationary effects of increases in their prices. It is indeed ironic that while the prices in international market fell, the benefit was only partially passed on to the consumers in Pakistan and that too owing to the political pressure from the opposition of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.

While the IMF program may serve to stabilize the national exchequer in the longer term, the economic opportunity costs, resulting unemployment and the high risk of an economic meltdown makes it a non-prudent choice. Instead it is pretty obvious that Pakistan’s economy requires an impetus, a stimulus to revive the economic activity and not the program agreed with the IMF.

While we can give some space to government’s economic team citing the tough challenges they inherited and are facing, what is unfortunate though is that even the steps possible within the ambit of Finance Ministry are not taken. There seems to be a lack of understanding and political will to actually carryout the reforms necessary to resuscitate the failing economy.

Financial management and transparency is one such area. I’ve written before that the manner in which the circular debt of app PKR 500 billion was paid to private power generators and similarly the funds released for Petrol import earlier this year were astounding to say the least. There were no audits, no checks and no proper incentives negotiated for the masses. Whether right or wrong, some sections of the intelligentsia believe these crises to be manufactured, aimed at getting around the checks and balances in order to oblige party financiers and key supporters.

For example, despite claims of around 40 % unused capacity of private power companies, un-tapped owing to the outstanding circular debt, the promised increase in the electricity generation was never delivered despite payment of the same. Pakistan had to approach IMF for $ 6.7 billion to be released over several years, while 75% of that amount was distributed to private power companies without any verification as if it was an immaterial amount. What’s more, the genie of the circular debt in the power sector is back to haunt the nation again.

We must ask the finance ministry why no proper audits were performed? Why could we not negotiate with the power companies the terms for payments in four or six installments with the next installment payable only on achieving an additional power generation as agreed? Furthermore, there has been no effective national energy conservation drive or campaign to cut the line losses to the minimal possible. Similar mismanagements resulted in the infamous petrol crises too.

Furthermore, the painful but obvious fact remains that the necessary reforms required to revamp the tax system and structures are not been followed either. Instead of extending the tax base by bringing in Agriculture and other exempt areas in the tax net the existing base is being taxed more along-with higher indirect taxes imposed on the common citizen, both of which are disastrous in the long run. Had we actually taken the tough but necessary decision to broaden our tax base and executed proper financial management especially in the power circular debt payment we would not need to go to the IMF. The lack of these reforms has led to exorbitant borrowing with the internal borrowings alone reaching the mark of a trillion.

Alarmingly, there are noises about a very powerful industrialist from Punjab with stake in the power sector besides others, dictating the economic policies of the current government. On the backdrop of this, a list of public sector power companies was also announced for privatization. Guess where are they based? Yes, all of them are based in Punjab. The Prime Minister needs to take corrective measures. As a minimum the finance ministry should be directed to undertake independent forensic audits into all future payments as well as those made till now including circular debt payments to the power companies in addition to the implementation of other measures to ensure transparency. Corruption scandals of the likes of the last PPP Government should not be tolerable anymore. This, along with tough decisions to extend the tax base with a focus on direct instead of indirect taxation and proper financial management can still lead to a turn-around.

The biggest question is will the present Government review its IMF driven economic policies and carryout the necessary reforms while providing relief to the ordinary citizen or will it continue to focus exclusively on temporarily filling up the coffers of the national exchequer without any bearing to the economic condition of a common man and risk a revolt? It should remember empty stomachs breed anarchy.

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