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A nation’s debt

The prime minister, in his address to the nation, expressed his concern about the rising debt of the country. His concern was right because high and rising debt constitutes a serious threat to economic prosperity. It acts as a major impediment to growth and hence to employment generation and poverty alleviation. It also discourages both foreign and domestic investment and puts pressure on the exchange rate thereby causing sharp depreciation of the exchange rate and the attendant rise in public debt.

Managing the country’s debt is an art as well as a science. It requires proper institution to manage the debt. Successful debt reduction would require fiscal consolidation and a policy mix that supports growth. Key elements of this policy mix and measures include addressing structural weaknesses in the economy, domestic resource mobilisation and supportive monetary policy.

Fiscal consolidation must emphasise persistent structural reforms for resource mobilisation and expenditure rationalisation over temporary fiscal measures such as increasing tax rates and reducing expenditure across the board. Fiscal institutions including the country’s debt office can play an important role in locking any gains. Reducing public debt takes time; therefore, fiscal consolidation must focus on enduring structural change.

Pakistan’s public debt has grown over the last five years at a pace never witnessed in the country’s history. Public debt (both rupee and dollar components) has grown at an average rate of 21.5 percent per annum in the last five years (2008-12) as against an average rate of 6.6 percent per annum during the first seven years (2000-07) of the previous decade. In absolute terms, public debt rose from Rs6040 billion in 2007-08 to Rs14255 billion by the end of June 2013; that is, an addition of Rs8215 billion in five years.

It is interesting that successive governments over the last 60 years accumulated Rs6040 billion public debt while the previous regime alone added Rs8215 in just five years. Put differently, every child born in 2007-08 carried a debt burden of Rs36606. A child born in 2012-13 carried a debt of Rs77896 – an increase of 112 percent in just five years.

Within the public debt, it is domestic debt that has grown at a pace (23.4 percent per annum) faster than external debt, which stood at $46.2 billion in end June-2008 and rose to $66.4 billion by end-June 2011. But it declined to almost $60 billion in end-June 2013. The decline in external debt owes to the suspension of the IMF programme in May 2010 which dried up most of the external flows from the International Financial Institutions. Meantime, Pakistan continued to service its external debt obligations out of its foreign exchange reserves. It appears that the suspension of the IMF programme was a blessing in disguise as it prevented Pakistan from further accumulating external debt to the extent of approximately $10 billion by now.

Within the domestic debt, the composition of debt has witnessed considerable changes in the last five years. Medium-to-long term debt has been converted into short-term debt with serious consequences for government’s debt management. Today, over 55 percent of domestic debt (Rs5.2 trillion) is of short maturity, which must be rolled over at least once a year. Even more worrisome is the fact that the bulk of short-term debt is shifted to the shortest end of the maturity (three and six months).

Factors responsible for the unprecedented surge in debt include the persistence of large fiscal deficit (on average over 7 percent of GDP), sharp depreciation of exchange rate (over 40 percent) and slower growth in economy (on average, 3 percent per annum). The persistence of large fiscal deficit represents government’s inability to collect more revenues on the one hand and reckless spending on the other, resulting in an extraordinary surge in public debt. Higher public debt has caused interest payment to more than double, crowded out private investment and reduced fiscal space to undertake much needed public investment in infrastructure.

The prime minister’s concern is genuine. He has inherited a severely damaged economy. What is required on his part is not to repeat the same mistakes. Fiscal consolidation should therefore be the topmost priority of his government. In his frequent speeches, he loves to mention various developmental projects of national and regional importance that he intends to launch. All these projects would require resources to complete them. He has seldom talked about domestic resource mobilisation with same zeal and fervour. It is suggested that domestic resource mobilisation should be an integral part of his government’s fiscal consolidation.

Secondly, fiscal consolidation efforts need to be complimented by measures that support growth: structural issues need to be addressed and monetary conditions need to be as supportive as possible. The beginning is not up to the mark. The government has borrowed Rs611 billion in just 40 days from the State Bank of Pakistan as against Rs507 billion in full year (2012-13). In other words, it has borrowed Rs15.3 billion per day in 40 days as against Rs1.4 billion per day by the previous regime in 2012-13.

Thirdly, exchange rate stability is also vital for preventing public debt accumulation. The performance in this regard is equally poor. The exchange rate has already depreciated by 6 percent in just 80 days. Accordingly, without borrowing a single dollar, Pakistan has added Rs276 billion in public debt in just 80 days – Rs3.5 billion per day.

Nothing is lost thus far on economic front for this government. These are minor damages and can be cured. What is required from the government is a serious effort to consolidate the debt situation through fiscal discipline, productive use of fiscal deficit, improving the quality of expenditure, exchange rate stability, structural reforms, a vibrant debt office, good communication strategy, and a strong and coherent economic team.

The writer is the principal and dean of NUST Business School, Islamabad. Email: ahkhan@nbs.edu.pk

Dr. Ashfaque H Khan, "A nation’s debt," The News. 2013-08-27.
Keywords: Economics , Foreign exchange , Economy-Pakistan , Economic issues , Foreign debt , Public debt , Economic growth , Monetary policy , Government-Pakistan , Exchange rate , Economic crisis , Fiscal policy , Fiscal deficit , Employment , Poverty , Pakistan , IMF