The Politicisation of Inflation

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Sri Lanka’s is currently in the process of amending its monetary policy. We are moving towards an inflation targeting central bank.  The proposed new law is at the stage where the dinosaurs in parliament oppose it on grounds of tradition[1]. Quoting from the referenced link;

The requirement that a particular policy be adapted by the MLA severely restricts the CBSL’s ability to respond to different macroeconomic and financial market conditions by adopting alternative monetary policy frameworks, it is prudent to give the Monetary Board of the CBSL the power to adapt the flexible inflation targeting framework rather than incorporating it into the MLA,” the memo to the Cabinet said.

On the removal of the secretary to the treasury from the CBSL governing body the link quotes the memo as saying;

‘Authors of the proposed MLA have failed to appreciate the requirement for co-operation between the Government and the CBSL, and instead taken a very narrow view of the perceived independence of the CBSL.’

To translate the first point, the President does not feel it is essential for the Central Bank to stay true to a previously stated objective. He thinks the Central Bank should take a line closer to an election manifesto. The second point is about hierarchy (conflated with the term co-operation) vis-à-vis the position on the governing body. The President in a convoluted sense is saying that monetary policy should serve the policy directive of the treasury.

Context

What is really being proposed was something that developed nations had implemented widely as far back as the 1990s. It is quite simply a separation of treasury and central bank. The central bank will be restricted from financing government excesses on the short term and will have to set monetary policy on the basis of long run average inflation.

The context in the words of W A Wijewardene[2];

To give strength to the flexible inflation targeting program by making the bank independent from fiscal dominance, a new Monetary Law Act is said to be presented to Parliament for approval soon. They would certainly make macroeconomic stability measures sustainable but do not assure it since the present Government cannot make unchangeable rules for future governments. That should come from ‘political consensus building’ and that is completely outside the purview of the Central Bank.

This is just a truism as all laws are permeable. The final sentence is completely untrue as the Central Bank has a considerable advertising budget and an entire department focused on communications. They are unable to do anything because they are incompetent. If the referenced section was true, the opposition party to which the President has aligned himself would be unconcerned with a law they feel is misguided. The reason this is contentious is because it is a good law.

It is more difficult for a government to overturn good law. Take the abolition of the death penalty or the right to information. These laws are difficult to overturn without being seen to be acting against the interests of the people.

Nationalization Policies of the SLFP

The SLFP is an antiquated and overtly racist political party. Their ideological beliefs are inconsistent when taken as a whole and also with the policy proposals they put forward. Modern economics does not hold a central tenant on the virtuous nature of the ownership of an asset. Put in other words you can approach investment both through; the government and private enterprise; foreign and local; for profit and not for profit.

Communism failed a long time ago and is no longer even relevant in contemporary economic discourse. The SLFP must wake up. This is the same party that advocates high protectionist tariffs but on the other hand firmly believes in having an overvalued exchange rate. Anyone monitoring global trade would see that China is combating any US aggression on the tariff front with a corresponding devaluation of their currency[3].

Recent articles[4] claiming that the Central Bank had not planned or discussed publicly this change for over a year conveniently forget that this reform was due at the start of this year. It had been fiercely debated in the financial press and this can be confirmed by a Google custom search on the Daily FT site.

The reason the SLFP hates inflation targeting is because such a project would place employment creation and price stability as the objectives of monetary policy. This would reduce the dependence of the general public on availability of state sector employment and politically driven price reduction. In other words the entire SLFP electoral strategy would be called into question.

Our Monetary Policy Has Been Bad

The Central Bank in an article[5] claims the following;

“In fact, the Central Bank has been following a de facto flexible inflation targeting regime for some time. The intention now is to institutionalize this in law.”

Another statement by the Central Bank even cited European and US Federal Reserve actions in expanding their balance sheet. The Central Bank is displaying considerable knowledge on what the right thing to do in a downturn is but doesn’t seem to be doing it.

In other words the Central Bank can easily expand its balance sheet without following the disastrous policies of continuously funding budget deficits. These movements in the market would clear the glut and get the economy rolling again. For instance the Central Bank could have easily helped recapitalize the development banks (DFCC and NDB) which failed to raise capital. They could have then unwound these investments when capital market conditions were not as depressed.

More importantly, we have been missing the inflation target for quite some time[6]. Inflation is 3.3 percent while the target is 5 percent. The desire for Central Bank employees to return to the robber baron regulation during the previous government is reflecting itself in unusually high rates. This is as the US goes into an election cycle and has already reduced rates!!!

Inflation Targeting Isn’t Completely Apolitical

The inflation targeting framework proposed isn’t as suggested a complete apoliticization of monetary policy. Rather it would be conducted in a manner whereby the treasury and the Central Bank agree on a long term objective of monetary policy. This would prevent the Central Bank in the futurefrom reducing interest rates for instance to win an election.

The treasury would still play a huge role in setting monetary policy through this process of agreement. The treasury as a short term fix could still reduce taxes on inflation indexed goods to reduce rates. The treasury can throw off kilter any forecast done by the Central Bank by signaling different policies.  

If the monetary board fails to meet the inflation target it must resign

This is what actually following inflation targeting would entail. It has long been the calling of the general public to reduce rates so as to at least meet the lower bound of the inflation target. The monetary board has failed to reach target.

This is the most salient thing the Central Bank has to respond to. Instead of spending time responding to articles of little merit the Central Bank should justify as to why inflation remains below target. Inflation under Arjuna Mahendran was also muted so in terms of long run averages the rate of inflation has been incredibly low for the period.

At the very least the payments made to the monetary board must be based on the successful achievement of the set out objectives in the inflation targeting framework. They shouldn’t be paid this month and should have deductions made on previous payments.



[1] http://www.ft.lk/top-story/MLA-amendments-to-be-reviewed-by-committee-of-economists/26-681776

[2] http://www.ft.lk/columns/Institutionalise-macro-policy-to-make-it-sustainable-Dr-Coomaraswamy/4-679273

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/08/05/business/economy/us-china-yuan-renminbi-trump.html

[4] http://www.ft.lk/opinion/Why-the-Central-Bank-should-not-be-independent/14-683381

[5] http://www.ft.lk/opinion/CB-further-clarifies-on-proposed-amendments-to–Sri-Lanka-s-central-banking-law/14-682979

[6] http://www.ft.lk/business/July-inflation-slows-to-3-3/34-683197

We Don’t Want an Executive President

Please note that we have moved to www.wronglk.com

The executive presidency was established in 1978. Since then there has never been as much hope for its abolishment as there is right now. It however still requires many actors to come together to work towards its abolishment. The 20th amendment as brought to the house by the JVP is agreeable to all stakeholders. It will require a bipartisan movement within parliament to pass. Civil society must now press for its legislative passing. If brought to the current parliament it should pass. Both prime ministerial hopefuls will support it.

Why Parliament Supports the 20th Amendment?

Put in other words: Why would members of parliament support it? It would increase the powers of parliament. Such legislative movement is also made possible by the lack of MPs within parliament that are loyal to the president. Most public support is split between the UNP and thereby its leader Ranil Wickremesinghe and Mahinda Rajapaksa.
The proposed amendment1 reads in a certain section;

“Provided that, notwithstanding anything to the contrary in the Constitution, the person so elected as President shall, unless he ceases to hold office in accordance with the provisions of the Constitution, continue to hold office until a President is elected by the next Parliament”

To assume Sirisena is completely oblivious to the unpopularity of his actions is naïve. His relative calm manner can be attributed to a lack of consequence to his actions. He is hoping to run a smear campaign of his own against any who politically stand against him. Even if he fails at the Supreme Court it will still be very difficult to remove him. He remains in control of the SLFP.
Abolishing the executive presidency is popular. Further Mahinda and Ranil seemed to be acting in some form of agreement towards more parliamentary power. Since the current President has signaled that he is against holding a Presidential poll2 and that his party has gone so far as to snub CBK3 it is likely that he will use his command of the SLFP and its MPs to negotiate a scenario whereby he retains the presidency. He is already working on positioning himself as a statesman amongst his voter base4. Also, by contesting under a common symbol he has prevented any direct comparison of popularity to the former strongman. He further has the backing of a powerful shadowy media network.

Why the Executive Presidency is Bad?

Public resentment against the post of an executive president is both widespread and longstanding. Every single elected president since its establishment would have been charged in courts for criminal activity. The holding of absolute power has resulted in political killings and widespread corruption. It has used this absolute power to greatly weaken democratic institutions. The SLFP has campaigned on multiple occasions for its abolishment. The Yahapalanaya government also received its mandate on the promise of its abolishment but later pulled back5 with many blaming the SLFP leadership.
The executive presidency, much like British colonial rule, divides the country ethnically in a bid to remain in control. It is majoritarian and benefits from ethnic divides. It takes economics out of politics. Rich and poor within ethnic minorities vote the same way. It was designed by a sociopath (JRJ) to maintain UNP power. This did not work as planned. The civil war prevented ethnic minority participation in politics and further galvanized the ethnic majority to band together.

In Terms of Defense

Almost all executive presidents have poked into the black box of defense spending in their own monetary interests. Further many have used the army against its own citizenry6. The crimes of the military forces against the people of this country is longstanding and cuts through all ethnicities and socio-economic groups. Both major political parties are responsible. Releasing land in the North is in the interests of national security as it allows people to have economic opportunity which prevents them from pursuing an agenda against the state. Land release is prevented by a President who lends his unaccountability to the defense forces.

In Terms of Development

To suggest that the executive presidency is required to push development projects is not based on any self-respecting perspective of the Sri Lankan people. Sri Lankans can support development projects through a parliamentary system. Stakeholders participation and compromise are good for development projects as they ensure that the development is as inclusive as possible. Parliament provides a means for transparency in terms of procurement.
Major projects have been completed in Sri Lanka under presidents. Critics argue whether the economic benefits outweigh the costs. Most would agree, doing so in the 2015 election, that though major construction was undertaken during the Rajapaksa regime there was little actual value. Value to the nation was delivered by the subsequent government. Renegotiation of contracts resulted in; changes of land rights from freehold to leasehold, repurchase of Hambantota port at contracted values by China, and the right to information over any future negotiations. This was through parliamentary actions.
A parliamentary system is bad for white elephants. This is where the complexity and scale of operations allows for major theft of public funds. To develop we do not need such mega projects. Sri Lankans want HDI instead of just GDP.

In Terms of Sovereignty

The concept of sovereignty is defined as the full right and power of a governing body over itself. Sovereignty lies on a spectrum. For instance, European Union countries have foregone certain powers to the European Court of Justice. We must ask ourselves if a presidential system gives increased sovereignty over a parliamentary system? Does an ordinary Sri Lankan have more power in a presidential or parliamentary system?

Footnote

  1. https://parliament.lk/uploads/bills/pbills/gazette/english/1326.pdf
  2. https://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/world/south-asia/no-early-lanka-presidential-poll-maithripala-sirisena/articleshow/65733104.cms
  3. http://www.dailymirror.lk/article/I-was-not-invited-to-SLFP-special-convention-Chandrika-159444.html
  4. http://www.dailynews.lk/2018/12/08/local/170711/president-opens-iranamadu-tank-fulfilling-promises-farming-community
  5. https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/exclusive-abolition-of-executive-presidency-comes-a-cropper-powers-to-be-pruned/
  6. http://www.lankaweb.com/news/items/2016/07/18/black-july-33-years-ago/

Vehicles for the Rich

This piece serves as a gambit to a relatively unpopular budgetary reform that should be pushed through. In Sri Lanka as in the rest of the world the vehicle is a status symbol. It’s role as a status symbol is however more pronounced in Sri Lanka. High duty, petrol costs, and realizable value in the secondary market make the vehicle a reliable indicator of wealth. The significant costs in owning a vehicle combined with the considerable ease with which it can be offered as collateral make it popular as an asset class amongst businessmen. Businessmen also use the transferability of the asset class to cover taxable income or unexplained wealth. Vehicles are the preferred form of collateral outstation (any region outside the Western Province) indicating problems with financial deepening and distribution.

True on so many levels

One must consider vehicle drivers, owners, service providers, financiers, and then agents from a social lens. Revisiting the list, one sees that they are ordered in ascending order in terms of wealth. Ishara Chinthaka Nanayakkara, Indra Silva, the Yaseen family, David Pieris, and Arthur Senanayake come to mind. It is my sense that vehicle dealing has overtaken tea as a creator of disproportionate wealth. This is odd as it doesn’t take much in the way of intelligence to import and then sell a vehicle. People notice vehicles. The school run of the British School of Colombo is a significant eye sore to those averse to gaudy displays of wealth by the newly rich. One would imagine that there is a daily gala occurring at the WTC by observing the way in which people roll up to work. There is considerable social angst against this.

False on the most significant one

Vehicles are a signifier of individual wealth. They are not however a signifier of societal wealth. A vehicle is only as important as it is in Sri Lanka when your infrastructure is poor. Wealthy nations have efficient public transport used by a considerable portion of their population. Rich Sri Lankans will still have to feel poor amongst their foreign counterparts who have more equitable taxation and better mobility. We must start to think of vehicle taxation as part of wealth distribution and more importantly as part of a wider transport policy.

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Please share your ideas by commenting to help formulate this idea into a budget suggestion.

What is Inflation Targeting?

“Given that Sri Lanka is a twin deficit country, in terms of budget deficit and current account deficit, the chances that Sri Lanka attracting new money at this juncture is very minimal indeed. By increasing interest rates, we will not be able to attract new money or keep the money already invested.”

Indrajit Coomaraswamy 02.10.2018

Inflation targeting as defined by Bernanke in one of his papers1

“The hallmark of inflation targeting is the announcement by the government, the central bank, or some combination of the two that in the future the central bank will strive to hold inflation at or near some numerically specified level.”

In the same paper he goes on to say

“We believe that it is most fruitful to think of inflation targeting not as a rule, but as a framework for monetary policy within which “constrained discretion” can be exercised. This framework has the potential to serve two important functions: improving communication between policymakers and the public and providing increased discipline and accountability for monetary policy.”

To put it in a local context, the movement to a flexible inflation targeting framework does not mean that we wholly ignore foreign reserves. It just means that we will consider other things as well. The governor signaled that he was looking to increase the growth rate in the second half of 2018 to close to 4% and to a lesser extent that he was hoping to close the output gap that exists.

Why rates will come down in the long term?

To put it simply the government is just better at borrowing now. It borrows less frequently and for less ambitious purposes. This is in a context of a complete legal overhaul of the way in which government financing occurs. We have a new bond issuance system, a new active liability management act, and most importantly significantly lower budgetary deficits proportional to GDP. The budget deficit for 2019 is close to 4.1% of GDP.

The relevant section of the active liability management act2 is as follows;

“The Parliament may, during a particular financial year from time to time, by resolution, approve to raise sums of money, the total of which shall not exceed ten per centum of the total outstanding debt as at the end of the preceding financial year, as a loan whether in or outside Sri Lanka.”

This gives the government the capacity to refinance and pre-finance any government obligations. This allows government financing to take place more smoothly. This and the capacity to tap international markets pre-emptively will help reduce the financing costs of the government. My sense is that the CBSL is now in a much better position to reject bids than it has been before. With inflation at current levels it is also forgivable for the CBSL to print money and end up at the upper band of the inflation target.

What About Foreign Reserves?

Here this article agrees with the consensus that reserves will slightly deteriorate. This however does not pose a significant risk to the economy as the magnitude of such deterioration will be small. We must remember that this is not a government that wastes foreign reserves on protecting the exchange rate and as such the level of reserves will not fall to a point wherein a crisis occurs. One must also account for the Samurai and Panda Bonds which are to be issued.

Further the halting of duty-free vehicle imports and the upcoming budget which many economists suspect will increase the cost of the yearly vehicle revenue license in a unit rate like fashion will ease pressures on the demand for foreign exchange. The revenue license hike would look to tackle the problem that high duties are realizable in the secondary market for cars and as they are FX denominated reward people who buy cars as a bet against the rupee.

Revisiting the exchange rate in this regard

Many analysts are concerned about the reserve position with the flow of funds back to the US and further the rising costs of oil. Our low rates of FDI should bring confidence about the magnitude of the fund flow back to the US. There is also much scope to increase FDI and foreign investment will invariably flow to build up the Port City project. With regards to the costs of oil there is little that interest rate policy can do.

Going long on government securities

Let us remind ourselves that the average AWPR in 2015 was 7.40%. The Central Expressway, the only heavy financing requirement so far, has been financed through an external party. Inflation is below 5%. An 11.32% yield on the secondary trading of a 9.91-year treasury bond as at 03.10.2018 seems a good deal.

We are a country with a primary surplus on our budget. A fiscally conservative government in the long run will bring down rates.

Footnotes

  • Inflation Targeting: A New Framework for Monetary Policy? Author(s): Ben S. Bernanke and Frederic S. Mishkin Source: The Journal of Economic Perspectives, Vol. 11, No. 2 (Spring, 1997), pp. 97-116 Published by: American Economic Association
  • ACTIVE LIABILITY MANAGEMENT, ACT, No. 8 OF  2018, Parliament of Sri Lanka

 

The Rate of Exchange, Capital Flight, and the Central Bank

 

The Central Bank (CBSL) exists for the sole purpose of price stability. It’s controls on the financial system and monetary policy exist to maintain price stability. As put forth many times by the Governor, the failing of the CBSL to control inflation is a fireable offence. In this light the following text aims to put forth a view on the exchange rate that does not play to the current media narrative and focuses on the objective of the CBSL.

The notion that the exchange rate, more narrowly the USD/LKR rate, having a linear (increasing prices in the same proportion) and systemic (affecting all goods) is misguided. Given below are where Sri Lanka imported its goods from represented in percentage values;

a

Source-http://atlas.cid.harvard.edu/explore/?country=128&partner=undefined&product=undefined&productClass=HS&startYear=undefined&target=Partner&tradeDirection=import&year=2016

Though our import contracts may be priced in dollars, as it is a reserve currency, the US only makes up 2.71% of this value. A more multivariate approach to analyzing our exchange rate would suggest that the rupees has appreciated in a basket of imports sense. This would be difficult to compute as global supply chains and financial products are more complex outside insular nation states. To put this in a more practical sense the cost of an Indian hatchback would be coming down to a locally salaried person. Inflation via appreciation of the dollar is also hedged by the increasing ability of local producers to compete at higher prices.

 

The Central Bank looking to contain inflation, which it has done admirably over the last six months, should look at how the exchange rate will affect the basket of goods that have a bearing on inflation. Though exporters may face uncertainty with regards to the value of their contracts they can hedge, borrow at foreign rates, operate completely in USD, and look to the Central Bank to give a broad indication of where rates will be in the future.

In the recent past there has been a false notion that foreigners on a significant basis are withdrawing from Sri Lanka. This is not reflected in the secondary trading of USD national debt listed outside the country. Those rates have been moved in line with projections of rises in US rates. Further there is no recent significant activity in those instruments. Reasons for the foreign withdrawal are more hinged on the growth experienced in the US markets which has caused a global movement of capital back to the US.

The Central Bank however fails on an exchange rate front with regards to the massive informal market in foreign exchange. This market is less efficient and causes volatility. Sri Lanka’s stringent capital controls combined with its low tax collection drives demand for a black market in FX. The low rates (read high margins by BOC) on FX conversion to our workers in the middle east leaves them bringing back physical notes to the country. The information available on the BOC website would suggest that they don’t even allow electronic transfers into their account from major employers in the middle east. These notes are then traded against the many 5000 lkr notes (only used by politicians and tax evaders) in circulation. To paraphrase what an IRD man once told me, this money is then taken to Malaysia by rich businessmen using the same channels that the LTTE used in its financing operations.

b

Source- BOC Website

Though I am in favor of foreign ownership of assets and would vociferously support the ability of any foreign passport holder to incorporate companies locally and retain property rights indefinitely I am suspicious on the Sri Lanka-Singapore FTA. On balance I am broadly still in support of the agreement. My suspicions are because Singapore has broadly liberalized lines of customs duty and there is little trading benefit on a crude trade balance analysis of the agreement. This is combined with the recent Central Bank sale of assets belonging to the ETI group to a Singapore based firm. As seen by the stock exchange filings and noted in the media, the Edirisinghe brothers remain operationally at the head of these companies now under apparent foreign ownership. It is unclear if the suspected rerouting of Edirisinghe brother’s ownership of Swarnamahal Finance through Singapore sanctioned by the Central Bank is a firable offence if proven? ETCA or ETCA inclusive of just financial services would in my opinion be more fruitful to push through.

c

Source- Swarnamahal Finance Interim Statements 30.06.2018

Also available at

http://www.ft.lk/columns/The-rate-of-exchange–capital-flight-and-the-Central-Bank/4-663257

Who We Pay for LankaPay

Full doc.x with images at bottom.

Arvind Subramaniam recently made statements in the Central Bank about rebuilding the social contract. He put forth a narrative of reform whereby he called for the building of trust in government institutions. The statements also coincided with the revelation to the general public that cheque payments had been made to the former president, members of COPE, and to political foundations. Here the general public should see an opportunity. We have a Central Bank eager to impress Mr Subramaniam and a political desire for some action. On your behalf this article looks to achieve two things;

  1. Reduced cheque usage via a reduction in the SLIP system cost to the consumer
  2. ITCA representation on the LankaPay Board

Cheques are notoriously bad instruments of payment. They are slow, subject to error, and expensive. According to LankaPay’s annual report “Out of the 51.45Mn cheques  presented for clearing, 2.15Mn cheques were  returned due to non-payment. This amounts to  4.18% of the cheques presented for clearing of  the total cheques returned, around 48% were  returned due to lack of funds.” Cheques also facilitate fraud and money laundering as they can be easily transferred and even encashed by 3rd parties notably members of a Minister’s Security Detail (MSD) with no questions asked. We have a perfectly good SLIP system which is underutilized due to extortionate pricing which was written about earlier (http://www.ft.lk/columns/Money-transfer-and-the-CBSL/4-658243). The previous article shows that to the consumer cheques are cheaper than electronic transfers even though the bank would find it cheaper to perform the latter via LankaPay.

 

 

Source- Central Bank Q3 Payments Bulletin

Looking at the charts from the payments bulletin we see that the majority of transactions in the SLIP system are also only for salary payments. These payments tend to happen only once a month. More widespread usage can be achieved with a lower price. The regulatory hatred towards digitization is also unfounded. Take the IRD, one of the few revenue institutions not to show a marked improvement since the taking over of the new government. One of their only long term achievements is the collection of PAYE tax. This is because the system does it for them. Mandating for instance that doctors and lawyers receive payment via the SLIP system or via card would be easy to implement given a more widely used digital payment system. This would then make it easy to collect revenue. To be fair to the IRD, it is the CBSL down the road in the much nicer office who are to blame. According to the Central Bank’s Payment Bulletin in excess of 90% of the total retail payments continue to be made via cash. The Central Bank is keener to see their friends at De La Rue succeed than for the IRD to meet revenue target.

All of this is facilitated by the undue power and lack of public accountability with the Central Bank and its many subsidiary operations. LankaPay, running contrary to the Capital Maharaja narrative, is a private company. It has some state and proxy state ownership but operates for profit and in the interests of its shareholders inclusive of the private banks. Also its monopoly status is not in the public interest. The board is also oddly comprised with the regulator taking board seats in the company. This ensures that the company is not particularly well regulated. The board also lacks any technical experts or any involvement of ICTA. This ensures that state institutions are unable to interface directly with the company bypassing the banking system. Sri Lanka customs was only recently given a solution through LankaPay. Institutions like the SEC who would greatly benefit from an operational digital payment platform have been noticeably silent. This may be due to the SEC commission comprising of one Ranel T Wijesinghe who is also on the board of the Bank of Ceylon, a major beneficiary of the poor payment system. The existence of these so called independent commissions might increase the number of interests represented but one must question if these interests are public or vested?

Name of Bank No. of Lanka Pay Shares Mn Value Rs. Mn % Held
Central Bank 2.95 29.5 19%
HNB 2.2 22 14%
Bank of Ceylon 2.1 21 14%
People’s Bank 2.1 21 14%
Sampath 2 20 13%
Others 1.85 24.75 12.17%
Commercial Bank 1 10 7%
Seylan 1 10 7%
Total 15.2 158.25 100%

Source- Lanka Pay Annual Report 17/18

LankaPay is best judged by the status of their planned expansion. The Central Bank has squashed both PayPal operations in Sri Lanka and also the planned operation of a competitor by ICTA. This is sad as PayPal would have helped Sri Lankan businesses better interact with companies overseas and ICTA’s competitor might have brought in innovation into an otherwise sluggish sector.

LankaPay acts as a rent seeking monopoly. The profits however are on respective banks profit and loss statements as they charge excessive mark ups on services provided by the company. It has failed to implement a national card system. It has failed to bring about wide usage of its certification technology. It reinvests in outdated technology. It prevents entry into the industry both through regulatory pressure and also through the excessive unutilized capacity of its own systems. The current switch has been tested and proven to process approximately 7 Mn commercial transactions a day. Sri Lanka is nowhere close to this figure. The marginal cost of processing an additional transaction must be negligible and as such the usage of cheques can be phased out in a few years.

The implementation of a national card system is something LankaPay will not do. It is in the national interests as it allows for lower costs, retention of payment information domestically, and wider financial inclusivity. The Banks however have very lucrative deals with VISA and Mastercard and will not allow for a domestic competitor to form. The technology is already available through a partnership with JCB and probably is already operational in a different form under the previous CPS system. Even though the CPS system is live there are no participant members. LankaPay’s 2018 investment in the common card and payment switch according to the cash flows is zero. The Central Bank is also pretending to work on a payment system for our transportation network. As a country we will continue to be declined widespread card usage by our Central Bank. What do we have to show for 436 million LKR in investment?

The maximum price for a SLIP transfer can be reduced and the cost of a cheque transaction can be increased. This is us, the general public, putting forth an offer for the beginning of a social contract.

Who We Pay for LankaPay

In Support of Digital Banking

The Central Bank governor at his recent statement at the Digital Banking summit stated that he felt like a charlatan when asked to speak about technology. He is right. This is not because, as he attributes it, of his recent acquisition of a smartphone but rather due to his regulatory lack of support for digital innovation. The Central Bank through its regulation of our payment and banking systems continues to pander to powerful financial interests. The Central Bank through its regulatory diktat from upon its fortress in Colombo Fort has chosen to strangle economic activity. Let us just take one situation wherein this is true. One massive instance of the Central Bank shunning a digital innovation.

Money Transfer

Let’s focus on transferring money. The prices as I face it, through Commercial Bank, are given below. As the largest non-state bank, I feel the costs are reflective of a broader truth in the economy.

1.10 Cost of Cheque Books
Per Leaf, Including VAT Rs 15/-
4.8.2 CEFTS (Per Transaction)
Over the counter Rs 100/-
Internet Banking Rs 50/-
Mobile Banking Rs 50/-

Source- http://www.combank.lk/newweb/en/rates-tariffs/general-tariffs#filer-c

According to LankaClear’s website “The Common Electronic Fund Transfer Switch (CEFTS) is an integral part of Sri Lanka’s trusted national payment network.” Our interbank payment network is poor. This is by design. Our antiquated means of transferring money, the large costs incurred in transacting, and the difficulty in transferring money all seek to serve vested interests. Looking at the tariff above you would be inclined to use a cheque book over a digitized transaction. It’s as if the post office has somehow become cheaper than Whatsapp or Email. Now to be fair, we on average may not even be aware of these charges as the Banks we use tend to have amazing transfer mechanisms internal to the bank that are free, intuitive, and feature rich. Most major utility providers have accounts at all major banks and as such are accessible through these internal transfers. The impact of these charges and non-charges has a systemic impact on our economy. Think in terms of net neutrality.

Through the inefficiency of interbank transfers, the regulator is pushing customers and therefore deposits to the banks it chooses. The regulator is also allowing banks to artificially improve CASA ratios by delaying the crediting of payments. As most shareholders will know even if it is that you have instructed the CDS to deposit cheques directly to your account it does not credit as set out by the company. Banks collude with each other to maintain slow realisation of transfers. For instance, my recent dividend cheque from Property Development PLC (subsidiary of Bank of Ceylon) to be credited on the 8th of June was only realised in my account on the 28th of June. The wide usage of cheques in the economy also helps beneficiaries of Central Bank conspiracies to mask payments. To paraphrase Rajitha Senarathne fielding a question on a primary dealer, it is not unusual for a business to write many cheques and it takes a lot of time to trace where payment ended up. Small businesses wishing to automate the receipt of payments are also constrained into either only serving customers within a certain bank or having a costly online credit card payment portal. Sri Lanka’s merchant fees are well above the global average of .99% with smaller merchants having to pay as much as 3.5%. These fees can (and have been in Europe) be capped by the regulator.

Why doesn’t the Central Bank reduce the price of CEFTS and SLIPS and increase the price of CITS and Cheque transfers? Initially because of the high costs and therefore high profits to the banks of cheque returns. More strongly though because of the entrenched interests in a poor payment system highlighted earlier.

Source- Lanka Pay Website

Improved version for publication available at;-

http://www.ft.lk/columns/Money-transfer-and-the-CBSL/4-658243

FT 3.7.2018

 

Independence

Subject: Independence
From: perera_d94@yahoo.com
To: globalmedia@visa.com; lkhelpdesk@bookmyshow.com
Date: Sunday, June 3, 2018, 5:27:41 PM GMT+5:30
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Dear Visa and BookMyShow,

I write to you following a failure to place a discounted transaction on your site. As you may know, this month Visa cardholders are entitled to up to 25% off for movie ticket bookings through your site. The error prompt I received instructed me to book more than one ticket to avail the offer. Despite this and my credit card (MasterCard) I decided to go through with a Visa Debit card payment. This was for two reasons; One I couldn’t find the more than one ticket in the terms and conditions, and two I believe it’s in everyone’s interest to support the individual endeavor. This email is about more than a discount. This email is not a mere complaint. This email is about independence.

By choosing to prevent anyone from doing anything alone you are forcing that person to an activity he or she may not choose. Your actions are not that regulatory but rather help bring about stigma around the independent venture. People doing things alone are already at a price disadvantage as restaurants and venues tend to price for two or more. Sometimes you aren’t even allowed in if you are alone. This is saddening as groups of people tend to be both insular and aggressive. Independent people are on average more interesting and trustworthy.

To quote Gustav Le Bon, the father of crowd psychology, “In crowds it is stupidity and not mother wit that is accumulated.”

I put forth these ideas from my visits to the Lionel Wendt. In my observations I find that people as part of larger groups are not the ideal customer. They on average pay less. They collectivise transactions preventing usage of both website and payment card. They are less interested in the play. They are quite insecure with many wearing more make up than those on stage. They are disruptive and communal in their behaviour. They have a symbiotic relationship to each other preventing natural movement to and from exits. They become less attractive proportional to their size. Due to the difficulty of convincing every member they are less likely to try something new or do something unplanned. Let us do away with them.

I have attached all documents to this email. I hope to hear from you soon.

Kind Regards

Dinesh Perera

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A License Raj

Sri Lankan Banking and Finance can be categorised as a license raj. This is not because institutions are regulated by the central bank but rather that the capacity to conduct business is contingent on one obtaining a license. For the NBFI sector, usually understood as the Finance companies, are heavily constrained by this licensing structure. We live in a context where an insolvent company like ETI Finance is more likely to be involved in lending and deposit taking than a cash rich company like Overseas Realty PLC.

This is partly due to a long running conspiracy by the central bank and partly due to the love of financial intermediation by the current governor. The conspiracy is a simple one. They give licenses and limit the capacity to operate to these licenses. The licenses subsequently become of significant value. Therefore, the chronological distribution of licenses is so heavily skewed towards the early 2000s. Insiders knew of the Central Banks policy and obtained licenses which they would sell on to people who honestly wanted to operate as a financial institution in a latter period. Therefore, it is very common for listed NBFI tickers to differ from the existing companies name. Changing names frequently like con artists. It would be in the public interest to rather hand out license to companies that had the honest capacity to operate as financial institutions and take away licenses far more proactively from ones that did not. The CB Governor as an economist has a bias towards the importance of his own profession. The Governor has consistently put forth policy that would require banks to make large computations and prevent smaller players from operating in the market. Take his current stance that Banking corporate debt be limited to institutional players. The debt market sans bank debt is choked of activity as they will not allow online access to the trading system. Large computations can also be very wrong and given the banking concentration the governor wishes to see would pose significant systemic risk.

I agree with the CB Governor that there are too many finance companies in a certain sense that brings about a need for consolidation. I further think that they should not operate as pseudo banks but rather as specialist lending institutions. Banks in my opinion should be more involved in project financing and have very low risk tolerance. Deposit taking activity of NBFIs on the other hand should have more risk bearing on the part of the depositor with return being contingent on the repayment of the borrower. Finance companies currently do handle large sums of cash with little scope for AML, treasury operations, FX hedging, and portfolio diversification. His policy however of forced consolidation thinly veiled as capital requirements is misguided.

The new license freeze might be in part due to the existence of insolvent NBFIs. The CB and Treasury might be hoping to sell the license in lieu of liquidating these companies and settling depositors from their own cashflows. However, the rescue of these companies has been very slow and fraught with suspicious activity. The ETI group owned Swarnavahini which was too important a media institution to be handed over to any investor. The legal minefield that plagues insolvent NBFIs compounded by the legal minutiae that is our law are heavy obstacles to any potential revival. It is unfair and unwise to expect foreign financiers concerned with operating financial institutions to take such risks. Acting swiftly to liquidate these companies will improve the stability of the system.

When I say there are too many finance companies I don’t mean that there is too much competition. There is a lack of competition. Banking tariffs have become more regressive under Indrajit’s tenure. What I mean is that there are too many companies with common ownership. Starting with the government which owns multiple finance companies and banks through proxy which are very poorly run that should come under common management. LOLC, Vallibel, and the major banks all own too many institutions. Given an incentive to amalgamate and taking away the value of holding a license will result in a much less superficially dense sector. This would make regulation easier.

If our financial institutions were better regulated and policy was enacted in the public interest, we would have better economic outcomes. Our payment system is incredibly expensive and inefficient. The intent of policy is usually seen through outcomes. It is sad that we currently live in a world wherein the markets are gambling on which firm will consume the other to meet minimum capital requirements. Shareholder wealth is being wasted and firms are being told to operate at scales that are in some instances twice their current operations. How is this more stable Indrajit?

Dinesh Anthony Perera

Also available at

http://www.ft.lk/columns/A-License-Raj/4-656211

A License Raj _ FT Online

 

A Lack of a Right of reply to “Right of reply – Rotarian replies to Muttukumaru”

http://www.dailymirror.lk/149962/Right-of-reply-Rotarian-replies-to-Muttukumaru

“Editor’s Note: This correspondence is now closed.”

Amrit Muttukumaru, a self-defined public activist who makes it a point to stick it to those who are in power, is prominent within the local papers. He makes allegations. The allegation relevant to this piece of work is that against K.R. Ravindran. Muttukumara alleges that K. R. Ravindran was involved in some form of fraud while at Rotary. Rotary for those who are not familiar is a sinfully boring organization filled with the most incompetent people on the planet. Members however tend to be wealthy.
On my internet search I find that K.R. Ravindran was able to take Muttukumuaru to court and make him retract some of his statements. This however means nothing in our country wherein power decides judicial outcomes. I can’t find any official response by K. R. Ravindran. If K.R Ravindran with all his money cannot respond to Muttukumaru’s allegations in a manner both outside and within court then I understand why he was made head of Rotary.

I am not standing by Muttukumaru’s allegations or even suggesting that we overturn the societal presumption of innocence. What I am suggesting is that it is plausible that there was some impropriety with regards to Tsunami aid. Helping Hambantota comes to mind. Working under the assumption that Rotary’s funds are held in the public interest and that Muttukumaru’s work is at the very least prominent, it makes sense for a public response.

K R Ravindran should as an office bearer of Rotary be obliged to respond.