The latest edition of the World Bank’s Sri Lanka Development Update (SLDU) finds the island in a challenging macroeconomic landscape. The post-conflict high growth momentum has decelerated. A volatile global environment and structurally weak competitiveness continue to weaken growth and external sector performance. High interest costs mask limited fiscal improvement.
The report’s special focus examines the challenges associated with a change in demographic composition and suggests that a multi-year program of policy reforms and institutional strengthening could help prepare Sri Lanka for the decades ahead.
The SLDU, which analyses key developments in Sri Lanka’s economy over the past six months, notes that while post-conflict growth has decelerated, the outlook remains stable, conditional on political stability and reform implementation.
Sri Lanka is stepping up to the plate at a time when the global environment remains turbulent. Key reforms, such as the implementation of the Inland Revenue Law, passing of the Active Liability Management Act, are helping to prepare for heightened external debt refinancing risks in 2019 and beyond.
“It is important to consolidate on previous reforms to ensure maximum benefits,” says Fernando Im, an author of the SLDU and the senior country economist for Sri Lanka-Maldives. He explains that future reforms could yield high development impacts, such as further strengthening public finance management and supporting the implementation of a social registry to improve coverage and targeting of social safety nets.
Below are some of the recent developments highlighted in the report:
Sri Lanka’s debt portfolio carries significant risks
At an estimated 83 percent of its Gross Domestic Product, Sri Lanka’s central government debt level is high. As the country approached upper middle-income status, it has been borrowing on more commercial terms with increased cost and risk.
The majority of foreign currency denominated debt is now largely made up of market borrowings including International Sovereign Bonds (ISBs) and Sri Lanka Development Bonds (SLDBs), which in 2017 accounted for 53 percent, up from just 3 percent of total foreign currency denominated debt in 2000.
In total, maturities of bullet repayments on Eurobonds from 2019 to 2023 and from 2025 to 2028 alone amount to USD 12.15 billion. The SLDU notes that this is new territory for the country and could expose the island nation to refinancing risks.
In response, the government has adopted policies designed to address these risks, however, the slow progress of key structural reforms remains a cause for concern. It is hoped that improvements in debt management will help manage costs and risks of the portfolio, develop the domestic financial market and improve access to finance.
Despite the fast poverty reduction, there remain areas with significant poverty
Over the past two decades, Sri Lanka’s economy expanded at a rapid pace and the country has done much to address extreme poverty with a decline from 15.4 percent in 2013 to 9.7 percent in 2016, as measured against the World Bank’s international poverty line of $3.20 per day for lower middle-income countries.
Measures, such as the expansion of the Samurdhi programme in 2015, offered dividends although better targeting of social assistance would have resulted in larger gains. However, it is vital to note that a large number of people remain just a small shock away from falling back into poverty, says the report, noting that adverse weather conditions have become increasingly influential in recent years.
Critically, there is a disparity between various districts, with the highest poverty headcount being reported in the Northern and Eastern provinces, where regions like Ratnapura, Kandy and Badulla account for more than a quarter of the poor population combined. It is clear, Sri Lanka must design different strategies to address the varied issues around human capital, basic services, the availability of jobs and access to markets.
Sri Lanka is undergoing profound demographic change – the country needs to do more to prepare
Like many other countries in the world, Sri Lanka is staring down a dramatic demographic shift – Sri Lanka’s share of working-age population peaked in 2005 and it is expected to gradually decline over time. This has implications for labor supply, service delivery in sectors such as health and education, and of course for pensions, employment and public finances overall.
A particular concern are the limited savings and instructional support mechanisms in place to support this rapidly expanding elderly population. Increasing costs mean that programs such as the Public Servants Pension Scheme (PSPS) could struggle to deliver on their benefit promises over the long run, while the EPF – the employer-based defined contribution saving scheme for formal private sector workers – appears inadequate to meet the costs associated with over two decades of retirement.
As can be expected formidable challenges exist, but improving various aspects of delivery systems will prove critical to broadening worker coverage. By prioritising educational attainment, addressing the skills mismatch that hurts new graduates in the market, and nurturing entrepreneurship, younger people could be encouraged to participate in the workforce. Finally, improving female labour force participation could also help buffer the adverse impacts of demographic factors on growth.