The Flawed Fabric of Pakistan’s Economic Policymaking

Finally, the fiscal year ended after a tortuous ride from rate hikes to regime change to near-bankruptcy. Even the end node of this chapter was a bang of inflation. According to the data released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS), the Consumer Price Index (CPI) measured inflation breached through a 14-year ceiling – stricking at 21.3% in June – sailing on the back of subsidy withdrawals, petroleum levies, high energy tariffs, and basically, everything demanded by the IMF. Two days earlier, the Finance Ministry forecasted the June inflation to range between 14.5-15.5%. The jump in the CPI of June (over May) was 6.3% – the highest monthly rise in the history of Pakistan. Typically, the central banks intervene to harness the inflationary pressures as such. However, the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has already been tightening the screws since September, cumulatively raising the policy rate by 675 basis points. Still, inflation is far from even remotely under control. One should wonder if the SBP has actually lost the ability to regulate prices and correct external imbalances?

The straightforward answer is no; the SBP is still in control. For instance, study the currency valuation in the global forex market. Despite a modest recovery in the rupee in the past few weeks, it has rapidly shed value against the greenback. However, the deterioration is in tandem with the global inflationary outlook and reactionary policies enacted by the major economies. The hawkish tune adopted by the US Federal Reserve is the key to understanding this dynamic. The fed has been aggressively hiking the policy rate since late March – cumulatively raising the short-term rate by 150 basis points in three months. The increment of 75 basis points last month was the most aggressive rate hike since 1994. As similar rate increases are expected throughout the second half this year, other currencies (primarily belonging to developing or frontier markets) are rapidly losing value against the US dollar. The Japanese yen, for instance, is down to record low levels against the greenback despite being the monetary unit of the world’s third-largest economy. Thus, the deterioration in the Pakistani rupee (and resulting inflation) is not entirely due to the inefficacy of our national monetary policies.

The depreciation effect in the rupee is exacerbating due to high global commodity prices influenced by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The subsequent western sanctions have skyrocketed the global energy prices that have even flared the US inflationary pressures to the highest point since the 1970s. Pakistan has faced the brunt through excessive dollar outflows for imports of expensive petroleum products, premium RLNG cargoes, and inflated staple commodities. In the outgoing fiscal year, the import bill loomed around the historically-high figure of $65 billion against mediocre export receipts. About one-fourth of the import bill anchors to imports of crude and petroleum derivatives from the international market. As a result, the trade deficit skewed over $48 billion; the current account deficit breached the budgetary target to settle at around $16 billion (over 4% of GDP). This economic hodgepodge slumped the rupee by record 30% in the outgoing fiscal year. And despite transient recoveries, the currency is projected to further deteriorate by an average of 5-6% in the FY22-23.

The war in Ukraine is grinding, seemingly unending. The resulting economic outlook is bleak – not just for Pakistan but the rest of the world. The curiosity should pique then, and one should question: how should Pakistan cruise through this strenuous period? There is no simple answer but to persevere. However, subtle hints of control are discernible in the latest auction of sovereign debt securities by the government of Pakistan. The recent auction of T-bills reveals cues regarding the perception of the SBP. The government raised Rs 1.732 trillion (against a target of Rs 800 billion) by auctioning the three-month T-bills at a cut-off yield of 15.23% – slightly lower than the 11-year high yield of 15.25% in the mid-June auction. The modest fall of two basis points was due to the unconventional liquidity injection earlier by the SBP of Rs 491.7 billion to the commercial banks via a 77-day long Open Market Operation (OMO) at a rate of 13.85%. It was the most enduring OMO in the history of Pakistan, perhaps aimed to narrow the gap between the policy rate and the cut-off yields as the preceding 63-day OMOs failed to cool down the commercial lending rates. Thus, the SBP was trying to signal that the policy rate has peaked i.e. the current rate of 13.75% is apt to maintain economic stability without destroying business confidence.

Ultimately, I believe the gap is still broader than the traditional variance – between T-bill yields and the policy rate – of under 100 basis points. Therefore, I expect a modest rate hike of 50 basis points when the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) convenes on 7th July. I hope for clear cues, fact-based reassurances of economic stability, and a workable roadmap toward an expansionary schedule. There is no doubt that the regional high policy rate is harming the export sector. However, a ban on certain imports and the new super tax introduced on virtually every business sector is more damaging to the welfare of Pakistan’s economy. Thus, we should question the fiscal policies of Pakistan alongside the monetary decisions of the SBP. While the SBP tightens the screws, the federal cabinet should devise complementary frameworks instead of countering the effect to bag an electoral agenda. Banning imports when exports are contingent on imported goods is blasphemy of economic principles. Overtaxing businesses when the lending rates are spiraling sky-high is murdering national financial viability and stability. And obsequiously bowing down to every condition laid out by the IMF without any regard for public tolerance is quite simply bad governance. Hence, we may somehow survive this road to a global recession. However, without a structured (and balanced) approach to economic policymaking, I’m afraid we are paving our very own path toward eventual doom.

Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
Syed Zain Abbas Rizvi
The author is a political and economic analyst. He focuses on geopolitical policymaking and international affairs. Syed has written extensively on fintech economy, foreign policy, and economic decision making of the Indo-Pacific and Asian region.