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The IMF’s corrective measures will be harsh. Here’s how the government can get straight to policymaking

Updated October 12, 2018

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IMF MD Christine Lagarde meets Finance Minister Asad Umar in Bali on the sidelines of the IMF earlier this week. — Photo courtesy IMF Twitter
IMF MD Christine Lagarde meets Finance Minister Asad Umar in Bali on the sidelines of the IMF earlier this week. — Photo courtesy IMF Twitter

WhatsApp group ideas are not how countries should be run. That seems to be how Pakistan is apparently governed right now. What do I mean by that? Let me explain.

I mean to say that Pakistan cannot be governed based on delusional obsessive ideas shared on WhatsApp groups and voiced by people who think they know just enough to get warm fuzzies by suggesting them.

These are the kind of half-witted ideas that got Trump elected.

The concept that somehow the car and cattle auctions, end to official protocol for those who actually need it and shot-in-the dark economic ideas will actually make any impact is delusional and it is hurting our future.

Unfortunately, the current government must deal with a self-inflicted wound of delusional expectations that people have attached to them.

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No amount of marketing or counter-factual narratives through tight controls of media and social media will subdue the expectations of the masses.

The current government of Pakistan is trying to govern a country that is deeply polarised courtesy of the divisive rhetoric and erosion of political decency over the years.

My purpose here is to sketch out a clear picture of what we are all dealing with and then suggest what can be done in this regard.

Too often we criticise each other without providing genuinely implementable ideas. To move past that, I am laying out the situation and then action items accordingly.

What needs to be done?

To begin with, this government needs to stop being reactionary. Not all tweets or news reports need an immediate response or action.

The problems that need to be dealt with require steady focus and incremental changes.

The issue with reactionary governance is that the government then perpetually keeps putting out — often self-inflicted — fires instead of doing actual, long-run governance.

The more the government operates like a 24-hour news channel, the more people will focus on its day-to-day performance instead of taking a longer run view of how it performs.

That eventually will hurt the government and erode whatever confidence its backers have in it.

Another positive outcome of this is that people’s expectations also shift over time. And that is the key for this government to survive in the long run; slowly bring down expectations through taking up long-term policy issues instead of the story of the day.

Put down the phone

The government needs to stop listening to WhatsApp economic ideas and instead, pay heed to what the International Monetary Fund (IMF) team as well as reputed local economists are saying.

Ideas like car and cattle auction or the delusional dam fund are not how countries govern and develop themselves.

There is no empirical evidence that supports the notion that a country that requires a bailout of roughly $10-15 billion is going to be able to build infrastructure projects of $10-15 billion through collecting charitable donations.

It makes zero sense.

It has been repeatedly explained the levels of moronic this whole exercise is and yet here we are doing that as official government policy now.

And now that the government is going to the IMF, the one thing they can do is be upfront about the exact terms they are agreeing to and the length of the programme.

The government needs to stop pulling a Fawad — i.e. where they initially deny, then launch counter-marketing and eventually eat their words on an issue.

They should let people know that the promise of 10 million jobs was just campaign rhetoric because, believe it or not, there are people out there who believe that.

Read next: Is PTI’s affordable housing programme just old wine in a new bottle?

They need to let people know that the five million or so homes they are promised will probably not get built in even 10 years, let alone in the next five.

An IMF programme is no joke for an economy.

It effectively means the government is handing over control of all financial decisions to the IMF’s advisory committee for the length of the programme.

The PTI government needs to be blunt about this to the country.

After creating a ruckus for the last five years, the first thing they are doing is running out of ideas in under 60 days and handing over the economy of the country to the IMF advisory committee to run for the next two to three years.

Austerity measures like selling decades-old cars and a few cows does give warm fuzzies to the ardent supporters; so does giving some of your hard-earned money to the dam fund.

But a country’s economy cannot be run on the warm fuzziness factor.

It requires difficult decisions that need to be made. The kind of austerity Pakistan needs will slash demand for imports, hike up taxes and severely cut public works programmes, including subsidies.

This kind of austerity runs counter to what the prime minister advocated for the last decade or so.

And therein lies the issue: to make a real difference, the policy prescriptions fundamentally tear up the myths that got the prime minister elected in the first place.

The catch-22 the government finds itself in is stagnating any real movement at this stage.

Even if the government were to rip the band-aid off and take the kind of steps they need to stabilise the economy, it will still take time.

And in that time, Pakistanis must deal with inflation, devalued rupee and economic stagnation.

The IMF will force extremely harsh steps to correct the government’s books. A big hurdle in doing so will be the Chinese debt that Pakistan accumulated over the last few years.

Related: IMF and CPEC debts

In the last 13 months or so, Pakistan has sought over $6.2 billion in Chinese loans. Those loans are not free.

We have no idea what the interest rate on those is or what strings are attached to them. What we do know is that they are roughly the size of the bailout we are seeking right now from the IMF.

And that is where the government needs to understand that it has far more leverage than its predecessors.

Because of the divisiveness and way this government came to power, it has the leverage to take harsh decisions without losing many supporters — and even if they were to lose a significant number, they know they won’t be political snipped like the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz and Pakistan People’s Party.

This government is much stronger than it thinks it is and it might be time to start governing like it.

The next steps

Start with a focus on the trade deficit and figure out why our exports are getting beaten up so badly.

That needs a detailed competitiveness analysis of our top exports.

Next, focus on domestic commerce and expand the formal business sector by slowly bringing in the informal economy.

That is where we have the highest potential to expanding the tax net as well as improving the numbers of our GDP and overall growth.

The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) is crucial as an infrastructure project, but it cannot be assumed to be an economic growth engine on its own.

Pakistani firms need to have a bigger buy in on CPEC as well as any new projects put in place through foreign funding.

Now read: Is rupee overvaluation a myth?

Most importantly, the rupee should be rationalised and our consumption-led model of growth rebalanced with focus on production.

Someone must rip the band-aid off and this government needs to stop delaying that.

Economies are not run based on warm fuzzies felt by the base, they are run through serious policy making processes.

It is about time we started seeing action on that.


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