When Pakistan’s dollar reserves fell below $5 billion in December, and its credit default risk had reportedly become too high for analysts to ignore the possibility of an imminent default, the central bank made a policy decision to allow the opening of import letter of credits (LC) in a staggered manner to ensure spreading of the dollar reserve over a longer period of importing time.

The idea was to allow the government some diplomatic time to knock on the doors of friendly countries and multilateral organisations, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Fund had dilly-dallied on the ninth review to force monetary authorities in Pakistan to take the first steps towards a few baseline reforms, including the relegation of the dollar to the markets. Markets that the central bank and the government regards as ripe with imperfections.

The rupee was finally devalued last week which automatically implied that it was left to a market that had the propensity to sell it to gain dollars. This provided IMF with the confidence to schedule the ninth review, which is now ongoing in Islamabad. It is likely that the IMF’s review will be completed, and default, as was predicted by some and wished by a few others, didn’t happen.

However, while the media thundered about the staggeringly high levels of inflation and alarmingly low levels of reserves, and analysts evaluated an infinitely large number of scenarios that would lead to a default, no one from the economists ever explained what a default meant and what would have happened to the economy if it took place.

The currency would have drastically lost value since too much rupee would have been chasing too few goods

From the mid of November to the end of January, I was asked this question many times: “is Pakistan going to default, or has it already defaulted?” None of those asking the question seemed to know what it meant for a country to default and what would happen if it did. Last week, for the first time, someone asked me what Pakistan’s economy would have looked like under the influence of default.

Put in very simple terms, a default for a country like Pakistan with large exposure in commercial loans means defaulting against commercial debt. Bilateral debt can be rolled over, while debt from multilateral organisations often has long-term maturity cycles making a country’s default vulnerability depend primarily on commercial loans.

So, imagine if Pakistan’s reserves had declined to such low levels that it would have defaulted against its commercial debt. This would have led the central bank to refuse commercial lenders’ payments to repay or service their debt.

That would have reflected in the further downgrading of the country’s ratings by agencies like Moody’s and S&P, dampening the trust of other international lenders and, after that, the government’s ability to raise new commercial debt.

Since the dollar inflows would have declined due to limitations of debt inflows, you could have only imported as much as you exported plus the dollars that expat Pakistanis remit from all over the world. This would be like a situation where you are forced by circumstances to keep your current account deficit close to zero.

Many of the imports that you would not afford would be inputs to the industry. While that would impact exports, the slowdown would impact production in the non-exporting sectors, pulling down the overall level of production in the economy. The natural consequence of all of this is the classic saga of too much Pak­istani rupee chasing too few goods.

Inflation would have skyrocketed as the local currency that people would be holding would not translate into consumable items. Contraction in the economy due to production losses would have seen many people get laid off in a span of weeks, leaving some with money but nothing to buy and many without even money to buy. Economists call such situations characterised by slow growth but high unemployment and inflation ‘stagflation’.

This was played out in Sri Lanka in the summer of 2022. It suspended repayments on about $7bn of international loans due out of a total foreign debt pile of $51bn while it had $25m in usable foreign reserves.

Pakistan has around $3bn in reserves against an external debt pile of $126bn. Pakistan, in December 2022, was definitely headed in the Sri Lankan direction. However, we did not default and any chance of doing so has been left far behind.

Reviving even mere inches away from default is a world different to an actual default since, in the former case, you can resume business as usual as soon as a multilateral like the IMF returns with a few dollars in hand. However, in the latter case, even multilateral balance of payments support will take years to rebuild the economic edifice.

Pakistan didn’t default, and those who thought what happened to Pakistan in December of 2022 was a default must realise that a real default would have been much scarier than a few hundred LCs being opened with delay.

This piece is based on several conversations held with Mubashir Iqbal and Haider Ali.

The writer is an economist based in Islamabad.
He tweets @AsadAijaz.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, February 6th, 2023

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