KARACHI: At the rele­ase of the Pakistan Econo­mic Survey for FY24 on Tuesday, Finance Min­ister Muhammad Auran­g­zeb boasted of the econo­mic stability achieved during the outgoing fiscal year.

The nation’s GDP is estimated to grow by 2.38pc against a contraction of 0.2pc in FY23, the current account deficit has been contained to an estimated $200 million against the projection of $6 billion, foreign exchange reserves have increased to nearly $9 billion from just enough to pay for two weeks of imports at the end of June last year and the country has reduced its fiscal deficit (by producing a primary surplus, the minister explained.

“This stability in the economy owes to the IMF’s stand-by arrangement (SBA) programme. If we hadn’t got IMF help, we would have been in a very different situation,” he made a case for another successor bailout from the lender of last resort, adding that the nation will enter new financial year with stronger foundations. What he did not elaborate on was the heavy costs the fragile stability had imposed on the economy and people.

Still Pakistan’s expec­ted growth rate of 2.38 per cent is marginally higher than the 2pc projected by the IMF in its World Economic Outlook in April. Perhaps that was the reason a lot of laurels were handed out when the Economic Survey was released.

All praises for the State Bank, the finance minister highlighted measures taken to keep the exchange rate in check such as clamping down on hawala/hundi. The unprecedented growth of the agriculture sector, which helped buffer the GDP growth rate to a possibly 2.38 per cent in FY24 was another bright spot in a year when large-scale manufacturing contracted by -1pc. However, the process of stabilisation came at a cost.

In a domino effect, a high current account deficit pushes the demand for dollars, worsening the exchange rate and making servicing debt financing exorbitantly expensive. At one point, there were predictions of the exchange rate hitting Rs350 and upwards. Hence, curtailing the current account deficit is the kingpin of stabilisation.

To bring down the current deficit by 87.5pc to $0.5 billion, a lot of stringent measures had to be put in place, such as the record-high monetary policy rate of 22pc that effectively brought down investments in the industrial sector.

Imports of power generating machines were down 25pc and imports of machinery for the textile sector, the mainstay of Pakistan’s exports, were down a whopping 61pc in July to April of FY24, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics. Some of the policies boomeranged as well with imported cars jumping 256pc while completely knocked-down kits dropped by 21pc. On the consumer side, there was a 12pc drop in infant food in July-April FY24, meaning mothers are making some hard choices when it comes to their babies.

Room for rate cuts

There was room for a deeper rate than 150 basis points (bps), says Abdul Aleem, Secretary General of the Overseas Investors Chamber of Commerce and Industry. Already a record high, the rate could have come by 200-250bps.

The damage of the record-high monetary policy rate can be amply seen in the industry’s performance, he says. However, the stabilisation process is a bitter pill that had to be swallowed, he opines. “Commit­ments were made to the IMF, and we had to deliver on them,” he says.

The cost was high for the industrial sector, agrees Mohammed Sohail of Topline Securities. “But monetary tightening and fiscal consolidation were needed to avert default and stabilise the economy.” Through the ensuing stability, there is a chance of a sharp decline in rates and a gradual pick up in industrial growth, he hopes.

“It cannot be a one-way story of increasing taxes alone; the tax base has to be broadened and government expenses curtailed if the manufacturing sector is to be encouraged,” opines Mr Aleem.

His views were echoed by Pakistan Textile Exporters Associa­tion Patron-in-Chief Khurram Mukhtar. “The government must live within its means, opt for austerity, and bring transparency and efficiency through collective decision-making, he says, adding that untaxed sectors must be brought into the tax net.

“Our experience is that politics overtakes economics in Pakistan,” says Mr Aleem. “The finance minister is right in saying that we know what needs to be done. However, we hope he follows through in a manner that others before him have not been able to do so.”

Published in Dawn, June 12th, 2024

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