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The permeance of global debt

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Lanka will subsist on a diet of perpetual debt

by Kumar David

The thesis of this essay, conveyed within my 1,700 word-mandate, is that the world economy has entered a phase of near universal debt. Lanka’s inexorable overload of domestic and foreign debt is part our own making part footnote of the global story. Everywhere, mighty USA and European Union included, the state is mired in debt that will not vanish so long as Finance Capital (FC) rules the world. The surpluses created by economic activity are amassed by a few institutions and individuals. Thomas Piketty drew attention to inequity of wealth and income. The market capitalisation of the world’s largest 2,000 companies is $100 trillion, but the value of all the property (land, houses, other fixed assets) of the poorer 50% of the world’s population is just $10 trillion. The heft of bank balance sheets, private-equity, mutual and hedge funds, pension & social welfare coffers, sovereign wealth funds and holdings of personal wealth, leave one dumb struck by their magnitude. FC rules the world.

Recently, post the 2009 recession, Central Banks including especially the Fed in the US expanded money supply not by billions but by trillions. Governments issued bonds, that is borrowed from FC’s (money-market) gigantic holdings to splurge on fiscal deficits or “sold” Treasury Bonds to Central Banks, which printed money (electronically) to “buy” on never-never terms. Debts to Central Banks will never be repaid, simply rolled over in perpetuity. Central Banks also ‘Quantitative-Eased’ hundreds of billions to banks and private funds to lubricate asset purchases (equities and property) which merely ballooned an asset price bubble and exacerbated wealth inequality. I don’t want to stud this piece with statistics which readers will find easily enough on the Internet and will limit myself to three numbers. The US national (government) debt of $26.5 trillion exceeded US GDP during 2020 and will not decline in the foreseeable future – in Japan it’s 230%. Second, global government debt is $60 trillion but global GDP in nominal (not PPP) terms is $75 trillion. The third point is that the total debt of non-financial corporations, globally, is about 95% of global GDP according to the IMF.

 

A nominal currency (not PPP) comparison

This essay is intended for my non-specialist readers and the data gives a broad idea of magnitudes and distributions. It is not easy to gauge indebtedness of financial institutions as reliable data is hard to come by. And it is meaningless to tot up household debt globally because $1,000 has a different meaning for say the denizens of the USA as against an Indian or an Indonesian. The idea I would like you to take away is not only that States and Corporations are deeply mired in debt, but more important things will get worse not better in the 2020s decade. This is commonplace in countries where productivity is low and which will never export enough to cover imports plus investment for capital projects plus surpluses to accommodate graft for the political classes. But I put basket cases to a side to deal with chronic diseases of the mighty. I cannot within the confines of this essay deal with the US, the EU and China, the big three whose capital shapes the world, and I have to limit this essay mainly to the US

Classical Keynesianism held that when demand and employment were low and economic activity in decline, the state should intervene and prime the pump with monetary and fiscal injections. ‘Monetary’ means to hold interest rates down and lend (print) to would-be investors; fiscal stimulus is big spending by governments to build infrastructure and create employment. Roosevelt’s New Deal helped but it was really WW2 (capitalism loves wars, armaments production and sales) that did the trick. In theory, economic revival should allow the government to recoup its outlay via higher taxes and duties. The “Keynesian multiplier” was said to be greater than one. It worked in the glorious boom from 1945-1970 when capitalism shone and socialist ideas were put away in a dog-box. But Keynes-Thought lost its shine after the oil-shocks of the 1970s and welfare capitalism slumped into Stagflation – economic growth was stuck in the mud; high inflation could not be reduced and high unemployment persisted. The world did not learn a lesson and turn against capitalism. On the contrary, there came neo-liberalism; Regan, Thatcher, Pinochet and JR slashing welfare, smashing trade unions, privatising and swinging political philosophy to the far right. Except Pinochet, mostly within the bounds of democracy unlike ultra-right populism today.

The gurus of neo-liberalism like Heinrich Hayek, Robert Barro and Robert Lucas, theorised that the Keynesian-multiplier was less than one. Barro father of the now discredited ‘rational expectations theory’ said that if the state spent more, people will realise that higher taxes were on the way and would spend less, erasing the hoped for increase in demand. Nothing of the sort is happening today; reality has stood ‘rational expectations’ on its head. The US housing market is rising because of low interest rates (interest rates are negative in Japan). Consumer spending remains undamped without engendering inflation because the US consumer is tapping into a global, mainly Asian, dirt cheap by US prices, one-billion worker labour-market churning out goodies for pampered North American and European consumers. Inflation in the Eurozone is negative; Japan is in perpetual deflation. Fifteen dollars per hour! An Asian or south of the US-border worker will be lucky to take home $15 (LKR 2800) a day. What Barro and his ilk failed to take into account was much-integrated global goods, services and labour markets. US inflation stays stubbornly low because producers for the US market de facto pay minimal wages to their producers (workers). In any case governments and Central Banks can’t stimulate the economy in perpetuity, you can’t defy gravity forever.

Demand is slack in advanced countries because the one percent rich can only splurge that much on consumer goods and prefer to invest in assets, and secondly production companies are risk-averse in the face of Asian competition hence domestic investment in manufacturing remains weak. The pre-COVID picture was bleak since state revenue was slack in the rich world due to slow growth, and it was falling in the US thanks to Trump’s tax handouts to the rich. Post-COVID expenditure has risen even further due to large expenses on medical and subsistence grants and unemployment payments. Hence pressure for trillion-dollar stimulus packages. The end point is that substantial fiscal deficits have become a permanent feature. In the US for example the fiscal deficit for 2020 and 2021 taken together will be three to five trillion dollars. There is no way out except to borrow-print-hold interest rates low or negative, and live with debt for eternity. Eurozone stimulus will be hundreds of billions per years for many more years. This nexus of extra-loose monetary policy and unescapable fiscal deficit blurs the divide between monetary and fiscal policy; they merge. Government borrowing without constraint has got a new name, Modern Monetary Theory (MMT). Adherents of MMT dismiss concerns that excess borrowing will induce inflation or will bring countries to the brink of an abyss. They have no fear that if interest rates go up governments will have to default or that the financial system will die in convulsions.

I need to repeat the thesis that underpins my essay before moving on: The world economy has entered a period of universal debt – government, corporate and household. I now need to say a few words about high-finance in China; I am avoiding the term finance-capital (FC) when dealing with China because how financial interactions will unfold in the context of a state-led economy cannot be foreseen yet.

High-finance is moving into China on a not insignificant scale. I am on tenuous ground, but I make a ball-park guess that about 10% of global high-finance is networked with China – add 5% to 10% if Hong Kong is included. True, New York, London, Tokyo and Frankfurt dominate bank, investment-fund and equity-market capital. High-finance however is on the move; asset managers (BlackRock and Vanguard), giant investment banks (JP Morgan Chase) and others are setting up shop in China (HSBC is already there), and Ant Group’s Hong Kong stock market launch later this year will be the largest ever IPO, eclipsing Saudi oil giant Aramco’s recent listing. Let us imagine that global high-finance has a quarter of its roots in the PRC by 2030. Remember that China took over as manufacturing workshop of the world in 20 years from 1980 to 2000; finance is a great deal more fluid than industry.

High-finance will be affected if the reach of China’s financial sector becomes even half as big as its global manufacturing. Some of the influences that will underpin change in the decade of the 2020s are easy to discern. The stranglehold of the US dollar as world reserve currency and mechanism of payment will need to be broken. Within five years an alternative global payments system and a currency based on two or three of the following, gold, yuan, yen, Euro and US$, will need to be initiated. (The US is the only country that can run eternal deficits, print mountains of money and export its economic problems because the world remains hungry for dollars till the value of the dollar declines). Second, the world needs other payments mechanism to overcome the US stranglehold known as sanctions – Cuba, Iran, Hong Kong, China, Venezuela, Turkey and Russia are among affected countries. Third, Belt & Road expenditure will be facilitated by an alternative global currency and banking and payments mechanisms.

A few words about Lanka before I sign off. The merging of monetary and fiscal policy is already advanced. Prof Lakshman’s task is to stay on the phone borrowing from whoever will lend and burning the midnight oil ensuring that the printing presses keep rolling. We are familiar with Lanka’s Central Bank borrowing billions again and again from China, India, the IMF or money-markets to repay China, India, the IMF or money-markets, again and again! Debt keeps growing as interest compounds while capital indebtedness persists. The balance of payments will remain in the red if not forever, for the foreseeable future. I don’t know it can be reversed both because governments need to survive politically and there is no big-enough feasible economic strategy. I am certain China, India, Japan and the US will not let us sink on the balance of payments issue since none of them wants a chaotic and anarchic country in this geographic location. For this reason I do not see sudden collapse but slow irreversible decline.

This essay has turned into heavy reading; I feel sorry for myself. No one pays attention to well researched stuff that is not simple to skim and digest. Anything on the Sinhala-Tamil brawl or derogatory of persons, regimes or regime-opponents draws stampeding crowds. Oh well, what to do!


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.

The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.

To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.

Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.

It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.

All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.

Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.

If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.

In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.

However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.

It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.

The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.

It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.

A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.

Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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By Sanjeewa Jayaweera

It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.

The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.

We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.

This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.

Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!

At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.

One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.

It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!

ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!

The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.

When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!

I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.

I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.

I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.

Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!

I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.

Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.

We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!

To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.

Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.

The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..

How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!

If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.

And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!

Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.

Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.

With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.

I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.

Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.

He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.

Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.

He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!

I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:

“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.

“There is no science to beat common sense.”

But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!

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