How not to negotiate with the IMF

Following is a post published in Express Tribune. Writer can be reached at pervez.tahir@tribune.com.pk

Negotiating a programme with the IMF has always been very difficult for Pakistan. More so, when we are seen to be desperately discussing an urgently needed bailout package. That is why, perhaps, the ongoing negotiations in Islamabad had seemed so difficult. To understand these difficulties, let us step back a little. During the election campaign, the venerable Sartaj Aziz had said: “Right now, you can’t reach an agreement with the IMF because the kind of conditions they would impose on you would not allow you to grow. But if our economic revival package starts working in two months, three months’ time, and it is clear that exports are picking up, our revenues are going up, then you need much less adjustment than indicated by the present situation.”

Dar ignored this sane piece of advice. First, he presented a budget with a deficit of 6.3 per cent. There is no way the IMF could stomach a fiscal deficit target beyond four to 4.5 per cent. It could have been fixed around five per cent anyway if: 1) the government had not increased the Public Sector Development Programme by 50 per cent to accommodate its politically motivated programmes; 2) it had not surrendered to the bureaucracy’s demand to increase salaries and pensions by 10 per cent; and 3) eliminated tax exemptions on its own. Instead of finalising its own energy plan first, the IMF was allowed to dictate the end of power subsidies within a tight time frame. It does not take kindly even to the lifeline tariff for the smaller consumers, the preference being for conditional cash transfers. Unfortunately, the State Bank of Pakistan also made a political statement by announcing a cut in the policy rate at a time when core inflation is still running above headline inflation. Worst of all, the finance minister announced on the floor of parliament that Pakistan needed the new IMF loan just to repay the earlier loan from the same institution. By implication, the intent was not reform but access to ready cash.

Like the hero in Punjabi films, he unleashed a series of economic barhaks from the word go. “Programme or no programme, we shall not impose further taxes.” It was pointless to make a request, if this was a non-negotiable position. The IMF knows enough about the capacity of the Federal Board of Revenue to reject the position that it can collect the desired revenue by toning up its administration. Millions of dollars poured in it by donors have made little impact on its governance. The SROs, lax audits and the slow pursuit of cases against tax delinquents are part of a culture that defies all reform.

Dar said he would negotiate, not beg. There was a needless invocation of national interest. In the same breath, he warned that the country could be reduced to a banana republic if the IMF did not help. The thought that he could negotiate without being flexible, bordered on the ridiculous. “I need six months to turn around the economy, but my problem is that the country has to return a substantial amount to the IMF soon,” he went on to claim. While there is no magic wand to turn the economy around in such a short span, a sounder budget and an austere balance of payments, together with some elements of the so-called plan “B”, would have provided the breathing space to stabilise the economy. It would have also prepared better ground for negotiating a deal with the IMF. However, the PML-N’s structural weakness — a bias against taxation and towards imports — has come in the way. It had promised an economic blast. What we have, thanks to Dar’s irrational exuberance, is an IMF drone. Is it any wonder that Secretariat Block Q was declared out of bounds to the media?

Published in The Express Tribune, July 5th, 2013.

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