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‘Unparalleled inflation in the history of Pakistan’


Photo: file
Photo: file

Sky-high increase in prices of essential commodities of daily use: There is a hue and cry across the country due to an unprecedented hike in the prices of essential commodities of daily use in almost every household. A comparison of a few such items indicating the price increase over the first three years (Aug 2018 vs Sept 2021) of the PTI government would give a clearer picture; for example:

Flour price per kg increased from Rs35 to Rs75 (114%), sugar from Rs55 to Rs110 (100%), ghee from Rs140 to Rs340 (142%), rice from Rs80 to Rs160 (100%), masoor pulse from Rs113 to Rs183 (62%), mash pulse from Rs145 to Rs250 (72%), moong pulse from Rs113 to Rs176 (56%), mixed vegetables from Rs45 to Rs110 (144%), milk from Rs90 to Rs130 (44%), yogurt from Rs100 to Rs220 (120%), eggs from Rs120 to Rs180 (50%), beef from Rs350 to Rs800 (129%), and mutton from Rs740 to Rs1500 (103%).

Electricity price per unit has gone up from Rs2 to Rs6 (200%) for life-line consumers, and from Rs8 to Rs24 (200%) for others. Medicines prices have increased in the range of 250% to 400%.

Fuel to fire is supplied continuously by the PTI government to retain high inflation since it came to power in 2018, as it has been witnessed a week ago through an announcement of the official increase in the prices of petroleum products and cooking oil together with the levy of more regulatory customs duties on a large number of imported items.

Trajectory of Inflation Indices

The trajectory of prices indices also paints a bleak picture when compared to that of PTI’s three years 2018 to 2021 with immediately preceding PML-N’s three years 2015 to 2018. Consumer Price Index (CPI) registered 10.94% increase (2.86+4.16+3.92) during 2015-18 as opposed to 27.36% increase (7.34+11.12+8.90) during 2018-21; Sensitive Price Index (SPI) rose by 3.73% (1.31+1.57+0.85) as against 35.82% increase (5.15+16.84+13.83); and Wholesale Price Index (WPI) recorded 6.46% increase (-1.05+4.04+3.47) as opposed to 32.44% increase (11.97+11.06+9.41) during the three year period 2015-18 and 2018-21, respectively.

These figures give a very grim picture of how miserably the PTI government has failed in maintaining the price stability which it inherited in 2018 from the PML-N government.

In the last three years, most indices indicated double-digit inflation during the period 2018-2021, compared to low single-digit maintained by the PML-N during the period 2015-18. A simple addition of annual inflations across all the three indices shows the PTI’s inflation on an average was 10% annum or more against less than 3% of PML-N’s.

The most worrying area is food inflation, which was under 2% when the PML-N government completed its term in 2018, but it reached 24% in rural and 19% in urban areas in Nov-Dec 2020 during the PTI government and unfortunately, it still remains high in double digits.

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The latest annualised inflation number of 14.48% for last week released by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBS) is extremely worrisome as it indicates that there is no hope for the containment of this menace in the near future.

Follies of PTI government

The sufferings of Pakistanis due to high inflation during 2018-21 is not surprising when viewed in the backdrop of the major follies committed by the PTI government in its first three years, which are briefly discussed below:

1. Massive devaluation

Rupee/dollar devaluation has always contributed towards inflation in the economic history of Pakistan. General (retd) Musharraf’s era witnessed devaluation of Rs30 (82-52) during 1999-2008, PPP’s 2008-13 had Rs17 (99-82), PML-N’s 2013-18 ended up with Rs 17 (116-99) and in the caretaker’s three months Rs7 (123-116). But PTI government has set a bleak record of devaluation of Rs 50 (173-123) in its three years 2018-21 period.

At the outset, the PTI government exaggerated the ill effects of the current account deficit. Consequently, it undertook a massive devaluation of 40% in two years which resulted in the steep decline in the current account from $19.2 billion in 2017-18 to merely $2 billion in 2020-21. This was nothing short of slaughtering and grounding the economy. In the first two years (2018-2020), the LSM declined by 3% and 10%, respectively, as importing industrial raw material became too expensive.

Sadly, the PTI team failed to comprehend that loss in the value of the rupee makes the life of the common man miserable, as it is always one of the major causes of high inflation.

The fact that this was an unthoughtful policy is evident from the fact that much of the adjustment fell on imports from $56 billion to $43 billion, a knockdown of 25% in imports. Ostensibly, this was done in the name of removing the import bias in exchange rate hurting exports as propagated by spin-wizards who have long disappeared from the scene on this account. The exports in PTI’s three years have increased from $24.8 billion in 2017-18 to $25.6 billion in 2020-21. So all told, the increase in exports in three completed fiscal years is only $800 million. Is this sum a worthwhile compensation for a staggering 40% devaluation of the rupee? It would be hard to find another example of such colossal loss of national resources and the ill effects that the nation still continues to suffer.

The rupee devaluation also led to an unbearable rise in domestic prices as most critical imports such as petroleum products, electricity, gas and edible oil became very expensive and contributed to high inflation.

In addition, the foreign (external) debt and its interest payments also became unbearable. In addition, an amount of over Rs4,000 billion has been the capital loss through an increase in the public debt due to devaluation.

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2. Interest rate

Another folly committed by the PTI government was the steep rise in interest rate. The policy rate was almost doubled within a period of one year, from around 6% to 12% and subsequently to 13.25%, where it was kept for nearly a year. It is claimed by the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) that it was targeting headline inflation as well as forward-looking policy to remain ahead of inflation. These two things resulted in a massive rise in interest payments, which jumped from Rs1.3 trillion in 2017-18 to Rs2.6 trillion in 2019-20, in just first two years of PTI’s government. The shift led to around 5% real interest rate (difference between the policy rate and headline inflation) for about one-and-a-half years (Nov 2018 to May 2020). This alone gave an estimated benefit to the banks and financial institutions of Rs450 billion during this period. High interest expenditure resulted in an increased fiscal deficit which created a compounding effect of an increase in public debt. The fiscal deficit of 8.9% and 8.1% was recorded in the first two years of the PTI government and the Public debt, as a percentage of GDP, rose from PMLN’s 72.5% in 2017-18 to PTI’s 85% and 87% in 2018-19 and 2019-20, respectively.

Following the global outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic when the whole world reduced the interest rates to support their economies and people, the SBP reluctantly reduced in phases the policy interest rate from 13.25% to 7% within a quarter, sometimes holding multiple Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) meetings within a month which are otherwise held once in every two months. This lowering of interest rate moderated the rising interest payments which grew only by 5% during 2020-21 and the fiscal deficit reduced to 7.1%; Public Debt to GDP accordingly adjusted downwards to 83.5%. But this fiscal deficit is still too high for controlling inflation. In its presence, the PTI government is deluding itself by thinking it is focusing to control inflation.

3. Heavy taxation

The PTI government happily adopted the budget presented by the PML-N government in May 2018, except for cosmetic changes, but it failed to achieve any of the key budgetary targets. The fiscal deficit, as noted above, ended up at 8.9% although it was budgeted at 4.9%.

When the government finally decided to enter into an IMF programme in June 2019, the Fund set an unrealistic target for FBR revenue collection. In 2018-19, the FBR collection was only Rs3,829 billion even though the target was Rs4,300 billion, indicating a negative revenue growth after 23 years. Despite such low yields, the PTI team agreed with the IMF to achieve a tax target of Rs5,550 billion for 2019-20, which amounted to a nominal increase of Rs1,721 billion or 4.5% of GDP, which was simply ridiculous. For this purpose, new taxes of Rs735 billion were imposed on the people in order to achieve this unrealistic revenue goal.

The FBR collection for 2019-20 was Rs3,998 billion which included Rs100 billion supplementary grant from the federal government for payment of tax refunds which otherwise were due to be paid by the FBR out of its revenue collection; therefore the actual FBR collection was Rs3,898 billion. This was a horrendous revenue performance which turned out the budget deficit to 8.1%. During the third fiscal year 2020-21, there has been an increase of 21% in taxes collection, making an average annual growth of 7% in the first three years of the PTI.

While the PTI government failed to achieve its tax targets, yet they contributed heavily, through interest rate hikes and massive devaluation, in accelerating the price increases across the board resulting in high inflation. Concurrently, it had an overall negative effect on GDP, the growth.

4. Mafias and scams

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Never in Pakistan’s history, the nation has witnessed mega scams run by mafias associated with the government of the day such as sugar, flour, petroleum products and medicines, etc., which jacked up the prices of these items to an extent where people have been forced to pay annually thousands of billions of rupees extra to buy the same quantities of goods and utilities.

Conclusion

Buoyed by some growth in 2020-21, the PTI government has already embarked on an expansionary path. In two months (July-August 2021), the current account deficit has already shot up to $2.3 billion. They also want to remain in the IMF programme. But then the Fund would demand austerity by slowing down the economy, leading to further rise in electricity prices, cutting down the PSDP and more adjustments in interest and exchange rates.

With such changes, the goals of accelerating growth and controlling inflation would be off the table.

The non-existence of prudent, pro-active and constructive economic policy well supported by fiscal discipline and anti-inflationary measures has landed the people in a state of unbearable inflation.

The afore-discussed major mistakes, all PTI government’s own making, have contributed to an unprecedented hike in inflation, particularly prices of food items and utilities. With follies made by the PTI government, there is no case for the PTI to complain about imported inflation. The pain and misery inflicted on hapless people in the first three years of PTI’s government under the leadership of Imran Khan through insane 40% rupee devaluation, imprudent interest rate management, heartless heavy taxation and mafias-pushed price increases of essential commodities have caused severe unrest among people who have started protesting throughout the country against the unparalleled inflation in the history of Pakistan.


The author, a UK Fellow Chartered Accountant, is a former finance minister of Pakistan and former leader of the opposition in the Senate of Pakistan.

Twitter: @MIshaqDar50

Originally published in

The News

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