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Investment opportunities in Pakistan – making conditions ripe for triumph

It is an undeniable fact that Pakistan suffers from two contentious problems: 1) low savings and 2) limited opportunities for investment. All the successive governments have been making efforts to lure foreign investors. However, they fail to understand that if the local investors are shy no foreign investor would be keen in investing in Pakistan. The problem is further aggravated because per capita income is low and there is hardly any incentive for saving. Those who have some money want to become rich overnight but mostly fall in the trap of cheaters and ultimately loose whatever amounts they have. The successive governments have not been doing anything more than lip service and regulators can be termed ‘sleeping watch dogs’. If one looks at the history of financial scams taking place in Pakistan, only the regulators could be held responsible for those.

Lately, some of the cheats ripped off people and the event was termed ‘Modaraba Scam’. Interestingly media flashed headlines, which gave an impression as if the Modarabas listed at Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) were involved in the scam. In fact a few clerics belonging to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) were the master minds, who cheated the innocent people. The amount involved is estimated from Rs6 billion to Rs45 billion. The most regrettable point is that the regulators failed in identifying the crisis, while it was brewing. According to a financial analyst, “State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) considered it an issue, which pertained to Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) and the high ups at the Commission had an opposite view”. Another analyst said, “The quantum of money involved is still not known because some of those having given the money to the cheaters preferred to remain silent and also didn’t lodge any claim because they couldn’t provide evidence of source of fund”.

As stated above there is little incentive for saving in the country, not only that the opportunities are limited, the investors are penalized by the government in one way or the other for making investment. To begin with, people having other sources of income have to pay tax, often at a fabulous rate, but the income of feudal lords is tax exempt because it is termed income from agriculture. It has been highlighted by experts repeatedly that now business tycoons have also learnt the trick of clubbing income from other sources into income from agriculture.

It would not be out of context to cite two example, rate of tax applicable on the income of listed companies and tax charged on dividend income. The number of listed companies at Pakistan Stock Exchange (formerly Karachi Stock Exchange) is on constant decline because of merger and acquisitions and voluntary delisting. At an average the listed companies pay above 30% tax on their income and when they distribute dividend, on that income tax/withholding tax is charged. The rationale put forward is that listed company is a legal entity and shareholders are different, therefore both have to pay tax on their income. The propagators of this philosophy tend to forget that listed companies also pay taxes on import of machinery and raw material, GST on finished goods and effectively act as tax collection agents for the government. Therefore, not more than 5% tax should be charged on the income of listed companies. On top of all these listed companies are the providers of employment and also the earners of much needed foreign exchange for the country.

Investment in listed companies is still considered risky by the small investors, particularly after the global financial crisis of 2008. Unlike developed countries, Pakistan didn’t suffer from ‘sub-prime loans issue’. However, imposition of floor for a long time, did not allow the small shareholders to take an exit. On top of all shares kept by investors in sub accounts were sold by some of the brokerage houses that created the real havoc. This disheartened many investors of stock market, who pulled out their investment from capital market and invested it real estate, foreign exchange and precious metals.

Around the world mutual funds are considered a safe haven for the small investors. The logic is simple that asset management companies have substantial investments in various types of funds and that any decline in the income of one particular company does not affect the overall income of a particular type of fund and in turn the income of the unit holders. Along with this there is constant sale and redemption by the unit holders that save does not causes spikes in value of the asset under management (AUM). However, in various funds bulk of the investment is by corporates and large net worth investors that results in sudden rise and fall in the value of AUM.

The big investors also invest in real estate, foreign exchange, precious metals and energy products. One of the reasons for investing in these products is the lack of documentation, which allows the investors to evade tax payment. It is estimated that the documented economy constitutes only one-third of county’s total economy and size of undocumented economy is always increasing due to exemptions and evasions. There is always an incentive for the evasion because the incumbent governments have been offering amnesty schemes with regular intervals. It is also on record that billions of rupees are being sent out of Pakistan in the form of US dollars every year. According to certain estimates, funds kept by Pakistanis outside the country range from US$50 billion to US$500 billion. Bulk of this amount has been invested in real estate, international trading and manufacturing facilities. Some of the favorite destinations are India, UAE, Malaysia and Singapore. If the government of Pakistan is serious in accelerating GDP growth rate, it has to ensure that each penny saved is invested in Pakistan.

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