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Bail out by IMF or plunging Pakistan deeper into debt trap

The critics of Prime Minister Imran Khan are firing all sorts of shots at him. The biggest blame is that the person who didn’t want to approach International Monetary Fund (IMF) has conveniently bowed down rather than making an effort to live without the crutched of lender of last resort. Khan has been critical of borrowing during his election campaign, might be that he failed in understanding the gravity of situation. Let everyone try to find a logical reply to the basic question, will abstaining from borrowing from IMF save Pakistan from committing default? The immediate and logical reply is a big no because the countries that were most likely to extend supporting hands have done the contrary.

Therefore, it is imperative for the ruling regime to strike the best deal and it is also the responsibility of the opposition to help the incumbent government to have consensus on a home grown plan to make debt servicing sustainable. Let PML-N and PPP leadership not forget that they ruled the country for 10 years and supported each other under the much talked about ‘Charter of Democracy’. The country would have not faced the present crisis, had they followed ‘prudent policies’, contained extravaganzas and corruption and supported flight of capital from Pakistan. The ongoing investigations indicate that Pakistanis have parked billions of dollars outside Pakistan, own properties and doing thriving business in many neighboring countries.

After the victory in election, Khan was assured support by United States and Saudi Arabia and told not to approach Iran. Now it is evident that that these countries were willing to extend financial support to Pakistan, only if it agrees to support their geopolitical agenda. The US was prompt in instructing IMF not to lend any money to Pakistan to pay off Chinese debt. The much talked about Saudi oil facility and credit has not come to Pakistan, till this article is going into print. In such a hostile environment Pakistan has no option but to approach IMF and accept its stringent conditions.

Two of the most contentious issues faced by Pakistan are growing current account deficit and shrinking foreign exchange reserves. Therefore, the first target is establishing a ‘lifeline’ before the patient goes into coma and chances of recovery diminish. It may also be kept in mind that issue of ‘Certificate of Health’ by IMF also facilitates in borrowing from other multilateral lenders that include the World Bank, Asian Development Bank (ADB) and International Finance Corporation (IFC). This may also pave way for disbursement of loan by Islamic Development Bank.

Those who do not believe in my narrative, should look at the movement of Dollar-Rupee parity over the last few days. Till it was not clear that Pakistan will approach IMF and would also receive an encouraging reply, stock market kept plunging and the benchmark index of Pakistan Stock Exchange kept registering erosion of a magnitude that was hardly witnessed in the recent years. However, the situation started reversing after Finance Minister, Asad Umar met IMF Chief. Though, a lot of clarifications are yet to be made, the commitment by multilateral lenders have started pouring in. Someone has said it right that the markets are impervious to emotional appeals, and investors cannot be inspired or persuaded, other than through the cold inducements of gain and loss.

 

The likely IMF bailout package is certainly not enough to pull Pakistan out of the ‘default like situation’. However, it offers the space to take corrective steps and put the economy on track. The next but biggest challenge will be to undertake much delayed structural reforms. Almost all the previous governments have promised that while approaching IMF but many failed in fulfilling the commitments.

I will not hesitate for a second in saying that Imran Khan is the propagator of change but he is still surrounded by those who are known for maintaining status quo. Pakistan suffers from ‘confidence deficit’ that is a far bigger threat as compared to budget or current account deficit. What needs to be done is comparatively straightforward and the best path forward can be mapped out quickly as well as the PTI leadership has no shortage of competent people to make Imran Khan’s dream come true.

Khan has a strong social media team that can play a pivotal role in changing the perception, but the real issue is to change the ground realities. What need to be managed urgently right now are the fundamentals not the perceptions. That is where the prime minister’s focus is immediately required.

To put the country on the fast growth trajectory, it is necessary to point out that IMF recipe of raising electricity and gas tariffs, hiking interest rate and withdrawing subsidies could prove fatal blow to country’s economy. It is known to all and sundry that Pakistan suffers from cost pushed inflation that also renders ‘Made in Pakistan’ goods uncompetitive in the global markets. Unless exports are boosted containing current account is not possible. Boosting remittances may bring some additional dollars, but producing exportable surplus and attaining competitive advantage is a must.

PML-N and PPP regimes are known for extravaganzas and wastages; PTI has to follow austerity by discouraging import of luxury items. In a country where a huge percentage of population lives below the poverty line, there is no room for import dog food, luxury cars, expensive mobile phone. Let Pakistan follow the models that enabled Turkey and many other countries to bid farewell to IMF. The citizens of Pakistan ought to thank IMF for the assistance program, but will also have to learn to live within means. It is not difficult but needs solid commitment and support by all the political parties.

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