Too good

Yesterday’s economic forum was scripted and implemented to perfection.

  • The forum, which was organised by GNHC and supported by the UNDP, was called “Macroeconomic Challenges, Opportunities and Policy Options for Bhutna” and held at the National Convention Centre.
  • The forum was attended by the prime minister, cabinet ministers, senior civil servants and
  • The forum was NOT attended by the governor of the Royal Monetary Authority and his two deputies. The CEOs of the financial institutions could not attend as they were summoned, by the RMA governor, for a separate meeting.
  • The experts at the forum included Professor Joeseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, and Dr Rob Vos and Dr Hamidur Rashid from UN’s department of economic and social affairs.
  • The experts concluded that our banks had lent too much money too easily, that private consumption was too high, that are foreign currency reserves were very high, that we should use our foreign currency reserves, and that the rupee crunch was caused by our inability to properly manage our foreign currency reserves.
  • Professor Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and leading economist, certified that the rupee crunch is not a crisis.
  • Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba reiterated the findings of the expert group, and counted the economic successes of the government.
  • And the media – print, TV and radio – informed our people that experts, led by a Professor Stiglitz, had found that our economic situation was not in trouble, and that the rupee crunch could easily be dealt with by proper management of our foreign currency reserves.

If all this sound too good to be true, it probably is.

Consider this: Just 6 months ago, in December last year, the RMA’s rupee borrowings had peaked at Rs 11 billion, and the government had sold US$ 200 million for Rs 10.3 billion to clear Rs 8 billion. So at that time we were left with Rs 3 billion in credit, and Rs 2.3 billion in cash.

Today, the RMA’s rupee borrowings have reportedly already hit Rs 15 billion. And we have already spent the Rs 2.3 billion we had in cash. So that means that in the last six months we have accumulated a rupee deficit of 14.3 billion (Rs 15 billion – Rs 3 billion + Rs 2.3 billion = Rs 14.3 billion).

We owe Rs 15 billion. And we have US$ 720 million in reserves. US$ 720 million equals more than Rs 41 billion at today’s exchange rates. That’s an excess of Rs 26 billion. And that’s why the international experts have us convinced that the rupee crunch is a foreign currency reserve management issue; not an economic crisis.

Now consider this: we accumulated a rupee deficit of 14.3 billion in less than 6 months. If we use our foreign currency reserves to clear this debt, we’ll be left with the equivalent of Rs 26 billion in foreign currency reserves. But at this rate, we will have run up a deficit in excess of Rs 26 billion in less than one year. And we can again use our foreign currency reserves to clear this deficit too.

But then we’ll be left with nothing in our foreign currency reserves. Forget about the Constitutional requirement of maintaining foreign currency reserves not less than one year’s essential imports – our foreign currency reserves will have dropped all the way to zero; it will have been completely depleted. In other words, if, as the experts suggest, we “manage” our foreign currency reserves, we will have spent our entire reserves in less than a year, and we’ll be forced to accept, belatedly, that we are dealing with a major economic crisis.

So don’t blame the mismanagement of our foreign currency reserves for the ongoing rupee crunch. And, please, don’t think of misusing our reserves.

Instead, look at where the real problem lies. Look, for example, at government expenditure. And ask our experts if an increase in government expenditure from 21 billion per year (in 2008-09) to 38 billion per year (budgeted for 2011-12) could have caused the rupee crunch; ask them if excessive and uncontrolled government expenditure is what could have caused the economic crisis.

Really important business

Doing business in Bhutan is already difficult. But it’s getting even more difficult.

Each year, the World Bank publishes a “Doing Business” report in which they rank countries according to the “ease of doing business” in those countries. Here’s how our country has fared in their report over the last few years.

In 2008, Bhutan was ranked 119 out of the 178 countries that the project studied.

In 2009, we fell to 124 out of 181 countries.

In 2010, we were placed at 126 out of 186 countries.

In 2011, we plummeted to 146 out of 183 countries

And in 2012, we improved slightly to 142 out of the 183 countries that were studied.

Our overall ease of doing business ranking fell from 119 to 142 during the period 2008 to 2012. Not good.

But it will get worse. Bhutan’s ranking is probably set to fall again.

Why? Because it’s getting harder to do business in Bhutan.

Why? Because the series of policy measures introduced by the government in light of the rupee crunch all make it much more difficult to do business in Bhutan.

Banks, for instance, cannot lend money. That means that businesses now do not have access to credit.

Informal trade across our borders have come to a standstill. And that has affected hundreds of small time business across the length and breadth of our country.

Import of a range of goods have been suddenly banned. That threatens the investments of a range of businesses.

And most recently, vegetable vendors will no longer be allowed to import vegetables; only FCB will. That means that dozens of vegetable vendors will soon lose their jobs to a government-owned company.

So Bhutan’s ranking in the next Doing Business report will probably take a beating.

Obviously, the ranking, in and by itself, doesn’t matter. What does matter is that it really could be getting really more difficult to do business in Bhutan. And doing business – good business, and lots of it – is what we desperately need to overcome the current rupee crunch.

What also matters is that potential investors refer to the Doing Business reports. And investment – foreign and domestic – is what we desperately need to strengthen our economy, and ensure that we do not face another rupee crunch in the future.

More essential stuff

In my previous post I had proposed that, “the government is getting ready to sell even more foreign currency from our reserves.”

What if I am correct? What if the government is, indeed, preparing to sell foreign currency to alleviate the rupee crunch? If so, what is the procedure?

Last year, four months ago, the government sold US$ 200 million of our foreign currency reserves. At that time, US$ 200 million worked out to Nu 10.3 billion, which in turn worked out to 14% of our GDP. That was, and is, a lot of money. But no one questioned the process. All that was reported on the process was: The government on Thursday night struck a deal to sell USD 200M to address the country’s dire Indian rupee (INR) position…”

We will be required to dip into our foreign currency reserves occasionally. So we should think about the process. Who, by law, for example, can approve the use of our foreign currency reserves?

According to Article 14 Section 3 of the Constitution, “Public money shall not be drawn from the Consolidated Fund except through appropriation in accordance with the law.” In other words, the government cannot spend money unless that expenditure has been approved by the parliament.

But the Constitution is silent about the procedure for spending money from the foreign currency reserves. Instead, Section 115 of the Royal Monetary Act says that, “The Authority may purchase, sell or deal in– foreign exchange …”

Does ‘foreign exchange’ here include foreign exchange from our reserves? If so, should RMA have the complete authority to sell our foreign exchange? If not, what should be the procedure?

The government’s annual budget is debated and approved in the National Assembly. It is then submitted to the National Council for review. After that, it is submitted to His Majesty the King for Royal Assent.

The government’s budget for 2011-12 is about Nu 38 billion. That is not even four times the amount of foreign currency reserves that was sold last year (US$ 200 million fetched Rs 10.3 billion). The process to approve the government’s budget is vigorous. And rightfully so. But the process to approve use of our foreign currency reserves seems to be nonexistent. At best it is vague.

It is essential that the government and the parliament consider this matter urgently. Otherwise, we could end up recklessly depleting our foreign currency reserves.

Essential stuff

Article 14 Section 7 of the Constitution requires that, “A minimum foreign currency reserve that is adequate to meet the cost of not less than one year’s essential import must be maintained.”

But what constitutes essential import? Salt, shoes, sicnidizole – surely they are “essential”. But what about construction material, like, say, CGI? And raw material for industries? Are they essential? And how about arms and ammunition? I think they are essential, very essential.

It’s important to have a proper definition of what, in our context, constitutes essential import. It’s important because that definition will determine the “minimum foreign currency reserve” that must be maintained by the government at any time.

We don’t have a clear definition. But last year, when the government sold US$ 200 million from our foreign currency reserves, they told us that we still had US$ 702 million in our reserves, and that that would finance 13 months of essential import.

Divide US$ 702 million by 13 and multiply that by 12 and we quickly get US$ 648 million, the amount that, by the government’s own reckoning, is required to finance one year’s essential import.

That was in December last year. But yesterday, just four months later, the prime minister announced, on BBS TV, that our foreign currency reserves stand at US$ 716 million, and that that can finance 36 months – that’s three years – of essential import. So basically, the prime minister is now telling us that US$ 239 million is enough to finance one year’s worth of essential import.

Between 648 million and 239 million lies huge difference. And that difference points to two conclusions. One, the government is getting ready to sell even more foreign currency from our reserves. And two we need a clear definition of “essential import”.

The prime minister has proven that the government – this government, and others in the future – cannot be trusted to provide an honest and consistent definition of what constitutes “essential import”.  Governments will define, and redefine it, to yield to immediate temptations of selling off our foreign currency reserves.

We need a better way of defining “essential import” and, by extension, of calculating the “minimum foreign currency reserve” that governments must maintain. One way would be to form an independent authority whose duty it would be to decide, without bias and from time to time, what constitutes “essential import”. But for that to work, the authority must have broad-based representation including members from the government, RMA, judiciary, private sector, and His Majesty the King’s secretariat.

Stop the bleeding

During their interview with BBS TV last week, Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba and Lyonpo Wangdi Norbu went to great lengths to inform us that the so-called rupee crunch wasn’t a crisis. They told us that the situation was normal; that they’d been aware of it for a long time; and that they were in full control of it. They told us that we should not be worried, that we should not panic. And they warned us that any talk about a crisis “could be deliberate attempts to discredit the government.”

I’m not one to worry needlessly. But I’m not reckless either. So I try to piece things together, and when they don’t add up, I get worried. I get scared.

On the one hand we have the government telling us that everything is okay. But their assurances are followed by reports, only a few days later, that RMA’s short-term rupee borrowings have already hit Rs 9.7 billion.

Just four months ago, RMA’s rupee borrowings had peaked at Rs 11 billion (3 billion from GOI credit line, and 8 billion from an overdraft facility maintained with the State Bank of India). The government, at that time, sold US$ 200 million for Rs 10.3 billion and liquidated the Rs 8 billion SBI overdraft credit. So RMA would have been left with a loan of Rs 3 billion (GOI credit) and cash reserves of Rs 2.3 billion.

Now, four months later, RMA’s short-term rupee borrowings have already climbed to Rs 9.7 billion. Of that amount, Rs 3 billion is the earlier credit from GOI. So that means, rupee borrowings have increased by Rs 6.7 billion in four months. Add to that the Rs 2.3 billion that was left over after clearing the SBI overdraft credit, and we get Rs 9 billion. That figure should equal the rupee deficit during the last four months. And that deficit seems to be growing. So I’m scared.

Our combined imports exceed our exports. That’s why we have a rupee crunch. But the rate at which the deficit seems to be growing is alarming. It was a record Rs 8 billion last year (that’s why the government sold US$ 200 million). And now, within a span of barely four months, the economy has been hit with a deficit of Rs 9 billion.

Our economy is bleeding. But the government does not seem to know it or does not care to admit it. They have not yet identified the problem. Instead, they blame the private sector, and seem to think that the rupee crunch will be solved mainly after GOI extends their credit line from Rs 3 billion to 10 billion.

Loans will not solve our problem. They’re good only for temporary respite. Eventually, loans will make matters worse.

Yes, we must curtail private consumption. But that has been the focus of  RMA’s many measures. And that doesn’t seem to have helped.

What we must do – and what I’ve said over and over again – is curtail government expenditure. The government’s expenditure has grown dramatically since 2008. And unless the government reins in their excesses, the rupee crunch will continue. In fact, it will get worse.

Eventually we must work hard to correct and improve our balance of payments. We must import less. And we must export more. There’s a whole lot we can and must do: agriculture, construction, education, tourism, ICT, hydropower, mining, manufacturing and even lottery, all of them represent big opportunities. But all of them will take time.

For now, we must stop the bleeding. And most of it takes place by way of government consumption. So the government must stop all unnecessary spending, especially excessive recurrent expenditure. The government must go into austerity mode.

Here’s what the government has spent and is spending.

 

Thank you

A couple of late meetings prevented me from watching TV last night. So I watched BBS TV’s rebroadcast this morning. In particular, I watched Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba, the officiating prime minister, and Lyonpo Wangdi Norbu, the finance minister, talk about the current economic situation.

I thank the government for going on national TV to explain the ongoing currency situation to the public at large. The two ministers are our most experienced financial experts. The two of them have served as finance ministers for a combined total of 14 years, and as finance secretaries for more than 10 years. So they are very qualified to speak on the rupee crunch, and to allay the public’s growing fears on the state of our economy.

I also thank the prime minister, who is in New York attending to other pressing matters, for deputing the officiating prime minister and the finance minister to address the nation on his behalf. The fact that the government has eventually addressed the nation at a time when our people’s confidence has been shaken is welcome and appreciated.

So, on behalf of the people, and without getting into the specifics of what was said on TV, I offer a sincere thank you to the government.

Rupee statement

Some friends have suggested that I should use my YouTube account to incorporate a bit more audio-visual in this blog. I agree.

Here is the statement I recently made on BBS TV urging the government to inform the people about the rupee situation. I’m happy to report that, according to BBS, the acting prime minister and finance minister will appear on TV tomorrow, Tuesday, 3 April.

I’ve posted the English transcript of my statement after the video.

 

Our economy is in a crisis.

Just last year, the government was forced to sell US$ 200 million from the country’s foreign currency reserves to clear a huge rupee deficit. But today, barely five months on, we are faced with another rupee deficit, one that seems to be spiraling out of control.

The Royal Monetary Authority has taken several measures to address the rupee crisis. But their measures are ad-hoc crisis measures, not long-term policies. As such, they have not been able to control the growing deficit. And as such, the general public has become increasingly worried.

The rupee deficit has affected everyone. Businesses, especially small-time traders, are suffering as they do not have timely access to Indian rupees. Similarly, our ordinary citizens are suffering – they no longer have ready access to rupees, and as such, cannot buy basic essentials or travel to India easily for medical treatment, education or pilgrimage.

Our economy is in a crisis. And we, the people, are concerned – we are confused; we are anxious; and we are losing confidence in our own economy. Yet our government has remained completely silent. The prime minister and elected government have still not addressed the people to explain what is happening to our economy.

The government must clear all doubts and reassure the people that they are in control of the situation. Otherwise our people will become even more confused; even more anxious; and may even start to panic.

As the leader of the opposition party, it is my responsibility to demand that the government address the people, and provide us with clear and definite answers.

Therefore, and on behalf of the people:

I call on the government to give a full account on the nature and extent of the rupee crisis.

I call on the government to explain, in clear terms, their plans, strategies and policies to resolve this crisis.

And I call on them to tell us, the people, exactly when we expect our economy to recover from this crisis.

 

 

GNH and Bhutan

Here’s an insightful cartoon from Bhutan Observer. The message is loud and clear. There’s no need to elaborate.

But one dangerous element is missing in the murky background: the rupee crunch and the growing economic crisis, about which the prime minister has not yet uttered a word.

 

Bhutanese food

Eating out

A couple of friends and I went out for lunch the other day. We ate at Cousins, a new restaurant that specializes in authentic Bhutanese food. You’ll find the restaurant on the first floor of the new building opposite the BNB.

The food at Cousins is good. We had ribs (with dried red chillies and spring onions in a hot garlic sauce),chopped dried beef (in a chilli and cheese sauce), kewa-datsi, dal, rice and, for desert, fresh apples in cream.

The food, like I said earlier, was good. And it was mainly traditional Bhutanese fare.

But in fact, there was very little that was really Bhutanese on the table; almost all the ingredients had been imported. Pork, beef, green chillies, cheese, onions, garlic, cooking oil, salt, potatoes, apples, cream, rice – they’d all been imported; they’d all come from India. As far as I could tell, the only ingredients which had been produced locally were the dried red chillies and the spring onions.

But it wasn’t just the ingredients that had been imported. The plates, bowls, cutlery, shakers, napkins and table cloth all came from outside, as did the wooden tables and chairs. And the building itself was built by Indian workers using mostly imported material.

Cousins is not alone. All restaurants, throughout the country, rely, almost completely, on imported ingredients. And almost all restaurants, throughout the country, are housed in buildings that have been built using mainly foreign material and foreign workers. But it’s not just restaurants. The story is repeated throughout our country, in every school, every hospital, every monastery, and in almost every home.

We don’t grow our own food. We don’t build our own houses. And, besides hydropower, we don’t produce much else. So it’s no wonder that we depend so heavily on imports. It’s no wonder that have such a huge trade deficit. And it’s no wonder that we’re facing such serious currency crisis.

 

Crunch time

A severe rupee shortage threatens to cause an economic crisis. But the government is in denial. As recently as last week, the finance minister blamed the media for blowing up the issue.

On the other hand, the RMA governor has declared that, “we have no money.” And he has already stopped issuing rupees to commercial banks. He has also warned that we can no longer sell our foreign reserves to buy rupees.

The RMA has had to borrow rupees to allow for the import fuel and other essential items. But traders are already complaining that they cannot do business. And industrialists worry that they won’t be able to import raw material.

Ordinary people are also being affected by the rupee crunch. Mr Vinod Kumar, for example, sent me this self-explanatory email, which I’m reproducing here with his permission.

Sir,

I am a teacher working in Rangjung HSS. I am an Indian working in this kingdom for the last 7 years. I am sending this mail to draw your kind attention to a serious issue that we are facing. This month when we (expatriate teachers) went to the BOB Trashigang to send money to India, BOB officials told us that sending money to India is not as easy as before. They told us that the RMA has put some restrictions to send money to India. They told us that we need to register first and after 7 days if it is approved by RMA, then we can send money. We are here leaving our family behind to support this country and make a good future for us. If we are not able to send our hard earned money to our beloved ones, it is a disheartening thing. On them other hand, BNB so far did not get this type of circular from RMA. So please look in to the matter and if sir could make the money transfer of the civil servant as before we will be grateful to you sir.

Thanking you