Pakistan’s economy: what’s next?

Country posted impressive growth numbers for the last financial year

Hasaan Khawar July 20, 2021
The writer is a public policy expert and an honorary Fellow of Consortium for Development Policy Research. He tweets @hasaankhawar


Pakistan has been getting quite a lot of good news lately on the economic front. The country posted impressive growth numbers for the last financial year.

The large-scale manufacturing sector grew by more than 14% during July 2020 to May 2021, on the back of astounding growth in automobile, textile, pharmaceutical and chemical sectors. Pakistan received record remittances of $29.4 billion during the last financial year. The country has ‘almost’ completed the FATF action plan, with only one outstanding action. And the vaccination drive and handling of the pandemic have been truly impressive, mitigating the adverse economic impacts. Yet the economic uncertainty is far from over.

Inflation remains high. Trade deficit has bounced back. The circular debt keeps piling up. And debt-to-GDP ratio remains in the red zone. Pakistan’s recent economic recovery therefore remains fragile, especially in the wake of the impending fourth wave of Covid-19.

Going forward, Pakistan’s short-term economic trajectory would depend upon three things: the country’s revenue performance, its current account balance, and the fate of the IMF programme.

On the revenue side, the government has set an ambitious target of Rs5.8 trillion for FBR to finance the expansionary budget to provide a much-needed stimulus to the economy. The realisation of this ambitious target in turn would depend on a host of revenue and enforcement measures. While this target is not impossible to achieve, a more realistic assessment suggests that FBR may fall short of this target by Rs300 to 400 billion. Besides tax revenues, meeting the targets for other revenue sources would also be critical to keep the fiscal deficit in check, such as proceeds from privatisation and petroleum development levy. Any shortfall on the revenue front can take a toll on the promised development spending and may even necessitate introducing a mini budget in the next few months.

Then comes the current account. So far, the healthy remittance inflows have really helped the current account to end up in green, despite the trade deficit touching $30 billion. With growth bouncing back, the imports are likely to swell, further widening the trade deficit. What remains to be seen is if the remittances can maintain their healthy trajectory to compensate for rising trade deficit.

The increase in remittances can be attributed to the pandemic that greatly restricted international travel, a crackdown on hawala/hundi under the FATF action plan and various measures by the government such as incentivising the use of formal banking channels. But considering that remittances from Saudi Arabia, UAE and GCC countries grew only by 9 to 16%, whereas those from UK, US, EU posted 50+% growth, indicates that at least some part of these increased remittances would evaporate once air travel is fully open.

On a monthly basis, the CAD has already touched $632 million and if it continues like this, the rupee can face more pressure leading to devaluation.

The fate of the IMF programme will also play an important role in deciding the near-term prospects of our economic future. Given our external financing needs, Pakistan cannot afford to walk out of the IMF programme. This means that not only will have we to comply with our revenue target but may also have to create additional fiscal space and move the needle on structural reforms. The country would therefore be facing a delicate balance, as too much of tightening could disrupt the efforts to stimulate growth, but too little effort would disrupt the IMF programme.

Besides these economic factors, the rapidly evolving situation in Afghanistan and the looming threat of a fourth wave can also affect some of these calculations. However, once Pakistan successfully navigates its way through these challenges, the medium-term economic future for the country looks bright.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 20th, 2021.

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