Pakistan’s Graduation Gravity Spell

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Pakistan shares continued at the bottom of the Asian pack, with an over 10% loss through August, as a typical pattern of post-upgrade retrenchment after rejoining the core MSCI Index combined with extended bouts of political and geopolitical and balance of payments instability resurrecting IMF qualms after the first-ever program completion in 2016. Recent graduates from the frontier to main gauges Qatar and the UAE telegraphed the correction path after large run-ups in advance as they suffered their own diplomatic and fiscal setbacks, but Pakistan’s were more pronounced in view of its lower per capita income developing country status. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, a nominal economic reformer, was forced to resign ahead of 2018 elections after a military-influenced court investigation to face corruption charges, although his party, now led by his brother, continues with a parliamentary majority.

The opposition PTI, headed by former cricket champion Imran Khan, has criticized the Sharif family’s dubious wealth accumulation but not yet offered a convincing program to sway the establishment business and financial communities, which increasingly look to Asian alongside traditional Western partnerships again eroded by US President Trump’s rhetorical hard line in his new Afghanistan strategy. With these elements unfolding, the currency dropped to a record 105 low against the dollar, as the central bank and finance ministry accused each other of mismanagement, underscoring lingering policy and performance doubts highlighted by the IMF’s July Article IV report. The new Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, denied formal devaluation but will reduce “unnecessary” imports to cushion international reserves, down one-quarter to $14 billion from last October’s peak.

The Fund’s retrospective of the 2013-16 arrangement praised macroeconomic and reform steps, but pointed out fresh risks alongside “long-standing” fiscal and current account deficit, public domestic and external debt, financial and power sector, and poverty and unemployment challenges. GDP growth this fiscal year will be above 5% due largely to China’s Economic Corridor infrastructure building, while remittances from the Persian Gulf in particular are “sluggish.” With higher food costs from lagging agriculture headline inflation is also heading toward 5%, and the central bank may have to shift its monetary stance from accommodation to tightening, especially with additional exchange rate pressure. The fiscal position remains precarious, with the gap running below target at 4% of GDP on flagging tax collection amid widespread evasion, which was a chief priority under the Fund facility. The trade deficit was a record $40 billion for the year ending in June, with reserves just over three months imports as the central bank’s foreign exchange derivative obligations nearly doubled to $3.5 billion. Bank private credit is up almost 15% annually but gross bad loans are 10% of the total, as small banks are undercapitalized and deposit insurance is just about to launch.

State power company arrears built up again to the equivalent of 1% of GDP in the first half of the fiscal year, as the stock exchange privatization of distributors, designed to improve governance and payment, remains delayed. With the chronic energy crunch natural gas supplies also languish with 10% losses, above international standards according to experts. Pakistan was among the top 10 gainers in the World Bank’s Doing Business ranking, as it rose four spots to 144 out of 190 countries with records automation and a new secured transactions law. However, the IMF’s July evaluation urged overdue labor market, one-stop investment shop, property registration, and commercial arbitration changes. It also noted a continued poor score at 116 on the companion Transparency International list, with corruption, money laundering and hidden assets found to be common practices. Financial inclusion also lagged toward low income female and rural populations in particular, as a strategy to widen conventional and Islamic banking access through end-decade is at an early stage.

External debt was almost $60 billion at end-March, with $40 billion in bilateral and multilateral loans as sovereign borrowing is increasingly on commercial terms through Eurobonds and China’s One Belt One Road initiative. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar ruled out IMF return urged by chambers of commerce as another $500 million-$1billion global bond is under preparation for the coming months, However credit default swap spreads have recently risen 100 basis points, signaling a likely ratings downgrade and yield premium that could indefinitely scuttle both Fund program and MSCI index graduation ambitions.