Discover more from The Lens
No, MMT Didn't Wreck Sri Lanka
Debunking Bloomberg with Fadhel Kaboub
Last week, Bloomberg touted an opinion piece (written by one of its regular columnists) claiming that “Sri Lanka was the first country in the world to try MMT” and that “the experiment has brought the country to ruin.” A few days later, The Washington Post republished the article. So it garnered a fair bit of attention. Unfortunately, the essay offers little insight into what’s really gone wrong in Sri Lanka. But, hey, editors and writers have discovered that MMT drives clicks, so there’s no dearth of efforts to shoehorn MMT into almost anything.
A number of people sent me the link and asked me to respond. I sat down to do just that, but then I remembered that MMT economist Fadhel Kaboub talks about Sri Lanka in some of his presentations and that he’s been studying the country for years.
Fadhel is an Associate Professor of Economics at Denison University and President of the Global Institute for Sustainable Prosperity. He brings deeper knowledge of the Sri Lankan economy and the policy decisions that have paved the way for their current predicament. So I reached out to invite him to respond to Mihir Sharma’s main claims about the so-called MMT experiment in Sri Lanka.
Sharma’s big claim is that “two cherished heterodox theories...became official policy in Sri Lanka and, within two years, they brought the country to the brink of default and ruin.” The government has halted payments of its foreign debt and warned that it may default. Import prices are surging. It’s hard for people to buy food and fuel. There are periodic blackouts and rationing. Inflation is close to 19 percent and the central bank has recently doubled interest rates. Sharma acknowledges that there are ’structural factors’ at play, and he concedes that the pandemic hammered the nation’s tourism sector while the Russian invasion of Ukraine made everything worse. But he argues that "the deeper problem” is that the ruling elite "turned Sri Lanka’s policymaking over to cranks.” One of the heterodox theories that is supposedly responsible for the crisis is MMT.1 What follows is a lightly-edited transcript of my Q&A with Professor Kaboub.
QUESTION: Sharma claims that “Sri Lanka is the first country in the world to reference MMT officially as a justification for money printing.” He blames former central bank governor, Weligamage Don Lakshman, for listening to monetary cranks who convinced him that “nobody needs to worry about debt sustainability” as long as you “increase the proportion of domestic debt [relative to debt denominated in foreign currency].” Is there anything in MMT that says that as long as you “increase the proportion of domestic debt” you can “print money” without worrying about debt sustainability or inflation?
KABOUB: When I first read the statement of Sri Lanka’s Central Bank governor, Mr. Weligamage Don Lakshman, back in 2020, it was very clear to me that he does not understand the basic MMT insights. He was under the impression that what matters in terms of monetary sovereignty is the proportion of foreign currency debt relative to domestic domestic currency debt and that there was no need to rethink the foundation of the economic development model that his country has used since the late 1970s. Governor Lakshman focused on the proportion of debt but never questioned what the external debt was fueling, and never articulated how a higher proportion of domestic debt was going to build economic resilience in Sri Lanka.
MMT economists have been very clear all along that a country’s fiscal spending capacity is constrained by the risk of inflation, which is determined by the level of productive capacity (availability of real resources, productivity, skills, logistics, supply chains, etc.) and the level of abusive market power enjoyed by key players in the economy (cartels, exclusive import license holders, shell companies, cross-border traffickers, speculators, corrupt government procurement systems, etc.). Therefore, increasing a country's fiscal policy space must be done via strategic investments to boost productive capacity and regulation of abusive market power. Sri Lanka’s economic policy choices (pre-pandemic and Russia-Ukraine war) do not even come close to what MMT economists would have suggested.
As I will explain below, Sri Lanka has three structural economic weaknesses that were systematically reinforced via mainstream economic policies: 1.) lack of food sovereignty, 2.) lack of energy sovereignty, and 3.) low value-added exports. These deficiencies imply that accelerating the country’s economic engines leads to more pressure on its external balance, a weaker exchange rate, higher inflationary pressures (especially food/fuel/medicine and basic necessities), and, as a result, it leads to the classic trap of external debt.
Here is how it all started. Sri Lanka, like many countries in the Global South, began the liberalization of its economy in 1977, and adopted a classic IMF-style economic development model based on exports, foreign direct investment (FDI), tourism, and remittances. This development model remained tamed during the civil war (1983-2009), but it was fully unleashed in 2009, and that is when external debt began to skyrocket, going from $16 billion in 2008 to nearly $56 billion in 2019. The value of the Sri Lankan rupee dropped from 114 to 178 LCU/USD. Thanks to a massive increase in government subsidies and transfers reaching more than 30 percent of government spending in recent years, Sri Lanka struggled to keep inflation below 5 percent. Yet, economists celebrated Sri Lanka’s great achievements with an average growth rate exceeding 5 percent in the decade after the civil war, and a real per capita GDP growth putting the country officially in the upper middle-income economy category. Sri Lanka was following the mainstream economic development model like a good student. In the decade starting in 2009, exports grew from $9.3 to $19.1 billion, tourism quintupled from 0.5 to 2.5 million visitors annually, FDI inflows quadrupled by 2018 to a record $1.6 billion, and remittances doubled to nearly $7 billion annually. These are the four engines of Sri Lanks’s economic growth, but they are also the engines driving the country deeper into the structural traps of food and energy dependency, and specialization in low value added exports.
Here is how these engines constitute a trap. An increase in tourism induces more food and energy imports. An increase in remittances means more brain drain. An increase in low value-added exports induces more imports of capital, intermediate goods, fuel etc.; and an increase in low value-added FDI does the same plus the repatriation of profits out of Sri Lanka. On a global scale, these neocolonial economic traps have suctioned $152 trillion from the Global South since 1960.
QUESTION: Sharma argues that it was the “printing of money” that caused inflation to hit record highs. He cites the rate of growth of the Sri Lankan money supply and concludes that inflation hit record highs because the central bank expanded the money supply by 42 percent from December 2019 to August 2021. Why isn’t this a critique of MMT, and how do you think about the current inflationary pressures?
KABOUB: Sharma is wrong on two fronts here. First, he is assuming that the central bank actually controls the money supply, when in fact the money supply is an endogenous variable determined by the private sector (consumers, business, and banks). The central bank simply accommodates the needs of the market in order to keep short-term interest rates at a stable target, otherwise it will cause all kinds of instability across financial markets. Second, Sharma is assuming that inflation is caused by an increase in the money supply, when in reality, Sri Lanka’s inflation, like many developing countries, imports its inflation via food and energy imports. The higher the pressure on the external balance, the weaker the exchange rate, the higher the inflation pressure from imported goods. Sri Lanka struggled with these pressures for a decade, and managed to muddle through by accumulating more external debt, which quickly became unbearable after the pandemic (loss of tourism, remittances, FDI, and export revenues) and the massive increase in global food and energy prices after the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
The solutions to Sri Lanka’s inflation problems are not in the hands of its central bank. Raising interest rates in Sri Lanka will not end the war in the Ukraine, or end the pandemic-induced global supply chain disruptions. The most effective anti-inflation tools fall under fiscal policy. It is the parliament, and the various ministries and commissions that can design strategic investments to boost productive capacity, and have the legal authority to update and enforce antitrust laws. In fact, raising interest rates can often fuel inflation (and inequality) because it is the equivalent of an income subsidy to bond holders, and a tax on actual investors who might be discouraged from increasing productive capacity.
QUESTION: Sharma appears to know that he has offered a faulty representation of MMT. He anticipates some of the counterpoints that I suspect you and I would both raise. He writes, “proponents of MMT will likely say that this was not real MMT, or that Sri Lanka is not a sovereign country as long as it has any foreign debt.” You have been studying Sri Lanka for a few years now. What, if anything, have policymakers done that suggest that they have been running any kind of “MMT experiment” over the last two years?
KABOUB: Well, this is where Sharma nails it! As I explained above, Sri Lanka’s economic policies don’t even come close to anything informed by MMT insights. Sri Lanka’s government ignored its structural weaknesses, didn’t invest in food/energy and strategic domestic productive capacity, didn’t tax/regulate abusive market power, has a corrupt political system dominated by a single family, and when it was backed into a corner after the pandemic, it doubled down on bad economic decision by claiming that agricultural fertilizers are unhealthy (when they really didn’t have the foreign exchange reserves to pay for the imports), so they destroyed agricultural output, especially rice, in the middle of global food crisis. If the Sri Lankan government was serious about investing in healthy food or a healthy economy, it would have put forward an actual food sovereignty strategy centered on native seeds, it would have discouraged intensive monoculture farming, it would have invested in regenerative farming to undo decades of damage to the soil, and it would have supported farmers to increase yields with well defined medium and long term strategies. Clearly, this “organic farming” experiment was sloppy at best, but it should not overshadow the fact that the roots of the agricultural vulnerability have been decades in the making.
QUESTION: Sharma chides the government for shunning the advice of "mainstream economists” and for “refusing to even consult the IMF.” Let’s assume he’s right about the central bank and other policymakers turning away from mainstream economists and institutions like the IMF. What kind of advice has the IMF given to Sri Lanka in the past, and what kind of economic development strategies would you recommend if officials called on you to advise them?
KABOUB: Sri Lanka has been following the IMF instruction manual for decades. It has received 16 loans from the IMF since the 1960s, and it is currently negotiating another one. Since 1996, Sri Lanka has never been away from the IMF’s negotiating table for more than 3 or 4 years at a time. Despite the political rhetoric of the Sri Lankan government over the last couple of years, the current Sri Lankan administration has abided by the IMF’s terms and conditions of the $1.5 billion Extended Fund Facility (that’s the 16th loan disbursed between 2016-2020). So maybe the Sri Lankan government has come to realize that the IMF instruction manual is actually harmful. The problem is that they don’t fully understand why, and they certainly haven’t identified an alternative strategy to escape from this trap.
In terms of policy advice, Sri Lanka needs emergency assistance with immediate shipments of food, fuel, medicine, and basic necessities. Sri Lanka needs debt relief rather than debt restructuring. For example, UNDP has recently recommended negotiating debt-for-nature swaps. There are other debt swap mechanisms such as debt-for-development, debt-for-equity, and debt-buy backs. The Sri Lankan central bank should be negotiating FX swap line agreements with the central banks of its major trading partners in order to stabilize the value of its currency.
Sri Lanka should also access the IMF’s newly created $45 billion Resilience and Sustainability Trust (RTS), which, unlike other IMF facilities, is actually a program that funds strategic investments to build resilience and promote sustainability. Sri Lanka would qualify for up to $1.4 billion of concessional loans with substantial grace periods. However, to qualify for RTS funds, Sri Lanka must first have an existing agreement with the IMF. It needs to enter these negotiations with its own strategic vision in order to escape the IMF’s austerity and external debt trap.
The IMF wants countries to establish an economic policy framework that leads to external debt sustainability, but its track record has been a miserable failure. Sri Lanka needs to convince the IMF and other lenders and strategic partners, that it can only escape this external debt trap if it tackles the problem at its source—e.g. by investing strategically in food sovereignty (with an actual long-term strategy rather than half-baked organic farming wishful thinking), investing in renewable energy capacity (energy efficiency, public transportation, etc.), investing in education and vocational training in order to climb up the value chain in the manufacturing sector, and becoming more selective in its support for export industries and FDI projects. In other words, ending the race to the bottom policies, and building resilience to external shocks.
These strategic investments must be coupled with an actual democratization of the political as well as the economic system. The government needs to crack down on corruption, cartels, abusive price setters, and entities that enjoy exclusive economic power and have every incentive to object to the strategic investments listed above.
The sad part of this story is that Sri Lanka is only one of many countries in the Global South facing the same structural traps, struggling with unbearable external debt, soaring food and energy prices, shortages, and rising social and political tensions.
The other has to do with a shift toward organic farming that has apparently fueled a precipitous drop in crop yields, farming incomes, and export revenues.