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Is a Pakistani Sovereign Default Looming Ahead on the Horizon?

Analysis

Will the IMF be able or willing to provide shelter should Pakistan default?

Photo by Bumble Dee / Shutterstock.com

With the attention of economists and financial analysts absorbed by the banking crisis, other clouds on the horizon are being neglected. Columnist Les Nemethy sees sovereign default in emerging markets as one of those risks.

There are quite a few countries on the critical list; this article deals with Pakistan, a country of 230 million people, the fifth most populous in the world and discusses the probability of default and implosion in Pakistan and its possible impact.

Pakistani bond yields are at distressed levels. Hard currency reserves are dwindling rapidly (at about three weeks of imports). GDP has been stagnant over the past five years. The country must pay down USD 22 billion of debt in the coming year and USD 80 bln over the coming three years.

The rupee has devalued by 60% over the past year, while inflation is in the range of 23-46%, depending on whose measures are used. Rating agencies are consistently downgrading Pakistan (Fitch just downgraded to “CCC” and says, “Default is a real possibility.”)

Droughts and heat waves are becoming more frequent. Record rains recently caused flooding to a third of the country, pushing another eight-to-nine million people below the poverty line. Food shortages and price surges have resulted in mobs looting restaurants and trucks carrying foodstuffs.

The political situation is explosive, with a populist outsider, Imran Khan, likely to win elections this summer, pitted against the establishment and military, whose support he would need to govern.

Nursing Wounds

His last stint as prime minister was characterized by bouts of anti-Americanism and a breakdown of relations with the military. He has loudly voiced concerns that the upcoming elections are rigged against him and that he may not accept the results. He blames the current prime minister for an attempt on his life and is still nursing a leg wound.

Pakistan has some USD 126 bln of external debt. Should a default occur, the probability of an IMF rescue plan coming together, as was the case with Sri Lanka, is less than assured for several reasons:

• No matter who wins the elections, there will be cries of political illegitimacy, making IMF negotiations more difficult, especially when pushing through hard political reforms, like energy and tax increases. Pakistan has a tradition of economy-crippling strikes.

• The IMF has asked Pakistan to approach creditors (for example, China) and obtain new credits, showing hesitation to step in as a lender of last resort.

• Relaunching growth in Pakistan is hampered by a lamentable investment in human capital. Pakistan ranks 141 out of 174 countries on the Human Capital Development Index. There is a higher than 45% illiteracy rate. As of 2019, only 62% of children of primary school age were enrolled in school. A massive brain drain is robbing the country of some of its best talent.

• After 22 lending programs to Pakistan, and allegations of funding a terrorist state, the IMF has reason to be reticent in supporting Pakistan. A recent IMF mission to Pakistan in February failed to result in an agreement on unlocking a mere USD 1.1 bln from an existing 2019 IMF facility, partly because Pakistan insists on its regressive tax policies (raising sales tax rather than introducing a property tax).

Most Vulnerable

The likelihood of implosion is augmented by Pakistan being among the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change while lacking the capital or institutions to deal with it. Further climate shocks might accelerate the downward spiral.

Should there be a default, without an IMF rescue package, an economic death spiral could result in a failed state. Even with a rescue package, the downward spiral may be too strong to overcome.

Default would create a recession. A rise in energy prices and taxes, a likely condition of an IMF package, would add to the severity of the recession. Devaluation would lead to higher inflation. A tightening of monetary policy to defend the rupee could result in a wave of bankruptcies. The man in the street is likely to suffer even more than now.

A default could have a ripple effect on Pakistan’s creditors, most notably China. A default could create a perception of higher risk in lending to emerging markets, contributing to rising interest rates and difficulty in financing government bonds across all emerging markets.

Perhaps the most terrifying prospect is that in the case of civil disobedience or civil war, the fate of Pakistan’s nuclear facilities could be up for grabs. Pakistan may have the privilege of being the least stable of all countries possessing nuclear weapons.

Let me finish on a positive note. As the saying goes, hope for the best, and prepare for the worst. There are a few optimists in Pakistan. Goldman Sachs, for example, forecasted as recently as December 2022 that Pakistan would not default and that by 2075, it would be the sixth largest economy in the world, provided “appropriate policies and institutions” are in place; in my opinion, that is a strong assumption in the case of Pakistan.

Les Nemethy is CEO of Euro-Phoenix Financial Advisers Ltd. (www.europhoenix.com), a Central European corporate finance firm. He is a former World Banker, author of Business Exit Planning (www.businessexitplanningbook.com), and a previous president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hungary.

This article was first published in the Budapest Business Journal print issue of April 11, 2023.

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