Former Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz has questioned the timing of the Maldives Monetary Authority’s (MMA’s) decision to offer Treasury Bills (T-bills) to the wider private sector claiming it would compound the country’s budget deficit rather than directly address state debt.
Inaz, who served as Finance Minister under the administration of former President Mohamed Nasheed, said that until the present government put a lid on its expenditure to levels agreed in the national budgets of the last two or three years – extending T-bills to the wider private sector in the current climate would only prolong economic uncertainty.
The comments were made as local media reported yesterday that the Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) had opted to allow “private groups” to purchase T-bills.
Such bills, which are sold by governments all over the world, serve as a short-term debt obligation backed by sovereign states. In the Maldives, T-bills are said to have a maximum maturity of six months, in which time they must be repaid, according to Inaz.
The economy, particularly national debt, has become an increasingly important issue for the coalition government of President Dr Mohamed Waheed Hassan.
Parliament’s Financial Committee in May released projection that the Maldives’ budget deficit will reach 27 percent of the GDP by the end of 2012, a 175 percent increase on earlier forecasts.
In recent weeks, the government has downplayed delayed payments of civil servant salaries as being the result of a banking “administrative error”, while also admitting to facing “economic difficulties” in covering months of outstanding premium payments resulting from the Aasandha universal healthcare programme.
Yesterday, Abdulla Yameen, parliamentary leader of the government-aligned Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) told local media that the country was in “dire need” of financial assistance from the international community to help set right the economy.
Yameen and fellow PPM MP and Spokesperson Ahmed Mahlouf were not responding to calls from Minivan News today to clarify the comments.
Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad said the decision to extend the availability of T-bills to private enterprise was a condition outlined by the Asia Development Bank (ADB) to secure loan funding. He was unable to give the exact amount of the loan at the time of press.
According to Jihad, T-bills had been previously only open to private financial institutions, a market place that he said was presently “saturated” in terms of demand, limiting the amount of T-bills the institutions were willing, or had the capacity, to purchase.
“The issue was to open the market to private groups,” he said.
In regards to criticism from the previous administration about state spending, the Finance Minister pointed to a recent order for all government institutions to immediately reduce their budgets by 15 percent – a pledge Jihad stressed had been successfully realised.
However, former Finance Minister Inaz said by that extending the T-bill scheme without addressing wider concerns of groups like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) over government expenditure, authorities were only prolonging current economic instability rather than tackling the present spending shortfall.
“My reaction to the MMA’s proposals is that issuing T-bills to the private sector or these private groups is not going to help the situation. The budget deficit should be reduced at all costs. Then these T-bills could be introduced as a way to meet capital expenditure,” he said.
“Expenditure should of course not be reduced to a level that would kill off independent institutions and the democratic reform of recent years. But the best way forward is to maintain expenditure say to the levels set in the 2010 or 2011 budget, while increasing income.”
While accepting that current political tensions between the government and the now opposition Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) made it difficult reach parliamentary agreement, Inaz said that the Majlis would need to agree on any changes to the state budget.
Inaz also called on policy makers to adopt a “broader mindset” by reviewing the present government’s decision, announced earlier this year, to restore import duties and reduce GST.
He believed that taxation measures such as the GST remained the easiest solution to boosting revenue.
Inaz contended that a focus on more direct taxation would allow the government to serve as a facilitator to encourage the private sector to generate economic activity.
T-Bill reliance under Nasheed
Despite concern over the timing of the MMA’s proposals, Inaz conceded that the previous administration had itself relied on debt financed through the sale of T-bills that amounted to about Rf 1.4billion in 2011. However, he claimed that the final budget passed under the Nasheed government in December 2011 was designed to reduce the nation’s budget deficit, while also cutting down on short-term debt obligations such as T-bills.
“The T-bills issued in 2011 amounted to Rf1.4 billion (US$90.8 million). We foresaw the need growing every year, but this is very difficult to maintain as the maximum maturity for T-bills is six months, during which time they must be paid back,” he said
However, Inaz added that before the controversial transfer of power in February that brought President Waheed into office, the Nasheed government had pledged to reduce its reliance on T-bills by focusing on generating revenue through economic reforms such as GST.
“This year though we were set to reduce our reliance on T-bills to about Rf 700 million (US$45.4 million) with a view to cutting back completely through repayments in the next two years or so.”
Local media reported in April last year that government debt accrued through the sale of T-bills to banks and financial enterprises was estimated to be equivalent to more than a third of this year’s Rf 12 billion (US$778.2 million) national budget, according to Maldives Monetary Authority (MMA) figures released at the time.