Sri Lanka is treading on the path of John Law, an 18 century French Mercantilist who drove France to a monetary meltdown with an early central bank, in implementing so-called Modern Monetary Theory debauching the currency, an opposition legislator has charged.
Sri Lanka cut taxes sharply in December 2019 in a fiscal ‘stimulus’ and started printing in large quantities following several rate cuts in early 2020 in a monetary ‘stimulus’.
John Law Returns
“Look at the problems in fiscal policy. What was the benefit of cutting taxes?” opposition legislator Kabir Hashim questioned in parliament.
“Government revenues fell and prices of goods went up. Look at monetary policy. In 1700s in Britain there was a man called John Law. It his policies we are following now, printing money and calling it MMT.”
Law fled his native Scotland to France over an incident in a duel, but had tried interest Scottish leaders in setting up a central bank and a national paper money.
Scotland had a series of free banks and a type of short term advances of money similar to ‘provisional advances’ found in Sri Lanka’s central bank law called the ‘real bills doctrine’ had been in use to various degrees.
However he failed to persuade Scottish leader including the Duke of Argyle of his scheme. Following his flight to France, Law cultivated a friendship with the Duke of Orleans, who was regent to King Louis of France.
In 1720 Law was appointed Controller General of Finance. A private bank set up by Law was nationalized at Banque Generale and it bought government debt.
“He (Law) bankrupted France,” Hashim said. “The same thing is happening in Sri Lanka.”
Placing restrictions on free trade, Law created several companies with crony-mercantilist monopoly powers including the Mississippi Company, driving up stock market prices with excess profits.
In Sri Lanka import restrictions are also driving up stock market profits of some so-called crony import-substitution companies, which exploit people with high prices benefiting from import duties and import controls.
However inflation soon followed and stock markets collapsed as people demanded gold in return for the paper money, in a similar way people demand dollars in return for printed money in a pegged exchange rate central bank.
Kabir said hundreds of billions of rupees had been printed in 2020.
“Where had his money gone?” he questioned. “There should be lots of money. Why is the government saying there is no money now?”
The money left country as a balance of payments deficit as the new money was redeemed for foreign reserves for trade transactions and for dollar debt repayment.
Excess Money Redeemed for Reserves
The BOP deficit in 2020 was 2.3 billion US dollars. In 2021 up to April the BOP deficit was over 900 million dollars.
“The rupee had been severely debauched (masta baldu),” Hashim said. “Mahinda Rajapaksa hit the rupee over 100 to the US dollar in 2005. Gotabaya Rajapaksa hit it over 200 to the US dollar in 2020/2021.”
However the central bank in the administration in which Hashim was a cabinet minister also followed a milder version of MMT called ‘output gap targeting’.
Ironically the International Monetary Fund gave technical support to calculate a supposedly existing ‘output gap’.
Printing money to target an output gap created a currency crisis in 2018 driving the rupee down from 153 to 182 to the US dollar forcing corrective policies to be implemented as the balance of payments was blown apart, in a so-called ‘stop-go’ policy.
The central bank also jettisoned a ‘bill only policy’ trying to control long term yield curve, going beyond a short term ‘real bills doctrine’ to longer term permanent injections of money in the style of Banque Royale.
However the country does not have a floating rate to avoid a currency collapse when money is printed through open market operations.
After busting the rupee the central bank also controlled deposit rates, in an unprecedented double expropriation of the small man in favor of leveraged businesses and the state in another Mercantilist intervention.
The central bank also engaged in real effective exchange rate targeting resisting an appreciation of the currency in 2017 while buying up over a billion US dollars in reserves and also undoing dangerous swap deals.
Instead of letting the currency appreciate like in 2010 and 2011, the rupee was further depreciated by 3 rupees in 2017.
The then administration gave ‘central bank independence’ and allowed REER targeting, a blatantly Mercantilist strategy aimed at getting a short term trade advantage by destroying real wages of export workers.
The then-cabinet also did not objects to ‘output gap targeting’ to be implemented though no cabinet sanction had been given for such an action which went against the stability objective of the central bank.
A policy rate corridor was also narrowed from 150 to 100 basis points, and no action was taken.
MLA mandate for stability
Call money rate targeting was then started where large volumes of money was printed to target a rate below the ceiling of the corridor making nonsense of the idea of having a policy corridor in the first place which is to allow rates to go up automatically when a peg is defended.
Critics have pointed that the central bank only has a stability mandate and no growth mandate for any John Law type activity other than provisional advances for six months, and both output gap targeting and MMT violates Section 05 of the constitution of the central bank.
However even in 1950, an economist writing in The Banker magazine warned that the six-month limit was no protection as long at the CB could buy Treasuries and had many tools used in Latin America.
Sri Lanka’s central bank was one of several set up by the Fed in Latin America and Asia in the style of Argentina’s central bank.
In 2015 large volumes of money was injected initially to keep call money rates at the bottom of the corridor eventually driving the rupee from 131 to 151 to the US dollar by early 2017 in the first currency crisis in the last administration.
Analysts warned that the call money rate targeting would be a death-knell for the rupee and REER targeting would, trigger monetary instability and political unrest.
However MMT is much more dangerous.
Analysts have warned that MMT combined with swap deals could make the central bank insolvent, in addition to possible sovereign default and could trigger a monetary meltdown unless corrective action was taken to stop printing money.