By Rathindra Kuruwita
Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) has allowed President Ranil Wickremesinghe to supersede Parliament with regards to public finance, JVP National Trade Union Coordination Centre Convenor Wasantha Samarasinghe told The Island.
He said the same Parliament that was unaware that Sri Lanka was going to default on April 2022, have voted for the resolution to restructure domestic debt without any understanding of its consequences.
The Government Printer, who had a million reasons to delay the printing of ballot papers for the local council polls, has worked on a Poya Day to issue a special Gazette notification about the domestic debt restructuring process, recently passed in Parliament, Samarasinghe said.
Samarasinghe added that Gazette has been issued by President Ranil Wickremesinghe in his capacity as the Minister of Finance under the Registered Stock and Securities Ordinance, No. 07 of 1937.
“Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) MPs made Ranil the President. Now the SLPP has given Ranil power over public finance. The Parliament was given power over public finances because a single person should not have such power. However, it is obvious that Ranil now takes decisions on public finance on his own,” he said.
In this gazette, the President has given the Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, Economic Stabilization, and National Policies, and the Registrar of Public Debt the following powers; to offer to any holder of any stock or securities issued in Sri Lanka under the provisions of the Ordinance or any other enactment the option of converting or exchanging, as the case may be, the holding as of 28th June 2023 or part thereof; to convert or exchange, as the case may be, any stock or securities issued in Sri Lanka under the provisions of the Ordinance or any other enactment held by holders into Treasury Bonds to be issued under the Ordinance and to specify the manner in which payment of interest is made and the conditions subject to which such Treasury Bonds may be converted or exchanged, as the case may be, under the Ordinance.
“In April 2022, Sri Lanka declared bankruptcy. The Parliament didn’t know that we were going to default until the MPs saw the press release issued. The same Parliament has passed the resolution on domestic debt restructuring,” he said.
The domestic debt stock is about 42 billion U.S. Dollars. President Wickremesinghe said that he wants the foreign creditors to waive off 17 billion dollars, Samarasinghe said. That’s about 40 percent of the foreign debt stock.
“The President added that local debt holders must also waive off about 40 percent of the value of the debt. He said that there should be equity. However, it is the EPF and other pension funds that is taking a cut. Parliament has approved the stripping down of the EPF and the gazette issued is a part of laws that will be amended to implement what was approved by the Parliament,” he said.
Neither the President nor the Central Bank or Treasury officials have revealed how much of the domestic debt will be restructured, Samarasinghe said.
“122 MPs voted in favour of this resolution. I challenge anyone of those 122 MPs to tell us the amount of local debt that will be restructured,” he said.
The former MP said that for years EPF funds have been invested in sectors that gave less than market rates in return. Now, the government has officially declared that EPF will only get nine percent interest rate till 2038, he said. This is well below what people would have got if they invest in Treasury Bonds.
“EPF has loaned the government significant amounts of money at below market rates for a long time. We have asked the government to appoint representatives from unions and employers to the board that makes decisions on EPF. There are 2.4 million active accounts and 67,000 employers. Shouldn’t they have some representation? This is the largest fund in the country, but the money is being handled without any transparency,” he said.
In 2018, EPF was strapped with a 14 percent tax, up from 10 percent. The Central Bank governs the EPF finds, and it is also entrusted with restructuring domestic debt, and this is a clear conflict of interest. Meanwhile, the owners of the fund have no say in how their money is used.
There are 117 superannuation funds. Each year, due to the lowering of interest rates, workers will lose between 600 and 1000 billion rupees a year from EPF alone, he said.
“The government doesn’t let workers invest in higher-yielding sectors. The Central Bank invests EPF funds in things that give it low returns. After doing that, it proposes to further cut benefits for the workers. Between 2008 and 2012, EPF money was invested in stocks, and workers lost three billion rupees. Over the years, money was invested in SriLankan and other bad bets. How much money did the EPF lose due to the bond scam?” Samarasinghe asked.
Samarasinghe said that the government has done nothing to increase foreign revenue, and once the country starts to pay external debt, the dollar will significantly appreciate against the rupee.