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ECONOMYNEXT – Some Sri Lankan firms could be hit while firms in essential goods may be less affected and import substitution firms could benefit if import controls are tightened on weak external finances, Fitch, a rating agency said.

“Sri Lanka sovereign’s weak external finances will affect corporates importing non-essential finished goods such as consumer durables more than corporates importing essential finished goods such as pharmaceuticals, food or clothing,” Fitch said.

“At the same time, we believe restrictions are less likely in the near term on the importation of raw materials for the domestic manufacture of essential products such as personal care, or for those industries serving as import-substitutes such as tyre and footwear manufacturers.”

Inflated Reserve Money

Sri Lanka’s central bank has been injecting liquidity (inflating reserve money supply in excess of the external monetary anchor or peg) keeping interest rates and credit out of line with the balance of payments and triggering forex shortages.

The central bank has lost foreign reserves as the liquidity was used in state salaries and later in cascading bank credit, and the news money redeemed against foreign reserves for imports or debt payments at a non-credible peg (convertibility undertaking).

The convertibility undertaking has far shifted from around 185 to 203 to the US dollar since early 2020. After convertibility was restricted for trade transactions, as well as some capital transfers banks started to ration dollars.

Parallel exchange rates have also risen as a result.

Due to Mercantilist beliefs – which are also taught in Keynesian universities – monetary instability has been blamed on imports, and authorities tried to control imports.

In Sri Lanka oil often is blamed for currency falls, though liquidity injections in 2015 created a currency crisis as global oil prices collapsed.

However as credit driven by the new liquidity shifted to permitted areas, the trade deficit had exceeded the 2019 levels by May 2021.

In June some import restrictions were relaxed.

Non-Essential

Among Fitch Rated firms, consumer durables sellers were likely to be most affected.

“Singer (Sri Lanka) PLC (AA(lka)/Stable) and Abans PLC (AA(lka)/Stable) are the most exposed among Fitch-rated corporates to tighter import controls, due to the discretionary nature of their products,” the rating agency said.

“A tightening in import controls may exert pressure on both entities’ ratings, owing to low headroom. However, the availability of buffer inventories, a degree of local manufacturing, and potential group synergies in the case of Singer, could help mitigate the impact in the near term.”

Meanwhile firms that critics call crony import substitution firms which have actively lobbied politicians for protection in the past to create a domestic ‘black market’ at high prices could benefit.

“We expect sales volumes for domestic manufacturers to rise in the near term as they attempt to fill shortages created by import restrictions,” Fitch said.

“Therefore, corporates such as the domestic tyre manufacturer Ceat Kelani Holdings (Private) Limited (CKH, AA+(lka)/Stable), footwear manufacture and retailer DSI Samson Group (Private) Limited (DSG, AA(lka)/Stable), as well as electric cable producer Sierra Cables PLC (AA-(lka)/Negative), may be long-term beneficiaries as their products serve as import substitutes.”

Neutral

The impact on alcohol, beverage and phamarceuticals may be neutral.

“We believe pharmaceutical manufacturers and distributors such as Hemas Holdings PLC (AAA(lka)/Stable) and Sunshine Holdings PLC (AA+(lka)/Stable) are less likely to see tighter import restrictions despite significant import exposure,” Fitch said.

“This is because of the essential nature of their goods, and limited availability of their products in the local market.

“Hemas and Sunshine have limited domestic manufacturing capabilities for certain generic drugs, while around 90% of the pharmaceutical products they sell are imported.

“This is because domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing is at a nascent stage, with producers lacking the technological know-how and infrastructure near term as they attempt to fill shortages created by import restrictions.”