What is really driving the currency weakness? The Central Bank must consider both fundamentals and monetary factors

Sri Lanka’s currency has fallen rapidly over the last two months, raising fears of yet another crisis. Sri Lanka’s Rupee depreciation over the past six months against the US Dollar is at a much higher rate than the historic annual average of around 10% over the last couple of decades. A stable exchange rate reduces transaction costs and uncertainty in international trade, thereby stimulating trade. It is one of the most important macroeconomic variables in the economy; it affects inflation, exports, imports and economic activity. Budget deficits are the source of much instability. The painful tax increases that addressed this issue were expected to result in stabilisation of interest rates, exchange rates and inflation. The recent depreciation of the currency is therefore puzzling and worrying.

The problem seems to be in the new inflation targeting regime based on the Real Effective Exchange Rate. What this means is that Sri Lanka will target an inflation-adjusted exchange rate index relative to competitors to keep the Rupee competitive. It appears that the depreciation of other currencies has led the Central Bank to loosen monetary policy, causing the currency to fall. What are the implications of such a policy?

Export growth is correctly identified as critical for development, and the Central Bank objective seems to be to keep the exchange rate competitive; but is this necessary? Previously, competitive exchange rates were seen to be crucial for exports, but a recent paper published by the World Bank in 2015 (Depreciation without Exports? Global Value Chains and the Exchange Rate Elasticity of Exports) suggests this is changing (although the view is not universal; other studies seem to contradict this).

The paper finds that the emergence of global value chains (GVCs) has resulted in a decline in the effect of real exchange rates on export performance. This has been linked with the emergence of GVCs through the following three mechanisms:
1. Firms need to import to be able to export; therefore, their exports contain not just domestic but also foreign inputs.
2. Stable supplier-buyer links are valuable, so the cost of switching suppliers in case of a real exchange rate change in a given partner’s country becomes non-negligible.
3. Large leading firms account for an increasingly larger portion of world trade, and these firms may find it easier to hedge against real exchange rate changes along their production network.

The study finds that when firms’ share of imported intermediates is greater than 30 percent, the effect of real exchange rates on export participation fades. Thus, as countries become more integrated in global production processes, currency depreciation only improves the competitiveness of a fraction of the value of final goods exports. The objective of Sri Lanka’s new export strategy is to integrate to GVC. If this paper is correct, the currency may not play a significant role in improving our entry into GVCs.

As yet, Sri Lanka is not well integrated into global value chains; so does the currency depreciation help existing exports? This does not appear to be the case.

A Central Bank staff research paper by U P Alawattage in 2005 titled Exchange Rate, Competitiveness and Balance of Payment Performance examined the effectiveness of the exchange rate policy in Sri Lanka in achieving external competitiveness since the liberalisation of the economy in 1977. It analyses quarterly data covering the period of 1978:1 to 2000:4 and finds that the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER) does not have a significant impact on improving the trade balance, particularly in the short term.

It appears that the depreciation of other currencies has led the Central Bank to loosen monetary policy, causing the currency to fall. What are the implications of such a policy?

The other major concern is the impact of the currency on domestic prices and confidence. For small economies, changes in the exchange rate can have an important influence on prices. It not only affects prices of imports but also import-competing goods, and local goods that are tradeable internationally. When the currency depreciates, local prices of these goods and services tend to rise quite quickly, and by a similar amount as the depreciation of the exchange rate.

When import prices rise, demand is driven towards domestically produced goods and services. In the absence of offsetting factors, this results in more pressure on local production capacity and a bidding up of prices. This leads to increased demand for labour and capital pushing wages and interest rates.

The direct effect of the currency depreciation will generally contribute to an overall price level increase in proportion to the share of tradeable goods and services in GDP. Published as a Central Bank study in 2017, a paper by S M Wimalasuriya titled Exchange Rate Pass-Through: To what extent do prices change in Sri Lanka? suggests that the exchange rate pass-through into import prices is around 50%; that is, import prices increase by about 0.5% (and those of other consumer prices by 0.3%) as a result of a 1% depreciation of the Nominal Effective Exchange Rate.

Therefore, the overall cost of living will rise further. Tax increases – VAT from 11% to 15%, PAL from 5% to 7.5% – and the currency depreciation over the last couple of years has already added significant costs to household budgets. Add to this increases in fuel, gas – all necessary due to increases in global prices – and the combined burden is huge. To add even further inflation through currency depreciation will impoverish many and increase popular discontent. Pursuing unpopular policies is sometimes necessary but the combination of depreciation amid fiscal tightening looks dangerous and perhaps even unnecessary.

Exchange rates can move for a range of reasons, which can be simplified into two categories: “real” factors, or in other words, changes in relative fundamentals; and “monetary” factors. “Fundamentals” would, for example, include changes in the terms of trade and productivity, while “Monetary” factors are changes in the money supply.

In practice, policymakers may find it difficult to distinguish how much of a movement in the exchange rate is due to changes in the fundamentals and how much may be inflationary (or deflationary), although in the current situation, monetary factors seem to be the cause.

Thus, in Sri Lanka, where inflation expectations are not well anchored, the prudent monetary policy response would be to tighten rates, at least until there are grounds for being more confident that it was the fundamentals that had changed. The immediate political considerations suggest the same action.

A currency’s exchange rate contains important information about the country’s monetary position and the credibility of domestic monetary policy. The popular perception of the current stance is that it is either weak or out of control. For businesses, it is creating a new level of uncertainty, which is not being helped by ad hoc administrative measures (increasing LC margins on cars for example) to arrest some of the effects. For consumers, it fuels inflation, adding to the woes of fiscal tightening.

The Central Bank should revisit its inflation-targeting regime and tighten rates to stabilize the currency.