A bird, a plane? No, it`s inflation - Cyril Almeida - January 21, 2011

Source : www.dawn.com

FIRST, the good news. The reforms package mooted by the PML-N and to be `implemented` by a bipartisan committee has some good stuff in it.
Now to the bad news: even if implemented fully, something only the chronically delusional could hope for, the reforms package doesn`t even begin to address the immediate, and far more dangerous, economic threat.
Essentially, the government is in desperate need of money. Lots and lots and lots of money; perhaps as much as a trillion rupees in the year ahead.
(It`s simple math, really: the government spends twice as a much as it earns. For various complicated reasons, the spending side isn`t the fundamental problem — government spending of around 20 per cent of GDP is par for the course for a country with Pakistan`s economic profile. The revenue side is the main problem, hovering as it is around 10 per cent of GDP, putting us in the league of economic basket cases.)
Scan through what`s been mooted by the PML-N and the measures the bipartisan PPP-PML-N committee is supposed to debate, though, and there`s nothing meaningful about revenue generation.
Which means the government is still left with a VERY, VERY BIG PROBLEM: where will it find a trillion rupees?
Good ol` Zardari asked Obama for a bail-out, hoping to cash in on the ultimate moral hazard with Uncle Sam. Except it didn`t quite work: get real, Zardari was told, we`ll help you guys out when you guys get serious about reforms. So, tail between its legs, the government will end up pounding on the doors of Shahid Kardar. Print us some more money, it will demand of the State Bank, or else we`ll find someone who will.
Governor Kardar will relent, as would anyone else in his place.
But here`s the problem. In December 2009, a certain esoteric piece of data read Rs1.35 trillion. That, for simplicity`s sake, was pretty much the currency in circulation in the economy.
In December 2010, this figure had gone up to Rs1.6tr. Rumour has it that the State Bank may be pumping as much as Rs2bn a day into the economy at present.
The impact isn`t very difficult to explain. Higher and higher amounts of money sloshing around the economy are chasing the same amount of goods; inflation is the obvious outcome.
But just how much inflation?
Quick back-of-the-envelope calculations reveal the full horror of what is in store for Pakistan. Between the end of 2009 and the end of this year, the currency in circulation may well double. But the size of the economy won`t have grown by more than a smidgen.
Twice the money, the same amount of goods and services — figuring out the impact on prices isn`t very difficult.
Now to the $64,000 question.
Why would the government, the PPP, the party of the awam , flirt with triggering disastrous inflation in this way?
And why would the PML-N, the GT Road party, the party of the trader, let the PPP drive the economy off a cliff?
The PML-N calculus revolves around winning the next election, now or later. Let the PPP sink in a mess of its own creation, and the PML-N`s odds of inheriting power get better and better.
But the PML-N also has to look like it cares about things like the economy, so the 10-point agenda was a clever ruse. It burnishes the N-League`s credentials with its trader base, eschewing tax reforms while at the same time making the party look serious on the economy.
So the N-League`s game is fairly clear.
The PPP`s is less obvious. Why would a government with a vote bank among the poorer segments of society willingly preside over a disastrous inflationary spiral?
It`s not like the PPP is clueless about what`s likely to happen in the months ahead. The finance guys sounded the alarm long ago.
The answer, depressingly, appears to lie not in how little the PPP knows about politics, but in how much. Patronage politics, that is.
Plan A is a bailout from the Americans or the IFIs. If Plan A doesn`t work, there`s Plan B: shell out patronage.
In the convoluted, upside-down world of constituency politics, the very government that has made your life miserable through terrible macroeconomic management can be the one to rescue you at the personal level.
Not enough cash to feed the mouths at home? No problem, Benazir Income Support Programme to the rescue. A couple thousand bucks every other month, and don`t forget to vote for the party of Shaheed Mohtarma.
Next, you, your home got damaged in the floods? Lost your goat and sickly cow? Here, take a Watan Card. Twenty thousand cash down, eighty to come. Remember, Shaheed Mohtarma made it all possible. Including the eighty thousand that will come later…
Village needs a road? Here`s a few million for a shoddily built one, enough to drive wagons full of voters to the nearest polling booth come the next election. Gas connection? Local school? Irrigation project? Cheque, cheque and cheque.
Actually, to figure out the PPP`s road map to the next election, look no further than the Musharraf strategy in 2007-08. Subsidies ballooned as the prices of electricity, petrol and other commodities were frozen. `Project money` was thrown around willy-nilly, political expediency trumping economic sense.
But wait, wouldn`t throwing around even more money only compound the problem when too much spending and too little earning was the problem in the first place?
The future is another country. Right now, there are votes to be won.
The writer is a member of staff.

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