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February 26, 2021

  • January’s current account (CA) deficit was smaller than anticipated (at $ 229 mln).  However, we still expect the remaining months of FY21 to post deficits as imports will remain elevated.  With a $ 912 mln balance of payments (BoP) surplus in Jul-Jan 2021, Pakistan has the room to grow imports without stressing it BoP.  We expect Pakistan’s CA deficit in FY21 to be around $ 2 bln;
  • IMF announces that the EFF will start in April 2021, but only $ 500 mln will be released for the 2nd to the 5th quarterly reviews.  This means that Pakistan was in the EFF during 2020 and the $ 1.4 bln emergency assistance provided in April 2020, has been internalized in the EFF;
  • This reaffirms our view that Pakistan’s economy has done well during the pandemic; more specifically: (1) the smooth exit of carry trades; (2) travel restrictions have boosted remittances and kept monthly inflows above $ 2 bln in the past 8 months; (3) the global focus on relief and stimulus allowed the authorities to embark on TERF; (4) the fall in oil prices helped Pakistan’s BoP; & (5) if the program ends as scheduled in Sept 2022, this means the next general elections will take place after the IMF program ends.
  • The composition of monthly imports strongly suggests that Pakistan is experiencing a growth phase.  In the past two months, non-oil and machinery imports are at record highs, while the import of CKD kits (to assemble motor vehicles) is trending up sharply;
  • Exports have bounced back sharply after the lockdown, but we are concerned that this may reverse when other textile exporters (e.g., India and Bangladesh) come back online;
  • We are surprised that YoY inflation edged down in January, especially after 4 consecutive increases in retail fuel prices and the hike in power tariffs.  This has lowered our inflation projection to 9.6% in FY21 but expect a rise in inflation in the months ahead because of the base effect.  However, we do not see SBP increasing interest rates in the period ahead;
  • We maintain our growth projection of 3-4 % for FY21, which is far higher than the IMF’s 1½ %, and even SBP’s range of 1½ – 2½ %.  We cannot explain why the IMF is so pessimistic, since business confidence is high, and imports will remain strong in 2021.  However, the growth momentum will have to be pulled back when BoP pressures begin to manifest.
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January 22, 2021

  • The streak of monthly current account surpluses ends in December, with a deficit of $ 662 mln. The reversal from a surplus of $ 513 mln in November has changed our full-year BoP projections;
  • This turnaround is driven by a $ 940 mln increase in imports in December, which can be traced to food imports (to contain food inflation) and underlying economic activity in construction and textiles;
  • This supports our elevated growth projection of 3-4% in FY21, but it does so at the expense of the BoP comfort so far;
  • Monthly remittances were strong in December ($ 2.4 bln), and should remain buoyant while travel restrictions remain in place;
  • The IMF’s full-year BoP projection will give us a better handle on currency stability and the accumulation of reserves by end-FY21. As things stand, the rupee should be stable till March and then experience some flexibility as the country transitions into the IMF program;
  • We expect the IMF negotiations to focus on familiar issues like raising power tariffs, containing the circular debt, increasing FBR revenues, and pushing for the autonomy of SBP and Nepra. We expect the EFF to restart in April with binding targets for June 2021;
  • With the recent power tariff and retail fuel price increases, we have raised our inflation projections to the upper end of the 10-11% range. The base effect will exaggerate YoY inflation in Q1-2021;
  • This may put some pressure on SBP to increase interest rates in March, but it will only be a token;
  • While Western countries have rolled-out mass vaccination programs, daily infections, deaths, and hospitalization are at record levels in the US and UK. Hence, the anticipated sense of relief from the vaccine has not materialized;
  • In Pakistan, on the other hand, the second wave appears to have peaked. With the number of currently infected under 35,000, we have a lot to be grateful for.  Also, vaccinations could start by March, but no details about the roll-out are available;
  • Tensions between the PDM and the PTI government have escalated in recent weeks, but this will not destabilize the government or have any impact on Pakistan’s economy;
  • Joe Biden becomes president with a peaceful transition of power. President Trump experienced a tragic end to his presidency, after his stunning political blunder to incite his supporters to storm the US Capitol.  Trump has now been impeached twice, has lost his standing in the Republican Party, and has alienated his support base.
  • We expect better relations with the Biden administration and will focus on how this White House handles Saudi Arabia, Iran, and India.
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December 28, 2020

  • The fifth month of a current account surplus is a source of comfort for Pakistan.  The $ 1.64 bln surplus posted so far in FY21, suggests that Pakistan may be able to post a “balanced” balance of payment this fiscal year;
  • Remittances remain strong, posting a 27% increase over the same period in FY20.  This means the tightening of dollar leakages linked to travel restrictions has dominated the possible loss of jobs by Pakistanis working in the GCC;
  • The second wave of Covid-19 infections is alarming, but the recent trend suggests that the wave has crested.  There is no vaccination rollout plan yet, but we expect this to be announced in early 2021;
  • China’s economy has recovered much faster from the pandemic compared to the West.  While vaccinations are being rolled out in Western countries, the nature of their economic recovery remains uncertain;
  • Media reports on the negotiations with the IMF, state that fiscal measures, power tariffs rates, and the elimination of exemptions remain contentious.  Talks will commence in 2021;
  • Food inflation remains a policy priority, and media reports claim that Pakistan has managed to delay the imposition of GST on food items.  Nevertheless, our projections suggest that food inflation will remain elevated throughout FY21;
  • As fiscal measures are implemented and retail fuel prices adjust to rising global prices, we have increased our inflation projection to 10-11% in FY21;
  • Monthly trade flows show a fall in April and May 2020 (as the lockdown impacted commercial activities and logistics) but have since bounced back.  Non-oil imports are now above pre-pandemic levels, but exports are struggling;
  • With a comfortable BoP, we think the authorities will keep the rupee stable for the next few months to sustain the improvement in business sentiments.  This means the rupee could end FY21 around 168/$;
  • The pickup in construction activity has increased the price of cement and steel.  Given the role construction plays in supporting other sectors of the economy, we have upgraded our growth estimate to 3-4% in FY21, which is much higher than the IMF’s 1% growth projection;
  • Private sector credit disbursement remains low as banks focus on lending to the government.  We reiterate our concern that Pakistan’s banking system will become more shallow as SMEs, Agri, and micro-enterprises rely on the non-bank financial system, which relies on cash and supports the bulk of employment in the country.  Efforts to increase tax revenue as the economy becomes more undocumented will only incentivize the informal economy;
  • The political scare from a unified opposition “long march” has largely dissipated, as cracks in the opposition coalition are becoming more pronounced.
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November 20, 2020

  • The current account surplus for the fourth consecutive month is surprising, and very good news as Pakistan deals with the on-going pandemic;
  • SBP’s Annual Report for FY20 is disappointing. It doesn’t acknowledge the uncertainty that currently exists, and parts of the report are self-serving. The fact that SBP is pinning its hope on the positive response to its subsidized credit scheme (Temporary Economic Refinance Facility – TERF) is strange – it is almost as if the central bank is trying to paint an optimistic picture;
  • Food inflation remains a challenge, and SBP has increased its FY21inflation projection to 7-9%;
  • An IMF mission is expected to visit in the weeks ahead. This means program conditions are now being implemented, which could explain the surprise weakening of the rupee since end-September. However, with Christmas approaching and the pandemic raging in the US, negotiations could drag into 2021;
  • Program details should begin to leak out, but we know that the autonomy of Nepra and SBP, power tariff increases, and additional tax revenues will be the focus. SBP’s projection for the twin deficit in FY21 shows a fiscal gap of 7% of GDP and an external deficit of 1½%, which is pretty much business-as-usual (this can also be seen in SBP’s projections for imports, exports, and remittances in FY21);
  • Despite a current account surplus of $ 1.16 bln so far in FY21, SBP’s FX reserves have fallen by $ 205 mln in this period. This shows that debt repayments will make it difficult to build reserves, which means there will be pressure on the external sector (despite the comfortable CA position). However, details will only be available when the IMF releases its next Staff Paper;
  • Inflation will remain elevated in FY21, but SBP may shy away from increasing interest rates too soon. Food, utilities, and transportation costs will drive inflation, and these supply-side factors could justify SBP staying neutral;
  • Covid-19 cases are rising in Pakistan and the second wave is alarming. However, the numbers are still manageable, and the government has been very proactive in its management. We do not see an across-the-board lockdown in the country;
  • However, the global impact of the pandemic has been worse than expected, and even with the good news about successful vaccines, the US and EU are still struggling. It will take some time before the global economy is able to recover to pre-pandemic levels;
  • Joe Biden wins the US presidency, but President Trump still refuses to accept the result. Democrats have not done as well as people had hoped for, and with the Senate likely to remain under Republican control, Biden will not have a productive or easy presidency. The US is deeply divided, which means the American Empire will continue to decline as Americans themselves reveal that they are not interested in global affairs.
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October 22, 2020

  • Current account surplus in 1Q-FY21 is good news, but it goes against the IMF’s narrative that the MENA region (which includes Pakistan) could take as much as 5 years to return to normal;
  • The IMF projects Pakistan’s growth at only 1% in FY21 and a CA deficit of 2½% of GDP, while the GoP predicts growth of 2.1% and a CA deficit of 1½% of GDP. We are closer to the government’s assessment since Pakistan has managed to contain the pandemic and is off to a good start with the BoP;
  • Negotiations to restart the EFF appear to be stuck on how the authorities will manage the ballooning circular debt and raise tax revenues. With the government battling high food inflation and a coordinated opposition that seeks to unseat the PTI government, the appetite for hard measures is clearly lacking;
  • The PM has been warning citizens about the risk of a second wave of Covid-19. We argue that this is designed to remind people to follow SoPs, but there is little risk that Pakistan could return to shutting down the economy. Infections are rising but the quantum is still very much under control;
  • Remittances remain strong and October is likely to be supportive. Even assuming that remittances falls and exports remain sluggish in FY21, we do not see much pressure on the rupee.  However, we see some depreciation at quarter ends to ensure that the rupee adjusts for inflation and interest rate differentials with the US;
  • Despite the positive start for Pakistan’s BoP, SBP’s FX reserves have not trended up. This shows that debt repayments are so heavy that even with balanced $ flows in the current account, the central bank will struggle to build its reserves – this will be a critical metric in the EFF (when it starts);
  • Even with a more controlled currency, the steps required to control the circular debt and raise tax revenues will stoke inflation in 2021. Our projections show that average inflation this year could be 10% with a rising YoY trend in the second half of FY21;
  • In terms of Pakistan’s outlook, a great deal hinges on the US elections. If President Trump loses – which now appears likely – Pakistan should see several positives: tensions in the ME should ease; Kashmir should gain global attention; and a coordinated effort to fight Covid-19 should see a quicker global recovery;
  • Since Pakistan has managed to avoid the worse of the pandemic, we do not see much leeway from the IMF when the EFF restarts. With little appetite to tackle the stubborn economic problems, Pakistan will continue to muddle through 2021, pretty much like it has over the past several years.

 

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Client Event

This is a presentation that was prepared for HBL as part of its client event HBL Global Markets Outlook 2020, which took place as a webinar on September 29th, 2020.  The focus is specifically on Pakistan’s economy, but unlike our monthly presentations there is more context on: how we got to where we are; the repercussions of this journey; what to look out for in the months ahead; and regional and geopolitical events that could impact Pakistan and its economy.

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September 23, 2020

  • Record monsoon rains across the country, disrupt social and commercial activities and trigger public anger against local authorities;
  • Economic impact of the rains has not been quantified yet, and experts are predicting heavier monsoon rains in the years ahead;
  • Covid-19 numbers continue to impress and surprise. However, a recent surge is taking hold that can be traced to greater social interaction (weddings, restaurants, etc.) and the opening of schools;
  • Still no indication when the EFF will restart, which means the BoP outlook for FY21 is still uncertain – as is the rupee-dollar parity;
  • Pakistan’s BoP position continues to improve, with the second consecutive monthly current account surplus. July & August’s external balance posted a surplus of $ 805 mln, against a deficit of $ 1.2 bln in the same period last year.  Despite the comfortable BoP position, the outlook for rupee remains unclear;
  • Outflows in the financial account in FY21 suggest that net debt payments (fresh loans less repayments) could be more important than the above-the-line current account in determining how SBP behaves;
  • No change in interest rates was largely anticipated. Given the inflation outlook in FY21, we think this is the end of the monetary easing phase.  We expect fiscal consolidation measures when the EFF restarts;
  • SBP Governor states that real growth this year would be around 2%, while the external deficit should remain at 2% of GDP. This means the CA deficit could be in the range of $ 4-5 bln this year, which gives some space to increase imports and revive growth.  However, there is no indication of a growth phase;
  • July’s revival in manufacturing is concentrated in cement, iron/steel and pharma, but consumer spending on autos and household electronics remains weak;
  • Compared to peers and the developed world, Pakistan has not been as adversely impacted by the pandemic;
  • In our view, developments in the Middle East, the outcome of the US elections and the global pandemic will influence Pakistan’s outlook. Remittances are vulnerable; exports depend on the global recovery and changing dynamics in the Middle East will test Pakistan’s foreign policy standing with friends and allies.  Pakistan’s economic vulnerability will weaken its role in regional developments.
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August 24, 2020

  • Pakistan’s Covid-19 numbers continue to impress and have now captured global media attention;
  • The country has slipped to 16th (of the worst impacted countries) from 12th a month ago.  As of 23rd August, Pakistan has 10,118 active cases, against India’s 710,621 and Bangladesh’s 111,566;
  • While people are less anxious about the pandemic and the government has opened up larger segments of the economy, success with containing the virus may not translate into a rapid economic recovery;
  • We argue that the authorities want to ensure that the gains in the external sector are not jeopardized, since the global economy is still struggling and securing fresh loans to finance the external deficit will be more difficult in FY21;
  • The improvement in the external sector (July posted a CA surplus of $ 424 mln) has not given much comfort to the rupee, which is often used to trigger investment and domestic growth.  Given Pakistan’s acute dependence on imports, the authorities appear to prioritize caution over economic recovery;
  • This level of caution is understandable.  We show that the recent increase in remittances is coming from two countries (Saudi and the UAE), and argue that this can be traced to the sharp curtailment in air travel.  With limited cash carried by incoming workers, the abrupt end to Umrah and Hajj travel and a sharp fall in khapia activity, Hundi balances that would have been used for these purposes (in the GCC), are now being routed into the country.  As travel returns to normal, we expect monthly remittances to fall;
  • In gauging the outlook, one must realize that the world is still grapping with the pandemic.  Global demand for Pakistan’s exports and inward remittances are vulnerable.  We also think geopolitical dynamics could play out in the months ahead as the US gears up for a bruising election in November.  Pakistan should therefore carefully manage its interests against the competing demands of Middle Eastern countries;
  • On a final note, the PTI’s 2-year report card shows that policy focus has been on averting economic crises rather than solving them.
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July 23, 2020

  • The rate of daily infections has fallen consistently since mid-June, and Pakistan appears to have peaked much earlier than projected;
  • As of 22nd July, there were only 50, 307 active cases, which indicates the falling number of daily infections and the fact that most infected people make a full recovery;
  • There are concerns of a resurgence during Eid and Moharram in August, but we think the authorities should be able to manage social gathering for public safety reasons;
  • All this good news, however, does not translate into a better outlook for the economy.  Although markets have been open since late May, retail volumes are down and demand is cautious.  Unfortunately, the fact that most commercial entities in the country are undocumented, creates two disadvantages for the recovery: (1) many SMEs are out of policy reach; and (2) the adverse impact on the economy is hard to gauge as accurate information is not available;
  • Covid-19 has changed human behavior across the world, and a return to economic normality is not likely until a universal vaccination program has been successfully implemented;
  • The macro economy has held out well with stable FX reserves, a small external deficit and falling inflation (SBP’s reserves are above $12 bln; the current account deficit is $3 bln against a target of $ 6.6 bln; and inflation closed the year on target at 11%);
  • However, the recent pressure on the rupee is surprising and there are concerns that record high remittances in FY20 ($ 23 bln) may experience a sharp fall because of the global pandemic;
  • Secondary market rates have softened after the surprise 100 bps rate cut on 25th June, but we do not think SBP will cut interest rates next month.  With the country re-entering the EFF soon and BoP conditions still uncertain in FY21, the authorities may want to be cautious to protect the gains on the external sector;
  • Globally, the war against Covid-19 is not going very well with the US failing spectacularly to contain the spread of the virus.  Europe is opening up very cautiously and East Asia is experiencing a second wave.  Without a complete victory, the global economy cannot recover, which means Pakistan’s economy will also remain in limbo;
  • We argue that if the “undocumented majority” is ignored by policymakers, the resulting frustration could trigger social unrest;
  • The pandemic should force policymakers to push for greater documentation, not just to help those in need but also to better understand how Pakistan’s retail sector operates.  That this has not happened, is disappointing.
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June 26, 2020

  • The pace of infections and deaths has accelerated since Eid (24th May), which coincided with the opening up of the economy;
  • In response, the government has imposed smart lockdowns, which have targeted specific areas where infections are rising rapidly;
  • We argue that containing the pandemic should have greater priority over restarting the economy.  This is not to understate the importance of restarting the economy, but the logic that if the pandemic continues to spread, people will stop interacting and the economy will not be able to sustain livelihoods;
  • The demand destruction is concentrated in non-essentials and luxury goods/services.  We argue that demand revival will be slow and also uneven – again luxury goods will be the last to recover; 
  • Hence, many firms are facing insolvency that could result in structural unemployment.  This will not be a one-off event, but a gradual process;
  • SBP has launched several schemes to help struggling firms.  They all focus on refinancing, which means liquidity support.  This may allow firms to better manage their cashflows, but if the underlying demand does not pick up, refinancing will not help businesses survive;
  • Credit guarantees are needed to ensure that banks keep lending, and equity injections should be considered to improve the solvency of firms;
  • The federal budget for FY21 is not credible, but it signals that the IMF’s stabilization program should restart in July.  In our view, Pakistan’s macro economy has held out quite well against the pandemic and is now better placed to handle external shocks.  The EFF should be viewed as an insurance policy against the pandemic;
  • Pakistan’s BoP continues to surprise, and posted a $ 13 mln surplus in May 2020.  At its current trajectory, the external deficit could be as low as $ 4 bln for the full year compared to the target of $ 6.6 bln.  While this reflects the acute slowdown in the economy, as a time of global uncertainty, this is a positive;
  • Inflation continues to fall and should be at the lower end of the projected level at the start of FY20.  SBP surprised the market by cutting rates by 100 bps (25th May), which suggests that this is the baseline for FY21 – however, it will do little to increase credit disbursement or revive the economy;
  • At the global level, we are troubled by the lack of credible information about the pandemic, which will only increase uncertainty;
  • Our main concern is the limited scope of the bailout packages in Pakistan.  This is because SMEs are the main source of urban employment, and most of these firms are undocumented and therefore outside the reach of the government.  Since the demand destruction has hit all commercial entities (documented and undocumented), Pakistan will struggle to recover compared to other countries with more documented economies. 
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