An Economic Crisis in Pakistan Again: What’s Different This Time?

Pakistan’s newly-elected government is already dealing with a balance of payments crisis, which has been a consistent theme for the nation’s newly elected officials. Pakistan’s structural problems are homegrown, but what is different this time around is an added component of Chinese debt. Pakistan is the largest Belt and Road (BRI) partner adding another creditor to its already complicated economic situation.

Pakistan’s system is ill-equipped to make changes which would avoid future excessive debt. A bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is probably the safest bet for the country although it is unclear whether the United States will support the program. How Pakistan decides to handle its debt crisis could provide insight into how the U.S., IMF, and China will resolve development issues in the future. Beijing is a relatively new player in the development finance world so much is to be learned from how it deals with Pakistan and how it could possibly maneuver in other developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

Q1: What is Pakistan’s current financial and economic situation?

A1: Pakistan held its most recent elections in July 2018. The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party gained over 100 seats in the parliament, and its founder Imran Khan, a famous cricket team captain, was installed as prime minister. Prime Minister Khan has inherited a balance of payments crisis, the third one in the last 10 years. By the end of June 2018, Pakistan had a current account deficit of $18 billion, nearly a 45 percent increase from an account deficit of $12.4 billion in 2017. Exorbitant imports (including those related to the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC)) and less-than-projected inflows (export revenues and remittances) have led to a current account deficit widening, with foreign currency reserves levels covering less than two months of imports—pushing Pakistan towards a difficult economic situation.

Part of Pakistan’s financial crisis stems from the fact that 2018 was a poor year for emerging markets. Global monetary tightening, increased oil prices, and reduced investor confidence have negatively impacted the country’s already precarious economic situation. But the country’s deep structural problems and weak macroeconomic policies have further exposed the economy to an array of debt vulnerabilities.

Pakistan has had an overvalued exchange rate, low interest rates, and subdued inflation over the last few years. This loose monetary policy has led to high domestic demand, with two-thirds of Pakistan’s economic growth stemming from domestic consumption. An overvalued exchange rate has led to a very high level of imports and low level of exports. Pakistan’s high fiscal deficit was accelerated even further in 2017 and 2018 because elections have historically caused spending to rise (both of the most recent fiscal crises followed elections). Perhaps the greatest financial issues facing Pakistan are its pervasive tax evasion and chronically low level of domestic resource mobilization. Taxes in Pakistan comprise less than 10 percent of GDP, a far cry from the 35 percent of countries that are part of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Pakistan also suffers from impediments in the energy sector through frequent and widespread power outages that hurt its competitiveness.

In Western media, Chinese investment is often cited as the main driver of Pakistan’s debt crisis. This is somewhat true as China’s BRI makes Pakistan a key partner through the shared CPEC. The CPEC is a $60 billion program of infrastructure, energy and communication projects that aims to improve connectivity in the region. CPEC infrastructure costs have certainly placed a greater debt burden on Pakistan, but the current structural problems are homegrown; the root cause of the energy shortages is now less a matter of power generation, and more of fiscal mismanagement of the power sector.

Q2: What are Pakistan’s options?

A2: Pakistan appears to be in perpetual crisis-mode, and for too long the Pakistani government has been overly reliant on U.S. bilateral assistance. While it may not be the first choice of the Pakistani government, an IMF bailout is the most likely outcome of this financial crisis because it is probably the only path for Pakistan to regain its macroeconomic stability. Any “bailout” from a bilateral donor (meaning China or Pakistan’s Gulf State friends, including Saudi Arabia which has recently provided Pakistan $3 billion for a period of one year as balance-of-payment support) will not get at the root issues that Pakistan faces—its loose macroeconomic, fiscal, and monetary policies. Pakistan needs to get its house in order and remedy many of its domestic economic issues. 18 out of Pakistan’s 21 IMF programs over the last 60 years have not been completed despite obtaining over $30 billion in financial support across those programs. Just like today’s current financial crisis, Pakistan’s last two IMF packages (in 2008 and 2013) were also negotiated by incoming governments.

Q3: Would the U.S. support a new IMF Pakistan program?

A3: The current U.S. administration and Congress would not be supportive of additional bilateral funding to Pakistan—meaning money coming directly from the United States. Since 2001, Pakistan has been the beneficiary of the U.S. Coalition Support Fund (CSF), which reimburses allies for costs incurred by war on terrorism. The CSF is used to reimburse Pakistan for U.S. military use of its network infrastructure (e.g., ports, railways, roads, airspace) so that the United States can prosecute the war in neighboring Afghanistan, as well as certain Pakistani military counter-terrorism operations. The CSF for Pakistan has been as high as $1.2 billion per year, and, in recent years, $900 million per year. With nearly $1 billion in CSF distributed every year, along with $335 million in humanitarian assistance, it will be difficult to convince Congress to appropriate more funds for a Pakistan bailout yet. However, due to inaction on the part of Pakistan to expel or arrest Taliban insurgents operating from Pakistani territory, the United States has recently cut another $300 million from the CSF, bringing the total to $850 million in U.S. assistance withheld from Pakistan this year. In fact, all security assistance to Pakistan, whether it is international military education and training, foreign military financing, or the CSF, has been suspended for this year according to one State Department official.

An IMF program for Pakistan faces resistance from some members of Congress. A group of 16 senators has already signed a letter to President Trump that outlines their opposition to bailing out Pakistan because the IMF package would, in effect, be bailing out Chinese banks.

The Trump administration has also taken a hardline stance towards assisting Pakistan with its financial crisis. Secretary of State Pompeo stated this past July that he would not support an IMF bailout that went towards paying off Chinese loans. In September, Secretary Pompeo visited Pakistan, and there were indications that the United States would not block an IMF program. If an IMF program is enacted, there is no doubt that it would have stronger conditionality and a greater insistence on full transparency of Pakistan’s debt obligations.

Q4: Would an IMF package be a bailout of the Chinese?

A4: The terms of Pakistan’s loans with China are currently unclear and multiple news outlets have reported that Pakistan has refused to share CPEC information with the IMF. However, it is not unreasonable to presume that the terms in those contracts would be more demanding than terms typically asked by the IMF. Unless the terms between Pakistan and China and its state-owned enterprises (SOEs) are disclosed and made clear to the IMF, then it is unwise for the IMF to proceed with a bailout package.

The IMF’s focus is not in projecting power and influence; rather it seeks to help struggling nations get back on their feet. The same cannot be said for China. China appears to be most interested in spreading its influence and gaining valuable assets for its military and expanding economy, while at the same time exporting its surplus capacity for infrastructure building. In its annual report to Congress, the Department of Defense reiterated this concern, “countries participating in BRI [such as Pakistan] could develop economic dependence on Chinese capital, which China could leverage to achieve its interests.”

Of Pakistan’s nearly $30 billion trade deficit, 30 percent is directly attributable to China. If China were concerned about the economic crisis in Pakistan, it would make immediate concessions which Pakistan Finance Minister Asad Umar says China is working on. To help with the crisis, China could readjust its trade surplus with Pakistan in different ways. For example, China could buy Pakistani cement and other purchases in the short term to illustrate that they are aware of and swiftly responding to the economic turmoil in Pakistan. Other nations have struggled with debt obligations to China. For instance, in July 2017, Sri Lanka signed over a 99-year lease for Hambantota Port to a Chinese SOE because of Sri Lanka’s inability to pay for BRI costs. Malaysia took a different path and decided to cancel major infrastructure projects with China in August 2018 due to worries that they would increase its debt burden.

Q5: What are the consequences if there is no IMF package?

A5: It is likely that China will provide even more assistance to broaden Pakistan’s dependency. Chinese banks and SOEs have already invested heavily into Pakistan, so much so that state bank loans have not been fully disclosed to the global community. In fact, Pakistan’s Status Report for July 2017 through June 2018 shows that Chinese commercial banks hold 53 percent of Pakistan’s outstanding commercial debt. However, that percentage may be even higher than the report depicts. While China and Pakistan have agreed to make all CPEC projects readily available to the public, the information is scattered and often left blank on essential financial reports (see July-June 2017 document), and so it is difficult to obtain a full sense of the degree of Pakistan’s indebtedness to China. Again, much of the loan information provided by the Pakistani government, especially concerning China, is not entirely transparent.

If China chooses to follow through and become the “point person” for an assistance package, the pressure will be taken off the IMF. But, if the United States does not support an IMF package, it will forego major geopolitical potential in the region to its main competitor, China.

Pakistan represents a litmus test of all future cases in which the IMF, United States, China, and any emerging market country are all involved. Depending on how Beijing chooses to navigate Pakistan’s financial crisis, China may soon find itself responsible for rectifying the debt burdens of Zambia and many other BRI countries.

Q6: What are U.S. geopolitical “equities” in Pakistan?

A6:  The United States is invested in Pakistan because of its significant geopolitical importance.

  1. Pakistan is an important component of the balance of power in South Asia. Both India and Pakistan have nuclear weapons capabilities. Moreover, China, India, and Pakistan have been in dispute over the Kashmir region since 1947. Regional stability is in the interest of the United States.
  2. Despite its ambiguous stance on militant groups, Pakistan is ostensibly an ally of the United States because of its proximity to Afghanistan. Since the War on Terror began in 2001, Pakistan has been an active partner in the elimination of core al Qaeda within Pakistan and has facilitated aspects of the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan.
  3. The United States now seeks a negotiated settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan. To accomplish this, perhaps the United States will come to Pakistan with a simple offer: “deliver the Taliban, and we will give you the IMF.”
  4. Whereas previous administrations may have tried to “play nice” with Pakistan, under the Trump administration, there is a chance that the U.S. government will push the IMF to adopt stricter terms for a Pakistan bailout, citing the Pakistani government’s failures of the last two programs.
  5. Other than strategic military importance, one of the most important national security challenges to the United States is Pakistan’s demographic trends. Currently, over 64 percent of Pakistanis are under the age of 30—the largest percentage of youth in the country’s history. Over the next 30 years, Pakistan’s population will increase by over 100 million, jumping from 190 million to 300 million by 2050. The spike in youth population presents an opportunity for the U.S. government and private sector to increase investment in Pakistan. Pakistan’s economy must generate 1 million jobs annually for the next three decades and GDP growth rates must equal 7 percent or more per year to keep up with the population boom. Were Pakistan’s economy to collapse, the world would see the first instance of a failed state with a substantial arsenal of nuclear weapons.
  6. An economically healthy Pakistan could be a large market for U.S. goods and services. If the U.S.-Pakistan relationship is strained as a result of this financial crisis, it will not only harm the United States militarily but will also harm U.S. businesses and Pakistani consumers.

Q7: Should the U.S. support an IMF package to Pakistan?

A7: Given the geostrategic importance of Pakistan for the United States, we should support a package but with stronger conditionality than in 2013 along with full transparency and disclosure of its debt obligations.

Daniel F. Runde is senior vice president, director of the Project on Prosperity and Development, and holds the William A. Schreyer Chair in Global Analysis at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Richard Olson is a non-resident senior associate at CSIS. He is the former U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and Pakistan; most recently he served as the U.S. special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan during the Obama administration. Special thanks to CSIS Project on Prosperity and Development program coordinator Owen Murphy and intern Austin Lucas for their contributions to this analysis.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Daniel F. Runde
Senior Vice President; William A. Schreyer Chair; Director, Project on Prosperity and Development

Ambassador Richard Olson

Senior Associate, Project on Prosperity and Development