The Economics of Circular Debt By Dr Khalid Waleed

The Economics of Circular Debt By Dr Khalid Waleed

The energy sector of Pakistan has been grappling with a severe and urgent situation, burdened by the mounting circular debt (CD) and severe liquidity pressures. These challenges have been building up for more than a decade, fueled by a combination of sluggish reforms, operational losses, and political reluctances. The fiscal year 2023 witnessed a further deterioration, putting immense strain on the power sector, resulting in widespread power outages, load shedding, exponential increase in tariff and unexpected additional budgetary subsidies.

At the heart of this crisis lies the power sector, requiring immediate and concrete reforms to restore its viability. Recognizing the gravity of the situation, the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s staff report and statement have provided valuable insights and way forward. As part of the plan, the government is poised to adopt an updated Fiscal Year 2024 Circular Debt Management Plan (CDMP) in 2023. The primary aim of this plan is to reduce the budgeted FY24 power subsidy from PKR 976 billion, equivalent to 0.9 percent of GDP. Moreover, the plan entails measures to offset the projected FY24 CD flow of PRs 392 billion and stabilize the FY24 CD stock at its expected end-FY23 level of PKR 2,374 billion (2.2 percent of GDP). The implementation of this comprehensive plan is crucial to alleviate the energy sector’s woes and pave the way for a sustainable and robust power industry in the country.

In the reform plan, a crucial step is the timely realignment of power tariffs with cost recovery levels and annual rebasing (AR) by National Electric Power Regulatory Authority (NEPRA). This entails regular adjustments based on established formulas for annual rebasing, quarterly tariff revisions, and monthly fuel price adjustments. These measures play a pivotal role in arresting the accumulation of circular debt, easing fiscal pressures, and restoring the financial health of power generators, ultimately ensuring a seamless energy supply.

The government is required to embark on the third stage of a multi-year subsidy reform plan.

The government is also cognizant of the necessity to target power subsidies more effectively. In this regard, efforts are underway to shield vulnerable segments of society, introduce fairness, and reduce fiscal burdens. To achieve this, the government is required to embark on the third stage of a multi-year subsidy reform plan, focusing on rationalizing subsidies for major agricultural users. Alongside, regular tariff adjustments will be implemented while safeguarding lifeline and protected slabs for residential consumers.

Furthermore, the government is required to actively pursue medium-term reforms to tackle costs and circular debt. These initiatives involve measures to curb commercial and technical losses, renegotiate power purchase agreements (PPAs), and restructure guaranteed debts into more manageable terms. Additionally, there will be a concerted push to augment renewable energy capacity and enhance distribution efficiencies. These reform efforts have garnered support from esteemed international financial institutions such as the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB).

The natural gas sector is confronted with similar challenges, necessitating regular biannual end-user gas price adjustments while ensuring protection for the most vulnerable consumers. Collaborating with the World Bank, the government seeks to implement the weighted-average cost of gas pricing law, improve data management and projection capabilities, and implement reforms to reduce Unaccounted-for Gas (UFG) losses. The gravity of the circular debt issue within the energy sector demands immediate attention and decisive action. Failing to address this problem could have far-reaching implications for the economy, leading to power shortages, diminished industrial output, and ultimately, a negative impact on the overall growth and development of the country. The recurrent problem of circular debt in the power and gas sectors is not novel. For the past decade, the nation has grappled with mounting debt, resulting in a cyclic pattern that appears increasingly challenging to break. The predicament has been exacerbated by several factors, including slow-paced reforms, inefficient distribution systems, and political resistance to essential tariff adjustments.

Pakistan’s energy sector, long shadowed by systemic flaws, has been skating on thin ice. It’s a cocktail of inefficiencies, administrative faux pas, and a chronic investment drought that’s left powerhouses running dry. The resultant strain? Spiralling costs, an unwelcome reliance on premium imported fuels, and a burgeoning circular debt that increasingly feels like a millstone around the government’s neck.

The political arena, notorious for its ‘kick-the-can-down-the-road’ approach, hasn’t helped. Fearing electoral aftershocks and public furore, authorities have shied away from biting the bullet on global commodity pricing and exchange rate fluctuations. The upshot: a liberal sprinkling of subsidies, intended as a salve, but only deepening the fiscal quagmire and stretching the national purse strings to snapping.

Adding fuel to the fire are off-the-books subsidies-ephemeral band-aids that miss the heart of the ailment. They’ve spun a web of dependency, turning power companies into subsidy junkies rather than champions of fiscal reform. The ripples of circular debt aren’t just numbers on a ledger but real-world blackouts and dimmed factories. The everyday fallout? Stalled production lines, shrinking payrolls, and businesses turning to pricey power alternatives. And for foreign investors? Pakistan’s energy landscape seems more minefield than goldmine. The capricious energy scene makes them skittish, curbing the very investments that could inject vigour into the economy and pull it out of the fiscal doldrums. Addressing this Gordian knot, the touted Fiscal Year 2024 Circular Debt Management Plan sounds like a step in the right direction. But it’s not just about plans on paper; it’s high time for brass tacks solutions that trim the fat off the energy sector and lighten the load of this circular debt albatross.

The first and most crucial step is the timely alignment of power tariffs with cost recovery levels. Transparent and regular tariff adjustments, in line with established formulas, are essential to ensure that power companies can cover their costs and invest in infrastructure and maintenance. At the same time, these adjustments should protect vulnerable consumers through lifeline and protected tariffs.

Additionally, there is a pressing need to better target power subsidies. While it is essential to protect the poor and vulnerable from rising energy costs, subsidies must be designed to benefit those who truly need them. The government’s commitment to entering the third stage of a multi-year subsidy reform plan is commendable. It should focus on phasing out subsidies for well-off consumers while sparing the lifeline and protected slabs for low-income households.

In the medium term, the government should pursue other critical reforms to reduce costs and circular debt in the power sector. This includes efforts to reduce commercial and technical losses, renegotiate power purchase agreements to ensure fair pricing, and improve governance and terms of Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). Increasing competition in the energy market and expanding renewable energy capacity are also crucial to diversify the energy mix and reduce reliance on expensive imported fuels.

Furthermore, addressing circular debt in the gas sector requires a similar approach. Regular biannual end-user gas price adjustments, as per established formulas, can help maintain the financial viability of gas suppliers while protecting vulnerable consumers. Simultaneously, measures to reduce Unaccounted-for Gas (UFG) losses through infrastructure improvements and theft control will contribute to overall cost reduction.

To support the reform efforts, the government should work closely with international financial institutions like the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). These organizations can provide technical expertise, financial support, and valuable insights from successful energy sector reforms implemented in other countries.

Moreover, a tailored Just Energy Transition Partnership Investment Plan (JETP-IP) must be negotiated under the strategic initiative of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, so that energy transition can be accelerated along with much needed investment into power grids.

In conclusion, Pakistan’s energy sector, long a tangle of inefficiencies and fiscal acrobatics, stands at the precipice. For a decade, it’s been ensnared in the stranglehold of a mounting circular debt, punctuated by power blackouts and beleaguered bailouts. 2023 only darkened the clouds, with the power sector bearing the brunt, beset by liquidity woes, and drawing ever deeper from the national purse.

The heart of the matter? A power sector that’s more out of steam than it can afford to be, its very viability hanging by a thread. It’s a quagmire deepened by political dithering, sluggish reforms, and perennial operational losses. To many, the grim tapestry looks familiar – the sector has been down this gloomy alley before, tethered to a cyclic pattern of debt accumulation that’s becoming tougher to snap.

The International Monetary Fund, ever the fiscal harbinger, has thrown a lifeline. They have proffered the Fiscal Year 2024 Circular Debt Management Plan (CDMP). Aimed squarely at reining in power subsidies and offsetting the whirlpool of debt, it’s a roadmap to breathe life into a flagging sector. And with a target to stabilise the fiscal year’s debt at 2.2% of the GDP, it’s more than just a flash in the pan. Central to the reform drive is tariff realignment. A push towards transparent, regular adjustments ensures the economic gears don’t grind to a halt. And as the government reshapes its subsidy strategy, shielding the needy without bleeding the exchequer becomes paramount. Cue the third stage of the multi-year subsidy reform, which zooms in on agriculture while keeping a protective arm around residential lifelines.

The future? Think renewables, reduced losses, and better-managed debts. And while the gas sector battles its own circular demons, the prescription remains eerily familiar: fair pricing and regular adjustments. It’s a path that’ll need global guidance. Institutions like the World Bank and ADB aren’t just deep-pocketed allies; they’re repositories of wisdom, their lessons from other shores invaluable.

A final piece of the puzzle lies with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. A bespoke Just Energy Transition Partnership Investment Plan might be the linchpin, energising grids and speeding up the energy transition. In essence, Pakistan’s energy woes, knotted in political indecision and historical inefficiencies, demand not just immediate panaceas but a sustainable vision. The country can ill-afford to let its energy sector keep running in fiscal circles.

The writer has a Doctorate in Energy Economics and serves as a Research Fellow at SDPI. He can be reached at and tweets @Khalidwaleed_.



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