As Sri Lanka sharpens its focus on achieving $20bn in export earnings by 2020, executives interviewed for OBG’s most recent Business Barometer: Sri Lanka CEO Survey have resoundingly voted for textiles and apparel as the export segment likely to experience the highest rate of growth in overseas shipments in 2018.
Some 77% of CEOs who took part in our face-to-face survey predicted that the garments industry would be the growth engine for exports in the year ahead, followed by tea and spices at a distant second with 14%.
Although the recently adopted National Export Strategy seeks to diversify Sri Lanka’s export base and nurture new growth engines, textiles and tea remain the backbone of Sri Lanka’s tradeable sector, respectively comprising 47% and 12% of total exports in 2016. Whilst textiles exports only achieved modest annual growth of 2% in 2017, it is notable that the growth rate accelerated to 10% in the final four months of the year, as new orders from the EU were secured following the reinstatement of EU Generalised System of Preferences Plus (GSP+) status.
GSP+, which had been rescinded over human rights concerns in 2010, removes the majority of import duties on Sri Lankan goods entering the European single market, and likely drove the 27.2% year-on-year increase in garment exports to the EU in 2017. Indeed, 2017 was a promising year for the tradeable sector in general, with total exports hitting an all-time high of $11.4bn, up 10% from the previous year.
However, while the immediate future looks bright for the garments segment in particular, Sri Lanka would be wise to devise adaptation strategies for technological advancements in manufacturing processes. Developments in innovative areas such as 3D printing and robotics are likely to erode some of the country’s current competitive advantages in the years to come, as without the need for lower labour costs, clothing giants may start to move production facilities closer to their main consumer markets.
Oil Price Rise Worries Executives
One of the chief reasons for Sri Lanka submitting to the $1.5bn IMF bailout package was the profligacy of the previous Mahinda Rajapaksa administration, which had agreed to a number of high-interest Chinese loans to fund infrastructure projects. Many of these developments have operated below capacity since completion, making it difficult for Sri Lanka to honour its payment commitments. As a result, the Sirisena administration has been forced to make hard choices, such as handing over control of 70% of Hambantota Port to Chinese interests on a 99-year lease.
Chinese investment plays a major role across Sri Lanka’s economic sectors: China is now the country’s main source of foreign direct investment, its largest trading partner and its second-largest tourism source market. Despite this, just 16% of executives surveyed in our barometer cited a slowdown in Chinese demand as the top external risk that could impact the national economy in 2018.
This was dwarfed by concern over rising oil prices, with 49% of respondents placing this as the top risk factor, an understandable opinion given that Sri Lanka was forced to ramp up oil imports last year, following a severe drought that hampered hydro-generation capacity.
Storm Clouds are Clearing
Following the severe floods and drought that weighed on growth in 2017, C-suite executives appear to be generally optimistic that clearer skies are ahead, with almost three-quarters saying they were positive or very positive about local business conditions in the coming 12 months. Additionally, 56% predicted GDP expansion to range 4-5% for 2018, which was broadly in line with the Central Bank of Sri Lanka’s prediction of 5-5.5% and the Asian Development Bank’s forecast of 5% at the turn of the year.
Not only that, but our respondents seem prepared to put their money where their mouth is: almost 75% said their firms were likely to make a significant capital investment in 2018. To put that figure in context, it is markedly higher than the corresponding 60% in our Myanmar survey published in January 2018, despite Myanmar’s GDP growth outpacing Sri Lanka’s in recent years, albeit from a lower base. However, it should be noted that Sri Lanka’s CEOs were surveyed before the February 2018 local elections, in which the governing coalition parties suffered significant losses. This prompted the governor of the central bank to warn in late March that political uncertainty threatened to reverse gains in exports, FDI and stock market inflows if not resolved.
Brain Drain Conundrum
If Sri Lanka is to achieve its Vision 2025 target of developing into a highly competitive knowledge-based economy, it will need to overcome notable shortages in the labour market – not only in terms of skills, but also in raw numbers. Many sectors struggle to fill vacant positions, with educated and aspirational Sri Lankans becoming increasingly reluctant to take manual or low-level service jobs. So far, the construction, agriculture and tourism industries have been particularly badly hit. Young and productive Sri Lankan citizens are often lured into what are perceived to be lucrative jobs on the construction sites of Qatar, the UAE and Saudi Arabia. In addition, the country’s highly prized ICT, accounting and medical professionals often aspire to more rewarding jobs in the Gulf or the West. The resultant brain drain is only partially offset by remittances.
This overseas dispersion of talent is reflected in the varying responses from CEOs over what type of skill is in greatest need in the labour market for the country: 31% of interviewees chose leadership as the greatest need, 19% cited research and development, 15% engineering and 10% computer technology.
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