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Food supply at risk as banks reluctant to open LCs

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  • Thousands of shipping containers stuck at Karachi Port.
  • Banks should facilitate import of necessary items: SBP.
  • Banks reluctant in opening LCs for import of necessities.

KARACHI: Despite the State Bank of Pakistan’s (SBP) directives about import facilitation, the banks remain hesitant in opening letters of credit (LCs) for the import of necessities, posing threat to the food supply, The News reported Friday.

Due to the banks’ reluctance to guarantee foreign exchange payments, thousands of shipping containers — including perishable, and non-perishable foodstuffs and medical supplies — are stuck at the Karachi Port after offloading.

The banks show reluctance in opening letters of credit for the import of necessities like edible oil and pulses. This could also escalate price pressures and create a shortage of medications. Last month, the SBP lifted import restrictions that went into force on January 2.

“In view of the orders issued last month, the SBP has given banks the power to facilitate imports. Thus, banks are not restricted from opening LCs for the importation of essentials such as food and medicine. Banks are free to make their own decisions on the opening of LCs,” SBP spokesman Abid Qamar told The News.

According to the SBP, banks should give preference to or facilitate imports that fit into the category of necessary imports, such as those related to food (wheat, edible oil, etc.) and pharmaceuticals (raw materials, life-saving/essential medications, and surgical devices, including stents).

The SBP has also directed banks to prioritise imports of energy, goods by export-oriented businesses and inputs for agriculture.

More than 6,000 containers of pulses are stuck at ports, according to Abdul Rauf Ibrahim, chairman of the Karachi Wholesale Groceries Association. Banks have reservations about paying for these imports.

“This threatens the nation’s capacity to import these basic foods. Importers have paid shipping companies $48 million in detention fees for these stranded containers. In the month of Ramazan, there would be a new problem in the supply and cost of pulses if these containers are not released,” Ibrahim said.

Banks have been advised by SBP to prioritise certain essentials and export-related imports. However, they need to either match their own foreign currency receipts with outgoings or procure shortfalls from other banks in the interbank market, according to Ehsan Malik, the CEO of Pakistan Business Council (PBC).

“Following the wide Rs25-40 spread between the interbank rate and other open market rates, approximately Rs400 million monthly remittances from overseas Pakistanis have moved from banking channels to the havala system,” Malik said.

“The reduced availability of forex in the interbank market therefore constraints the ability of banks to meet their clients’ import needs,” he added.

The PBC has pointed out to the government that aside from political uncertainty and the outflow of dollars to Afghanistan, the main reason for the growing spread between the official and open market rates for the US dollar was hoarding in the expectation of significant devaluation of the rupee.

The spreads on other currencies is not as significant as the US dollar because they are not regarded as a store of value as much as the US dollar or gold is, and we have seen rates of both go up.

“PBC has suggested two options, aside from stemming the outflow of dollars to Afghanistan. The first is to offer PKR bonds, returns on which are linked to the movement in PKR value relative to the US dollar. This would remove the need to acquire dollars and reduce the demand pressure,” Malik said.

The second is to allow exporters and overseas Pakistanis to convert part of their export proceeds/remittances into “tradable import credits”. This would also help balance supply with demand of the dollar in the open market as well as incentivise exporters and overseas Pakistanis to remit through official channels, he explained.

Tradable import credits would also offer the opportunity of items not on the priority list of SBP to be imported. A criticism levelled against the aforementioned suggestions is that they perpetuate multiple exchange rates.

The current reality is that three rates already exist for the dollar and the above recommendations would help narrow the spread, he noted.

Malik said that as long as political and economic uncertainty prevails, there would be a spread between the interbank and open market rates and “until we learn to live within our means, there will be a shortfall of forex for imports”.

He said there was a limit to how much and for how long friendly countries and multilaterals can provide breathing space and fund our consumption.

“In the immediate time frame when our liquidity and solvency is in question, it is imperative that we secure IMF support for another programme. Even with that, we will need to find breathing space for fundamental reforms,” Malik said.

“This can be facilitated by re-profiling our debt through advice from sovereign debt advisors. Pakistan is not alone in seeking restructuring of debt. Sovereign debt advisors are engaged by over 20 countries,” he added.

Pakistan is grappling with a balance of payments crisis brought on by high foreign debt repayments and a lack of external financing, which have hammered its foreign reserves and created chronic dollar shortages.

As of January 6, the SBP’s foreign exchange reserves plummeted to almost a nine-year low of $4.3 billion, posing a significant challenge for the country in terms of financing imports.

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Gas crisis to aggravate as supplier refuses to deliver LNG cargo

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  • ENI to not deliver February’s cargo purchased at cost of 12.14%.
  • This will result in reduced supplies to power sector.
  • End consumers to get costly electricity. 

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan is expected to witness an aggravating gas crisis in February as an Italy-based LNG trading company, ENI, intimated that it will not be able to deliver its term LNG cargo due on February 6-7 by claiming the force majeure, The News reported Monday citing a senior official of the Energy Ministry.

“The gas deficit will soar as imported LNG will reduce to 700mmcfd as only five cargoes, at the price of 13.37% of Brent, and 2 cargoes, at 10.2% of Brent under GtG agreements with Qatar, would be available in February. There will be no LNG cargo from ENI at the cost of 12.14% in the month of February. And this will increase the gas crisis in the country.”

The news has disturbed the top mandarins of the Petroleum Division as the country is already facing an acute gas crisis. The crisis has been affecting domestic users in some main cities, with little to no pressure.  

The government under its gas load management plan promised gas supply to domestic consumers for cooking times in winter — three hours in the morning from 6am to 9am, two hours from 12 noon to 2pm for lunch, and three hours from 6pm to 9pm for dinner. The ground realities speak otherwise.

Relevant authorities say the impact of ENI backing out will come in the shape of reduced supplies to the power sector and the projected supply of 325mmcfd to the sector next month will not be available. 

The reliance on furnace oil-based electricity will increase and end consumers will get costly electricity. The captive power plants will be supplied gas at 50% and supply to fertiliser plants, compressed natural gas (CNG) and local industry shall remain discontinued.

Earlier, the Petroleum Division had claimed that the ENI from January 2023 onward will not default but that is not the case.

When contacted, ENI spokesperson also confirmed the development, saying: “February delivery disruption is beyond the reasonable control of ENI and due to an event of Force Majeure. ENI does not benefit in any way from the situation.”

According to the senior official, ENI defaulted five times in 2022; it failed to provide LNG cargoes in the months of March, May, July, September, and November.

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Despite economic crisis, $1.2bn worth of cars imported in just six months

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  • Pakistanis spent $1.2 billion on import of cars and other related stuff.
  • SBP reserves can only cover three weeks’ of imports. 
  • Huge spending on imports of luxuries calls for shift in govt policy. 

ISLAMABAD: Despite efforts to conserve foreign exchange reserves by restricting imports, Pakistan spent $1.2 billion (or Rs 259 billion) on the import of transportation items, including luxury cars, high-end electric vehicles, and their parts, during the last six months, reported The News.

Pakistan is facing an acute shortage of dollars and has less than $5 billion in its reserves which is hardly sufficient to finance three-week of its imports.

Despite the overall reduction in imports of transportation vehicles and other items compared with last year, the economy was still burdened with heavy outflows for buying expensive luxury vehicles and useless items.

During these six months, the country imported completely built units (CBU), completely knocked down/semi knocked down (CKD/SKD) of $530.5 million equivalent to 118.2 billion.

Since CKD kits are not allowed to be imported, yet multimillions of dollars of these kits are being imported, harming the local industry and their production.

The economy is suffering, but hefty spending on cars and other vehicle imports is raising a lot of questions about the government’s policy of halting imports related to the industrial and commercial sectors.

Road motor vehicles (build units, CKD/SKD), $1.03 billion or Rs230.5 billion were spent during these six months. Last year in the same period, the spending on these vehicles was $1.87 billion, showing a reduction of 63%.

Under the completely built units (CBU) during July-Dec 2022-23 imports of buses, trucks and other heavy vehicles imports were $75 million (Rs16.6bn), motor cars with $32.6 million.

Under the CKD/SKD, imports of buses, trucks, and other heavy vehicles imports were $722.5 million (Rs161 billion), while motor car imports were recorded at $498 million (Rs111 billion). Motorcycle imports also stood at $27.6 million.

Besides, the parts and accessories imports stood at $188.6 million (Rs42 billion). Similarly, $47.7 million were spent on the import of aircraft, ships, and boats.

Only in December, the transport sector’s imports stood at $140.7 million (Rs31.6 billion). Of this, $47.5 million or 11.3 billion rupees were spent on the imports of cars, $27 million on parts and accessories, $3.6 million on motorcycles import, $25 million on buses, trucks, and heavy vehicles, and another $22.4 million on the import of aircraft, ships, and boats.

Reportedly, despite economic crises, the incumbent government has lifted a ban on the import of luxury cars recently. This is one of the major sources of dollar outflow from the economy.

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Textile sector warns of protest on untimely clearance of imported cotton

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  • APTMA chief says textile exports will be limited to $16-17bn this year.
  • He reveals industry exports raw cotton four times compared to imported value.
  • Industry player warns 7m people will be unemployed in January.

LAHORE: As Pakistan struggles to boost depleting foreign exchange reserves, the textile owners threatened the government of staging a protest due to the delay in the clearance of imported cotton containers at Karachi port, The News reported Friday. 

All Pakistan Textile Mills Association (APTMA) Chairman Hamid Zaman said: “The textile industry will be forced to protest if the government doesn’t clear the imported cotton coming to Karachi.”  

The textile industry would fail to meet an export target of $25 billion in the current year on the non-availability of raw materials, mainly raw cotton, he said during a programme organised by the Lahore Economic Journalist Association. 

“This year, textile exports will be limited to $16-17 billion,” he predicted. 

The textile industry imports raw cotton and after value addition exports it at four times the imported value. Thus, the government should allow exporters to import 35% of the export value.

The APTMA chief, however, warned that if things are not controlled, seven million people associated with the industry will be unemployed in January.

“The industry was left with 60 days’ of raw materials only and if timely clearance of already arrived cotton will not start from the port, textiles will completely shut down. This will result in unemployment of 25 million people across the country,” he warned.

Zaman informed that almost 30-50% of the textile industry of Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and Sindh had already been completely or partially closed.

“The textile industry has so far ordered 1.7 million bales of cotton from the US, out of which 0.531 million cotton bales have been dispatched while 100,000 bales have already arrived at Karachi port with a value of more than $300 million.”

APTMA chief urged the government to instruct commercial banks as well as the State Bank of Pakistan to ensure the timely opening of letters of credit for the cotton importers to avoid any export crisis. 

In response to a question, Zaman admitted that some exporters could not bring their export amount back to Pakistan due to the instability of the exchange rate. He also urged the government to take action against those who were hoarding the US dollar, vowing that the APTMA would support the cause.

Zaman further pointed out that demurrages and detention charges on imported goods had exceeded the value of the goods that foreign companies had to pay. 

“So far, Rs2 billion in demurrages and detention charges have been charged, which are increasing with time, and since last few days the traders and banks will be at odds with each other.”

APTMA Senior Vice Chairman Kamran Arshad said a severe shortage of raw cotton was there in the local market as the country had produced only 4.6 million cotton bales. 

He mentioned that 15 million cotton bales were required to achieve $20 billion in exports. 

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