Sri Lanka’s economy has suffered its largest contraction in 75 years of independence, with official data revealing a record 7.8% shrinkage last year. The country’s fourth-quarter gross domestic product (GDP) contracted by 12.4%, according to figures released by the state-run census and statistics department. The crisis-hit island nation’s growth is expected to shrink by 3% this year, with Moody’s Investors Service predicting a rebound in 2024. The unprecedented economic crisis sparked huge protests, culminating last July when a mob stormed the home of then-President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, forcing him to flee the country and resign.
Since then, a new government has worked to repair Sri Lanka’s battered public finances and secure a sorely needed International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout. Last year’s contraction compared with 3.5% growth in 2021 and a 4.6% contraction in 2020 as the coronavirus pandemic hit. The census and statistics department said the contraction was “caused by the deepening of the economic crisis … frequent power disruptions, shortages in fuel, raw materials, (and) foreign currency”.
President Ranil Wickremesinghe has raised taxes and ended generous subsidies on fuel and electricity to boost government revenue after his predecessor defaulted on Sri Lanka’s $46bn foreign debt last year. The reforms are a precondition of a $2.9bn rescue package from the IMF, which Sri Lanka expects to finalise next week. But the tax and price hikes have been roundly unpopular, triggering protests and industrial stoppages around the country.
About 40 trade unions warned on Thursday they planned a general strike next week if their demands for concessions on the austerity programme were not met. Sri Lanka aims to announce a debt-restructuring strategy in April and step up talks with commercial creditors ahead of an IMF review of a bailout package in six months, its central bank governor said last week.
Wickremesinghe has said Sri Lanka can expect to remain bankrupt until at least 2026 and insisted his government has no option but to implement the reforms demanded by the IMF. The census and statistics department said the agriculture sector shrank 4.6% last year, while industries contracted 16%, and services dropped 2% from a year earlier.
Sri Lanka’s economy shrank 11.8% in the July-September quarter from a year ago, the second-worst quarterly contraction ever for the country. “These numbers are broadly in line with expectations. In the last three months of 2022, Sri Lanka was hit by very high inflation, fuel shortages and high interest rates,” said Sanjeewa Fernando, senior vice president of research at Asia Securities.
“For the rest of this year, with IMF funds expected, the central bank should be able to keep the currency strengthened, eventually reduce interest rates, and continue to see inflation ease.”