Today, there are six major macroeconomic challenges for Bangladesh’s economy. First, accelerating economic growth and maintaining high economic growth over the coming years will remain a big challenge. Two major drivers of economic growth in Bangladesh have been the readymade garments exports and remittances. The dividends from these drivers of growth are likely to decline in the future. There is a need to find new drivers of growth through diversification of the economy and developing productive capacities. In these contexts, stimulating private investment in diversified economic sectors and ensuring efficient public investment remain uphill tasks.
Second, containing inflation is a critical challenge. Bangladesh has been able to avoid high inflationary pressure since 2011. The overall inflation rate has remained below 7 percent. In recent years, the inflation rate is less than 6 percent. However, there are three concerns with respect to the inflation situation in Bangladesh: (i) the overall inflation rate hides the sudden and intermittent steep rise in food prices, especially the price of rice, which affects the poor people; (ii) as the overall inflation rate is a weighted sum of the food and non-food inflation, there are concerns that the non-food inflation in Bangladesh is underestimated due to inappropriate representation of non-food items and their prices in the calculation of inflation rates; (iii) the overall low inflation rate at the national level may not reflect the true picture of the high inflationary pressure faced by different low-income groups as their consumption baskets and related prices are likely to be different from the national averages. Given these concerns, containing inflationary pressure for low-income people will remain a challenge for Bangladesh in the wake of further growth acceleration.
Third, the management of the exchange rate is a crucial area of concern. Though, for long, Bangladesh has been able to maintain a relatively stable exchange rate regime, the exchange rate in recent times is alleged to be over-valued. In recent years, while Bangladesh’s major competitors in the global market, such as China, Vietnam, India, and Sri Lanka, have experienced significant depreciation of their currencies against US dollar, Bangladeshi taka remained quite stable. The analysis of the real effective exchange rate in Bangladesh also shows a misaligned exchange rate regime which, together with high tariff rates on imports, lead to significant anti-export bias. In other words, the current exchange rate and trade policies are not favourable for rapid export expansion in Bangladesh. However, one important point to note here that, while the importance of the correction of anti-export bias for export promotion and diversification cannot be undermined, such correction alone cannot be sufficient to trigger “auto” large supply response in terms of expanding export volumes and diversifying the export basket. A number of supply-side constraints, in terms of weak infrastructure, the high cost of capital, lack of access to credit, and lack of skilled human resources can prevent local producers from expanding exports, and the lack of an enabling business environment can strangle entrepreneurship and innovation. Therefore, the policy options and support measures for exports are much more difficult and involved than the mere correction of anti-export bias.
Fourth, the surged balance-of-payment deficit in recent years remains a big concern for the stability of the macroeconomy. Over the past two years, the economy has been witnessing high growth rate in imports, while the growth rates in exports and remittances have been subdued and unstable, which has led to widening trade deficit and current account deficit. Though the current volume of foreign reserve can meet the import demand of around five months, the volume of the foreign reserve has been on a declining trend since the financial year of 2017. Given the projections of high import demand for construction and industrial raw materials in the coming days on the one hand and unstable global trading environment, thus creating uncertainties for both export and remittance growth, on the other hand, managing a stable balance-of-payment regime will remain a big challenge for the Bangladesh economy. One important lesson Bangladesh can learn from the experiences of the successful countries from southeast Asia is that attracting large scale foreign direct investment (FDI) can ease the pressure on balance-of-payment. Bangladesh is yet to be successful in attracting large-scale FDI. The amount of annual FDI inflow in recent years is only around 2.5 billion USD while the country needs more than USD 10 billion FDI annually to achieve many of its development goals. Therefore, enabling the environment for ensuring large-scale FDI remains a critical task ahead.
Fifth, while the monetary policy by the Bangladesh Bank has been, in general, able to maintain a so-called stable “status quo”, it has failed to generate a big push for accelerating private investment. A number of banking scams and escalation of non-performing loans show a major institutional weakness of the financial sector and pose a threat to macroeconomic stability. The high cost of credit is a reflection of the inefficient banking system which discourages inclusive financing. Therefore, the challenge of the monetary policy is more of an institutional issue rather than any narrowly-focused effort to lowering of the interest rate.
Finally, though the country has been able to maintain a stable fiscal deficit of around 5 percent of GDP over a long time period, in a regime of low tax-GDP ratio of around 10 percent, this has only been possible through keeping the vital social expenditures, like public expenditure on education, health and social protection, at very low levels. However, as the country aspires to achieve stiff development goals in the coming years, public spending on education, health and social protection has to be raised substantially. There is no denying that with such a low tax-GDP ratio many development aspirations will remain unrealised. Though the country has undertaken several reforms to improve tax collection, they have remained unsuccessful due to various institutional weaknesses and vested political patronage. The fiscal policy process thus needs a strong political commitment to simplifying tax systems, strengthening tax administration, and broadening the tax base under a wider reform agenda.
Dr Selim Raihan is Professor, Department of Economics, University of Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Executive Director, South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM).