Privatisation is coined as a solution to many economic woes facing Pakistan’s economy. It has been hailed as a solution to the woes facing PML-N’s government. The Privatisation Commission has even short-listed 31 institutions to “sell”. A very competent Zubair Umar, the brother of the youth icon and PTI MNA Asad Umar is heading the commission. On the face of it, the arguments appear to be logical and make sense. It’s pointed out that a government’s primary function is to run the state affairs and should facilitate the businesses instead of running them. The “white elephants” in the shape of public sector enterprises (PSEs) are costing the national exchequer billions of rupees annually which can be saved and spent on public welfare.
However, once we start to dig deeper the situation is not as glossy as it may appear at first. First of all a successful privatisation exercise has some pre-requisites like a conducive environment with investors’ confidence, a strong government able to enforce the agreements, proper selection of non-vital PSEs and a fair process carried out in a transparent manner. Sans this, privatisation cannot turn-around the state of PSEs or the economy. Past experiences are a testament to this.
Once again the incumbent PML-N government has focused on privatisation but unfortunately is ignoring the vital pre-requisites. The faulty selection of profitable and strategically vital entities, the extreme haste in the proceedings, missing policy guidelines, a lack of clarity and transparency in processes, non-conducive investment atmosphere and a less-than-desirable track record all warrants caution in examining the proposed solution of privatisation.
Amidst the noise of overhauling loss-leaders several profitable institutions are also earmarked for privatisation, which besides funneling billions to the treasury are also providing products/ services at cheaper rates to the public as compared to the private sector in the international market.
One such example is the Oil and Gas Development Company Limited (OGDCL) which generated a profit of approximately PKR 91 billion in last fiscal year while providing the gas at 40 to 50pc of the prices offered by private sector in international market. Another example is Pakistan State Oil (PSO) generating an after-tax net profit of approximately PKR 12,558,000,000 in the year ended 30th June 2013, a 39pc increase from the previous financial year. Privatising such institutions would not only lead to loss of billions to the exchequer but also an increase in the comparatively cheaper prices currently offered to the masses.
A case in point is the handing over of PTCL control to Etisalat by the Musharraf regime in which a minority shareholder effectively got all of PTCL for a paltry sum to be paid in installments, still partially outstanding. What is iconic is the fact that Etisalat itself is a Public Sector Enterprise of UAE. This means that although the proponents of privatisation strongly believe that “state cannot run vital services”, they have no qualms about a foreign state owned enterprise coming to Pakistan and doing the same. And just to analyze how effectively has this privatisation venture gone we should realise that the same PTCL which was generating profits of billions of PKR but is now reporting heavy losses despite increased tariffs and with a falling standard of customer service often complained about. Similarly KESC which was sold on the hopes of a turnaround with substantial investments expected in infrastructure by the private party. Unfortunately it has instead become a much bigger white elephant requiring continuous rescue by the government while the new private owners continue to remit their profits abroad. Their failure to even invest in the necessary infrastructure maintenance has lead to undue load-shedding over and above that necessitated by load-management. Not only has the government of Pakistan lost revenues from healthier dividends and resulting taxes, it has also lost by falling share prices of its remaining stake in these entities. The public has suffered a deteriorating service and higher prices.
To put things in perspective let us also recall the privatisation of MCB to Mian Mansha’s group, undoubtedly amongst the strongest business conglomerates in Pakistan. The deal was done at a fraction of the fair value of the tangible assets of MCB let alone considering the value of the brand and goodwill. Obviously such moves do not boost confidence particularly when the same group’s head attends important government policy meetings is said to be interested in getting “good” deals on more national assets at the cost of the nation.
It had been reported that the incumbent government sent a letter to IMF claiming a consensus of all political parties and parliament to privatise the national institutions. This obviously points towards the pressure emanating from the terms of the IMF package accepted by Pakistan and explains the underlying motive. This undue urgency leading to lack of planning should be avoided. The government needs to ensure it is not selling off profitable and strategically vital PSEs in the name of privatisation for short-sighted capital injections at the cost of long-term stability and revenues. Furthermore institutions providing vital services to the masses should not be on the wish-list of the potential sell-offs either.
As for those entities generating losses like PIA we need a proper plan of action. One leading argument for privatisation is that since the private sector is driven by profit, the efficiency and performance of institutions is supposed to improve in private hands. Unfortunately the past record of privatisation in Pakistan does not support this argument. Be it PTCL or KESC, not only their profits but the standard of services too has fallen in private hands. Also it brings up an interesting question as to why the government cannot introduce checks and balances along with incentives to ensure a turnaround they expect from private entities. Moreover, in developed countries strict legislation has been introduced to ensure avoidance of the common pitfalls of privatisation, protecting the interests of all shareholders and safeguarding the continuation of service(s). Same needs to be done in Pakistan to address the issues already facing us from past public-private venture which effectively handed over whole PSEs for a paltry minority stake in ownership.
While some proponents of the privatisation point out the previously failed attempts at turning-around of state institutions but they conveniently ignore the major reasons of failure in undue interference, political appointments and misappropriation by government officials. The success stories like the last major successful turnaround of a loss-making steel mill into a profit generating venture are also conveniently swept under the carpet. They also choose to forget that if enterprises like PIA are privatised, which have the highest ratio of employees per aircraft of 500 compared to international standards of fewer than 150; it will still lead to layoffs and resulting backlash. Ideally a better option will be to establish an independent and empowered restructuring institution (RI) to overhaul PSEs, which if handled properly will make the process less painful compared to a private venture while ensuring cost-effective quality services from a revenue-generating asset of the nation.
All that is required by the RI is to place competent professionals of utmost integrity at the top positions based solely on merit to run the PSEs, introduction of a system of appropriate checks and balances run by professionals whose life is driven by measuring performance against goals, spurring motivation and ensuring excellence via improved performances. If for some reasons a privatisation is deemed mandatory then a hurried privatisation without a proper policy, appropriate selection of PSEs and laws safeguarding the national interests as well as protecting the masses should be avoided as it will only lead to less efficiency by investors with conflicting interests, more unemployment, resulting lawlessness, inflation, loss of revenues and government bailouts.