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Effectiveness of new trade policy

The government plans to share the draft of Pakistan’s first 5-year trade policy — Strategic Trade Policy Framework (STPF) 2018/2023 — with the business community by the end of next month, a senior commerce ministry official told a consultative session with businessmen in Lahore last week.

The new trade policy, just like the three previous, similar 3-year strategic frameworks, will primarily focus on boosting the country’s flagging exports.

Trade officials conceded that none of the previous strategic frameworks had come even close to meeting their targets because of wide implementation gaps, but expressed the hope the new trade policy will meet the goals being set to increase the shipments.

“We can push our exports above $36 billion in the next five years,” insisted Nauman Aslam, director general trade policy at the Ministry of Commerce.

The present STPF 2015/2018 had set an ambitious export target of $35bn that was to be met by improving export competitiveness, transitioning a ‘factor-driven’ economy to ‘efficiency-driven’ and ‘innovation-driven’, and increasing the share in regional trade.

However, exports have declined by just below 16 per cent to $20.4bn in 2016/2017 from $23.6bn in 2014/2015. Exports have consistently been on the decrease from their peak of $25bn reached in 2011/2012.

Mr Aslam’s optimism is based on an average monthly recovery of 11-12pc in exports since the beginning of the present fiscal after a consistent drop during the last three years. “…even if this pace of growth is maintained our shipments will increase to $36bn in the next five years. This is a very moderate growth. We have a lot of potential and can achieve a much higher (export) growth.”

The new trade policy, Mr Aslam said, will focus on addressing investment gaps to create export surplus, gender mainstreaming and rationalisation of tariffs besides suggesting measures to raise export of services, improve export competitiveness, and diversify markets and products.

The government is also reviewing the unfavourable terms of its free trade agreements to gain greater market access for the country’s goods. While Indonesia has already agreed to allow more rice from Pakistan, China is willing to create greater space for imports from Pakistan.

“We can push our exports above $36 billion in the next five years,” insisted Nauman Aslam, director general trade policy at the Ministry of Commerce

“Things will be different this time. We have extended the scope of the new strategic framework from three years to five years to ensure policy consistency and transparency. The longer period will allow us to review and tweak policy interventions mid-term.”

His optimism notwithstanding, the credibility of the government delivering on its commitments remains very low as far as businesspeople are concerned. “Gaps in policy implementation remain a major issue. You cannot meet targets without implementing the policy,” argued Quratul Ain Irfan, the vice president of a pharmaceutical company.

“Unfortunately, the Ministry of Commerce doesn’t have enough resources or powers to implement incentives and interventions recommended in its trade policies… it is dependent on other ministries to deliver on its promises.

“The success of any short to long-term strategic framework cannot be guaranteed unless it incorporates input from all the relevant ministries, including industry, agriculture, planning, labour, finance, and so on. Additionally, the provinces should also get clear-cut responsibilities for achieving the policy targets.”

Others agree. Ijaz Khokhar, a leading exporter of martial arts uniforms from Sialkot, insisted that STPF should represent a broad-based comprehensive strategy for regulating the nation’s international trade (import and export).

It should attract both domestic and foreign private investment in manufacturing for producing export surpluses, support value-addition, resolve long-standing issues (like inefficiencies, low productivity and outdated technology), encourage new sectors and industries to venture into exports and so on.

The objective of the framework should be realisation of the country’s true export potential and creation of jobs for the millions entering the market every year. In fact, STPF should act as an ‘umbrella’ under which finance, monetary, industrial, agricultural, energy, labour and other policies are designed to support and help the country achieve targets set by the trade policy.”

Mr Khokhar contended the new STPF must provide for periodic, quarterly review of implementation of its recommendations and interventions by a body that has businessmen on it to address any flaws, drawbacks and shortcomings.

“Such a body should be headed by the prime minster himself and consulted before any other policy or trade agreement are devised that could potentially harm/affect the implementation of recommendations and interventions spelt out by STPF. It is the only way the policy implementation can be ensured and the ministries’ focus diverted back on exports.”

With three commodities — textiles, leather and rice — constituting more than two-thirds of total exports and almost 60pc of shipments directed only to five countries, former Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry president Abdul Basit pleaded the case for product and market diversification.

“I’m not opposed to incentives and support for large textile businessmen. But no strategic framework aimed at boosting overseas shipment can succeed unless it focuses on encouraging new industries and products.

“You can push textiles or rice or leather shipments to a limit. Beyond that you need to diversify into unconventional products even if it means cash incentives, tax relief and subsidies in the initial years.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, January 29th,2018

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