Tackling An ‘F’ and Two T’s in Sri Lanka’s SME Development Drive

Sri Lanka has been talking about SME development for a long time. And trying to do something about it for most of that time too. Yet, the focus is too narrow, and a lot more refinement in the strategy is needed. Since leaving IPS I don’t work on SME issues as much as I used to, but still actively keep up with research and reading on the topic. So, a forum this week gave me the opportunity to link back to some of that work. The Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and the Pathfinder Foundation organized a one-day roundtable on ‘Social Market Economy in South Asia: German Experience and Fostering Small and Medium Enterprises in Sri Lanka’.

In my presentation to the group, I drew on several pieces of published research I was involved with on growth and competitiveness of SMEs and challenges faced. I focussed on 3 main issues – access to finance, taxation, and technology transfer.

My main messages were:

  • Finance: The role of ‘availability’ is overemphasised, while the role of ‘bankability’ is underemphasised. There has been an over reliance on rounds and rounds of concessionary loan schemes refinanced by donors as a ‘magic bullet fix’ for all SME problems. I argued that we need to a) focus more on addressing what I call SMEs’ ‘intrinsic weaknesses’ that hurt their access to finance, and b) improve banks’ SME lending competencies and products


  • Taxation: While it is a relatively under explored topic, some issues are becoming clear. Tax compliance among SMEs is low for multiple reasons (explained in the slides). The Government may need to consider revising tax-free threshold or at least make tax registration compulsory. Meanwhile, VAT needs better messaging among SMEs to help them understand the benefits of VAT registration (e.g. input credit). Compliance procedures/costs were found to be  burdensome and need fixing.


  • Technology: There is a dire need to support to access technology (primarily tech transfer) for SMEs, even before focussing on R&D (which takes more time and money). In this, both access to an ecosystem and access financing need addressing. I advocated for setting up a ‘clearing house’ for SME technology access like Steinbeis in Germany.


View the full slide set below:


Has Cleaner Petrol Reduced Crime?

Just read this very interesting article which posits that the removal of lead from motor fuels like petrol may have triggered a reduction in crime in the West, stemming from effects that lead has on the human brain. This lead-crime hypothesis interestingly tracks the levels of crime against the the levels of lead exposure in the USA. Is this a case of spurious correlation or is there a plausible scientific/medical explanation?


The Economic Benefits of Major Int'l Summits – Can They Be Estimated?

Soon after the ICC World Twenty20 last year I wrote this post about the economics of cricket, particularly major sporting events. The CHOGM 2013, one of the biggest and most high-profile events Sri Lanka has held since the Non-Alligned Movement Summit in 1976, made me think once again along similar lines – the economics of major international summits could be an interesting area of economic analysis.

Any literature out there?

Very little has been written about the economics of major international summits held in other countries either. A simple Google search throws up an interesting study conducted by the consulting group Deloitte on the economic impact of a 2012 NATO Summit on its host city, Chicago. In my view, it was a groundbreaking study in that it set out a basic framework of analysis (albeit a rather narrow one, in keeping with Deloitte’s own priorities and focus areas). The study estimated impacts across four “elements” – direct economic impact, tax revenues generated, employment generated, hotel nights generated. The latter is probably the easiest to observe and quantify of these four. Yet, one of the key criticisms against it was that it did not adequately account for the “loss of business” aspect of a major event like this (due to road closures, traffic restrictions, shop and office closures, etc during the time of the event). Two important caveats are also important to note. Firstly, the study was conducted ex-ante. The actual outcomes may have been different to those initially estimated, so an ex-post evaluation could provide instructive insights. Secondly, and probably more importantly, the Deloitte study was commissioned by the Chicago committee tasked with organizing the Summit, so questions may arise of its objectivity.

Another study conducted by a group at the University of Toronto looked at ‘Economic Benefits of Hosting G8 and G20 Summits’. In this study, the authors note the following possible benefits:

1) the immediate, visible short-term stimulus of higher spending at hotels, restaurants and shops; creation of temporary jobs;

2) longer-term economic benefits such as increased tourist traffic and investment resulting from increased global name recognition thanks to media and advertising coverage;

3) new, permanent, public infrastructures and upgrades; and

4) the training for security forces and other first responders to prevent and respond to mass emergency events, such as terrorist attacks, infectious disease outbreaks, ….

I think these four resonate very clearly and to a great extent with the CHOGM in Colombo too. Interestingly, the authors assert that “the benefits are much greater for the smaller communities and cities that lack the global visibility and infrastructure that the capital cities of the imperial powers of the past several centuries have”.

A worker prepares colourful decorations ahead of the CHOGM 2013 summit in Colombo (image courtesy theaustralian.com.au)

A worker prepares colourful decorations ahead of the CHOGM 2013 summit in Colombo, Sri Lanka (image courtesy theaustralian.com.au)

Colombo forums attempt to evaluate CHOGM benefits, but nothing specific

Colombo witnessed a slew of ticketed private sector forums discussing the economic benefits of CHOGM for Sri Lanka. (Maybe someone should write about the “economics of forums on the economics of CHOGM in Sri Lanka”!) That not withstanding, these forums seem to have generated some useful insights. Not so much on the potential of CHOGM itself, but on the potential of the Sri Lankan economy and the challenges in harnessing it. As far as I can tell (from the media reports on them – I didn’t attend any), none of the private sector speakers at any of these forums hazarded a guess on a realistic estimate of the economic benefits of CHOGM. The most interesting, albeit very general, overview came from the ‘CIM Talking Point’ event where many of the leading personalities in several sectors chimed in. Their insights are incisive and policymakers needn’t go any further to get a clear agenda for action. Meanwhile, veteran economist Dr. Nimal Sanderatne too has provided a useful, but again general, view on the subject in his recent piece on ‘Economic expectations from C’wealth Summit’. If nothing else, his article expertly puts the CHOGM opportunity within the context of the current performance of the Sri Lankan economy. Now if you want the official line, the government’s expectation of the Summit ex-ante, this article provides a good overview. Among the many government officials who spoke at this event – ‘Economic Benefits for Lanka from CHOGM’ – organized by the Board of Investment (BOI), was a private sector personality Sujeewa Rajapakse (President, Institute of Chartered Accountants). He is reported as saying that “the hospitality and hotel industry will reap a lot of benefits as room occupancy will be at full capacity during the next few weeks and up to 7,000 rooms will be utilised by the delegates participating in the meeting and the parallel forums”. I bet he’s wishing now that he hadn’t gone out on a limb for the government and made such predictions. Because the numbers are in, and they are far from peachy.

The case of Colombo city hotel revenues

As I mentioned earlier, the hotel nights pillar is probably the most observable and quantifiable from the other pillars that go into estimating the economic impact of a major international event. The Daily Mirror reports today that city hotel occupancy in Colombo has been at best 50%. Far below what was expected. M. Shanthikumar, President of the City Hotels Association (and GM of Ramada, former Holiday Inn), has provided the most direct numbers yet:

“At the peak, from November 15th to 16th, the average occupancy rate was 55 percent. The average occupancy during 10th to 13th was at 30 percent and during 13th to 14th it was around 40 percent. This was far below our expectations”. According to him, the original expectation was that a minimum of 4,000 city hotel rooms will be occupied.  “I don’t want to comment on the reasons, but only 2000 to 2100 rooms were occupied during the event.”

During this time of year, city hotels usually run at above 65% capacity. Among all the sector, the hotels sector was set to receive the biggest boost of all from the CHOGM Summit, so these numbers are indeed disappointing.

Maybe we should ask – did the higher per night charge help offset the lower volume? For the duration of CHOGM, the government had mandated room charges for different hotel classes – 5 star – US $571 nett, 4 star – US $431, 3 star – US $343 and so on. If you assume that all city hotel rooms are at least 3-star and above (probably not entirely accurate, but just for the sake of argument), then the average charge is about US$ 450 nett. For 2100 rooms (the upper level quoted by Shanthikumar), this is US$ 945,000 in total revenue per room night. Now lets assume the non-CHOGM scenario. The room charge at the Cinnamon Grand in October was around US$ 180 a night . Even if all the city hotel rooms were of the same category as Cinnamon Grand (i.e., 5-star) and therefore all charged US$ 180 a night and if all 4,000 estimated rooms had been sold, total revenue would have come to US$ 720,000. So, prima facie, one can argue that the hotels weren’t worse off, and higher minimum charges compensate for the lower volume. (Of course, this is just demonstrative and no doubt ignores various nuances and a range of other factors like cost of CHOGM-specific room refurb on one hand and spin-off revenues like hall and banquet charges, etc).

Yet, here are some of the ways we can begin to take a look at the economics of major international summits like the one just concluded in Colombo. The outputs and supply chains are numerous, but insufficient or opaque information may hinder any meaningful analysis. Moreover, as the authors of the G8/G20 point out, “many of these benefits are difficult to quantify, especially before or immediately after the summit ends”.

Yet, I do believe it’s an area that a researcher would find interesting and challenging – not so much to fuel any political ‘finger-pointing’, but rather to get a better understanding the economics at play, the various value chains that operate in a big event like this, and add to economic knowledge. In that process, if it creates a public debate and influences future actions, then that’s a definite bonus.

An interesting paper on Sovereign Wealth Funds

An interesting paper on Sovereign Wealth Funds or SWFs written by a friend of mine at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Definitely worth a read if you want a primer into SWFs, their characteristics, and contemporary performance and relevance.

Sovereign Wealth Funds Allow Countries to Invest for More Than the Long Term


As the authors note:

“Unconstrained by many limitations facing more-conventional asset managers, SWFs have evolved into a heterogeneous class of important, dynamic global investors. They regularly deploy substantial amounts of capital across public and private capital markets worldwide. The funds have a formidable global financial market presence and operate largely outside any comprehensive regulatory oversight. Bridging the worlds of international politics and high finance, SWFs require ongoing analysis so policymakers can better understand the funds and the implications of their investment decisions.”

The Economics of Cricket: An Interesting Research Area?

I arrived 3 hours early at the finals of the ICC World Twenty20  to avoid the rush and grab decent seats. Although the Women’s Final was going on (and it was suitably interesting), my mind had time to wander, and I began thinking how great it must be to work for the ICC, FIA, FIFA or a mega sports body like it – the buzz, being there amidst the action, staging thrilling sporting events. But I am no cricketer – exams took precedence in school, and after my last Under-15 match at Anandashathralya Grounds, I have never held a leather ball. So yesterday it got me thinking – the only way an economist would be of any relevance to a national or international sports community would be through research. A Swiss colleague on my Economics Masters degree course in the UK was a football fanatic and his dream was to work at FIFA in Zurich. While we both used time series econometrics techniques of Cointegration and Vector Error Correction Modelling (VECM), one of our Master’s dissertations was clearly more exciting than the other. While mine explored the nexus between education and growth in India, his explored the link between price payed by football clubs for new players and the club’s performance in the English Premier League. Our economics faculty even had professors who’ve specialized in the study of sports economics, sports management and sports finance.

For a country where cricket often takes precedence over much else, and it’s all-permeating effect on society, there hasn’t been much analysis done about cricket’s socio-economic impact in Sri Lanka. But then again, very little has been done on big cricket tournaments (like the World Cup, T20 Word Cup, and India’s IPL) in general, unlike say football or the Olympics. I think there is ample scope for it, and it just needs a closer look at what kind of data is available and what relationships would be interesting to look at.

  • What are the micro impacts of a large tournament like the World T20 on stadium locales, like Maligawatte (or Colombo as a whole)?
  • What are the spillover benefits of big cricket tournaments on the national economy (especially when they are staged in several cities like the World T20)?
  • With last year’s World Cup being held across several cities in South Asia, what were the differential impacts on each of the host-country economies?
  • Are big cricketing events a burden on national cricket bodies or do they provide a revenue boost which in turn translates into better investment in domestic/provincial cricket?
  • What is the relationship between auction price of players in the IPL and team performance?
  • How does team ownership in the IPL influence team performance?
  • What is the economic benefit of sports tourism for host countries?
  • Is there a link between tournament host city/country (as well as, maybe, teams involved) and the price paid for broadcast rights?
  • Do host city/country governments lose valuable tax revenue in trying to maximise the spillovers or externalities of cricket tournaments or is all the funding generated by the event itself?

All very interesting questions. Some easier to analyse and answer than others.

One of the first major studies on the economics of major sporting events was by Burnes et al. (1986) looking at the Adelaide F1 Grand Prix of 1985. Literature that looks at the benefits of big sporting events like Forumla 1 or the Olympics comes up with mixed findings – there doesn’t seem to unequivocal evidence showing that it is a burden on host cities or that it had a resounding positive impact. Moreover, sports events are now seen as an integral part of tourism strategies, and therefore unambiguously judging the success/benefit of the event – by looking at profits or losses alone – may not be possible. Cities staging major sports events have a unique opportunity to market themselves globally. Rising fees for broadcast rights (if auctioned off credibly and cleverly) provide valuable revenue to local cricket authorities.

Overall, this has got me looking at some seminal research on the topic of sports economics, and for anyone who is interested, I would highly recommend the following journals and books:

Many of them are from Journals, and you would need registered access to download them. But your local library or your university/academic institution’s information resource centre would be able to help.