Pakistan’s current government has sought to foster inward investment since taking power in August 2018, pledging to restructure tax collection, boost trade and investment, and fight corruption. However, the government also inherited a balance of payments crisis, forcing it to prioritize measures to build reserves and shore up its current account rather than medium to long-term structural reforms. The government entered a $6 billion IMF Extended Fund Facility in July 2019, promising to carry out structural reforms that have been delayed due to the COVID crisis. In March 2021, the IMF Board authorized release of the latest tranche under the EFF program, and Pakistan successfully accessed global bond markets for the first time since 2017.
Pakistan has made significant progress since 2019 in transitioning to a market-determined exchange rate and reducing its large current account deficit, while inflation has been under 10 percent for the entire reporting period. However, progress has been slow in areas such as broadening the tax base, reforming the taxation system, and privatizing state owned enterprises. Pakistan ranked 108 out of 190 countries in the World Bank’s Doing Business 2020 rankings, a positive move upwards of 28 places from 2019. Yet, the ranking demonstrates much room for improvement remains in Pakistan’s efforts to improve its business climate. The COVID-19 pandemic negatively impacted Pakistan’s economy, particularly during the spring/summer of 2020, but Pakistan fared relatively well compared to other economies in the region. Pre-COVID, the IMF had predicted Pakistan’s GDP growth would be 2.4 percent in FY 2020. However, Pakistan’s economy contracted by 0.5 percent in FY 2020, which ended June 30, 2020.
Despite a relatively open formal regime, Pakistan remains a challenging environment for investors with foreign direct investment (FDI) declining by 29 percent in the first half of FY 2021 compared to that same time period in FY 2020. An improving but unpredictable security situation, lengthy dispute resolution processes, poor intellectual property rights (IPR) enforcement, inconsistent taxation policies, and lack of harmonization of rules across Pakistan’s provinces have contributed to lower FDI as compared to regional competitors. The government aims to grow FDI to $7.4 billion by FY2023 from $2.56 billion in FY2020.
The United States has consistently been one of the largest sources of FDI in Pakistan. In 2020, China was Pakistan’s number one source for FDI, largely due to projects under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) for which only PRC-approved companies could bid. Over the last two years, U.S. companies have pledged more than $1.5 billion of investment in Pakistan. American companies have profitable operations across a range of sectors, notably fast-moving consumer goods, agribusiness, and financial services. Other sectors attracting U.S. interest include franchising, information and communications technology (ICT), thermal and renewable energy, and healthcare services. The Karachi-based American Business Council, a local affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, has 61 U.S. member companies, most of which are Fortune 500 companies and spanning a wide range of sectors. The Lahore-based American Business Forum – which has 23 founding members and 22 associate members – also assists U.S. investors. The U.S.-Pakistan Business Council, a division of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, supports U.S.-based companies who do business with Pakistan. In 2003, the United States and Pakistan signed a Trade and Investment Framework Agreement (TIFA) as the primary forum to address impediments to bilateral trade and investment flows and to grow commerce between the two economies.
|TI Corruption Perceptions Index||2020||124 of 180||www.transparency.org/research/cpi/overview|
|World Bank’s Doing Business Report||2020||108 of 190||www.doingbusiness.org/en/rankings|
|Global Innovation Index||2020||107 of 131||www.globalinnovationindex.org/analysis-indicator|
|U.S. FDI in partner country ($M USD, historical stock positions)||2019||USD 256||apps.bea.gov/international/factsheet/|
|World Bank GNI per capita||2019||USD 1,410||data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GNP.PCAP.CD|
4. Industrial Policies
The government’s investment policy provides both domestic and foreign investors the same incentives, concessions, and facilities for industrial development. Though some incentives are included in the federal budget, the government relies on Statutory Regulatory Orders (SROs) – ad hoc arrangements implemented through executive order – for industry specific taxes or incentives. The government does not offer research and development incentives. Nonetheless, certain technology-focused industries, including information technology and solar energy, benefit from a wide range of fiscal incentives. Pakistan currently does not provide any formal investment incentives such as grants, tax credits or deferrals, access to subsidized loans, or reduced cost of land to individual foreign investors.
In general, the government does not issue guarantees or jointly finance foreign direct investment projects. The government made an exception for CPEC-related projects and provided sovereign guarantees for the investment and returns, along with joint financing for specific projects.
To encourage use of electrical vehicles (EV), the Government of Pakistan incentivized imports of EVs via the Electric Vehicles Policy 2020-2025 as completely built up (CBU)/finished vehicles and EV specific parts in complete knock down (CKD)/unassembled vehicles. Incentives include rebates on customs duties, regulatory duties, exemptions from sales tax, and lower tariff rates. (Note: sector contacts state that implementation of the EV policy is delayed as the government has yet to finalize the draft finance bill to introduce the duty exemptions. Full implementation is expected in 3Q 2021. End Note.)
Foreign Trade Zones/Free Ports/Trade Facilitation
To boost exports, the government established fiscal and institutional incentives for export-oriented industries who located operations in Export Processing Zones (EPZ), the first of which was established in Karachi in 1989. Subsequently, EPZs were established in Risalpur, Gujranwala, Sialkot, Saindak, Gwadar, Reko Diq, and Duddar. However, today, only Karachi, Risalpur, Sialkot, and Saindak EPZs remain operational. These zones offer investors tax and duty exemptions on equipment, machinery, and materials (including components, spare parts, and packing material); indefinite loss carry-forward; and access to the EPZ Authority (EPZA) “Single Window,” which facilitates import and export authorizations.
The 2012 Special Economic Zones (SEZ) Act, amended in 2016, allows both domestically focused and export-oriented enterprises to establish companies and public-private partnerships within SEZs. According to the Pakistan’s 2013 Investment Policy, any manufacturer that introduces technologies that are unavailable in Pakistan can receive the same incentives available to companies operating in Pakistan’s SEZs.
Pakistan has a total of 23 designated SEZs. All investors in SEZs are offered a number of incentives, including a ten-year tax holiday, one-time waiver of import duties on plant materials and machinery, and streamlined utilities connections. Despite these benefits to both foreign and domestic firms, Pakistan’s SEZs have struggled to attract investment due their lack of basic infrastructure. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Peshawar Economic Zone Office opened in 2020 an Industrial Facilitation Center to provide potential investors with a one-stop shop for existing and new foreign investors. Pakistan also intends to establish nine SEZs under CPEC. Most CPEC SEZs remain in nascent stages of development and currently lack basic infrastructure.
Apart from SEZ-related incentives, the government offers special incentives for Export-Oriented Units (EOUs) – a stand-alone industrial entity exporting 100 percent of its production. EOU incentives include duty and tax exemptions for imported machinery and raw materials, as well as the duty-free import of vehicles. EOUs are allowed to operate anywhere in the country. Pakistan provides the same investment opportunities to foreign investors and local investors.
Performance and Data Localization Requirements
Foreign businesspeople often struggle to obtain business visas for travel to Pakistan. When visas are issued, they are typically only single-entry visas with short-duration validity. Technical and managerial personnel working in sectors that are open to foreign investment are typically not required to obtain separate work permits. While Pakistan announced in 2019 its visa and no objection certification (NOC) policies would be changed to attract foreign tourists and businesspeople, the new visa policies do not apply to U.S. passport holders. In February 2021, Pakistan shifted to a 100-percent e-visa policy to facilitate business (and tourism) travel. Pakistan also started a 30-day single entry “Business Visa in Your Inbox” Electronic Travel Authorization that allows visa on arrival.
Foreign investors are allowed to sign technical agreements with local investors without disclosing proprietary information. Foreign investors are not required to use domestic content in goods or technology or hire Pakistani nationals, either as laborers or as representatives on the company’s board of directors. Likewise, there are no specific performance requirements for foreign entities operating in the country. Similarly, there are no special performance requirements on the basis of origin of the investment. However, onerous requirements exist for foreign citizen board members of Pakistani companies, including additional documents required by the SECP as well as vetting by the Ministry of Interior. Such requirements discourage foreign nationals from becoming board members of Pakistani companies.
There are currently no requirements for foreign IT providers to turn over source code or provide access to encryption. However, the Government of Pakistan has plans to introduce regulations requiring this.
Currently Pakistan does not restrict data transfer outside of the economy or country’s territory except when involving the banking industry. State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) requires financial institutions to have local data storage and any transfer of data outside of Pakistan requires formal approval from SBP.
Currently, Pakistan is in the process of approving a “personal data protection” bill and in 2020 approved the “Removal and Blocking of Unlawful Content Rules.” Each requires data localization and requires platforms with more than 500,000 Pakistani users to register with the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority (PTA) and establish a physical office in Pakistan within nine months of the implementation of the rules. Within three months of the local office’s establishment, a person must be appointed for coordination, and a data server system must be set up within 18 months. The rules are also slated to be applied to internet service providers. All companies and providers are instructed to restrict content contrary to the “security, prestige, and defense of the country.”
The government agencies involved are: the State Bank of Pakistan, the Ministry of Information Technology and Telecommunications, and the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority.
6. Financial Sector
Capital Markets and Portfolio Investment
Pakistan’s three stock exchanges (Lahore, Islamabad, and Karachi) merged to form the Pakistan Stock Exchange (PSX) in January 2016. As a member of the Federation of Euro-Asian Stock Exchanges and the South Asian Federation of Exchanges, PSX is also an affiliated member of the World Federation of Exchanges and the International Organization of Securities Commissions. Per the Foreign Exchange Regulations, foreign investors can invest in shares and securities listed on the PSX and can repatriate profits, dividends, or disinvestment proceeds. The investor must open a Special Convertible Rupee Account with any bank in Pakistan in order to make portfolio investments. In 2017, the government modified the capital gains tax and imposed a 15 percent tax on stocks held for less than 12 months, 12.5 percent on stocks held for more than 12 but less than 24 months, and 7.5 percent on stocks held for more than 24 months. The 2012 Capital Gains Tax Ordinance appointed the National Clearing Company of Pakistan Limited to compute, determine, collect, and deposit the capital gains tax.
The SBP and SECP provide regulatory oversight of financial and capital markets for domestic and foreign investors. Interest rates depend on the reverse repo rate (also called the policy rate).
Pakistan has adopted and adheres to international accounting and reporting standards – including IMF Article VIII, with comprehensive disclosure requirements for companies and financial sector entities.
Foreign-controlled manufacturing, semi-manufacturing (i.e. goods that require additional processing before marketing), and non-manufacturing concerns are allowed to borrow from the domestic banking system without regulated limits. Banks are required to ensure that total exposure to any domestic or foreign entity should not exceed 25 percent of a bank’s equity. Foreign-controlled (minimum 51 percent equity stake) semi-manufacturing concerns (i.e., those producing goods that require additional processing for consumer marketing) are permitted to borrow up to 75 percent of paid-up capital, including reserves. For non-manufacturing concerns, local borrowing caps are set at 50 percent of paid-up capital. While there are no restrictions on private sector access to credit instruments, few alternative instruments are available beyond commercial bank lending. Pakistan’s domestic corporate bond, commercial paper and derivative markets remain in the early stages of development.
Money and Banking System
The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) is the central bank of Pakistan.
According to the most recent statistics published by the SBP (2021), only 24 percent of the adult population uses formal banking channels to conduct financial transactions while 25 percent are informally served by the banking sector; women are financially excluded at higher rates than men. The remaining 51 percent of the adult population do not utilize formal financial services.
Pakistan’s financial sector has been described by international banks and lenders as performing well in recent years. According to the latest review of the banking sector conducted by SBP in July 2020, improving asset quality, stable liquidity, robust solvency, and slow pick-up in private sector advances were noted. The asset base of the banking sector expanded by 7.8 percent during 2020 due to a surge in banks’ investments, which increased by 22.8 percent (or PKR 2 trillion). The five largest banks, one of which is state-owned, control 50.4 percent of all banking sector assets.
SBP conducted the 6th wave of the Systemic Risk Survey in August-2020. The survey results indicated respondents perceived key risks for the financial system to be mostly exogenous and global in nature. Importantly, the policy measures rolled out by SBP to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 have been very well received by the stakeholders.
The risk profile of the banking sector remained satisfactory and moderation in profitability and asset quality improved as non-performing loans as a percentage of total loans (infection ratio) was recorded at 9.7 percent at the end of FY 2020 (June 30, 2020). In 2020, total assets of the banking industry were estimated at $151.9 billion and net non-performing bank loans totaled approximately $1 billion– 1.9 percent of net total loans.
The penetration of foreign banks in Pakistan is low, making a small contribution to the local banking industry and the overall economy. According to a study conducted by the World Bank Group in 2018, (the latest data available) the share of foreign bank assets to GDP stood at 3.5 percent while private credit by deposit to GDP stood at 15.4 percent. Foreign banks operating in Pakistan include Citibank, Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank, Samba Bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, Bank of Tokyo, and the Bank of China. International banks are primarily involved in two types of international activities: cross-border flows, and foreign participation in domestic banking systems through brick-and-mortar operations. SBP requires foreign banks to hold at minimum $300 million in capital reserves at their Pakistani flagship location, and maintain at least an 8 percent capital adequacy ratio. In addition, foreign banks are required to maintain the following minimum capital requirements, which vary based on the number of branches they are operating:
- 1 to 5 branches: $28 million in assigned capital;
- 6 to 50 branches: $56 million in assigned capital;
- Over 50 branches: $94 million in assigned capital.
Foreigners require proof of residency – a work visa, company sponsorship letter, and valid passport – to establish a bank account in Pakistan. There are no other restrictions to prevent foreigners from opening and operating a bank account.
Foreign Exchange and Remittances
As a prior action of its July 2019 IMF program, Pakistan agreed to adopt a flexible market-determined exchange rate. The SBP regulates the exchange rate and monitors foreign exchange transactions in the open market, with interventions limited to safeguarding financial stability and preventing disorderly market conditions. However, other government entities can influence SBP decisions through their membership on the SBP’s board; the finance secretary and the Board of Investment chair currently sit on the board.
Banks are required to report and justify outflows of foreign currency. Travelers leaving or entering Pakistan are allowed to physically carry a maximum of $10,000 in cash. While cross-border payments of interest, profits, dividends, and royalties are allowed without submitting prior notification, banks are required to report loan information so SBP can verify remittances against repayment schedules. Although no formal policy bars profit repatriation, U.S. companies have faced delays in profit repatriation due to unclear policies and coordination between the SBP, the Ministry of Finance and other government entities. Mission Pakistan has provided advocacy for U.S. companies which have struggled to repatriate their profits. Exchange companies are permitted to buy and sell foreign currency for individuals, banks, and other exchange companies, and can also sell foreign currency to incorporated companies to facilitate the remittance of royalty, franchise, and technical fees.
There is no clear policy on convertibility of funds associated with investment in other global currencies. The SBP opts for an ad-hoc approach on a case-by-case basis.
The 2001 Income Tax Ordinance of Pakistan exempts taxes on any amount of foreign currency remitted from outside Pakistan through normal banking channels. Remittance of full capital, profits, and dividends over $5 million are permitted while dividends are tax-exempt. No limits exist for dividends, remittance of profits, debt service, capital, capital gains, returns on intellectual property, or payment for imported equipment in Pakistani law. However, large transactions that have the potential to influence Pakistan’s foreign exchange reserves require approval from the government’s Economic Coordination Committee. Similarly, banks are required to account for outflows of foreign currency. Investor remittances must be registered with the SBP within 30 days of execution and can only be made against a valid contract or agreement.
In September 2020, Prime Minister Imran Khan launched the Roshan Digital Account (RDA) project aimed at providing digital banking facilities to overseas Pakistanis. Customers can use both PKR and USD for transactions and the accounts receive special tax treatment.
Sovereign Wealth Funds
Pakistan does not have its own sovereign wealth fund (SWF) and no specific exemptions for foreign SWFs exist in Pakistan’s tax law. Foreign SWFs are taxed like any other non-resident person unless specific concessions have been granted under an applicable tax treaty to which Pakistan is a signatory.
7. State-Owned Enterprises
Pakistan has 197 state-owned enterprises (SOEs) in the power, oil and gas, banking and finance, insurance, and transportation sectors. They provide stable employment and other benefits for more than 420,000 workers, but a number require annual government subsidies to cover their losses.
Three of the country’s largest SOEs include: Pakistan Railways (PR), Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), and Pakistan Steel Mills (PSM). According to the IMF, the total debt of SOEs now amounts to 2.3 percent of GDP – just over $7 billion in 2019. Note: IMF and WB data for 2020 regarding SOEs is not yet available, however, according to SBP provisional data from December 2020, the total debt of Pakistani SOEs is $14.62 billion. End Note. The IMF required audits of PIA and PSM by December 2019 as part of Pakistan’s IMF Extended Fund Facility. PR is the only provider of rail services in Pakistan and the largest public sector employer with approximately 90,000 employees. PR has received commitments for $8.2 billion in CPEC loans and grants to modernize its rail lines. PR relies on monthly government subsidies of approximately $2.8 million to cover its ongoing obligations. In 2019, government payments to PR totaled approximately $248 million. The government provided a $37.5 million bailout package to PR in 2020. In 2019, the Government of Pakistan extended bailout packages worth $89 million to PIA. Established to avoid importing foreign steel, PSM has accumulated losses of approximately $3.77 billion per annum. The government has provided $562 million to PSM in bailout packages since 2008. The company loses $5 million a week, and has not produced steel since June 2015, when the national gas company shut off supplies to PSM facilities due to its greater than $340 million in outstanding unpaid utility bills.
SOEs competing in the domestic market receive non-market based advantages from the host government. Two examples include PIA and PSM, which operate at a loss but continue to receive financial bailout packages from the government. Post is not aware of any negative impact to U.S firms in this regard.
The Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) introduced corporate social responsibility (CSR) voluntary guidelines in 2013. Adherence to the OECD guidelines is not known.
Terms to purchase public shares of SOEs and financial institutions are the same for both foreign and local investors. The government on March 7, 2019 announced plans to carry out a privatization program but postponed plans because of significant political resistance. Even though the government is still publicly committed to privatizing its national airline (PIA), the process has been stalled since early 2016 when three labor union members were killed during a violent protest in response to the government’s decision to convert PIA into a limited company, a decision which would have allowed shares to be transferred to a non-government entity and pave the way for privatization. A bill passed by the legislature requires that the government retain 51% equity in the airline in the event it is privatized, reducing the attractiveness of the company to potential investors.
The Privatization Commission claims the privatization process to be transparent, easy to understand, and non-discriminatory. The privatization process is a 17-step process available on the Commission’s website under this link http://privatisation.gov.pk/?page_id=88.
The following links provide details of the Government of Pakistan’s privatized transactions over the past 18 years, since 1991: http://privatisation.gov.pk/?page_id=125