Car sales increased 14 percent in February from a year earlier. Cement sales are rising with growing housing demand for increasing population. Lucky Cement, Pakistan’s biggest publicly traded construction materials company, is expected to post record earnings this year. Rising farm prices of bumper crops are pumping hundreds of billions of rupees each year into Pakistan's rural economy.
Contrary to government statistics of a stagnant economy, packed shopping malls and waiting lines at restaurants tell a different story-- the story of growing discretionary incomes of Pakistani consumers today.
So where is the disconnect between these two opposite views of Pakistan's economy? Naween Mangi of Businessweek answers it in her piece "The Secret Strength of Pakistan's Economy". She attributes it to the fast growing informal sector of the nation's economy that evades government's radar, illustrating it with the story of a tire repair shop owner Muhammad Nasir. Nasir steals water and electricity from utility companies, receives cash from his customers in return for his services and issues no receipts, pays cash for his cable TV connection, and pays off corrupt police and utility officials and local politicians instead of paying utility bills and taxes.
Here's an excerpt from Mangi's Businessweek story:
"The rhythms of life in the underground economy remain largely undisturbed. After work, Nasir and his friends sometimes hire a rickshaw to head to the beach or to a religious festival. The driver, part of the flourishing local transport business, doesn’t turn on the meter because he doesn’t have one. On his way home, Nasir stops to buy cooking oil, wheat flour, and sugar at a small grocery store that isn’t officially there. Out of about 1 million shops, up to 400,000 are grocery stores, and most of them are not registered and don’t pay taxes, according to Rafiq Jadoon, president of the City Alliance of Markets Association. In the evening, Nasir unwinds in front of the television. He watches an Indian movie transmitted by a local cable operator to whom he pays a monthly fee—in cash."
The estimates of the size of Pakistan's underground economy vary from 30% to 50% of the official GDP of just over Rs. 18 trillion (US$200 billion). Businessweek's Mangi claims that the government is losing as much as Rs. 800 billion (US$9 billion) in taxes from the informal sector...nearly enough to wipe out Pakistan's current fiscal deficit.
In my view, there are two major problems that arise from the underground economy described by Mangi. First, the massive tax evasion fosters Pakistan's dependence on foreign aid which comes with strings attached and infringes of national sovereignty. Second, the widespread theft of electricity is largely responsible for the huge circular debt and the ongoing power shortages that affect all aspects of life and scare away investors. The sooner the government and the people realize the severe downsides of the underground economy, the better it will be for Pakistan.