The President, ‘scraps’ and concessions

It was a week of ‘scraps’ for President Jagdeo, if we count his inexplicable meeting last Monday at State House with the scrap metal dealers, who come under Prime Minister Sam Hinds’ portfolio. There were, however, two others, one involving the country and the other specifically the private sector. At the GBTI Business Forum 2008 on Monday, the President cast aside the expressed hope by the bank’s CEO that the forum rise above the controversy of the net benefits/loss from the CARICOM/EU Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) and address its opportunities and offerings. The President chose instead to engage in what many in the audience saw as a barely disguised and inappropriately timed attack on the EPA, the Caribbean Regional Negotiating Machinery (CRNM), some of his own regional counterparts and the European Union.

But it was the launch of the new newspaper the Guyana Times where the President really bared his knuckles as he associated leading businessman and entrepreneur Yesu Persaud with ‘ignorance’ and suggested that the entrepreneur and leading private sector spokesperson for scores of years attend a seminar on the tax laws of the country. Mr. Persaud, speaking in his capacity as a private sector representative at the launch had dared to suggest that the concessions which the government had granted to Queens Atlantic Investment, the parent company of the Guyana Times Incorporated be extended to “all Guyanese.” A more transparent and equal treatment for investors has for years been the concern of domestic operators, and indeed the PPP in opposition, as they witnessed foreigners being granted sweetheart deals that effectively doomed local operators as second class in the scheme of things – the wood sector being the most obvious example.

Mr. Persaud was perhaps referring to ongoing concerns that concessions had been offered to the five new businesses of the investor group, instead of some only. The President who admits to being a close personal friend of the investors took umbrage at the call and announced that he had asked Mr Winston Brassington of the Privatisation Unit to hold a seminar on the tax laws, leaving the audience to wonder why not the GRA?

President Jagdeo explained that the concessions were in respect of the pioneering projects of the investors, the antibiotic plant and the textile mill. The problem which many share with Mr. Persaud is that the piecemeal information on the deals has had to be forced out of the government and its spokespersons while the group has remained conspicuously silent, obviously confident that the government would deal with it as a PR exercise and not a disposal of state resources in which all are interested. Perhaps the Guyana Times, which calls itself the Beacon of Truth, would show its editorial independence and commitment to truth and the people of a country that makes it all possible for its investors, to run its own story on what many may consider a steal of a deal.

The truth
All this of course could have been avoided if the government had complied with section 37 of the Investment Act 2004 that requires it to publish in the Gazette information regarding the fiscal incentives granted under section 2 of the Income Tax (In Aid of Industry) Act Cap 81:02. Only then would the nation be able to decide the real truth and how the agreement limits the concessions to the President’s “pioneer” industries.

The President was at pains to justify the as yet undisclosed concessions as having been granted under the authority of Cap 81:02. In fact, the act gives discretionary powers to the minister to grant concessions under two circumstances set out in section 2 as follows:

(a) the activity demonstrably creates new employment in one of the following regions –

(i) Region 1: Barima – Waini

(ii) Region 8: Cuyuni – Mazaruni

(iii) Region 9: Upper Takatu – Upper Essequibo

(iv) Region 10: Upper Demerara – Upper Berbice

(b) the activity is new economic activity in one of the following fields –

(i) Non-traditional agro processing (excluding sugar refining, rice milling and chicken farming);

(ii) Information and communications technology (excluding retail and distribution);

(iii) Petroleum exploration, extraction, or refining;

(iv) Mineral exploration, extraction, or refining;

(v) Tourist hotels or eco-tourist hotels.

But the President should have informed himself that the authority for such concessions seems to be limited by section 6 of the Financial Administration and Audit Act (FAAA) which stipulates as follows:

(1A) Except as provided in subsection (1C) [dealing with the duty of the Minister of Finance to make subsidiary legislation to waive any tax payable due to the taxpayer’s inability to pay such tax because of natural disaster, disability or mental incapacity etc.], no remission, concession, or waiver is valid unless the remission is expressly provided for in a tax Act or subsidiary legislation;

(1B) No remission, concession, or waiver of tax by Order or other subsidiary legislation is valid unless the Act under which the subsidiary legislation is made expressly permits the Minister to provide such a remission, concession, or waiver.

The President and the Minister of Finance, who like the group have been silent on the issue, must now consider whether they were properly advised of the relevant provisions of the law including the limitations under the FAAA, and that section 2 of Cap 81:02 does not recognise the “pioneer industries” referred to by the President.

The Finance Minister Dr. Ashni Singh has an obligation to the nation to indicate whether any cabinet paper submitted under his name recommending the concessions quantified the cost to the country of the concessions granted to the investors. If there was no such paper it would be a serious indictment of the President, the Minister and the entire cabinet.

And the rent
While much attention has been paid to the tax holidays and the government boasts how attractive a deal it won with annual rental of $50 million dollars per year, the government has been careful to avoid the real value of this rent.

Remember that there is a 99 year lease and there is nothing to indicate that there is a rent escalation clause providing for periodic increases in rent based on inflation and other economic factors. This then is how the figures look if we place a time value on the rent the country will earn from this deal and assuming discount rates of 10% and 5%, with the former being the more likely:

Discounted at 10% 5%
by the 10th year $21M $32M
by the 15th year $13M $25M
by the 20th year $8M $20M
by the 25th year $5M $16M
by the 50th year $0.5M $4.6M
by the 75th year $43K $1.4M
by the 99th year $4K $0.4M

In other words, by the half-way stage of the agreement, using a discount factor of 10%, the amount of the rent expressed in today’s dollars will be $39,043 per month! Assuming the unlikely scenario that a discount factor of 5% is justifiable, the monthly rental at the same point would be a princely sum of $381,516.

Now look further down the road to the end of the lease period and see that the rent using a 10% discount factor would be, in today’s prices, $365.85 per month! So just what is this about an option to buy for US$3.5 million in three years time?

Do those who tout the benefits of the deal really believe that the investors are so ‘ignorant’ as to choose to spend US$3.5 million dollars when they are the beneficiary of the giveaway of a century minus one year?

The dilemma we now face is what happens if the government has granted concessions that are not ‘valid,’ as they would appear not to be under the FAAA. Would the taxpayers have to bear for 99 years, the burden of government’s decision?

The President had earlier announced that he left the meeting when the matter was being discussed by cabinet. Perhaps he should have stayed and advised his colleagues about the state of the laws and the limits of their powers.

He may have saved his friends and colleagues from possible embarrassment and the taxpayers of the country the waste of resources.

Still, I hope I am invited to the Privatisation Unit’s Tax Seminar to which I recommend that the members of the cabinet, the President’s advisers and investor friends be invited as well.

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