When the Ministry of Finance belatedly broke its silence last month on the concessions given by the government to Queens Atlantic Investment Inc (QA II) it asked Guyanese to ignore such considerations as transparency and the rule of law and sought to shift the debate to the “ultimate question that needs to be asked… whether these investments are a positive development for Guyana.” The two statements issued by the ministry within one day of each other contained what were some very categorical representations: that the package involved investments of US$30 million; that the investments by the group would create 600 jobs in Georgetown; and that a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was executed between Go-Invest and QAII in March 2008. The facts are different. They show how a serious erosion of the tax base by the extension of generous concessions unlawfully given to a favoured few contribute to the creation of an uneven playing field that instead of encouraging investment has the direct opposite effect. Such action entrenches and enriches a few and effectively creates a monopolistic situation at the expense of potential competitors and the economy in areas as diverse as construction, mining and forestry, with the ever loss-making Barama, exploiter extraordinaire of the country’s forest resources being the shining example.
For all the suggestions of bigness, QA II up to a couple of years ago had a share capital of fifty-thousand Guyana dollars (US$250) and the government should be interested in where the US$30 million dollars for the investments will come from. Even with generous and free financing by the state, the group has had to borrow hundreds of millions from the banking system, even as the parent’s books showed a negative net asset position.
Pattern of favours
The original investment in GPC was $460 million for a 60% stake in the company by Queens Atlantic Investment Inc. An additional 30% was acquired for G$200 million. It would have been reasonable and financially prudent for the additional shares to have been sold at a premium since they allowed QAII to consolidate its control. In fact the Privatisation Unit sold the group the additional shares at what appears to be a discount of at least $30 million.
By way of an article earlier this week in the Stabroek News we learn that QA II’s main operating subsidiary, New GPC Inc, has benefited from special exemption from the tender process contrary to law, but as Minister Ramsammy says, with more innocence than information, in accordance with a cabinet decision – as though cabinet were paramount to the law. The New GPC has been handpicked for “major contracts” to procure medical supplies on behalf of the Ministry of Health and the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation whose Medical Superintendent Dr Madan Rambaran is on the Board of GPC – another conflict of interest that is now so much part of public life in Guyana.
But the concessions go further: at December 31, 2006 the company had been advanced close to half a billion dollars by the Ministry of Health and the GHPC “to procure medical supplies on their behalf.” A government that taxes its citizens till they scream and that perpetually fails to refund overpaid taxes in a timely manner finances a supplier of products that can no doubt be procured directly and perhaps even at lower overall cost. The advance of $160M by the Ministry of Health and $314M by the GHPC alone accounted for well over 40% of the 2006 purchases by the company! Then the company turns around and invests $140M of that money in the Berbice Bridge Company of which $50M is in the form of a loan stock earning a tax-free interest of 11% and bonds of $10 million earning 9% interest.
For all its boasts about being the “Caribbean’s leading pharmaceutical manufacturer” the company’s production labour accounts for under 3% of turnover. At $47 million production labour barely exceeds depreciation – hardly evidence of any key focus on job creation. The company’s financial statements also show incredibly that it exports all its manufactured products and that it benefits from another general tax concession that is in violation of the country’s international obligations as pointed out in the Business Page of January 13, 2008.
The Fabulous Five
The above is a summary of various agreements signed by Dr Ashni Singh, Minister of Finance and Dr Ramroop of the QA II companies. These agreements make disturbing reading for the appearance of carelessness and lack of expertise on the part of the Privatisation Board, Go-Invest and the Ministry of Finance. These are some of the worst agreements I have ever seen in multi-million US dollar documents. There is no preamble linking “Supplementary Investment Agreements” to the so-called Memorandum of Understanding which the Ministry of Finance claims was signed in March 2008, or to any principal agreement. The agreements contain several blanks, and manuscript changes are not even initialled, a most elementary requirement that raises questions as to the dates of the making or modification of the documents. What is worse is that all the agreements preceded the much touted MOU, in one case by several months. Again any professionally done, arms’ length transaction would begin with a Memorandum of Understanding to be followed by supplementary agreements as certain details are worked out and pre-conditions are met.
Lots of toilets…
The claims by the government and the company in their public pronouncements of 600 jobs being created by the investments appear a gross exaggeration. In fact according to these documents the number is just half of that when the projects come fully on stream. A careful examination of the items approved for tax exemptions “for one year beginning from the date of signing the Agreement” reveals a surprising number of similarities between the items approved for Healthcare Life Sciences Inc and Health International Inc. Examples are one complete switchboard system; 500 x 5/8˝ steel rods; 1000 x 0.5 mild steel rods etc, 50 length 0.75˝ armor flex insulation; and one 500 KVA generator each. There is a carte blanche agreement for tax concessions on the contents of thirty-one pallets for Global Printing, and one must sympathise with the customs officer who has to determine whether they constitute “One complete printing press.” The list of items for Healthcare includes only a few real big ticket items (500 KVA generator, one mini-van and two double cab pick-up and four forklifts) which along with the cables, breakers and switches hardly appear to amount to the US$9 million claimed to be invested by this company.
Some of the items approved for concessions appear to be more appropriate for domestic use while others are inflated. One of the entities (Global Textile) has approval for forty-six toilet sets, “12 ctns Briggs China lavatories” and “12 ctns white rf toilet express” while Healthcare Life Sciences has approval for another twenty toilet sets and twenty wash basins. This quantity of toilets seems surprising and yet there is nothing to suggest that any of these is for the newspaper company.
Kudos to the press
The story of QA II and its investments showed the Guyana media at its investigative and persistent best, helped no doubt by President Jagdeo’s own uninformed outburst. It has allowed us to see, admittedly in one instance only, of how state business is transacted behind closed doors by a few who consider laws a matter of (in)convenience and raises the troubling question of what else might be taking place with this and other favoured investors that the government does not wish us to know about. It exposes the serious and costly deficiencies on the part of the Georgetown Hospital and the Ministries of Health and Finance, the Cabinet, Go-Invest, the Privatisation Board and the GRA. It provides ample evidence of how this government is generous to their friends at the expense of the people. It is a failure of people and systems that allows the careless granting of concessions without a proper analysis of proposals submitted while the apparent absence of adequate follow-up mechanisms amounts to a gross dereliction of responsibility for which no one will be held accountable.
Still more questions
The revelation of these agreements does not mean that all questions have been answered. The famous MOU of March 2008 is still a state secret, and it is still not clear what pharmaceutical products the US$9 million dollar Healthcare Life Sciences Inc will manufacture that GPC cannot do or which of the two medical companies has been granted tax holidays. Or quite what kind of export Processing Zone one of the new companies, Health International Inc, will establish and how different that will be from the kind that has been called for by the private sector for many years but ignored by the government. Despite the continuing publicity, the government has not tabled the agreements in the National Assembly, fuelling fears that there may be even more to hide or that the government believes that accountability and transparency are a matter of form and not substance.
But the exposure has shown how important it is for the Privatisation Board and Go-Invest to be restructured and to include persons of competence and independence both at the directorial and executive levels. It is farcical to have the Minister of Finance not only sitting but chairing the Privatisation Board which makes recommendations to Cabinet which then instructs him to act on those recommendations.
The concessions and real monetary benefits the Ramroop Group has enjoyed make it practically impossible for any competitor – in any of the group’s activities – to operate successfully, a fact that should not be overlooked by those who are taken in by claims of those who seek further concessions. Let us understand that in creating effective monopolies we encourage high profit-seeking and prices, and stifle competition – the consumers’ best friend. This is not an anti-business or anti-investment position. The call for transparency and compliance with the law by those in power cannot be more urgent, even as we welcome new investments.