Stanford 20/20 smoke and mirrors and an update on Clico

The columns of Business Page have reported on far more financial scandals than it would have liked. Although it was soon overtaken as the biggest corporate scandal ever, Enron was covered in a series in February 2002 and remembered in a piece one year later to mark its anniversary. Parmalat too with a hole of billions on its balance sheet and Nick Leeson who brought down the 233-year-old Barings Bank, the Queen’s bank, were accorded their fair share of space. More recently it was Bernard Madoff of the US and B. Ramalinga Raju of Satyam Computer Ltd of India to add to the list of corporate fraudsters. Each fraud has had its own consequences, with Enron taking down with it Arthur Andersen, one of the world’s most respected accounting firms, as well as the investments of its employees’ pension scheme.

For the most part however the direct consequences have been felt by employees, creditors and shareholders, including pension schemes. And they have all had some common ingredients − a tale of lies, deception, smoke and mirrors, sleeping accountants and poor governance and weak regulators, all fed by frenzied greed in the name of capitalism. Each, however, took place in larger economies that could absorb a moderate level of stress and setbacks.

‘Sticky Wicket’
On the other hand, the fall from grace of cricket icon Sir Allen Stanford is in a different ballpark altogether. After the government, the Stanford group is/was the largest employer in its home base Antigua. It has its own cricket ground – named appropriately Sticky Wicket − with swimming pool, lighting and facilities that rival the government-owned stadium and the record-making Antigua Recreation Ground. It operates the Bank of Antigua which has a significant share of the retail banking in that country. It owns some of the choicest pieces of real estate on the island. It was, prior to its fall, planning to develop an area called Shell Beach and nearby Maiden Island, towards the end of the airport runway, with a marina, shopping and entertainment complex.

Stanford’s towering image, cosy relationship, influence and hold over Antigua simply cannot be under-estimated. The island’s Prime Minister, Baldwin Spencer, never a friend of Stanford, admitted that the charges brought by the SEC against Mr Stanford and two of his associates could have “catastrophic” consequences. He urged the public not to panic. It was like telling persons in a rainstorm not to take protective action – and such advice was quietly ignored by depositors who queued up to withdraw their money from the Stanford-owned Bank of Antigua. Seizing the political opportunity to crush Lester Bird, he has called general elections which he is certain to win.

There is also a wider, regional threat to the Eastern Caribbean Dollar – one of the most stable currencies in the world and which is managed by the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank, the monetary authority for eight OECS island economies including Antigua. The bank in a statement reportedly handed to people queuing to get their money said its “liquidity position is sound.” It was careful to note however that that the bank’s ability to meet customer requirements applied “under normal circumstances” and that if individuals persisted in rushing to the bank in a panic, they would precipitate a collapse. The consequences of massive withdrawals and conversion into and flight of foreign currency is going to test the stability of the EC dollar over the coming weeks.

But the image Mr Stanford cultivated was even bigger than the assets or his plans. For example, the helicopter in which he landed at Lord’s to announce his “20/20 for 20 million” deal with the England and Wales Cricket Board was not, as the gold-plated Stanford name and logo emblem on its body indicated, corporate property but one rented for the day. Nor was the $20 million jackpot in the treasure chest shown to the world at the launch real money – it was at most about US$100,000 standing atop wads and wads of paper. It was one big con. The press, fascinated by the Texan billionaire, was too dazzled by the dollars to see the game at work and to ask questions.

Dazzled by wealth and….
Stanford was flamboyant, ambitious and most importantly for the gullible, including most of the region, fabulously rich. But contrary to his tale of a family heritage and inheritance associated with Stanford University, Stanford’s real wealth had its source in the early 1980s when he and his father James Stanford bought distressed properties in Texas during the oil industry bust and the S&L crisis, rehabilitated them and sold them at huge profits when the market got better.

But Texas was too big for the man who had visions of grandeur and royalty. He wanted to be king and chose first Montserrat to base his operations before moving to Antigua where he became a real force during the rule of the Bird family, the father-and-son dynasty that held power for more than 40 years. It was during that period that Stanford helped the Birds turn Antigua into a tax haven and soon made him into a billionaire. With his personal wealth estimated at more than US$2 billion, he was bigger than the economy of Antigua and so Stanford could get whatever Stanford wanted. He demanded and received the trappings of royalty that Texas could not give him – a knighthood without the need to bow in front of the Queen. In fact that knighthood was granted to him by the Birds. He ran his financial empire from the island’s airport office park which was the most iconic landmark to greet any visitor to the island. While his empire extended to Latin America his colossal status derived from his tryst with West Indian cricket of which he was seen as the saviour following years of the most pathetic management by a succession of the most pathetic Board of Directors ever to have ruled the game anywhere in the world. With the glitter of millions, he redefined West Indian cricket into a game of fast paced entertainment, money and image, particularly appealing to the lucrative television market.

Criminal charges likely
The details of Stanford’s fall are still unfolding but what seems to have emerged so far is that the company was selling investors high-yielding certificates of deposit on the basis they were safe and liquid investments. According to the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Stanford’s investment portfolio was an opaque “black box,” including holdings in illiquid real estate and private equity. Following investigations that had been going on since last summer, the SEC has filed charges against three entities, Antigua-based Stanford International Bank, and its affiliated Houston-based investment advisers, Stanford Group Company and Stanford Capital Management.

Unlike Kenneth Lay or Madoff or Raju, Stanford has not been charged with any criminal offence – at least not yet. The action brought against Stanford is a civil action although the word fraud has been used by the SEC involving somewhere between $8 and $9.2 billion. It has been reported that the FBI is carrying out its own investigations but that it does not want to lay charges until it has been able to find sufficient evidence to secure a conviction. Should it move too early it will have set in train a schedule that would force criminal investigators to charge, indict and construct a trial within a tight time-frame. Whether it is criminal or civil fraud is the kind of fine distinction that does not interest depositors and investors who have been rushing to all locations where Stanford operates demanding the return of their money.

It has been reported that some of our cricketers have invested money in Stanford while the Ministry of Finance has confirmed that one major institutional investor, which Business Page suspects is either a commercial bank or an insurance company, has placed funds with the Stanford group. The Ministry has told the press that it is “monitoring the situation” although quite what this means in the light of its handling of the Clico issue is hardly reassuring. We must not forget that there are thousands of Guyanese living in Antigua and it is a fair guess that many of them would have had their savings in Stanford’s bank. If the government is truly monitoring the situation it should immediately send a high-level representative to Antigua to represent the interest of those persons.

At some time we will have to confront the threats to small countries by rich investors and oligarchs who can bribe, cajole and threaten to get what they want. The view that these people are here to save us must by now be surely mistaken. So too is the view that we are insulated from the world economic crisis. Our own politicians need to stop feeding us with their own form of garbage.

Clico update
Chairman of the National Insurance Scheme has told the press, more than a month after the news of the failure of Clico Investment Bank in Trinidad and Tobago that he is uncertain about the extent of the exposure of the NIS to the local Clico company. That is amazing and dangerous when in the same breath he estimates that the exposure can be as much as $6 billion.

Business Page has for two weeks been trying to obtain confirmation from various members of the NIS Investment Committee of the value of the exposure and has written to the acting General Manager of the Scheme seeking confirmation. By arrangement the Commissioner of Insurance has also been written to with a list of several questions the answers to which would form the basis of next week’s Business Page. If Dr Luncheon is right and the exposure is around $6 billion, then potentially we could have some really serious problems since the Scheme’s viability will depend on the continued success of Clico Guyana. The consequences of a failure are simply too frightening to contemplate.

Most of major issues were avoided

Dr Misir avoided most of the major issues raised by me in the exchange of letters I have had with him over the past couple of weeks, while my hint to him that he should be guided by Eleanor Roosevelt’s classic quote about ideas, events and people appears to have escaped him in his letter of February 17 (‘Excessive nitpicking,’ SN).

Dr Misir and his fellow team member Mr Kwame McCoy in particular, seem fascinated by my politics. Fortunately or unfortunately, I have no tale to tell of personal heroism, revolutionary activism or political association to whet the appetite of Dr Misir and his “huge team of… significant players,” all serving a political cause paid for by taxpayers which would make the Value-For-Money practitioner recoil in horror and despair. For the information of Dr Misir and Mr McCoy my major contact with the PNC of the PPP’s critical support days was having been part of the group including Lou Bone, Eddie Dewar, Valerie Holder, Clairmont Kirton and Freddie Kissoon whom Burnham had decreed should get no work from the state. At no time during the PNC regime was I ever employed by or received any work from the state. Indeed, during that period I was close to the WPA, NAACIE and FITUG – hardly associations that would appeal to the PNC. There were people, some now feeding at the trough of the PPP government, who were strongly pro-PNC or anti-PPP then. But those are personal choices for which each must be respectively responsible. I offer no judgmental view of them.

Since Dr Misir seems determined to avoid or devalue any discussion such as his citing Ms Gail Texeira’s “observations” in a newspaper article as his constitutional authority on the propriety of presidential actions; or using the excuse of the accomplice and joint offender (the Ministry of Finance) as justification for the misuse of the Lotto Funds by the President and improper accounting therefor by the Ministry of Finance; and since Dr Misir seems more interested in personalities than in facts, issues and shortcomings affecting our society, I consider that any further engagement or exchange with him will serve no useful purpose and will be an imposition on readers.

If, however, Dr Misir would like some real and serious discussion on such issues as the constitutional right to information, a long term economic strategy for the country, electocracy versus democracy, politicisation of the public sector and campaign financing reform, I am sure there are many who would like to engage him. The ball is now in his court – but then he claims to be a batsman, not a tennis player.

Insurance Commissioner should be addressing the public on Clico

Ms. Maria van Beek expressed surprise (SN letter of February 14, 2009) at what she describes as Business Page’s unspecified “assertions and suppositions” (February 8, 2009) on the role of her Office in the Clico issue. She claims that I did not seek her comments on it. She is wrong on both counts.

What did Business Page say about her Office? That it has been silent on the Clico issue (fact then and now); that it is very important for her Office to ask the right questions and to get hard information from the company (vital then, more so now); that the responsibility for supervising Clico’s operations falls entirely under the Commissioner of Insurance (is she disputing that?); that her Office should have been far more proactive than it has been in this matter (is that not a given?) and that the Office of the Commissioner of Insurance simply does not have the resources to properly regulate the sector (fact, just visit her room at the Privatisation Unit in Barrack Street).

But let us set the records straight. When I returned to Guyana on Friday, February 6th, to begin our firm’s preparation for the Budget 2009, I drove straight to Ms. van Beek’s office hoping to meet her in connection with Clico. She was not in office but her secretary spoke to her in my presence. She did not however call me until days later, after the column on Clico had appeared. To say therefore that I did not seek her comments is misleading for someone who regulates an industry subject to the principle of “utmost good faith”. I even had to do some special arm-twisting to get a copy of the 2007 annual report of Clico for which I had to pay her Office $5,400, at the prohibitive charge of $100 per photocopied page.

Almost as if there is nothing unusual about the Clico issue, Ms. van Beek expressed satisfaction that insurance companies have been addressed in BP, adding that she hoped that “this examination of an insurance company’s financials is one of many more to come.” There is no room for banality when $7.5 billion of people’s money in Clico is invested in related parties owned by the CL Financial Group, Clico’s parent which is facing serious liquidity and other difficulties. But yes, Ms. van Beek, just send me the financials and I will review them. Her office should be doing the same and providing informed periodic reports for the benefit of the public.

Too many public bodies are more concerned with protecting their image than in carrying out their mandate. Now that the Governor of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago is claiming that the situation with the Trinidad group is more serious than first thought, Ms. van Beek should be addressing the public on the substantive issue instead of making small and wrong points about Business Page.

I appreciate Ms. van Beek’s offer of assistance and will be writing her for information to do a follow-up to the February 8 article.

Putting some sense in the 2009 Budget

The National Assembly has the most unenviable task of making sense of the 2009 Budget presented last Monday in the National Assembly. The Minister of Finance apparently saw its greatest virtue as being the “biggest budget ever.” Not only is a boast on size from a Minister of Dr Singh’s stature interesting, but if size is the only thing that commends this budget, then there must be serious concern about its wisdom. Size only tells us how much of our money the government will be spending and where the money is coming from. It does not tell us how well the money is being spent and surely that is at least as important.

I understand that MPs, constituted as the Committee of Supply for purposes of Budget consideration, can at this stage, raise “any question relating to the line item being considered and all others relevant to the provided profile for capital items, description provided for each line item, etc.” They need to use that right to the hilt. In terms of ideas and direction, this Budget is by far the worst ever constructed under the Economic Recovery Programme, and even before. It perhaps reflects the involuntary departure from the Ministry of Finance of Mr Winston Jordan who long held the position of Budget Advisor and who was replaced by Ms Sonia Roopnauth, parachuted into the ministry, along with a Deputy Minister of Finance whose role and utility is hardly well communicated.

More resources for the Audit Office
Expenditure has been climbing inexorably over the years which Dr Singh sees, incredibly, as a virtue. The perpetual late availability of the annual report of the Audit Office on the annual public accounts is often of little more than curiosity interest. That adds to the responsibility on the committee to thoroughly review the entire Budget, even at the risk of being accused of stalling. They owe it to the nation.

By the time the year is over, with accurate accounting, we will likely see the highest deficit ever recorded by this country. If all goes to form we can expect that the audit report on the finances allocated in the 2009 Budget will not be available until some time in 2011, the year of the next general election. We can expect as well that the report will be subject to the usual defects expected from an office short of critical resources and accustomed to failure to meet statutory obligations. One of the urgent and most significant recommendations of the committee therefore is the provision of increased sums to finance a functioning Audit Office.

As usual, most of the big players know that because of weak supervisory oversight on spending, they have tremendous latitude on how they account and spend. There is still lots of money outside there that is not properly accounted for on the income or expenditure side of the accounts. That is the case with the Lotto funds and now NICIL headed by Mr Winston Brassington, involving over the years billions of dollars. Those are unconstitutional and unlawful acts. The committee must come down on this. Since a Budget deals with available resources and their application, the estimates (budget) as presented are not correct in that they leave out substantial resources. They should be referred to the Minister for amendment.

There is no known case in recent memory where any Budget figure was changed after debate. Additionally, a significant part of the Budget is based largely on the system of incremental budgeting − take last year and add x %. That is not budgeting but arithmetic. In other words if we spent $100 dollars last year we look at inflation and then do a top-up to arrive at the current year. If we assume even a modest 10% in fat, wastage and inefficiencies, a clinical surgery of that fat without going yet into “lean and clean” could cut the budget by $12 billion – allowing a reduction of several forms of taxation including the VAT.

Zero-based budgeting
No change will come about without a new approach and nothing ever will. But blame me for being an optimist. I think it can be done, even beginning in 2009. Dr Singh was keen to tell us again about his government’s plans for the constitutionally independent Office of the Auditor General. What he should be telling us is how he intends to improve and modernise the system of budgeting of government finances. As an academic and accountant the Minister would be very familiar with the system of zero-based budgeting (ZBB).

He would know that properly applied, zero-based budgeting is particularly useful in the public sector and that the UK government in its 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review carried out a set of zero-based reviews of baseline expenditure in government departments to assess the effectiveness of government spending and its long-term objectives. ZBB starts from the premise that no costs or activities should be factored into the plans for the coming budget period, just because they figured in the costs or activities for the current or previous periods. Rather, everything that is to be included in the budget must be considered and justified. In effect, start by saying the budget is zero and then add the cost of those things considered necessary.

The key benefit of ZBB is that it focuses attention on the actual resources that are required in order to produce an output or outcome, rather than the percentage increase or decrease compared to the previous year. Under ZBB, budgeting is no longer a number-crunching process of spreadsheets, but an exercise involving the budget agency and the spenders in an analytical and decision-making process. The stupidity of the government’s rhetorical question, where is the money going to come from if this or that tax is cut, is based on a lack of appreciation of ZBB and the whole budget matrix, a criticism I never thought I would make under this Minister’s stewardship.

Bloated government
ZBB is not rocket science. Admittedly our budget is distorted by political considerations like having to find ministries and placements for all those party loyalists and those willing to go on the elections slate, hardly a relevant factor for ZBB. Do we really need a Ministry of Sport with a Minister and a Parliamentary Secretary, when we have a Director of Sport and a National Sports Commission? Do we need two former ministers to advise the current Minister of Local Government which cannot deliver local government elections? And does the President need and use all those advisers in the Office of the President?

The committee looking at the line items in the Budget should ask for full particulars of the terms of employment of all advisers to the President and his ministers. Under ZBB there would have had to be good reasons to for their continuation.

Think what happens when you cut a ministry: savings on ministerial salaries and perks including chauffeur, guards, duty concessions, allowances, secretaries, public relations persons and property expenses. Even with the smallest ministry this can easily add up to hundreds of millions.

ZBB particularly lends itself to discretionary spending such as this and that activity, and showing overseas travel, etc. The committee should ask for details of the 2008 expenditure and 2009 projected expenditure on local and overseas travel by the President, ministers and other public officials. Almost on every occasion I travel I see some politician or other travelling first class. The committee should not be prepared to accept glib answers but only hard evidence on the amount and details of money spent for the President and his ministers’ overseas travel in 2008 and their specific spending plans for 2009.

Too many dollars, too little sense
The committee should ask about the $2.5 billion being spent on GECOM in 2009 – more than the amount spent on agriculture – and consider whether we are getting value for money. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs is getting $3.2 billion and cannot put a representative in the UK where even a government supporter has lamented we do not have a representative and miss many, many meetings. What contribution does former Home Affairs Minister Mr Gajraj’s presence in India bring us that cannot be achieved by contacts between our Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Indian High Commission?

We need to know why with all this overseas representation the President has to go out of the country sometimes three times per month. Are our representatives not functioning and do the things the President goes to really require the presence of our head of state?

The committee should find out about the money allocated in 2008 for airstrips in Leguan and Wakenaam, for which no work was done. It should ask for information on the Hope Canal on which $3 billion is being spent this year – all from borrowings and on the basis of technical advice of which the public knows nothing. Should the committee not want to ensure that it acts before the money is spent and the problem remains? The committee should scrutinize the capital budget with the greatest of care – some $46 billion dollars are involved.

It should request the audited financial statements of the National Drainage and Irrigation Authority since it came into being in 2006. To give money to people who are derelict in their statutory duty to account is irresponsible. That of course applies to all the Budget agencies and those to whom public monies are given.

I do not expect that everything can be done immediately. But it is time that we move to serious budgeting and not indulge in politics and arithmetic as the 2009 Budget does. The Committee of Supply should request the presence of the Budget Director as it wades through the 2009 Budget. The accounting officer from the relevant ministry or department should be present to answer questions and if Minister Singh is too busy then his apparently under-worked deputy should be present at all the sessions.

Business Page would also like, respectfully of course, to recommend that we move to a system of zero-based budgeting and that we begin by identifying three or four ministries for the exercise in phase one, to begin in 2009. And to recommend as well that all positions paid from the public purse be listed in the Estimates, and not only those which have come through the Public Service Commission. Too much is being hidden.

Dr. Misir should respond to the issues

Dear Editor,

Dr Prem Misir suggests that I lighten up. Okay, I will. But first, an update. Dr Misir returned the copy of the Trinidad Guardian I sent him last Monday. The banner headline had reported on the en bloc resignation of the high-powered Trinidad and Tobago Integrity Commission after a judge of the High Court criticised its conduct. Dr Misir was too busy to write the cover note himself but not too busy to instruct someone to write it on his behalf. It must feel so good to have a part in the biggest budget ever!

I note that Dr Misir considers my reference to his fellow-team member from OP Mr Kwame McKoy as “possible implied ethnic allusion.” Disowning Mr McKoy − which I am sure was not because of ethnicity – Dr Misir claims he is a batsman with consistently high “scores.”

But I guess if I say like Lara and Chanderpaul or Gayle and Sarwan, on the charge of second-rating “our” boys, I will be taken to the Ethnic Relations Commission which has been picked just as has President Jagdeo’s new and improved Integrity Commission led by Dr James Rose – no ethnic allusion, implied or otherwise. Ignorant of Dr Misir’s score, I checked Wisden and Cricinfo under Prem Misir, Dr, spinner, batsman, twelfth man or scorer, but came up with nothing.

Then I checked the Guyana Chronicle which has faithfully continued the practice honed from the days of Burnham of “making the news.” Presto – he came up, circa 1992 – All round(er), can be intellectual but prefers to score with politicians, plays for PPP, UG, GINA and Office of the President. Bats, bowls and fields wherever told. Provides refreshments, scripts and endorsements when directed.

Instead of responding to the substantive issues addressed in my letter of February 8, Dr Misir provided a CV of his self-recorded scores. I admit that I could not see the relevance of his scores to any of the issues raised in my letter and directly related to corruption − the non-appointment of an Ombudsman and Procurement Commission by the President, a proper Anti-Money Laundering Unit, freeing-up the Guyana Revenue Authority from political influence, campaign financing rules, a respected Office of the DPP and the unique situation (and I really mean it in the strictest sense of that word) where financial statements signed off by a minister are audited by an Audit Office where his wife is a top level officer. Perhaps Dr Misir will tell us that they have constructed an Indian Wall (a la the Chinese Wall concept) in the Audit Office.

Dr Misir, wanting to explain why the President failed to address the Bradford Report on the Integrity Commission, was kind enough to educate us ordinary taxpayers that the report is just that. Would he then tell us why the government of President Jagdeo commissioned such a costly study and committed to having its recommendations implemented? And please no nonsense about us not paying for the study: the fungibility of money is an elementary and universally known principle. Was it a show? Like it was when the President told a meeting in Florida in 1999 that he would have zero-tolerance with corruption in his government?

Now some rather egregious acts of corruption actually take place in the Office of the President (Dolphin, Wildlife, disappearing bank statements). As a self-professed organisational specialist as well as a batsman, Dr Misir would know the price of irrational decision-making, which goes by many less complimentary names.

Then of course the organisational specialist-in-chief President Jagdeo, after considering the report for several weeks and after ordering that it be made public, discredits the report! But then for people like Dr Misir, Mr McKoy, etc, the President is the reinvention of the old English maxim that kings are infallible, although even they never behaved as if they were omniscient.

And what is this about the law of the land and the jurisdiction of the Integrity Commission? With his consistently high scores, Dr Misir must be aware that the Constitution of Guyana is the supreme law of the land which the President has sworn to uphold.

He must know that the President has on more than one occasion violated Article 170 of the constitution regarding his powers in relation to presidential assent of bills passed by the National Assembly and continuously violates Article 216 which requires all public monies to be placed in the Consolidated Fund.

He must know as well that neither under the constitution nor under the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act does the President have any authority to spend any public monies. And that under Article 94, the President may be removed from office if he commits any violation of this constitution.

Given his consistency, Dr Misir may wish to tell us whether he played in the cane-burning, strike-breaking, election-rigging game PPP versus the PNC when the PPP declared and conceded, citing critical support for the dictatorship. He may also wish to tell us about his practice of Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous quote about ideas, events and people.

Lighten up, Doc and then respond to the issues raised.

Yours faithfully,
Christopher Ram