Challenging the Jagdeo myth

Introduction
Mr. Carl Greenidge, Finance Minister in the PNC Administration has been one of the chief targets of the PPP/C since 2011 for what they claim to be his mismanagement of the economy prior to 1992. This claim is at best one-sided and at worst totally dishonest, completely ignoring the performance of the economy when Greenidge demitted office in 1992. Perhaps as the calypsonian Chalkdust sang: “they ‘fraid Carl”.

A question for the PPP/C is if the Economic Recovery Programme (ERP) which they in opposition had dubbed Empty Rice Pot was so bad, why did they not replace it? The truth is that the ERP negotiated by Greenidge with the IMF and other international lenders and donors placed Guyana on a trend where its economic growth rate was well above anything the country has ever witnessed, before or after. Asgar Ally, riding on the wave of debt write offs initiated by Greenidge, kept the economy roaring until he was undermined by then Junior Finance Minister Bharrat Jagdeo.
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Staggering increase in external debt

Bad news
The country’s stock of external public and publicly guaranteed debt rose by 20.3 per cent to US$804 million from the end of September 2007 to the end of September 2008. This dramatic increase has been reported in a quarterly report by the Bank of Guyana for the nine months ended September 30, 2008. As a consequence, external debt service costs increased by 10.5 per cent to US$11.5 million, reflecting new debt payment schedules primarily for multilateral creditors. These were among a number of interesting issues raised in a most commendable effort by the central bank, and the Governor, Mr Lawrence Williams and his team deserve kudos for what appears to be a first for the bank.

Otherwise the report makes for a most depressing report on the management of the economy by President Bharrat Jagdeo and his Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh, of whom so much was expected when he first was appointed a minister after the 2006 elections. By almost every measure the economy in the three months July to September 2008 performed worse than it did in the same quarter in 2007.

There was lower output in all the country’s major commodities during the third quarter of 2008 compared with the same period in 2007. Sugar fell by 3.6%, rice by 1.6% and poultry by 12%, while in forestry products, diamond and fishing the story was the same. Someone counted the eggs and came up with a 64% increase in the country’s production of eggs while there was modest growth in the mining sector, including the foreign owned bauxite companies blessed with generous concessions which the government has refused to disclose.

More bad news
If the overall performance of the manufacturing sector is depressing, the non-performance of segments of the sector must be a cause for serious concern. The production of paints and alcoholic beverages increased by 1.7 per cent and 6.3 per cent, respectively, whereas there were declines in the production of pharmaceuticals by 2.5 per cent and non-alcoholic beverages by 33 per cent. Our pharmaceutical company is another beneficiary of concessions and valuable contracts to supply Indian manufactured drugs to the government.

And if non-alcoholic beverages include Coke, Pepsi and I-cee, is it an error or did we in the third quarter produce only two bottles when three months earlier we were producing three? Where are we going and what does it say that a senior official of one of those beverage companies is a top member of the increasingly useless National Competitiveness Council?

Inflation
The Bank of Guyana, sourcing its information from the Bureau of Statistics reported that the inflation rate “during the third quarter of 2008 grew by 7.8 percent compared with 13.9 percent for the corresponding period in 2007.” There must be some error here, however, since the inflation during the quarter could not be 7.8% and was probably the rate for the nine months. The food basket maintained by Ram & McRae for the quarter reflected an increase of 8.2% over the three months but for the year the firm’s basket of food showed an increase of 33%, similar to the increase in Trinidad and Tobago. Conveniently, the Bank of Guyana concludes, without offering the kind of analysis and evidence expected from such a body, that the level of inflation in Guyana was driven by higher international fuel and commodity prices.

What is troubling is that the report indicates that price data for the third quarter were not available. Yet we will be expected to accept without question inflation figures pronounced by Dr Singh when he presents another of his big budgets that would not only include all of the third quarter but the entire year! It is hardly surprising therefore that leading economists and the public have ceased to give any credence to the numbers provided by the government, particularly on inflation and GDP, two politically sensitive variables.

Wages and employment
The Bank of Guyana clearly forgot that these are key issues in the economy since they give them a complete pass, meaning no mention. Expectedly, it did devote much attention to the financial sector reporting that the foreign exchange market continued to grow during the review period. The bank seems to forget as well the role and scale of the underground and parallel economy, and as our newspapers show, the role of drug money in the economy. It has decided, again without solid information, that sales of foreign currency “were related to higher import costs.”

Almost half of the transactions by value in the foreign exchange market were accounted for by the cambios with the bank itself purchasing some US$376 million, comprising mainly purchases of US$212 million from GuySuCo and the Guyana Gold Board. Despite the perceived strong links between the non-bank cambios and the underground economy the report does not reflect any cause for concern on the part of the bank in its supervisory role over these entities, most of which are unincorporated businesses not requiring independent audit of their books.

The drugs trade
At least as readers of the daily newspapers, the bank must be aware of the drug trade with its own oligarchy. And so too must be the one-man Financial Intelligence Unit, located within the Ministry of Finance, that is supposed to prevent money-laundering. The report indicates that sales by the non-bank cambios represented 8% of total currency sales. Even Lewis Carroll would have hesitated before writing this figure. This column has criticised the law regulating the non-bank cambios, noting that they have outlived their initial purpose and called for their abolition. In a remarkable sign of impotence and or lack of will, the response has been that it will drive the business back onto the streets. This seems to suggest that instead of running the country on the basis of laws, we are at best closing our eyes and ears to reality, operating on fear of stepping on the toes of the powerful.

Despite the bank’s poor record of supervision of the cambio sub-sector the report devotes several pages on the remittance business, advising of the steps being taken to bring it under its control. The report notes the significant increase in the inflow of remittances during the past six years, increasing from US$3.4 million in 2002 to US$224.4 million in 2007. In the first half of 2008, net flows of remittances increased by 6.3 per cent, or US$6.6 million to US$111.8 million compared to half year 2007. Interestingly, Caricom countries now rank only behind the United States of America as the dominant countries from which Guyanese receive remittances.

Tax, borrow and spend
The report emphasises that the overall surplus of the public sector contracted during the review period, resulting from relatively higher expenditure by the central government since receipts from corporations and tax revenues increased slightly. The tax and spend approach that has characterised President Jagdeo’s style of financial management seems to have been taken to new levels by Dr Singh. With him at the helm of the Finance Ministry, it is now tax, borrow and spend. Since moneys borrowed have to be repaid later, no government, elected or otherwise, should be allowed to borrow away the future of a country. There should be a cap on how much a government is permitted to borrow, even if it is to stabilise excess liquidity in the financial system as the report indicates.

The report which was created in PDF format on December 29, 2008 for publication on the bank’s website “predicted” that in the fourth quarter, the economy would continue its growth path, particularly in the mining, construction and services sectors, and that the agriculture sector which had faced “minor setbacks in the third quarter” would register modest growth. Clearly it could not be referring to sugar where the drama became even more surreal. In a cleverly worded disclaimer for the (mis)management of the economy, the report notes that the efficacy of the bank’s policies will depend on the stance of central government fiscal policy. And we all are aware of the history of that policy.