Mid-Year 2012 Report shows mixed performance

In the introduction to last week’s Business Page I pointed out that it was refreshing that the mid-year report was not only prepared within the statutory deadline but that the report was actually made public even before it was laid in the National Assembly which is presided over by the Speaker. That was certainly one step forward. Just one week later the Auditor General presented to the Speaker of the National Assembly the audit report for 2011within the statutory deadline. This was the first time that this was done under Mr Deodat Sharma as the Head of the Audit Office. And guess what the Speaker does? He not only drew comparison with what last took place twenty-one years ago, but then goes on to confuse his specially assembled audience over the timing of the submission of reports since that date. And to add vinegar, he announced that the report will be locked away until the National Assembly resumes from its prolonged recess. That certainly is not a forward step.

Last week as we reviewed the sectoral performance of the economy we saw the up-and-down performance of its major sectors even as it recorded overall growth. We also looked at the values of imports and imports and the change in the consumer price index which is popularly referred to as the inflation rate. Today we turn attention to other segments of the report and begin with revenues.

Central government revenue for the first half of 2012 amounted to $64.9 billion. While representing only 44% of the budgeted revenue for the year, the collections represented a 5.5 % increase over first half 2011, primarily as a result of improved performance across several tax revenue categories. Tax revenue collections for the period amounted to $58.6 billion representing 90.4% of total current revenue collections or 2.9% over 2011.

Internal revenue collections for the half-year amounted to $25.9 billion compared to $26.5 billion in 2011, a decline of 2.3%, as a result of contractions of $582.2 million and $146.6 million in private and public sector corporation taxes respectively. The Minister attributed this decline to lower company tax rates, a bit of a stretch since tax rates were reduced not in 2012 but in 2011, and tax payments to June 30, 2011 would have taken the reduced rates into account last year.

A more realistic explanation lay in withholding tax collections which decreased by $624.8 million compared to first half 2011 due to arrears in dividend payments made in 2011 by a local company to its overseas parent company.

Customs and trade tax collections totalled $5.7 billion for the first half, representing a 19.6% or $930.9 million increase over 2011 half-year collections. The minister attributed this to a $900.6 million increase from import duties due to higher level of imports of most categories of goods particularly intermediate goods. Excise tax collections for the period amounted to $11 billion, a slight fall from 2011. Excise tax collections from motor vehicles amounted to $5.2 billion, an increase of $1.5 billion reflecting higher levels of vehicle imports.

Collections of value added tax (VAT) for the half-year amounted to $16.1 billion, an increase of $1.4 billion. VAT on imports of goods and services accounting for $611.7 million of the increase while VAT on domestic supplies increased by $831.1 million. Value-added tax for the full year was budgeted at $33.968 billion.

Tax evasion
Taxes collected from the self-employed amounted to a mere $1.8 billion to the revenues, compared to $1.5 billion for same period in 2011. As a percentage of tax revenues the self-employed – who dominate the professions, agriculture, fishing, car dealers, goldsmiths, artisans, contractors and most of the main shopping areas in all three counties – contribute less than 2.6% of the tax revenues of the country.

We have heard nothing recently of the so-called tax review committee announced by President Ramotar almost ten months ago, a delay that perpetuates a lop-sided, regressive tax-system in which the self-employed continue to treat taxation as a voluntary matter rather than be treated as the criminals that they are.

No Minister of Finance since 1992 has treated tax evasion seriously but all, including Dr Ashni Singh and his appointed Board of the Guyana Revenue Authority, continue to ignore the glaring statistics that show how serious and damaging the situation has become. Imports by the self-employed continue to rise by double digits, with bank deposits and import taxes not far behind. Yet the taxes the self employed merchants including our newest friends and the rest of the self-employed sector pay, move up only imperceptibly.

With all the inherent problems the GRA faces, it is quite remarkable that the taxes collected by it continue to rise. Whatever we may think of the nature of the tax system and the systemic corruption in some segments of the GRA, those of us who have to deal with the Authority on a day-to-day basis cannot help but admire – and feel a bit sorry for – the many hardworking staff who have to deal with a taxation public made up of so many groups of prominent tax evaders and money launderers.

Missing GRIF and other monies
In paragraph 3.34 of the mid-year report the Minister states that “based on developments in the first half of the year, total current revenue collections (net of GRIF inflows) are now estimated at $128.7 billion for the full year.” A review of Appendix E1 shows that while the sum of $18.4 billion was budgeted to be received, that amount has now been revised downwards to $1.975 billion. Since the Norwegian funds accounted for 15% of budgeted revenue for this year and since many of the LCDS projects were framed around the Norway funds, it was reasonable to expect that the Minister would say something of substance about the status of those funds.

Absent from revenue projections too are monies from the Lottery and the proceeds from the disposal of state assets by NICIL for sundry purposes.

Current expenditure
On the expenditure side total non-interest current expenditure to June 2012 amounted to $43.8 billion, an increase of 14.3% over the same period in 2011. This sum represents 41% of the budgeted expenditure for 2012.

The several types of expenditure where there were increases in 2012 over 2011 included statutory pensions and gratuities which had a 38% increase (no explanation offered); total other charges which increased by 11%; and subsidies and contributions to local organisations – mainly Guyana Power and Light Inc – which increased from $5.8 billion in half-year 2011 to $10.3 billion (77.6%) in the corresponding period in 2012. Old Age Pensions and Social Assistance payments in 2012 amounted to $2.4 billion compared with $1.98 billion in the corresponding half year in 2011.

While the late presentation and passing of the 2012 budget may have been responsible for a number of categories of expenditure to be lower than those for 2011, their greater significance lay in the percentages which the half-year 2012 expenditure bear to the full-year budget. Not unusually, the entire amount of $$3.7 billion for revision of wages and salaries remains unspent.

If we look further at the item Other Charges, which includes several categories of expenditure, we note that only $26.3 billion was spent up to June 30, representing 37% of what is projected for the full year. Principal among the items which had disproportionate spending in the first half of 2012 are expenditure on Materials and Supplies which represents 34% of full year projections; Rental and Maintenance of buildings18.7%; Maintenance of Infrastructure 14.5%; Transport, Travel and postage 34.3%; Utility charges 32.8%; Other Goods and Services 33.9%; Other Operational Expenses 30.1%; Education Subvention and Training 38.8%; Rates and Taxes and Subventions to Local Authorities 3.9%; and Pensions 42.5%.

The situation is no different with the capital expenditure side of the accounts.

Sectoral Capital Expenditure
What we may see and need to fear is that there will be a mad rush to spend in the second half of the year with continued negative consequences for quality and value for money as well as controls over public expenditure.

Source: Mid-Year Report 2012

Deficit and debt
The overall deficit before grants is projected at $43.5 billion, almost certainly the largest budget deficit in the country’s history, measured by absolute amount as well as a percentage of revenue. Even after projected grants of $16.8 billion, the country will need financing of $26.6 billion which will have to come from borrowings. By June 2012, the external debt had increased to US$1.3 billion, 7.6% more than the amounts owing at December 31, 2011. During the first half of 2012, external debt service totalled US$20.4 million, an increase of 10.8% compared to the same period in 2011.By December 31, 2012 the combined external and domestic debt stock will exceed the psychological US$2 billion threshold.

It is evident that the economy’s growth rate in 2012 was lower than in 2011. But perhaps because the Minister had projected for lower real growth in full year 2012, he concluded his report with some reassurance, if not confidence, that the performance of the first half of the year “augurs well for the remainder of the year.”

But acknowledging the events in Linden, his final words were directed not at his colleagues in his government or his ministry to implore them to exercise greater and better management, but at all national stakeholders to “ensure the preservation of the environment that is so critical for a continuation of this favourable performance, not just for the remainder of the year but into the medium term.”

Elections year mid-year report

Today I conclude the review of the mid-year report for 2011, a statutorily required report under the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act 2003. In doing so I also draw attention and comparisons with the half-year report of the Bank of Guyana which while using the same data seems less inclined than the Minister of Finance to put a political spin on the numbers. Readers may find it of some interest that in this election year and with so much at stake, it is the first year since the Act was brought into force in 2004 that the mid-year report has been presented within the two-month deadline, hence the title of this column. Guyanese who have become quite cynical may not have been too surprised, given that the same treatment was accorded the Guyana Prize for Literature which was held this year after last being held around the time of the 2006 elections.

No wonder then there are many Guyanese who half seriously wish for annual national and regional elections simply for their practical benefits: the fixing of roads, clearing of garbage, completion and dispatch of pensions books to the living and the dead and the prompt announcement of a 5% Christmas gift to public servants under the unilateral collective labour agreement which the government has adopted for its employees. It would also mean that the Minister of Finance would not have to be misleading about the date of release of the mid-year report or the Bank of Guyana hold its hand on the truth.

I now turn to some of the other important indicators.

Balance of payments
The higher production of the major commodities referred to last week and coinciding with higher world market prices resulted in an expansion in export earnings in the first half of 2011 by 34.6 per cent to US$533.1 million.  Earnings from sugar increased by 32.4 per cent to US$50.1 million, reflecting a 30.4 per cent increase in quantity shipped to 99,738 tonnes, while rice export earnings expanded by 35.1 per cent to US$92.6 million, mainly attributed to a 26.4 per cent increase in average export price to US$551.4 per tonne, coupled with a 6.8 per cent increase in export volume to 167,945 tonnes. Gold continued to benefit from prevailing conditions in the global marketplace, and the average export prices witnessed a 29.1 per cent increase to US$1,370.3 per ounce, contributing to a 56.4 per cent increase in export earnings to US$229.5 million in the first half of the year. In addition, the bauxite industry earned US$65.2 million, 15 per cent more than in the corresponding period in the previous year due to higher production levels at both bauxite operations, with export volume increasing to 864,570 tonnes compared to 620,776 tonnes.

These significant increases more than off-set the 25.7 per cent decline in the value of timber exports due to a decline in export volume as plywood operations ceased, coupled with a fall in other timber exports.

On the other side of the account, the value of the country’s merchandise imports expanded by 25.7 per cent to US$859.5 million. The main factors contributing to this were: a) a 51.9 per cent increase in the value of fuel and lubricants imported; and b) an increase of 15.8 per cent in other imports with capital and consumption goods increasing by 48.8 10 per cent and 9.7 per cent, respectively, while imported non-fuel intermediate goods contracted by 2.2 per cent.

The overall deficit in the balance of payments at the end of the first half of 2011 was described by the Minister of Finance as a “modest” US$19.6 million but sufficient to warrant a revision of the originally projected surplus for the full year from US$24.4 million to an overall deficit of US$36.1 million by the end of the year.

Net payment for services amounted to US$74.4 million from US$36.6 million for the corresponding period in 2010. The outturn was due to a 43.1 per cent or US$19.4 million increase in payments for non-factor services. This reflected higher payments for freight and travel, which increased by 27 per cent and 252 per cent, respectively.

On the financing side, the Bank of Guyana reported that net current transfers increased by 20.0 per cent to US$216.0 million. This improvement was due to higher inflows to the private sector in the form of other current transfers which increased by 204 per cent or US$68.6 million to US$102.3 million. The Bank reported receipts from bank accounts increasing by 299 per cent or US$72.7 million to US$97.1 million and that the main sources of outflows were workers’ remittances and remittances to bank accounts, which amounted to US$94.0 million and US$53.6 million, respectively.

The Minister of Finance reported an increase in foreign direct investment of 9.2%, concentrated mainly in the energy, telecommunications and mining sectors. However the Bank of Guyana records the nuanced position that short-term private capital recorded a higher net outflow of US$21 million from US$4.5 million for the corresponding period in June 2010. This outflow reflected a rise in foreign assets being accumulated by commercial banks during the reporting period.

Monetary developments
The banking sector saw deposits by private and public individuals and entities and non-bank financial institutions increasing during the review period by 7 per cent to $253.2 billion. Private sector deposits which accounted for 77.9 per cent of total resident deposits increased by 8 per cent compared to the 4.6 per cent expansion in the corresponding period in 2010, attributed to an 8.5 per cent increase in business deposits to $35.5 billion and a 7.9 per cent increase in individual customer deposits to $161.8 billion.

Private sector credit at end June 2011 amounted to $119.8 billion. The main sectors of increased lending were agriculture (20.3%), real estate mortgages (10.3%), distribution (9.4 %), other services (7%) and mining and quarry sector (4.7%). The public sector remained a net depositor of funds with the banking system at end June 2011.

Foreign exchange market transactions grew by 19.2 per cent to reach US$2,861.7 million. Transactions at the cambios and the Bank of Guyana grew by 23.5 per cent and 27.5 per cent, respectively. The Guyana dollar vis-à-vis the United States dollar retained its path of stability, depreciating marginally by 0.25 per cent.

Shocking employment numbers
A few days ago the Minister of Labour shocked the nation with the announcement that the country’s unemployment rate had fallen to 10.9% (he made sure it was not 11%) but nowhere did he say where he pulled those figures from, or what the last official rate was. Interestingly, there is no mention of such numbers in the reports by the Minister of Finance and the Bank of Guyana. Indeed the Bank of Guyana reported a downturn in employment within the central government of 1.67 per cent. Without stating its source the Bank of Guyana did however report that preliminary estimates indicated improvement in private sector employment especially in the growth sectors. The wholesale and retail, construction and other services sectors showed increased employment.

A few days later Barbados announced an unemployment rate of 12.4% which must have made the Minister blush that Guyana could be doing so well! And with all of this the registered number of employed and self-employed persons under the National Insurance Scheme stubbornly refuses to increase.

Inflation and falling medical cost
The Bank of Guyana reported that the year-to-date change in the Urban Consumer Price Index (CPI) for June 2011 is registered at 2.97 per cent. The Bank sought to explain this level of inflation as due to price increases in the food category and unstable fuel prices “occurring from conflicts in the Middle East.” It reported price increases in transport & communication, housing, footwear & repairs and miscellaneous goods & services, which rose by 10.1 per cent, 1.1 per cent, 1.9 per cent and 1.5 per cent, respectively. In addition, education and furniture recorded a small price rise of 0.9 per cent and 0.6 per cent, respectively. Amazingly, it reported that the price index for medical & personal care and clothing categories decreased by 14.5 per cent and 0.3 per cent, respectively during the review period.

Apart from the fact that the reports seem to find it convenient at times to speak of year-on-year indicators and at other times – as in the case of the rate of inflation – of year-to-date rates, the average member of the public would have to ask which planet the Bank of Guyana could be referring to that had a 14.5% decrease in the price index for medical and personal care.

There was a 7% increase in the country’s total external public debt, from US$1,042.7 million at the end of December 2010 to US$1,110.9 million. These arose from new disbursements of US$69.3 million from the IDB and Venezuela. External debt service payments totalled US$18.4 million compared to US$12.3 million for the same period in 2010, a 50% increase.

On the other hand, the Bank of Guyana shows the movement of the debt year on year, which reports that the stock of domestic and external public debt increased by 9.1 per cent and 15 per cent, respectively from end-June 2010 level. The level of domestic debt at June 30 2011 was $103,390 million making the country’s total debt well over $1.6 billion. The Minister of Finance clearly felt that he should disguise these numbers.

Fiscal position
The non-financial public sector registered a deficit of $149.6 million during the first half of 2011 with central government revenue for the first half of 2011 amounting to $61.5 billion, 12.8 per cent higher than in the corresponding period for 2010. Tax revenue collections for the period amounted to $57 billion, 11.4 per cent above 2010 collections. As a result of these developments, projected current revenue for 2011 has been revised upwards to $119.7 billion from $112 billion.

But the troubling side is with expenditure. In the first half of 2011, non-interest current expenditure amounted to $38.3 billion, an increase of 16.2 per cent. Already the Minister has been going to the National Assembly for supplementary funds to meet expenses for what could effectively be deemed vote-buying. On the capital side the Guyana Power and Light Inc continues along with GuySuCo to be major financial burdens with hardly any light visible at the end of the tunnel.

For all we know about the illegal and criminal economies and the attendant tax evasion and money-laundering, these matters receive no mention in either reports. Key indicators seem way out of line with reality, particularly with respect to certain components of the consumer price index and those relating to employment which admittedly came from Mr Nadir and not the Bank of Guyana or the Minister of Finance. But it is on the financing side that this will not be a good year. With continuing uncertainty about the receivability of the Norwegian funds the rest of the year will see increasing expenditure financed by a growing debt burden.

Election year politics?

Crazy columnist
This columnist has not gone mad, at least not yet. I am just mesmerized that Dr Ashni Singh who Manzoor Nadir of the PPP/C/TUF rates as one thousand times better than Peter D’Aguiar as Finance Minister, has finally met the statutory deadline for the annual mid-year report. (For the younger among us Peter D’Aguiar, the first and only [T]UF member trusted with the portfolio of the finance ministry was used and discarded by Burnham.) Singh’s achievement about the report vindicates the surprise I openly expressed last year to the now forgotten call by the Economics Affairs Committee of the National Assembly for an extension of the deadline for the report. Au contraire, Dr Singh proves that he could comfortably live with a shorter period!

More than being timely, the 2011 mid-year report, according to the President, who has traversed the globe in a shorter time than Jules Verne could have imagined, is among the best performing economies in the world with an annualized growth rate of 5.9% and an unemployment rate within striking range of the USA, according to Manzoor Nadir.

The remarkable growth comes, not from the powerful narco-sector of the economy as the doomsayers would have us believe, but mainly from the politically sensitive sugar and rice sectors which prove that even agriculture responds to election year politics. Indeed it shows what any MBA 101 course – citing the Ministry of Agriculture as a case study – would tell us: politics triumphs over incompetence.

Sugar and rice and all things nice
According to the Minister, in the first half of 2011, the Guyanese economy achieved real economic growth of 5.9 per cent with the non-sugar sectors growing by 5 per cent. It was sugar and rice however that were the star performers. Suggesting that after billions of dollars we can get back to the performance levels of 2004, sugar production in the 2011 first crop was 106,871 tonnes, a 30.5 per cent increase over the first crop of 2010, with a little help from an extension of the crop period. While this may affect the quantity of cane available for the second crop, the government seems optimistic that the full year 2011 target of 298,879 tonnes is achievable, perhaps with a procrustean extension of the year.

Rice too has done well with first crop rice production of 207,514 tonnes, 23.3 per cent higher than the corresponding period in 2010 and the highest first crop in the industry’s history. Taking part credit for the sector’s performance, the government claims that the growth in production was attributed mainly to significantly improved drainage and irrigation as a result of government investments, the development of a new and more tolerant rice strain by the Guyana Rice Development Board, higher yields and, most importantly, a higher acreage of paddy planted.

I witnessed some damage to rice along the Essequibo but the Minister of Finance was confident enough to revise the 2011 full-year growth in the industry from 4.9 per cent to 12 per cent.

Grow more pig tail
The Minister reported increased overall production levels in the livestock industry by 2.7 per cent, with increased production “evident” in areas of poultry meat, table eggs, mutton and beef while pork production declined. When one boasts of such sterling performance words like “evident” tend to raise doubts about the reliability of the data. Two other comments before we move on: while the Minister was exulting about sugar, the supermarkets were complaining to the press that they were getting no supplies, a matter about which the Guyana Sugar Corporation appears to have had no knowledge. The second is that while we have an active Grow More Food campaign run by the Ministry of Agriculture, the supermarkets which are springing up at just about every corner of Guyana stock mainly foreign items. My friend Raymond likes to complain that he cannot get local pig-tail and cowheel and is forced to buy those items which are imported from Canada. That surely makes no economic or policy sense and some explanation would normally be warranted.

The fisheries sector seems to be in some decline and recorded a negative growth of 2.2 per cent during the first half of the year, compared with a target of 0.4 per cent over the production performance of 2010. As a result the industry is now projected to contract by 4.7 per cent in the full year.

Green and gold
The forestry sector had a negative growth in the industry of 30.3 per cent as a result of contraction in the production of logs, lumber and roundwood. As a consequence, the sector is now projected to contract by 19.9 per cent by year end compared to an earlier projected contraction of 1.4 per cent.

There are two significant segments to the mining and quarrying sector – bauxite and gold and diamonds. Production of bauxite in first-half 2011 reached a total of 815,505 tonnes, an increase of 38.6 per cent compared to the same period in 2010. However because of the composition of the industry’s output, a higher proportion of lower grade to higher grade product, converts into a sub-sector growth of 13.8 per cent.

Total gold production in the first half of 2011 was 163,413 ounces, an increase of 14.9 per cent over 2010 which was itself an outstanding year. With the incentive of ever higher gold prices, gold production for the year is now projected to reach 320,000 ounces. On the other hand the diamond sub-sector declined in the first half by 19%.

Manufacturing and water
Mainly driven by, but not entirely on account of sugar and rice, the manufacturing sector is recorded as having grown by 10.6 per cent, Given that rice and sugar were expected to grow significantly in any case, it is not clear why the target for the year has been revised upwards from the budgeted 7.7 per cent to a now expected 9.4 per cent.

Owing to significant investments in the electricity and water sector by the government, the sector is estimated to have grown by 2.6 per cent for the comparative half-year. With more planned government investments, the Minister has revised upwards the sector’s projected annual growth rate 0.4 per cent to 2 per cent.

The Minister reported that while the wholesale and retail sector had been projected to grow by 4.4 per cent, the actual for the first half of the year was 21.7 per cent, attributed to him as “buoyed by the growth in sugar, rice and light manufacturing which have fuelled the availability of supplies, increase in imports of food for final consumption, beverages and tobacco, fuels and lubricants, textiles and fabrics, and building materials.” This is a truly remarkable growth and suggests a level of spending power that many would consider beyond the economy’s capacity.

Complementing the other sectors of the economy, the information and communication sector is estimated to have grown by 5.5 per cent in the first half and as a consequence the 2011 budget projection of 5 per cent is retained. Similarly, the Minister estimates that at the end of the first half, the finance and insurance industry had recorded a growth rate of an incredible 16 per cent, with much of this driven by expansion in activity by the commercial banks. Of all the substantial claims made, I would say that this “estimate” is more than mildly exaggerated.

To complete the story of sectoral growth, the education and health and social services recorded estimated growth of 3 and 3.4 per cent respectively for the first half. In his 2011 Budget Speech the Minister did not announce the growth projected for these sub-sectors but in his mid-year report he announced that their budget growth projections for the full year have been revised to 1.5 per cent and 1.9 per cent, respectively.

Next week we will look at the balance of payments and some of the monetary environment in which the economy performed.

Mid-year report and the Debt party (no pun intended)

Almost invariably in discussing recent mid-year reports which the Minister is required to present to the National Assembly under Section 67(1) of the Fiscal Management and Accountability (FM&A) Act 2003, I have made two broad prefatory comments. The first is that it is always misdated.

The Act requires that the report be presented “within sixty days” after the end of the half-year. The second is that comparing it with the half-year report of the Bank of Guyana submitted to the Minister of Finance long before he completes his own report, is like comparing cheese with brick. In content, comprehensiveness and quality they are poles apart.

In 2007, the first full year of tenure of this Minister of Finance the mid-year report was not presented until late November. Subsequent years have seen some wide disparity, none of which however met the deadline, notwithstanding the mis-stating of the date on the reports themselves.

This year the Minister, who was cited by AFC MP attorney-at-law Khemraj Ramjattan for misleading the National Assembly in the small matter of the payment of $4 billion to GuySuCo, dates his report August 27, 2010 two days before the statutory deadline. Until I’m convinced, I shall withhold my congratulations for timely presentation.

As readers are aware the Speaker of the National Assembly Mr Ralph Ramkarran said he did not find a prima facie case against the Minister in the GuySuCo matter although he did find one against the Minister of Housing and Water, despite the Minister of Finance being at least an accessory if the accusation is in fact upheld.

However, it must also be said that the Minister does his reputation no good by the wide disparity between the dates he places on the reports and the dates on which they are tabled.

Breaks and gaps
Since it is routine for reports to be lodged with the Parliament Office between recesses, the Minister would be well advised to lodge the report as soon as it is completed, and issue a press statement to that effect. He can add that “unfortunately, the contents of the report cannot be released until I have had the opportunity to lay it in the National Assembly.” He must also not issue any instructions to the Bank of Guyana or the Bureau of Statistics to withhold their own publications until his report is tabled.

To place in some context what the report should include but does not, I can only draw attention to the concluding part of my commentary on the 2009 mid-year report published in December 2009. I noted there that the mid-year report required more than the year-to-date execution of the annual budget. It requires the report to set out the prospects for the remainder of the year. It also mandates the inclusion of a revised economic outlook for the rest of the year, a statement of the projected impact of the trends on the remainder of the year, and very importantly, a list of major fiscal risks for the second half of the year with likely policy responses that the government proposes to take to meet the expected circumstances.

It was clear then and is more egregious now that the report presented by the Minister falls very short of the requirements of the Act. The result is a report of very limited use and, for any serious reader, when compared with that of the Bank of Guyana, of no practical use.

The best and the brightest
As if to prove that one can fool some of the people all the time, some time in early July, the Parliamentary Sectoral Committee on Economic Services suggested in its fifth Periodic Report that it was likely to recommend that the National Assembly extend the deadline for the submission of the mid-year financial report by the Finance Ministry.

The report suggested that a recommendation be made to the National Assembly that the FMAA be amended to allow for the extension of the deadline for submission to October 9 to coincide with the end of the parliamentary recess. In fact, the committee noted that all the data necessary to compile the mid-year report would not be available by the end of June/early July. Well how much more misinformed can a parliamentary committee be! The deadline is the end of August, not June or July and the committee must have heard of the billion dollar software (IFMAS) in which the government has invested that allows for considerable real time data availability.

And while that ill-informed suggestion would have been music to the ears of the Minister, it is clearly not reading from the same song-sheet as the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee Chairperson, Ms Volda Lawrence, who in relation to the 2007 report called the delayed report scenario “gross disrespect” for the people of Guyana and said that it was time people stopped taking such behaviour sitting down.

For purposes of this column and for reasons mentioned in the first paragraph, this column relies on the report of the Bank of Guyana rather than that of the Minister, although it must be said that unlike 2009, the two reports agree on the GDP growth statistics.

The economy showed what the Bank of Guyana described as modest growth of 2.8 per cent during the first half of 2010. Significantly, the government has now revised the budgeted growth in 2010 from 4.4% to 2.9% for the full year. This would represent the lowest rate of growth in the economy since 2006. In his report, the Minister gave no reason for the significantly lower growth projections, a lacuna that pervades his entire report. And to ensure that they rhyme this year, the Bank of Guyana also projects a 2.9% growth for full year 2010 without indicating whether this is its own estimate of merely a repetition of the Minister’s.

The National Income Accounts was last year rebased to 2006 and until some pattern has emerged it is difficult to assess any one of those indicators.

It would have been useful for the Minister to comment on the impact of the rebased national accounts on the growth statistics particularly in the light of the attention and issues raised by Professor Clive Thomas in his recent columns under captions such as ‘Magnification or manipulation’ and ‘Statistical illusion or real changes’ in the Sunday Stabroek of October 3 and 10, 2010 respectively.

The growth in the economy was attributed to improved performances in the agriculture and services sectors. The livestock and bauxite industries experienced a decline in output while a stable performance was registered in the manufacturing sector.

Bitter sugar
For the first half of the year sugar output was 81,864 tonnes, 1.8 per cent lower than the level at end June 2009 – the year of the turnaround plan – and represented 29.0 per cent of the 280,000 tonnes targeted for 2010. The Bank of Guyana explained that the adverse outturn was due to unfavourable weather conditions in the first quarter of the year which affected cane transport, replanting and irrigation of planted canes.

From an original 2010 target of 280,000 tonnes, the Minister of Finance has announced a revised target of 260,000 tonnes, which would confuse the GAWU members who are being told that their target is 264,000 tonnes. This is not the only confusion in the industry. While the Minister of Finance announces that “works continue on the turnaround plan which would see the realisation of increased acreage under cultivation and improvements in the cane to sugar ratio, the President is expressing fears about the future of the industry due to the failures of “a few individuals.”

Rice output was 168,267 tonnes, 4.6 per cent more than the corresponding 2009 level and represented 49.0 per cent of the 343,373 tonnes target for 2010. The improved performance has to be seen however against the significant amount of “government assistance,” a euphemism for subsidy to the sub-sector, to cushion the effects of the dry weather spell.

Bauxite, another industry that receives wide and valuable government support, saw a decline in its performance which helped to produce in the mining sector a 4.1 per cent decline in growth in real terms. The Bank of Guyana explains that the outcome reflected the decrease in bauxite and diamond output, due to the fall in demand and the “decline in motivated workers.” One cannot but help notice the contrasting attitude of the government to rice/sugar and bauxite, although the government would stoutly challenge any suggestion that ethnicity and politics play a part.

Gold and dollars
Gold again remains an outstanding contributor to the economy and but for its performance the real economy would more than likely have experienced negative growth. Yet, the government continues to hem and haw and dilly-dally on recognising that gold-mining is a key sector that warrants serious attention.

Total gold declarations increased by 8.1 per cent to 142,212 ounces and were 46.0 per cent of the 311,816 ounces targeted for the year. Gold remains by far the largest single export earner with export receipts amounting to US$146.7 million, 22.4 per cent or US$26.8 million more than the June 2009 level. The average export price per ounce increased by 26.3 per cent to US$1061.2 per ounce while export volume declined by 3.2 per cent to 138,242 ounces.

After a much-hyped improvement in the exchange rate of the Guyana Dollar to its US counterpart, the Guyana dollar, vis-à-vis the US dollar, depreciated by 0.25 per cent compared with an appreciation of 0.37 per cent at end-June 2009. According to the Bank of Guyana, the relative stability of the currency is supported by an adequate flow of foreign exchange to the market. It did not add however that the US Dollar itself has been depreciating against some major countries, so the comparison of the Guyana Dollar to the US Dollar is not an accurate measure.

A seemingly unrelated issue is the attraction to keep money in Guyana rather than converting and exporting it to another currency. Interest paid to holders of bank deposits decreased by 17.0 per cent in 2010, showing increases in domestic expenditure. This means that while depositors’ funds in the banking system are increasing their returns are decreasing. That cannot be good news either for the exchange rate or depositors, though it must be added that the extent of the decrease is quite surprising.

Other issues
The NIS also gets a mention by the Bank of Guyana but not the Minister under whose portfolio it falls. The National Insurance Scheme’s (NIS) receipts grew by 12.3 per cent to G$5,328 million as contributions rose by 9.7 per cent to G$4,633 million, and receipts from debtors grew by 91.3 per cent to G$437 million. While the decline in investment income by 10.8 per cent to G$259 million gets a mention, nothing has been said of the increased benefit payments and the status of the 2008 financial statements and annual report. These are languishing on the desk of the Minister of Finance and not being tabled in the National Assembly as the law requires, an indirect casualty of the Clico debacle.

And the debt spree continues as both domestic and external borrowings continue into the stratosphere. The stock of domestic and external public debt increased by 13.2 per cent (to G$94,760 million), and 12.1 per cent (to US$966 million), respectively from end-June 2009 level. The former is attributed to an increase in the issuance of treasury bills to sterilize excess liquidity, while the latter is due to disbursements from the IDB and bilateral credit delivered under the PetroCaribe Initiative. Both domestic and external debt services were higher on account of higher principal and interest payments.

External debt service increased by a substantial 80.4 per cent to US$12 million from its end-June 2009 level, made up of principal and interest payments amounting to US$6.4 million and US$5.8 million respectively.

The cost of carrying GuySuCo and other public sector entities while the government itself engages in some seriously costly and wasteful expenditure, is borne out by the overall cash deficit of Non-Financial Public Enterprises (NFPEs), including the Guyana Power & Light (GPL) and the NIS. This increased to G$5,026 million at end-June 2010 compared with a deficit of G$721 million in June 2009.

The result of these is that current operating cash balances of the NFPEs moved from a surplus of G$2,298 million to a deficit of G$2,097 million at end-June 2010. This decline was mainly due to a 26.7 per cent increase in expenditure which more than offset a 14.0 per cent growth in revenue.

That perhaps, even more than over-taxing the people of this country, is the story of the financial management of the public sector of Guyana in the first half of 2010.

Economy firewall malfunctions – Conclusion

This is the fourth and final part of a review of the Mid-year Report 2009 presented by the Minister of Finance to the National Assembly under the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act, 2003. As I promised last week, the purpose of this closing part is to pull the strands of the three preceding segments together and to look for any causes of optimism in the economy and its management.

Despite its title, the Act requires of the mid-year report more than the year-to-date execution of the annual budget. It requires the report to set out the prospects for the remainder of the year. It also mandates the inclusion of a revised economic outlook for the rest of the year, a statement of the projected impact of the trends on the remainder of the year, and very importantly, a list of major fiscal risks for the second half of the year with likely policy responses that the government proposes to take to meet the expected circumstances. In my view the report presented by the Minister falls very short of the requirements of the Act, and he spent no more than a few sentences on the revised economic outlook, fiscal risks and proposed government responses for the rest of the year. If proof be needed, then the Minister himself provided it this past week when he brought before the National Assembly requests for $5 billion, mainly for spending in the second half of the year, which must have qualified for – but did not receive – inclusion under projected trends and major fiscal risks. It is also a case of how bad and weak the Ministry of Finance is when it comes to budgeting and planning.

Before proceeding, I digress to repeat what I consider a major concern about the report, and that is its lack of timeliness and therefore its limited practical value. The report is by law due no later that August 30 of the year. It is now normal not only for the report to be issued months later, but also for it to bear a date that is very misleading, sending a signal to others that it is okay to do so. For 2009 it was presented on November 12, but bearing the date September 25. The Minister must be aware not only that the National Assembly has a registry to receive reports when it is in recess, but that it is wrong to send signals to subordinates that such conduct is acceptable.

In part 2 of this short series I drew attention to an item in the Bank of Guyana Half-year Report submitted to the Minister of Finance, in which the performance of the economy in the first half of the year was addressed in considerable detail. I noted an obvious conflict between the numbers presented by the Minister and those presented by the Bank of Guyana; while one was reporting growth, the other was reporting a decline. Clearly they both could not be right, and the public would have expected, both out of duty and professional self-respect, either or both of these entities to have addressed the issue. Neither has done so, further evidence of the Minister’s disdain for the public, recalling his response to a Kaieteur News article on grossly excessive payment by the government for the purchase and supply of equipment, when he suggested that the newspaper should start bidding for contracts!

LCDS and accountability
The Minister must be aware that the President’s attempt to raise money internationally for Guyana’s proposed low carbon development strategy is also drawing attention to the country and its management. Everyone, including the General Secretary of the ruling party, now admits that corruption is taking place in the country – any difference being only the matter of degree, with most independent opinions leaning towards corruption on a massive scale. That view is reflected in Guyana’s ranking in the Corruption Perception Index by the internationally respected, German-based Transparency International, where Guyana is rated at 126 of 183 countries, the worst in the region.

This series on the mid-year report pointed to one of the most celebrated cases of flagrant breaches of financial procedures – that involving the purchase of drugs by the government, largely from an entity with which the President admitted to having close ties, and which had earlier been singled out for unlawful tax concessions. But that is only one case among many that are surfacing daily with contractors, whose low expertise in construction is only matched by high level connections, and who receive multi-million dollar contracts that cost as much in rework in some cases, almost as soon as the work is signed off and payment made. Corruption is one C-word that is alien to any half-year or full-year review done by the Minister.

Unlike the Minister of Finance and the President, Norway, the government’s LCDS benefactor, is not oblivious to or unaware of the endemic problems of corruption in Guyana, neither does it seem willing to sweep them under the carpet. That country’s Environment and International Development Minister Erik Solheim has made its position on corruption clear by prescribing robust anti-corruption measures before Guyana can draw down on the six-year US$250 million promise made by Norway. That understanding is still only at the MOU stage and may therefore be subject to further refinements and a formal and binding agreement.

It is almost a joke to speak of a transparent financial mechanism while simultaneously and strongly refusing to put into effect constitutional provisions regarding the procurement of goods and services or an Audit Office headed and staffed by persons with appropriate qualifications. That the current head of the Audit Office is merely acting has as much to do with the fact that he has no professional accounting or audit qualification as that it serves the government well to have someone hold a key constitutional, accountability position purely at its whim and for its convenience. Those in acting positions know that if they rock the boat they risk sinking with it, a chance that out of self-interest, they will not take.

If the Norwegians are any more careful with their taxpayers’ funds than say the multilateral IDB or the World Bank, the chances of Guyana drawing down the entire sum must be low. If US$250M buys the Norwegians sufficient carbon credits to embellish their questionable record as an environment polluter, they may feel they have obtained a basement bargain. On the other hand, Guyana gives up major rights and opportunities, raising the question whether the country should not have had an indigenous low carbon development strategy rather than one dictated by the Norwegians, acting in their interest.

Contract employees
Another issue highlighted by this series was the increasing prevalence of the use of contract employees to get around the rules of employment in the public service. I had drawn attention to the more than $3 billion paid in salaries to this group of hand-picked persons, with another huge amount paid in benefits to them, including a 22% gratuity every six months. The really lucky ones get cars, drivers and duty concessions on top. This means that even the non-contract employees are really a benefit to the contract employees. Who these lucky ones are is intended to be a secret, but the Office of the President is a wonderful case of abuse. Of 201 employees in the Office of the President, ninety-five are contract employees and fifty-four are temporary. Among the contract employees are former ministers, all of whom are reported to be employed at the pleasure of the President on the same salaries and with the same benefits that they received as ministers. The Ministry of Local Government has two former ministers who must still be financed by the taxpayers.

Ironically, both the Public Service Commission and the Public Service Ministry which are expected to protect the integrity of the public service are themselves serial cases of the contract employee syndrome, while the culture also seems embedded in the Ministry of Culture, Youth and Sport.

The implications of this are huge and costly. It gets around the constitutional provisions for employment in the public service, creating a huge army of often highly paid loyalists but more importantly, it destroys the public service and its structures. What institutional memory will remain if on a change of government, the holders of all major key positions are not retained? Are we again going to turn to the British government which in the late eighties paid huge sums on financing a study that led to sweeping changes in the public sector and a dramatic reduction in the number of ministries? But that was before we had VAT that provides an annual windfall in revenues for the government to (mis)spend as it pleases, even as the half-year report discloses increasing borrowings without any indication of the actual amount of funds in the Treasury. That simply cannot be responsible financial management.

We noted in paragraph one that the Minister had approached the National Assembly for close to $5B to pay for unbudgeted expenditure on the army, Office of the President, LCDS, GuySuCo and other agencies and ministries. But we had also noted from the first-half report the low level of spending in that half year. The country’s financial rules provide for the reallocation of funds from one budget area to another. There is no indication that this sensible practice is ever employed instead of the simplistic approach for the National Assembly to rubber stamp excess and excessive spending. Simplistic too is its approach to sugar into which it continues to pump billions while its relationship with its major stakeholder – the workers – deteriorates rapidly. It is easy to forget that the government defied the World Bank and informed the public concerned about the Skeldon Project, the largest single public investment ever undertaken in this country. The results so far have been more than merely disappointing.

Where next?
Ram & McRae will this Thursday publish its report on its annual Business Outlook Survey which would give a good indication of the private sector’s take on the economy. From the empirical evidence only a few sectors are doing well but none of these is in manufacturing or production. Our financial sector continues to do well, as does distribution, but important as these are, they provide an intermediary function. The state-owned power company, whose costs feed into the rest of the economy, continues to struggle to reduce inefficiencies and costs. The public sector wage bill keeps mounting while services remain stagnant. The bureaucracy and its sibling, corruption, impose a huge cost on the highly-taxed economy, in which equity and fairness hardly exist.

It would not be right to argue that there have not been improvements in infrastructure, health and education, which were tied to the huge debt reliefs enjoyed over the past two decades. We have, however, failed in diversifying and strengthening our productive capabilities. Until we do that we cannot declare that we have accomplished the mission set by the PPP/C when it assumed control of this country, including making the country a place where rights, responsibilities and rewards were borne and shared equitably.