Corporate governance in the two most prominent public companies defined by the personalities, interests of their top executives

The National Insurance Scheme holds 8% of the issued shares in Demerara Distillers Limited (DDL) while Secure International Finance Company Ltd owns 18.49%, a combined percentage of 26.49% of the company’s issued shares. My first-hand information is that both the NIS and Secure International have been trying for years to have a seat or two on DDL’s Board so that they can have a say in the strategic decisions of the board, exercise some control of the executive management and have access to the operations of the company.

I am advised that on every occasion their request has been rebuffed by one or both Mr Samaroo and Mr Persaud, one of whom, in the eternal tradition of the family property, is the current inheritor of the executive chairmanship of the company from the other. What makes this situation so strange is that, on paper at least, Messrs Persaud and Samaroo own only 0.27% of the shares in DDL. An examination of the shareholdings in DDL suggests that what one sees is not necessarily the effective or beneficial shareholding in the company. Continue reading Corporate governance in the two most prominent public companies defined by the personalities, interests of their top executives

Caution: Bridge Company helping to sink leaking NIS

Recently the NIS has made news on two scores: the first that it will not receive any dividends on its investment in preference shares in the Berbice Bridge Company Inc., and the second that there are more than 1,500,000 contributions which have not been credited to the workers’ account.

I was disappointed rather than shocked when I saw Ms. Doreen Nelson, General Manager of the NIS, sitting passively next to her Chairman Dr. Roger Luncheon announcing that persons were not coming forward to help clear up the contribution mess in the NIS. Ms. Nelson knows that his statement contradicts the experiences of many contributors who try, sometimes for years, to persuade the NIS that the contributions recorded in its records are less, sometimes significantly so, than the actual contributions they have made over their decades of working life and contributions.

A client has been engaged in frustrating correspondence for more than four years persuading the management of the Scheme that his entitlement is a pension rather than an Old Age grant. I myself have had fifteen telephone calls to Ms. Nelson over the matter and all I hear is that the NIS is looking into it. Frustrated with the delay, the poor fellow travelled to Guyana from the USA over the Christmas holidays only to be told that it was Christmas time and the matter would have to wait until the holidays were over!

I reported this to the General Manager several weeks ago. She said that was not good.
Continue reading Caution: Bridge Company helping to sink leaking NIS

Forty-four years of the NIS

September marked forty-four years since the National Insurance Scheme was launched by Prime Minister Forbes Burnham’s Government. It also marked twenty-one years of the control of the NIS by the PPP/C Government and the Chairmanship of another Forbes, this time bearing the surname Luncheon. The latter and a hard core of directors have led the NIS into a state where the Pension Reserves are now being used up by about two billion dollars per year. The saving grace for the reserves is that short-term and industrial benefits paid out annually are generating surpluses that help to compensate for the reductions in the Pension reserves.

The NIS was established as an actuarial scheme, i.e. one that seeks to balance out its long-term liabilities against its assets and revenues. The way this is achieved is by way of periodic – usually five yearly – evaluations carried out by external independent actuaries. The process is very scientific and involves a review all the data on active and past contributors, past and projected future income and expenses – of which pension benefits are always the more significant item – leading to recommendations generally designed to maintain/restore the actuarial balance of the Scheme.
Continue reading Forty-four years of the NIS

Clico and immunity

Perhaps it is the constant stream of news coming out of Trinidad about Commissions of Enquiry, referring files to the Director of Public Prosecution or about police investigations in that country. Or perhaps it is the knowledge that Clico Guyana is partly responsible for the sorry state in which the NIS finds itself, or that the individual who directly contributed to the loss to this country of close to seven billion Guyana dollars walks free, or the unsatisfactory conduct of the liquidation of the company, or the fact that so far my request to the courts for access to relevant files has come up with nought.

Then we have the rounds of telephone interviews being given by politicians to the newspapers and speeches made at hugely expensive dinners in which words like crisis at the NIS or the resolution of the Clico debacle are regarded as taboo. After all, the self-employed could not care two hoots about whether the NIS sinks or swims or whether anyone is held responsible for the failure in which so many authorities are in an incestuous game to protect each other.

To square the circle we have the political opposition which has spent inordinate energy on the “symbol” of Rohee. It is now close to four years since I wrote an open piece in which I said that the parliament must do something about Clico and suggested a number of measures they should consider.

In that call I noted that the National Insurance Scheme (NIS) alone is exposed to Clico for well in excess of six billion dollars or more than 20% of the funds accumulated by the NIS over its forty years of existence. I pointed out that members of Parliament ought to be aware that under the National Insurance Scheme Act any temporary insufficiency in the assets of the (NIS) Fund to meet its liabilities has to be met from appropriations by Parliament. In other words, they would have to approve the money to be funded by taxpayers. The politicians’ response has been less than adequate.

Red ink
Shortly before the call on the National Assembly, I had written about the widening financial instability enveloping Guyana as a result of Clico and Stanford and wrote that when the dust settles, the taxpayers, NIS contributors and beneficiaries, members of pension and medical schemes and depositors in Clico and potentially in Hand-in-Hand Trust (HIHT) and the New Building Society could lose collectively several billions from the fall-out in the financial sector. Of these only the NBS came out largely unscathed since its own $70 million loss had nothing to do with the Clico or Stanford.

Let me briefly fast-forward to today. As of now, while several pension funds and the NIS are still holding anywhere between six and seven billion dollars of worthless paper, the majority of Guyanese including the several politicians have quietly recovered most of their money and some of them began counting their blessings around this time last year. They are not going to open their mouths, while when they do it amounts to nothing, and the private sector is only willing to repeat all kinds of platitudes or safe criticisms sent with signals to the government that this is for show only.

Part of the problem with Clico is that the approach to Clico from the very beginning has been without resort to facts, a point made ad nauseam over the years. Some of it was clearly carelessness or laziness. For example, when the President assured the nation on February 5, 2009 shortly after the collapse began that Clico’s assets were sufficient to meet its liabilities he was repeating a company line without having read the December 31, 2007 analysis showing that 81% of the company’s assets was invested in related parties, all of which were under various degrees of threat (SN February 7; Business Page Feb 8 2009).

Collective failure
But it was partly skin-saving as well since Clico was a collective failure of a number of institutions and individuals. In transactions that came under the supervisory lens of both the Commissioner of Insurance and the Bank of Guyana, no one it appeared noticed or felt competent to deal with a company that issued “insurance policies” with premiums running into billions of dollars having a statutory fund of less than fifty million dollars. As pressure mounted on the President and on those with direct responsibility for the sector, the President in his typical style threatened prosecution against the directors and management of Clico if fraud were found. That threat could not be serious for the simple reason that the President knew that the sole Guyanese director and officer was the company’s CEO who would have been the decider over who should be favoured in getting their money back from the fast sinking ship. That is one secret that never saw daylight.

We knew from the newspapers here that the government of Trinidad and Tobago had moved against CEO Lawrence Duprey and finance specialist Andre Monteil for civil and/or criminal conduct in the collapse of the insurance giant Clico and its parent CL Financial. I reported that a civil lawsuit was brought by Trinidad’s Central Bank and Clico against Duprey and Monteil for alleged mismanagement and misappropriation of Clico assets and that Attorney General Anand Ramlogan had directed that all files coming out of the probe into the collapse of insurance giant Clico should be forwarded to Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) Roger Gaspard to determine if criminal charges should be laid against Duprey and Monteil.

The story is different in Guyana because of the political and personal relationships that control Guyana. The key players in the Clico saga three years ago were President Jagdeo, Finance Minister Dr Ashni Singh, Clico’s CEO Ms Geeta Singh-Knight all of whom currently hold and enjoy various forms of public office, and Ms Maria Van Beek, former Commissioner of Insurance who left the country following an attempt on her life.

They all knew but did nothing about the company breaching the provisions of the Insurance Act and compounded its unlawful conduct by failure to comply with a demand/request by the regulator to repatriate the Statutory Fund. They did nothing of consequence.

It is not as if there are no penalties. Section 19 of the Insurance Act provides that any person who contravenes any provision of the Act, or any of its regulations or any direction or requirement made by the Commissioner of Insurance, is guilty of an offence. Unlike the normal presumption in law where the prosecution has the burden of proving beyond reasonable doubt the guilt of the accused, the Insurance Act shifts the burden to the “person” to prove that s/he did not knowingly commit the offence of omission or commission.

In what in normal circumstances would be real noose-tightening, the law goes on to provide that where an offence is committed by a company – in this case Clico – and the offence is proved to have been committed with the consent or connivance of, or to have been facilitated by any neglect on the part of, any director, principal officer, or other officer or an actuary or auditor of the company, he, as well as the company, shall be deemed to be guilty of the offence. Ms Singh-Knight was both a director and principal officer of the local company and most certainly it would have been to Ms Singh-Knight that the Commissioner of Insurance would have been addressing correspondence and directions.

Playing a supporting role then was the Central Bank Governor who failed to appreciate the nature of the product that Clico was offering and the Bank’s responsibility to regulate it.

One big happy family
Now we have moved on to phase 2 in a liquidation that breaks many of the rules, some players have changed. Ms Van Beek has gone and her place has been taken by a lawyer Ms Tracy Gibson whose supervisory responsibility of the insurance sector is conflicting with her unlawful role as an assistant to the liquidator. Mr Jagdeo is busy with his accolades and ventures while Dr Singh remains as Minister. The Bank of Guyana has seen its Governor appointed liquidator over a company to the demise of which his Bank contributed in no small measure. Ms Singh-Knight has been promoted and for all practical purposes granted a pardon, Chartered Accountant Mr Maurice Solomon is another unlawful assistant liquidator to Mr Williams while Senior Counsel Ashton Chase is the attorney. Mr Solomon in turn has been appointed a liquidator of Caribbean Resources Limited, one of Clico’s big debtors. Given that tens of millions of dollars of fees are being paid out by cheques signed by Mr Solomon and Ms Gibson one might have expected some better accounting with the reporting of the transactions under the liquidation and compliance with the Companies Act.

It is not that some people are receiving moneys outside of the law that bothers me. It is that a responsible and competent liquidator has a duty to look for wrongdoings by the company prior to the order for liquidation. Mr Williams is an extremely decent man in the best tradition of that word. But inexperience alone does not explain his unwillingness to date to have pre-liquidation transactions and conduct reopened for examination.

I am sure our private sector leaders read the regional pages of the Stabroek News. The news coming out of Trinidad and Tobago must surely suggest to them that an enquiry into Clico for possible criminal conduct is long overdue. We have been duped before by President Jagdeo who responded to calls for action on Clico by insisting on a similar investigation into Globe Trust. When his bluff was called he changed tack – no investigation into Clico in consideration for no investigation into Globe Trust. What a clever deed!

Let us hope that the next leader of the private sector to speak at a function will at least recognise the twin issues of Clico and the NIS.

Things we have not noticed

Following, but not as a result of last week’s column addressing the parlous state to which Cabinet Secretary Dr Roger Luncheon has brought the National Insurance Scheme, I had two very interesting conversations, one with a business leader and the other with an MP. In advance of consultations to be held with the actuary on his draft report on the eighth five-yearly actuarial report on the NIS, they both wanted to know my thoughts on the report’s findings and recommendations. Both seemed not to be in the least bit uncomfortable to admit that while they had last week’s Sunday Stabroek they did not get around to reading the newspaper or the full-page column on precisely that topic. We can only guess about their contribution to a consultation for which they would have been so hopelessly unprepared on a matter of such grave national importance, a matter that has been the subject of several articles over a recent two-week period.

It is even worse. By now we all should have been aware that the government of which Dr Roger Luncheon is the Cabinet Secretary and the Board of the NIS of which he is the Chairman, did not implement the recommendations contained in the sixth and the seventh actuarial reports on the Scheme at December 31, 2001 and 2006. But the two persons I spoke with apparently did not know about the parlous state of the Scheme, while my politician friend was bold enough to ask seriously but rhetorically, how did we “allow that?” Perhaps our politicians have been reading too much Lewis Carroll.

A second issue on the NIS is the location of the consultation. Now you would expect that anyone consulting with the actuary would want to meet with him outside of the framework of the NIS Board or its chairman. But that kind of liberal and rational thinking would in Dr Luncheon’s eyes be too dangerous. The consultation had to take place with Dr Luncheon, whose leadership of the Scheme is not insignificantly responsible for its parlous state, at Luncheon’s office and under his chairmanship. Dr Luncheon may strike many as a bumbling incompetent but he remains a dangerous practitioner of artful politics. The idea to hold the consultations on his turf and in his presence was clearly designed to control any criticisms of his government’s abominable management of the Scheme, now facing its worst crisis in 42 years.

Even as we ponder the serious medicine prescribed by the actuary to address the crisis the NIS faces, my hope is that the media would now ask the private sector as well as the political parties and the trade unions in particular, for a report on the consultations. As I indicated last week, I am particularly concerned that if the recommendations are accepted the burden of the adjustments would be felt mainly by the workers of the country.

Now you see it, now you don’t
Today’s subject seeks to raise questions on other matters we may not have noticed. It touches on the disproportionate sharing of the benefits and burdens of the taxation system and the inequality it has spawned in the vast disparity of wealth among those who are part of the power structure and those outside of it. This column has addressed such disparity time and time again and for emphasis captioned a column on January 29 of this year drawing attention to the US system under the topic, “If Mitt Romney was in Guyana, his 13.9% tax rate would have been lower.” The reason is that our tax system favours the employers, those with capital over the workers, who often struggle to make ends meet and who at the end of their working lives which the actuary now says should be extended to sixty-five have nothing but an NIS pension to look forward to. I will deal with that disproportionality next week and look at how different types of income are taxed differently in Guyana.

For starters, let us look at the system of remission of duties granted by the government which was reported on each year in the annual report of the Auditor General up to 2005.

There is a lot to argue with on whether some of the figures do not defy the logic of the reported performance of the economy during the six years. The wild swings between 2003 and 2005 seem to make little sense, but that is really not relevant here, except perhaps to reflect the quality of some elements of the work done by the Audit Office. As for the revenues of the country and their impact on the resources available to spend on education, health, security and infrastructure, it matters little whether the authority to grant remission of duties since 2003 is vested solely in the Commissioner General as the Audit Office seems to think.

But even if the Audit Office is correct, and regardless of where the range of authority lies, there should surely be some formal manner in which the body vested with the powers of remission reports to taxpayers and the National Assembly on the extent and value of remissions granted. If the power is vested in someone else, the one person who should insist on the publication of the information is the Minister of Finance who has constitutional responsibility for the national budget. Any taxes required to meet public expenditure which are borne, if at all, at lower effective rates by one segment of the population, must inevitably be met by those who do pay. But coincidentally or otherwise, the Audit Office ceased to report on remissions from the time Dr Ashni Singh became Finance Minister.

Dr Singh and tax remissions
Dr Singh has been egregiously reckless on the expenditure side of the Budget, misdirecting public funds to NICIL of which he is the Chairman, making unlawful withdrawals from the Contingencies Fund for which he is solely responsible, and authorising the transfer of billions of dollars from the 2000 series bank accounts which requires statutory authority. Under the Jagdeo presidency – and quite possibly still – spending outside of the authority of an Appropriation Act became normal with not even a hint of protest from the Finance Minister. After his role in the unlawful granting of concessions to the former President’s friend, it is difficult for anyone to believe that he is any less careless with the country’s tax revenues than he is with its expenditure.

Yet, our laws give the Minister of Finance enormous powers to give away tax revenues, over what may appear to be a small range of taxes but which have substantial fiscal implications. We start with the first and perhaps best known concession, the tax holiday. Under the Income Tax (In Aid of Industry) Act, the Minister of Finance has discretionary powers to grant an exemption from corporation tax with respect to income from new economic activity of a developmental and risk-bearing nature, or from dozens of economic activities. Without putting too much of an emphasis on it, the ease with which Mr Jagdeo and Dr Singh amended the law for friends shows how elastic and discretionary the law is.

And bear in mind that in approving tax holidays, the Minister is also extending exemptions from Property Tax and the Capital Gains Tax act.

Here again there is a silence feeding the appetite of the conspiracy theorists. Tax holidays can extend from five to ten years and cost billions. So the law requires some accountability. Under the Investment Act the Audit Office is required to carry out annual audits of the tax holiday incentives granted by the Minister, but the Audit Office has failed in its obligations under section 38 of the Investment Act to have laid in the National Assembly such a report for any year. The deadline for this is six months after the end of each financial year.

I have repeatedly raised this omission with no reaction from anyone. Surely the Public Accounts Committee has a duty to deal with this blatant disregard for the law with the potential of massive cover-up of tax giveaways. All to the detriment of those who pay taxes.

To be continued