Friday, July 24, 2015

What is the correct primary surplus target?

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THE primary surplus on the fiscal accounts can be defined as what is left to service debt after the government considers its revenues and expenditure on running the country. So wages, social programmes spending, and general spending on maintaining the country is taken out of revenues, and what is left is called the primary surplus.

This has been the topic of debate over the last week after five US lawmakers wrote to President Obama and asked him to lobby the IMF to ease up on the primary surplus requirement of 7.5 per cent of GDP. The purpose of lowering the target from 7.5 per cent to around 6.5 per cent would have the impact of allowing for more expenditure in the economy, which implies that there would be more money available for programmes, capital expenditure, and wages. The argument, of course, is that it would help to cushion some of the hardships being experienced by many Jamaicans.

Some people have suggested that lowering the primary surplus requirement from 7.5 per cent to around 6.5 per cent of GDP would also result in greater growth. They have pointed out that Jamaica has the largest primary surplus requirement globally, and that even Greece is not required to run such a large primary surplus, which effectively reduces the amount of government spending in the economy.

But what is the truth about the primary surplus and its effect on growth, and consequently reducing the hardship being experienced by many? Will it also allow the Government to provide greater wage increases, as some have argued? And more importantly, what is the best solution to the primary surplus that will ensure sustainable growth and development? The most important consideration is that of sustainable growth and development, and not just to think about short-term impact solely.

Letter to Obama

Last week, I was on a radio programme discussing the primary surplus level and if there was any merit in the letter sent to Obama by the legislators. The point I made is that even if the primary surplus is reduced from 7.5 per cent to zero per cent of GDP, this by itself does not guarantee growth, and, in fact, in the past we have run primary surpluses which are much lower than 7.5 per cent, and with much higher fiscal deficits. After doing that for many years we still have not seen sustainable growth rates, and since the 1960s the only respectable levels of growth we have seen occured from 1986 to 1990.

So between 1972 and 2014 (42 years), we have seen only four years of any sustained growth above say four per cent. And over those four years this was influenced primarily by a debt to GDP that climbed to 212 per cent in 1984. There is therefore no evidence that allowing greater funds for government expenditure will guarantee any sustainable levels of growth, and in fact it has worked against us as we have funded the increased government spending through debt, which has put us where we are today.

Even if we were to reduce the primary surplus requirement today, it would mean that we would have to do so either by:

1) increasing tax revenues (through compliance measures or increased economic activity). In other words, not really decrease the absolute primary surplus amount but increase the fiscal revenues; or

2) increasing debt.

Option 2 is certainly not desirable, as it would mean a reversal of what we have achieved so far and would result in a longer period of adjustment and potential hardships.

Option 1 is therefore the desirable one, and is where we need to focus.

Increasing tax revenue through compliance measures is the preferred option, especially as we see that the Greek problem is significantly caused by a low level of tax compliance; which is why what they are doing now will not work until they address the tax compliance problem. This is something that the TAJ has been working on. But the problem is that the tax policy has been more focused on targeting already compliant taxpayers and asking them to pay more -- not going after those who are not in the tax net. That policy has only served to discourage capital and new investments, which in effect has resulted in low growth levels.

The focus on squeezing more and more out of investors that are already tax-compliant ends up discouraging capital investments and causing growth stagnation.

This makes revenue from increased economic activity difficult. We have seen that every tax package introduced since 2004, with the exception of one, has not achieved the targeted revenues. The reason is simply because policy is geared at increasing revenues from those who already pay taxes, rather than expanding the net and encouraging capital investments. The result is a largely service economy with capital outflows greater than inflows over the last 42 years.

Lack of water hitting GDP

Another example of the lack of accountability that has caused loss of GDP growth is the management of the water situation by the NWC. Everyone knew from last year that the drought would be worse this year, and even with that knowledge the NWC failed to plan to address the situation. The result is that this year the drought may cost us about one per cent of GDP, as it did last year.

Therefore increasing fiscal expenditure by reducing the primary surplus requirement can actually cause us to reverse our gains if we do not change the way we look at policy, how we spend, and accountability.

There is an argument for increasing government expenditure to provide short-term stimulus, and therefore one could argue for a relaxation of the primary surplus target. But this must be done in a controlled environment and with the understanding that sustained growth will only come through increasing productivity and changing the way we look at policy. In fact, changing the attitude to capital (with policy), public sector accountability, and value for money fiscal spending will all have a greater impact on growth, even without changing the primary surplus percentage.

At this time of the programme, however, there is an argument for relaxing the primary surplus percentage as this would provide the short-term stimulus needed to drive economic activity. The impact of this, however, will have less effect than if it had been built in at the start of the programme, as it means pulling activity up from a lower level than it was before.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Productivity at the centre of economic and social success

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AFTER twelve previous IMF agreements, Jamaica is once again at a crossroads. We are once again at a place where we are having a debate about how much pain is being inflicted by the agreement, with some saying that we must stay on the path of fiscal reform and others saying we must renegotiate the agreement and allow for more fiscal space for greater expenditure. Allowing for more fiscal space is of course code for a higher fiscal deficit and an increased debt to GDP ratio.

My own view is that we have been here before. In fact, since the 1970s all we have done is to postpone prudent fiscal and economic management, so that we can play the populist game and feed the welfare addiction of our political process. By doing so, we have changed the attitude of the people from one of independence to one of being hooked on welfare through government spending -- thereby creating a political culture where the supporters of the party in power get all the benefits through their party's control of the fiscal resources.

Neo-colonial dependency

In fact, our political and social arrangements have moved us from the hopefulness of independence in 1962, to a culture of dependence on government, and the government's own dependence on foreign governments and agencies. Our irresponsible actions have moved us into a neo-colonial dependency, where our constitution is merely an illusion of independence.

All of this is because we have failed to address the root of our economic and social issues -- the continuing decline in labour productivity since around 1972 (there was a brief period of marginal improvement in the 1980s). As a result we have sought to improve our standard of living by either "begging" (through grants) or borrowing. We have never really paid back our debt but have just transferred our debt from one creditor to the next. By doing so we have created one big Ponzi scheme, where what we have done is rely on geometrically expanding those who will lend us money to pay back those we borrowed from before.

This trend is unsustainable, as we are now finding out, and we have come full circle -- borrowing in the 1970s from multilaterals, then from the capital markets, and now back to the multilaterals. Throughout this whole process we have never controlled our own economic destiny, but have always been marching to the orders of foreign creditors.

Change needed

The question we must now ask ourselves is, do we want to continue this trend -- thereby mortgaging the lives of our children the way we have done with our own lives? If the answer is yes, then we can continue to ignore the issues of productivity and needed behavioural change. If the answer is no, then we must do what is necessary to change our behaviour.

Whether it is your own personal life, a company, or a country, we can only make changes to our financial outturn by changing our behaviour patterns. This is something that as a country we have failed to do, just like many companies and individuals. We cannot change a company's fortune by working diligently at expanding the operations if the business model is no longer viable. And Jamaica's business model needs change.

This is the reasoning behind the fiscal and legislative reforms under the current economic programme, and why I personally an hopeful that it will work this time. Because in the past there has been fiscal and economic reform without legislative reform. This is the first time we are seeking to change economic and social behaviour through legislation such as the Insolvency Act, Tax Harmonisation Act, Fiscal Rule, and other criminal legislation such as DNA and Plea Bargain legislation.

This will ensure that as we apply fiscal reforms to bring about more responsible financial management, we will be ensuring behavioural change for greater competitiveness. If done properly, this will have the effect of increasing productivity for labour and capital, and will result in improving our external accounts, which is at the heart of our problems.

This adjustment is not going to be easy, primarily because we have delayed it for so long and built up a lot of "adjustment pressures". But if not done, then it is gong to cause much greater dislocation in the very near future. But the adjustment is not restricted to labour and capital, as government bureaucracy also needs to make the adjustment in how they think.

I refer specifically to government's addiction to taxes, and its current struggle to change its addiction habit. This is seen in the way taxes are introduced, which focuses on earning fiscal revenue rather than encouraging private sector and economic expansion. So, we have seen, and continue to see, new tax policy that is devoid of the link between economic activity and fiscal expansion, rather than focusing on fiscal expansion at the expense of economic activity. This type of behaviour will result in continuing the downward spiral and cause the sacrifices already made to be in vain.

We must remember that we live in a global village and capital has no obligation to one territory.

So while we ask labour and capital to change their behaviour, the change must also take place in policy. To the credit of the policy makers though, I have found that this attitude is changing and they have opened the door of dialogue to a greater degree than I have ever seen before, and this dialogue is taking place not just at the level of the policy makers but the executors also.

This needed change, however, is not only at the policy level but in the way we socially interact. So things like indiscipline on the roads and persistent night noise have deleterious effects on productivity. As an example, if we had proper order and control of crime, people would find it more palatable to use public transportation, or ride bicycles, which would cut into the more than US$2 billion spent on oil each year, and increase the spending power of labour to improve their standard of living. Or if we were to dispose of our garbage properly it would improve our health environment and reduce the money we spend on health care.

This is a conversation that we need to continue, as anything we do that does not include increasing labour and capital productivity (Total Productivity Factor) will only cause pain without benefit.

Friday, June 05, 2015

Public sector wages — what are the real options?

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ONCE again the public sector wage negotiation is the main topic of the day. This was also the case in 2004, when the first round of wage freezes was agreed. Then, just like today, I didn't see a public sector wage freeze as a long-term solution. In fact, the 2004 agreement never saw it as that either, as it proposed actions that included retraining public sector workers and preparing them to transition, voluntarily, to start their own businesses or seek employment in the private sector.

So what we are seeing today is not a new problem. It is just worse because we have delayed solving the underlying problems. And even if we were to get another wage freeze, or lay off workers, it still would not solve the underlying problem by itself and we would be back in this same situation within another two to three years.

What is really needed is proper public sector reform that results in performance related-pay measurements and labour market reform. It is our failure to do this, and just talk, that has led to where we are today. And if we do not carry out this reform effectively, we will still find ourselves back where we are today, because at the heart of the problem is the matter of productivity.

The approach to public sector reform in 2010 (through the centralised PSTU at the OPM) was never going to work. When I indicated that in 2010 I was told that I didn't know what I was talking about. The approach today is somewhat better, based on what I have seen, but the centralised approach is still too bureaucratic and will not have any short-term impact. The best solution is to decentralise the reform process. But that is for another article, as I want to look at the immediate options to resolve the current impasse.

Emotional responses

The response from many on the public sector wage dispute is emotional. I have heard many people say that the government should pay the public sector workers significant increases, or more than 25 per cent. When I ask them to put forward their immediate solution, bearing in mind that new taxes won't work and debt is not possible, they speak to medium-term solutions such as tax reform, public sector reform, and reducing wasteful expenditure.

One person, when pressed, even went as far as to say that people over 55 should be forced to retire and the other workers should be given an increase of at least 25 per cent. In other words, lay off other workers as long as it does not affect me. But there's no mention of keeping the most productive, or of paying based on performance.

What these responses show is that they are not supported by any thought-out solutions. One man I heard on the radio, when asked for a solution, said that the government can raise taxes -- which betrays a lack of understanding of how the economy works. That solution would cause even further hardship, not only on businesses, and SMEs in particular, but for the same public sector workers.

Let us be clear that I empathise with public sector workers, and in particular the police, nurses, and teachers. Even though these groups have demonstrated their willingness to go the extra mile, in general, the fact is that both productive and non-productive people have been grouped together, in relation to the negotiations. The result is that you apply the same compensation amounts to people with varying degrees of productivity, and the productivity level as a whole will fall.

So, because of our failure to properly address public sector reform, we are in the same place, or worse, than we were 11 years ago when the first wage freeze agreement was inked. Resolving this, however, is a longer-term solution and the chickens have now come home to roost.

The fact is that the options available to the government today are very limited. There are only two options (i) accept the government's offer, within its ability to pay, or (ii) as Minister Dalley said, if the demands are met then it means 10,000 to 15,000 jobs will be lost. Or else there will be an inability to pay.

The private sector seems to be profitable today, and the truth is that they are improving, but they are still far from where they were pre-recession. This success, however, came after much pain in the private sector, as they suffered from two debt swaps and also lost a significant amount of jobs, when the unemployment rate went close to 20 per cent. Many businesses also closed, and even today many are struggling. Every week, I get many requests from people seeking employment -- even for a job way below their training.

So what has happened in the private sector is that the market has adjusted, and as a result organisations are becoming more profitable. This is just as it happened in the US market, where job losses and business closures were rampant, and after a few years of pain the market is recovering.

This adjustment never happened in the public sector, however, resulting in the difficult situation we are in today. The fact, however, is that sooner or later the market will demand that the adjustment either be made, through public sector reform, or the suffering will continue for a much longer time. And it would have happened earlier had we not gone out and borrowed money to cover up for our inefficiencies.

Just as in 2009 myself and Ralston Hyman said (i) the debt needed to be restructured and (ii) the government would have to turn to the IMF, and we were told that we didn't know what we were saying. Approximately three months later, however, we signed an agreement with the IMF and the debt was restructured. The point being that the way to deal with the fiscal problem must be looked at practically, and not from an emotive position.

So while public sector and policy reform, is necessary for a long-term sustainable solution, the fact is that an immediate solution is necessary. In my view, the best solution for the country now, is for the government's offer to be accepted. I don't subscribe to the selfish view that we should retire the older people so that the younger ones can benefit. I know that people are having a difficult time, but trust me when I say that any significant increase, without the accompanying productivity increase, will only lead to increases in inflation and the depreciation of the exchange rate, and make it even much worse for everyone.

However, while accepting the offer, it is important for both parties to sit down and arrive at a win-win long-term solution for all. This will of course require an improvement of the trust factor between both parties, as the lack of trust for me is the most divisive factor in these negotiations.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Long-term view to solutions necessary

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Recently, I said to someone that one of the challenges we have as a country is that we are too focused on immediate gratification, and not on the long-term effects of our actions. As a consequence we react to what people, or the media say, and throw out our long-term, well-thought-out plan in order to conform with the popular opinion of the moment, or to prevent the public saying anything negative about us.

This is not only a fault with our politics, but in many instances occurs in private companies also. Managers will often listen to the office talk and act based on that, rather than properly investigating and applying an objective process to finding a solution.

So, as I said to the person, it is not the best thing to manage your affairs based on what is being said, but rather manage based on whatever well-thought-out plan and long term objective you have, and ensure that you apply the right principles. You might not be "popular" in the immediate term, but that is only important if you are in a beauty contest. One of the primary responsibilities of being a leader or professional, is to always do what is right even in the face of being unpopular.

Economic climate

At the current time there is much debate about what are the right economic and fiscal policies to pursue, as there is no doubt that the economic climate is difficult for many in the labour force and some businesses. It seems paradoxical that many in the business community, buoyed by the business and consumer confidence numbers, are saying that the programme is going well and they see improvements, expecting a better economy. While there are others, and rightly so, who question the path we are on because it has become very difficult for them. Included amongst them are many well-qualified professionals.

I don't doubt that, as I have seen and heard about such situations. And I empathise with them, as there has been a significant change in the economic environment.

What we must not do, however, is bring about any radical change that will affect the long-term viability of our plan. I have seen many times in the past where at the first sign of criticism we falter and throw out all the accomplishments we have achieved. This is what leads to the view by many that new governments abandon all the good programmes and policies that are in place because of politics.

But, as I said, this is not unique to the country's governance, but also private sector companies which may have the wrong leadership; because I have found that when it comes to success, leadership is first, second, and third.

Great business leaders

And I know what it is like to come under severe criticism by people who either can't see the long-term vision, or those with different agendas. I have also had the experience of working with some great leaders, who have always looked at the bigger picture and don't worry too much about the immediate criticism.

Two such people, whom I worked very closely with on the Air Jamaica divestment, were Dennis Lalor and Don Wehby. I remember during that process that there was severe criticism from many, including comments also that we were securing financial reward for ourselves from the transaction. The irony of it is that none of the directors even received the normal stipend, and in many instances the bills were taken care of by Lalor.

In the face of the criticisms, however, these gentlemen would say to me that we have a job to do and we have to think about the long-term objective. Is it any wonder that both GraceKennedy and ICWI are very successful companies that have been around for a very long time.

I remember also when I was on the board on the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Commission, and being much younger then I received a very important lesson from the chairman at the time, Gordon Robinson, who said to us that irrespective of what people say out there we will do the right thing -- even if it means that we will eat bun and cheese for the rest of our lives.

The fact is that credibility does not come from being popular. It comes from doing the right thing all the time.

This doesn't mean that as you go along the journey you don't make adjustments. In fact, having the flexibility to make adjustments is very important. Richard Byles always says that the economic programme is like driving to MoBay. You may change your speed or may get a flat along the way and have to fix it, but you should never forget that you are still driving to MoBay.

So we are at a critical juncture of the economic programme, and the change in the economic competitiveness, and reduction in government programmes is taking a toll. And I think we need to make adjustments where necessary but we should not make any decision that will cause us to be thrown off the long-term objectives. Any action that causes that will only lead to even greater hardship, as has happened in this country over the past 40 years.

What it will require is strong and visionary leadership. Leadership that must be able to communicate effectively -- not only what we are doing -- but the long-term objective and path to get there. Leadership that can sell this vision to the country so that they also are fully engaged.

One of the things I have always warned against, which we must not be tempted to do, is to install taxes as a short-term gap for the fiscal accounts while hurting the long-term objectives. I have seen us do that too many times, which ends up causing even greater fiscal challenges.

As citizens we also have a responsibility to engage constructively with the government. Criticism and disagreement is good but it must be done in a constructive and respectful manner, while in the long run doing what's necessary to achieve our objectives.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Public sector wage dilemma

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One of the issues that has to be resolved, as we move forward with our economic programme, is the matter of public sector wages. Over the past three years, the workers have accepted a wage freeze.

Over this period the exchange rate has moved from approximately J$88:US$1 to over J$115:US$1. Also, inflation would have totaled approximately 30 per cent, which means that public sector wages would have been significantly reduced in real terms. What this means is that public sector workers would have seen a decline in living standards. This is not exclusive to the public sector, as private sector workers have not only faced wage freezes, but also job losses.

This sacrifice by the public sector workers has contributed positively to the the fiscal accounts. Over that period we have successfully completed eight quarterly IMF tests and, more importantly, the fiscal deficit balance has been significantly reduced to near balance. This has resulted in lower inflation rates, lower interest rates, increased business confidence, reducing debt to GDP ratio, and significant slowdown in the depreciation of the exchange rate.

Indicators point up

These numbers are significant, because for the first time that I can recall all indicators are moving in the right direction all at the same time. Previously we would have a combination of either (1) stable exchange rate, high inflation, high interest rates, and deteriorating debt to GDP ratio; (2) devaluation, high inflation, lower interest rates, and deteriorating debt to GDP ratio; or (3) all indicators worsening.

Another positive effect of reducing real wages has been the improvement in the balance of payments, as a result of reduced imports, caused by reduced demand.

One can therefore sympathise with the public sector workers, as significant sacrifice has been made resulting in lower living standards. The other challenge that public sector workers would face is that because of a lack of emphasis on performance compensation, persons who add greater value and go the extra mile still get the same compensation as someone in a similar pay grade who is much less productive. In the private sector this productivity is considered in compensation, for example incentive payments.

The March 2015 fiscal quarter shows that although the more important primary surplus percent target has been met, the amount was some $4 billion less than target. The implication being compressed expenditure, especially on infrastructure, in order to meet targets. This also means that in order to meet our targets at this time, the greater reliance is on expenditure management rather than revenues.

This news comes at a time when the public sector is negotiating for a wage increase and is demanding up to 15 per cent each year for the next two fiscal years. At the same time, the Government is correctly advising that this would threaten the fiscal targets and could result in us jeopardising future IMF tests.

The dilemna

The dilemma is: Do the workers have an argument for double digit increases, or is the Government correct in saying that more than 5.0 per cent would jeopardise the future targets? In the past, for example, when faced with pressure from the public sector unions, the Government would provide the increases demanded and then we'd start the whole process all over again, which is why 53 years after independence we are still in an economic quagmire.

My own view when the budget was presented is that an increase of between four and eight per cent was to be expected. This is simply because any amounts above that would jeopardise the fiscal and economic programme. Too high an increase would (i) eliminate any capital expenditure on infrastructure; and/or (ii) cause a lower primary surplus and higher deficit.

It is for this reason that the best option may be for public sector workers to compromise with the Government's position this fiscal year. This is because any increase that causes us to regress in the fiscal accounts will result in only very short-term benefits, but within a year that would be followed by higher inflation, increased debt, and greater devaluation. In very short order purchasing power would quickly be eroded. In fact, I think any misalignment now may cause even greater hardships than before.

This doesn't mean that public sector workers should continue to sacrifice indefinitely, and what I would do, if I were the union, is get a commitment from the Government that accepting the proposed increase in this fiscal year means that certain things will be put in place to ensure growth, and hence improved tax revenues.

One of the things that has resulted in this impasse, as well as the difficulty faced by public sector workers, is the failure of administrations over the years to adequately address public sector transformation. The focus of course is not on job cuts, but rather transforming the public sector into a much more productive unit, which will facilitate private sector productivity. This will of course result in greater revenues for the fiscal accounts. Bear in mind that a part of this also is to ensure that there is greater emphasis on tax compliance by persons outside of the net.

It is clear to me that any sustainable solution to public sector wages, for the benefit of both the workers and the fiscal accounts, can only happen if there is greater public sector productivity and workers are compensated based on their value added, rather than just seniority.

So I will end with what I also said when the first set of wage freezes started (I think in 2007). Wage freezes are not a sustainable solution to the fiscal accounts and will only delay the inevitable and during that time cause unnecessary suffering. If we want to see better circumstances for public sector workers and the fiscal accounts then public sector transformation must happen.

It is our failure to do this that has once again resulted in the public sector workers seeing declining real wages without any permanent solution to the fiscal accounts.

Friday, April 24, 2015

What does economic and social change look like?

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PERHAPS the question I get asked most frequently is about the economy and the prospects for it. One of the things I hate the most is when people engage you on the economy and ask about the prospects, but then don't give you a chance to answer and then go on to curse everyone who is living and dead, about the difficulties in the economy. They then go into the history of our economic mismanagement and then naturally their argument progresses to placing blame on one political party or another. All of this before I have answered the question, which always leads me to wonder why they don't call a talk show to vent rather than ask the question.

Many times, however, people will have doubts about where the economy is going, and whether we are seeing any benefits from the economic programme, as admittedly things are not easy. I will be the first to admit that the past few years, since 2009, have been very challenging for some businesses and individuals.

So when I say to them that I am optimistic about the changes being made and where I see the economy going, they are surprised. Some even go as far as to say that when analysts like us speak that way, we are being spin doctors for the government. However, when we say things are not going well, under both administrations, they cheer you on. It seems they just want to hear bad news all the time. I can only imagine how such an attitude affects one's perspective.

Hope

The truth, however, is that we need to develop the ability to recognise when there is hope and when there is not. That ability helps make a successful entrepreneur, one who might be having a difficult time in their business but can still see the forest and not just the trees.

Not everyone has this ability, but what everyone can do is try to develop an open mind to see other people's reasoning. It is this tolerance of opposing views that enables us to develop our own thoughts.

The question to be answered is: are we making progress under the current economic programme? My view is yes we are, and, as I have said many times before, this time we stand a better chance than under prior IMF programmes.

Why do I think so? Because for the first time we are making necessary legislative changes to accompany the fiscal changes. And, as various analysts have said many times in the past, the only way any fiscal or economic reform can work is if it is accompanied by structural changes. The legislative agenda has provided the opportunity to change the structural environment to create a more competitive economy. So I don't think that anyone would disagree that this programme includes the much needed structural reforms.

There is also no doubt that the economic environment is getting more competitive and more challenging for many businesses and individuals. The reason for this is that as a country we were used to operating in an economy with less competitiveness, with many people and businesses benefiting from contacts and government welfare. When those avenues lessened it inevitably became a more challenging environment.

The role of bodies like the PSOJ is to help with that transition to a more competitive economy, where the playing field is level for all and the bureaucracy and societal conditions do not stand in the way of innovation or economic activity.

Recognising positive change

What we must ensure, however, is that while we acknowledge the difficulties, and the things that still need to be improved, we must also be able to recognise when positive changes are happening and the direction we are moving in. In other words, how do we recognise when an economy is positively transforming even while challenges are there. For example, in the two years after 2008, the US economy was still going through significant challenges, and the instinctive reaction globally was to move to austerity measures as Europe did. But the US administration, however, stuck to its guns, even in the face of opposition, and the end result is that the US economy is now the locomotive of the recovery.

It is also going to be very important for us not to prevent our own development, in the face of the immediate challenges, by deviating from the path we are on. Many times in the past we have embarked on fiscal and economic reform programmes, and at the first sign of difficulties we start running fiscal deficits and restart the process of decline all over again. This is how we have ended up where we are today.

I recognise the difficulties we face but all the indicators are showing me that we are on the right path. These include (i) much lower inflation and interest rates, with the difference between US$ and J$ interest rates much reduced; (ii) reducing balance of payments deficit; (iii) a more stable exchange rate; (iv) near zero fiscal balances; and (v) increasing business and consumer confidence.

But even with this, we must still recognise the challenges we have and must address. These include bureaucracy, crime, and governance. What we must do is address these challenges constructively, deliberately, and together. In other words, let us criticise each other, as this is good for progress, but let us do so rationally and constructively.

So what we must be able to do is understand that any transformation, including economic and social, to a better model, will always cause dislocation. What we must do though is forge ahead with any plan we have properly thought out, and be able to see the long-term outcome while at the same time dealing with the challenges that occur on the way to that desired outcome.

Friday, April 17, 2015

How we think impacts our development

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ONE of the things I encourage my staff to do is feel free to be critical of me as CEO of the Private Sector Organisation of Jamaica (PSOJ), which leads to having an environment where we can all be critical of each other.

We therefore have an open atmosphere where we can all speak to each other about; ideas for growth: what areas we think someone can improve in and, importantly, to recognise achievements. This creates an atmosphere where everyone feels comfortable about contributing to the progress of the organisation.

I see the same philosophy with many private sector leaders I have worked with -- such as Dennis Lalor and Don Wehby -- who always ask for feedback before making any comments whenever we discuss any issue. I find that the present PSOJ officers, led by William Mahfood, are also always interested in feedback. This philosophy is what makes for their own success in many respects, as the ability to listen, especially to suggestions for improvement, is probably one of the most important traits you will see in any successful leader.

In fact, I have found that many persons who have failed have an inability to constructively accept criticism. In other words, they usually end up "shooting down" the messenger and not listening to the message. This, of course, results in them only attracting "yes men" -- when nothing could be more damaging to that person's development.

While that criticism may come across as harsh, it may be necessary given the circumstances. I we want to develop, we have to learn to listen to the criticism, rather than just the form in which it is delivered. That is not to say that criticism must not be respectful and constructive, but even that is sometimes essential for overall development.

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One instance I can think of when harsh criticism is necessary is when a group of us are cycling. There may be a group of 20 to 30 people all moving at upwards of 25 mph and just 6 to 12 inches behind each other's wheel. In those circumstances, we can understand when we do something wrong and the person behind us tells us two "choice words". While we might tell them one back, we realise that any error can cause serious physical damage. In such a situation no one is offended by what they are told.

Party colours

This inability to accept constructive criticism is one of the things that has held back the development of our country. The emails I receive about governance issues are always the same, no matter which political party is in power. What is amazing is that the same person can have two very different thought processes on the same issue depending solely on which party is in power. This is one of the primary roadblocks to our own development as a people and country.

It is strange that the politicians themselves are much more receptive to the constructive criticism than the people who follow them. And it is not that the politicians tell them to think that way. In fact, it is much easier and acceptable for me to sit down with the politicians and give them my own views -- which they accept -- than to have a discussion with some other people who are supposedly intelligent thinkers.

This says a lot about our level of development as a people.

I must admit, however, that there has been much improvement since the 1970s and 1980s, for example, when we used to kill each other over our individual political views. The irony is that many of those who would want to go back to that way of thinking do not understand how much people suffered during those times, as they were either not born yet or were not old enough. I was young during the 1970s, but I can remember those days very well, and so people like me will appreciate the need for the constructive dialogue that many have sacrificed for.

Vision 2030

If we are to develop as a country and to achieve the elements espoused in Vision 2030, then we can't focus only on infrastructural and economic development, but we must also change how we think and communicate with each other.

The economic reform programme is an example. My own view is that the economic agenda, as outlined by Minister Phillips, is certainly the direction that we want to move in. Fiscal and legislative reform is essential and is a necessary ingredient to form the basis of any economic and social development. It might not be sufficient, but I don't think that there can be any argument about the need for these reforms.

There is also a need for public sector transformation, skills training, and focusing on certain strategic investment decisions, such as the Agro Parks, KCT, highway development etc.

But even though all agree that there is a need for public sector transformation and efficiency, there is disagreement when initiatives under the reform are being undertaken, without any rational explanation for the disagreement or any alternative being offered. So the question is, what is the difference to someone agreeing that greater efficiency and better management is needed in the public sector and recognising that same need for management around ChickV and the Riverton Fire -- which both cost the country hundreds of millions of dollars?

The short answer is that the only difference is our inability to accept criticism constructively, which is really what places us at a disadvantage.

On the other hand, there are some of us who will also criticise any policy put in by a government that we do not support -- even though we would support it if put in place by a government that we support. And this disease seems to be contagious as it is also affecting the US now.

If we want to move forward and develop as a country, we must be able to accept good and bad criticisms, and look at the message not the messenger.