Friday, April 27, 2007

Globalization and devaluation

Over the past few weeks, two significant events have happened in the global market. The first is that the US dollar has weakened considerably against major currencies, reaching record lows against the Sterling and Euro, and secondly the Dow Jones Industrial Index (DJIA) passed 13,000 for the first time. The US economy has also been steadily weakening as a result of the housing problems.

The record level of the DJIA is supported by strong earnings growth of listed US companies despite a weakening US economy. As expected under economic theory the devaluation of the US dollar has led to greater earnings for US companies, as US produced goods have got relatively cheaper, and Europeans have been buying goods in the US. What this means is that US companies sell more goods, as a result of the devaluation, thereby increasing revenues and earnings. Costs would not have been impacted at the same pace as revenue increases.

Jamaica’s uniqueness
In Jamaica, however, we have found that devaluations have not been supported by greater export earnings. In fact the data between 2002 and 2006 shown in the graph, illustrates that export has not grown at the same rate as devaluations. The data shows that even when we have had significant devaluations this is not necessarily followed by strong export growth. Similarly, 2006 showed a strong growth in exports but the rate of devaluation was relatively low.

The question then is why countries such as the US show a close link between devaluations and exports. Additionally, why does the US show strong earnings report when the US economy is showing signs of slow down? In contrast, when the Jamaican economy shows signs of weakness it affects corporate profits. In Jamaica we have seen in 2006 that export of goods have grown 27.2% (US$453M) but the trade deficit widened by 14.1% (US$816.6M) as a result of imports growing at a faster absolute pace than exports, 19.2% (US$816.6M). This trend is a continuation of 2005, where imports grew by US$699.5M while exports grew at US$62.7M, resulting in the trade deficit widening by US$636.8M.

This was not the case in 2004, when imports and exports grew at the same absolute amount thus leaving the trade deficit unchanged. It is relevant to note though that between 2001 and 2006 the trade deficit has continually worsened, moving from US$1,618.2M to US$2,944.9M (82% decline) over the period. This in my opinion is the real number to focus on, when we are discussing growth, and not just the growth in the GDP number. This is the real reason for the massive increase in our debt even though we are celebrating growth. In other words, the economy grew by 2.8% in 2006 but at the same time we saw devaluation of just under 5% and the trade deficit worsened by US$363.6M. The question then is (1) how can this occur when we have recorded the highest growth rate in over a decade; and (2) what has caused this disparity between growth and a worsening trade deficit. After all one would expect that if one’s income grows then you should be able to have greater savings not find yourself in deeper debt.

High import content
The answer to this question is the reason why (1) US companies show greater earnings when there is devaluation and the US economy is weakening; (2) why we do not benefit from devaluation; and (3) our debt level is climbing despite growth. The problem is that our economy and major companies are not geared towards export, but rather relies heavily on the internal market. In addition, much of our goods and services produced are composed of a high import content, so that the more we produce the more we import. So even though the percentage increase in exports is higher than that of imports, imports outweigh exports by such a high amount that even a smaller percentage increase is much greater than the absolute increase in exports.

Additionally, what this points to is the fact that our economic growth is not being facilitated primarily by domestic input but by imports. Thus when the Jamaican economy is vibrant, and real growth experienced, based on the present arrangements of our production input factors, the growth we experience actually causes us more pain in the long run. For this reason when we grow we actually have increases in debt, as in order to grow we need to borrow more money to facilitate the widening trade deficit. This is the situation we face that can only be changed with proper strategic planning to ensure that we not only grow but replace foreign inputs with local ones.

In the US we find that companies are doing better as a result of the strong growth experienced globally. US companies are net exporters, that is local inputs are greater than any foreign inputs. So while they grow because of increased net earnings we grow in Jamaica as a result of increased borrowing to finance foreign inputs. Therefore, if we were to re-organize our production inputs we would find that we can positively affect our devaluation issues as well as the debt problem in the long term.

In order to do this we must look at the trade numbers and identify areas where we are deficient and develop strategic policies to address them. When one looks at the trade data, it shows that the greatest opportunities lie in the areas of food, mineral fuels, chemicals, manufactured goods, and machinery & transport equipment, which shows exports being less than imports by US$380M, US$1,491M, US$606M, US$682M, and US$1,108M respectively. Further analysis of course needs to be done in these areas to determine what value added the imports bring to the country but these areas should be the catalysts for developing a national policy for growth. This should be with a view to ensuring that growth is not merely accrue from borrowing money to encourage greater expenditure but real growth of Jamaican inputs. The area of fuels stands out, and shows the importance of developing a sound energy policy and transportation system that reduces the amount of fuel consumption. If we can achieve this then we can also address the problem of unemployment and real per capita income growth.

The data therefore shows that even though we had growth of 2.8%, the benefits of this growth is going to be short lived unless we can go further to develop our local inputs for inclusion in the growth of the economy, replacing imported inputs. This is no different from living a lifestyle of luxury off borrowed funds. In the short run growth in personal assets are possible from debt, but over the long term the debt has to be repaid.

Balancing numbers and lives

Last week two significant events happened in my space. The revenue budget was presented and I attended the funeral of a young man cut down at the start of his life. This young man of course is just one of hundreds killed each year by either gunmen or the police. He was a very hard worker and very enthused about developing a productive life through his entrepreneurial assets. His crime, like many others, was being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

The day before the funeral the Finance Minister presented the revenue estimates, a part of the overall budget, which has earned the reputation of being a meaningless set of numbers in a big book each year. Meaningless because the budget does not seem to support any development objective and is really ignored when more expenditure or new taxes are needed. In fact the real budget comes at the end of the budget year, which is the supplementary estimate.

The presentation by the Finance minister, I think was good, as he seemed to identify all the issues that affect us, but in terms of anything in the budget to engage discussion about a development path forward, non-existent. His budget presentation was nothing short of a statement that it is recognized that an election is in the air and until it is over with we will be doing nothing. But even more important the budget process does not support any objective to improve the daily living conditions of Jamaicans and in particular prevent the lives of ambitious young Jamaicans from being snuffed out. Mr. Shaw’s presentation did provide some insight as to major policy actions that would be adopted by the JLP, and I am hoping to see further development of these ideas as promised to be revealed in the manifesto.

Numbers Game
While the annual budget is a numbers game, displaying the balancing skills of government, the same cannot be said about the balancing of people’s lives. So while on the one hand we argue about one or two percentage points in GDP growth or inflation, or what the debt/GDP ratio is, the lives of Jamaicans are not improving relative to the rest of the world, which is experiencing phenomenal growth. And improvement does not mean borrowing money to buy a second hand car or answering two cell phones at once. Improving people’s lives means significant improvements in per capita income; proper physical infrastructures, such as secure bridges and roads; readily being able to access health services, not having to appeal to the public for assistance on the nightly news; being able to walk or drive without wondering if you are going to be cut down by gunmen or abused by police. A better GDP or inflation number this year, over last year, means nothing if we cannot relate this to better living conditions.

If the government was thinking ahead instead of just implementing additional taxes on cigarettes, wouldn’t it be in the best interest of Jamaicans, and the health system also, to ban smoking in public places, as developed countries have done. Is it more important to earn immediate revenues or look at the future effects of smoking? This logic is difficult to understand, just as I find it hard to comprehend how an intelligent person sees clearly marked in large letters on a cigarette box “SMOKING KILLS” and still lights up. I think the next tax to be dreamt up is the one on noise pollution. Instead of banning loud playing of music in public places, the government will one day place a tax on people who play music. This is the only reason why I can imagine this public nuisance, and lack of public order, continues unabated.

Clearly though there are really no new ideas in the budget and what was not included is more important for comment. For years now there has been a call for significant tax reform, and this was recommended by the Matalon report over two years ago, which has been condemned to a life of dust and shelves in the good company of many similar reports. As usual though we have been thrown a bone in the form of the expected consolidation of payroll taxes. I applaud this effort although long overdue but as servants we must not be ungrateful and ask for more.

The budget also included another provision for the allocation of funds for small businesses. The comment I would have here is “what’s new?” The minister also suggested to financial institutions that the interest spreads were too wide and needed to be narrowed thereby joining the prestigious club that tries to reduce interest rates through moral suasion. Of course another way to do this is to fix the business environment and stick to fiscal targets, thus moderating government’s need for debt, which will (1) force commercial banks to lend money to businesses; and (2) reduce interest rates through competition.

Elusive growth
Growth is projected at 3% for 2007/08, and while achievable will be difficult. This depends on crime levels (still number one priority after years) and two factors beyond our control, the US economy and hurricane season. While we have provided $5.8 Billion more in the expenditures for disaster management we have not considered any contingencies for hurricanes in the growth or inflation estimates. It is apparent now also that the US economy is weakening, caused by a worse than expected housing market.

The minister seems to have indicated though that the need for debt will not be reduced anytime soon. In fact the budget calls for an incremental $37 Billion in debt next year, which means that we will be much closer to the $1 trillion mark. The debt level is the only record we break more times in a year than Asafa Powell breaks his record. In 2006/07 the fiscal deficit was 5.4% of GDP, a far cry from the 2.5% originally projected, and in 2007/08 is projected to be 4.5%.

For this reason Bear Sterns has considered it necessary to downgrade our bonds from market perform to under perform. The logical flow from this of course is that GOJ bond prices could fall. If prices fall then yields increase. If yields increase then it means to attract new debt interest rates will have to increase. If so then how likely will it be that interest spreads will fall? It may be a little more difficult.

If bond prices fall then financial institutions will be impacted as we now use International Accounting Standards, which calls for financial instruments to be valued at market. We also know that some of these companies have eliminated the Held to Maturity classification, thus the reduced valuations would have to be shown in equity or profits. Trading gains could go down at a time when reduced interest rates are impacting profits. The biggest sector on the stock exchange listing is financial stocks, so go figure.

This scenario of course may not play out as I am sure that business persons in the financial sector are very astute and will ensure they are protected from this but it illustrates the link between the budget process and the entire economy. So when we present a budget that does not speak to the development objectives it puts everything on stand still. As an optimist, however, I am convinced that the budget process will see a clearly defined path for development when the other contributions are made and all my fears will be laid to rest.
So while the Finance minister has laid the blueprint for the policy, by identifying the major policy issues, I expect that these will be developed and at the end of the budget presentations we will have a clearly defined plan for balancing people’s lives, and we will live happily ever after.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Children of a lesser God

The first thought about what to write this week was of course the budget, as everyone else has done. In fact I was preparing to do so, as the expenditure estimates do need some further explanation. At the time of writing the revenue estimates have not yet been presented and so would not have been a focus.

The question as to what I should comment on though was answered on Easter Sunday while at the gas station. While there I saw a young boy, aged 10, trying to sell some sweets. I called him and started to question him about where his mother was and why at his age he was on the street and not at home studying. He indicated to me that his mother was very sick and that he had to sell the sweets in order to be able to go to school the following week. I gave him some money and told him to make sure he keeps out of trouble knowing too well that this is just one of many such children who are victims of the violent culture of the streets.

I have always had a lot of respect for Andrew Holness but cannot support any call for locking up parents for wrongs done by their children. I believe they should have some civil responsibility but not criminal. Any such action would be panic management, which is one of the worst things that you can do in a crisis. Where would we stop though? Should we also lock up the child services officers that are supposed to see to the welfare of children?

This I thought was more important to comment on than a group of rowdy parliamentarians presenting and arguing over some numbers. I might add numbers that really have no meaning, as it is only presented to appease government creditors and the populace into feeling good that government is spending some money or didn’t impose any new taxes this year. Don’t get me wrong, the budget process is important from the point of view that it provides us with insight as to how the economy may be impacted but really and truly does not provide any strategic direction.

Wrong approach
This though is the way we approach many things we do, both in the public and private sectors, but more so in government because there is no market to keep them in check. Every year we go through the budget process it seems to be an exercise in balancing the books rather than used as a tool to develop the long term strategic objectives of the country, like our tax policies, but then again it does not seem as if we have any strategies at all. So because of this lack of vision for our country we have situations like that little boy who has to be on the streets at the age of 10 selling sweets in order to go to school the next week. Because of the lack of vision the nightly news always seems to have an appeal from some poor person, who cannot afford medication to save their life, appealing to the public. Instead of spending money on improving people’s lives so that we can have greater productivity, however, we find it more important to build expensive stadiums and then figure out what to do with them.

The fact is that even after we have agreed on the budget, and determine that it is the best we can do in the circumstances, what will be the result? We will as usual come with a massive supplementary estimate because the budget numbers were not practical. We will continue to spend massive amounts on off-budget expenditures such as Air Jamaica, SCJ, and JUTC, and at the end of the year we will be told what amounts were spent. We will continue to borrow more money above the projected loan receipts, resulting in the poor people having to forgo another year of basic social services. We will continue to spend the money on so called legacy investments such as the Trelawny multi-purpose stadium while people in Jamaica cry out for running water.

So at the end of the day I ask, what is the sense of creating budgets and us analysts wasting time on them if it does not guide our strategic decisions and we do not maintain fiscal discipline. It seems that proper planning is not only a Jamaican issue but extends to the Caribbean. How can the politicians in CARICOM now be saying that the organizing committee for cricket did not negotiate the terms of the host agreement correctly?

How can we now be saying, US$400 million later, that we negotiated incorrectly and gave the ICC most of the revenues? What happened to the enthusiasm with which the politicians applauded the world cup efforts while enjoying the luxuries of the opening ceremony at the expense of Jamaica’s poor? The organizers will no doubt have to bear the brunt of the criticisms though as it is obvious that there was not much consideration given to the economic environment when setting ticket prices, which I believe to be the main inhibition to greater attendance.

No proactivity
As usual though we do not proactively deal with issues for fear that we may offend a party supporter, or in the case of a company, an employee. Never worry that the cost of delaying any action is always going to be greater to the country, or company, in the long run. The West Indies cricket team, for example, proved that they are no longer in the top cricketing teams. This is actually no surprise because who in their right mind would have thought that they would have won the world cup. But even though we have known of the weakness of the team, for years we continue to blame the players. If the players for years continue to show poor results, is the problem with the players or the administration. Unless we deal with the persons running cricket then we will get no better.

It seems obvious to me that Jamaicans are children of a lesser God. I say this because if, as it is said, God is guiding this government then I cannot safely say that it is the merciful God that we as Christians have all grown up knowing. It must be a lesser God that Jamaicans in particular are the children of. I say this because the persons that have been sent to govern us from independence until now have only served to inflict pain on this country.

Instead of practically managing the country’s business we see where calls are being made for reparation. Now tell me, if we had, from 1962, managed the affairs of this country properly would we need to be calling for monies for wrongs caused on our mother’s ancestors when our father’s ancestors were the ones that did the wrong. After all our motto says “out of many one people” because it is accepted that we are a mixed up nation. How many of us can say that we are pure descendants of the slaves. The fact that most of us are mixed should we be looking for partial reparation and what is the ratio.

As far as I know, the purpose of the budget is to set out the expenditures to be undertaken by government to run the affairs of the country for a year. The budget does not support any long tern strategic objectives, however, so what is the sense of it. We have had budgets every year since independence. Have people’s lives generally got any better? I will continue, however, to provide commentary for Jamaicans so that they can understand what is presented, as it is a necessary evil we labour through each year and it gives an insight into how the government is thinking.

Never mind my rhetoric though because when all is said and done we do need to have a budget. My hope is that some day the budget will be a tool used to support strategic long term objectives for the development of Jamaica.