Friday, June 27, 2008

Taming the inflation monster

Inflation is probably the greatest threat facing the consumer daily. This is because the global impact of food and energy will continue to have a devastating effect on the incomes of Jamaicans. Those at the lower income levels will feel it even more, and our policies over the years have created many such persons.

It is because economies move in cycles (good times followed by bad) that I have for years lamented the fact that as a country we have failed to take advantage of the record growth levels the world has seen in recent years. When times are good it is essential that we put aside resources to help us through the bad times. So when the world was growing at rates of six per cent to eight per cent as a country we failed to take advantage of it. In fact, we seemed to have been satisfied with growth rates of two per cent, as whenever we made that mark it would appear we were in a celebratory mode. This is even as neighbouring countries were growing at rates between 8 per cent and 10 per cent per annum.

Adapting to inflation
So here we are today, like everyone else negatively affected by global inflation. Every country in the world today is trying to cope with escalating energy and food prices, of which the greater threat to the world is food inflation. The truth is that food inflation will continue for longer than high oil prices, as while we can curb energy consumption it is very difficult to do so with food. So the main failing that we have as a country is not really that we cannot satisfactorily control the global impact but that (1) we have failed to take advantage of the high growth rates; and (2) the lack of infrastructural investment over the years means that our capacity to deal with the global impact is just not there.

In other countries, such as the United States (US), while they are faced with high energy prices they are able to curb consumption by increasing their use of the mass transit system. In the US since last year they have increased the use of mass transit by over five per cent. So they are able to reduce energy consumption by not only fewer people driving but obviously it means less traffic, and also the consumers are able to reallocate the funds saved on energy consumption from transportation to food. In Jamaica's case, however, because of the lack of any proper mass transit infrastructure (road, rail, and water) the Jamaican consumer is not able to move to mass transit, and therefore continues to face high energy and food costs without being able to reallocate expenditures.

So while countries with choices can minimise the impact of inflation, countries like Jamaica get the full brunt of it. This is primarily because of our failing over the years to invest in the capital and social infrastructure of the country, even while we have racked up debt of J$1 trillion. The debt has not gone into development but rather consumption.

So while on the one hand we have a very significant debt level, there is nothing to show for it because the significant part of our debt has gone into consumption. And this is why places like the IMF, and local commentators like myself, have been saying for years that the continued expenditure on places such as Air Jamaica, Sugar Company, and JUTC without any strategic benefit was giving away our nest egg. In addition to these expenditures we have seen the money that has been wasted on scandals such as the Intec fund, Sandals Whitehouse, NSWMA, Operation Pride, and others.

We could do well today with the billions of dollars wasted on these for social programmes support, as the US is doing with the rebate cheques they have sent out. Instead, during the good times our approach has been to waste our resources, and "suck salt through a wooden spoon" when times are bad. This is not a new phenomenon for us, as after the boom of the 1960s we again wasted our resources by our policies in the 1970s, when we had an accumulated negative growth of close to 20 per cent.

What is the solution?
But how do we now address this? What we have to do is first understand what is causing the problem. The inflation problem is caused primarily by the global impact of rising oil and food prices. Even local food is affected because of our dependence on imported fertilizer, and exacerbated by the low agricultural productivity, which results from small farm plots, inadequate irrigation, and the lack of technology. What we also have to realise is that inflation in Jamaica is mainly caused by food, which accounts for approximately 41 per cent of total inflation. Energy consumption makes up less than 10 per cent. It would seem logical then that any attack on inflation must first be directed at food and energy, as these account for almost 50 per cent of inflation.

In addition, because our import dependence is so high, it means that inflation not only causes increased price pressures directly but it also causes a greater demand for foreign exchange, which places pressure on the exchange and inflation rates. So we must develop strategies that have the effect of (1) minimising our need for foreign exchange; and (2) increasing our agricultural productivity. Some of these solutions will take some time but others can have an immediate impact.

The low-hanging fruit, for example, is in the area of energy consumption. One such solution is in place already and this is the $500,000 loan offered by the NHT (10 years) for solar energy equipment. The NHT of course needs to ensure that anyone who accesses this loan is tax-compliant. But a typical three-bedroom home may cost about J$300,000 to J$400,000 to place the lights, television, computer, and other small appliances on. This could run these for the entire night and could reduce your energy bill by at least half. So if your light bill is $10,000 per month, the payback period on the investment is 6 to 8 years, and the life on solar equipment is approximately 40 years. This is a conservative example, as the bill and percentage saved is usually higher.

In addition, the introduction of fiscal policies to curb consumption could have an immediate payback. For example, charging private cars to access areas such as New Kingston during work hours, and having significant parking charges in these areas will encourage people to move to mass transit. At the same time though an immediate investment in buses to accommodate park-and-ride services will make our public transportation system more palatable. In the UK and US one pays to go into London and Manhattan during work hours. In the UK there is a charge for vehicles such as SUVs that drive into certain designated zones. The effect on the retail consumption of electricity and transportation could see reduction in the energy bill of between US$700,000 and US$1 Billion, if properly implemented.

The longer-term strategy being adopted by Chris Tufton should have a beneficial effect on food inflation. What we must do is not only start to grow more of what we consume, but we must also (1) develop local organic fertiliser on a mass scale; (2) grow staple crops, such as rice, cassava, yams etc on a large scale and not the small farming plots we do now; (3) put money in fixing the long- neglected arterial roads for greater access to farming lands; (4) use technology, such as is done in Israel, to ensure the greatest yield possible, standardise our agricultural products, and ensure year-round production of certain items. If we approach this properly we can have enough for export also but certainly will be able to replace the imports in the hotel sector.

Just as Jamaica lacked the capacity to grow at rates in excess of three per cent in good times, we also do not have the capacity to adapt to changing economic circumstances because of the lack of proper infrastructural investment, and wastage of our resources. There are some short-term fiscal policies that can address inflation concerns, but the timing and proper implementation is critical.


Anonymous said...

Very thought provoking as usual. Have you given any thought to the need for investment in the water infrastructure of the island.

In TnT the PM has indicated that our Water and Sewerage Authority would have to spend on the order of TT$1+ Billion to both replace aging and defective mains as well as extend the reach of the system and develop new water sources. 3 new desalination plants have been mentioned.

Anonymous said...


Just to let you know that ordinary citizens cannot access the NHT Solar Loan. It is just for persons who have never borrowed fron the trust or those that have paid off their loans already. People who currently have loans will not be able to access this loan.

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