Today I want to address two issues, which could have a negative impact on the Jamaican economy. The fact is that even though fiscal and other reform programmes have been taking place, the economy still remains very vulnerable and can easily reverse the small positive growth we have been seeing for the past three quarters. This is why it is very important that as we approach an election that we all act responsibly to ensure that the economy is not damaged.
The first issue of grave concern is what is happening in Europe, and more particularly Italy, which has an economy much bigger than Greece and can result in catastrophic consequences for the global economy.
In September 2009, I had written an article titled "Risk of a double-dip recession?", in which I raised the real possibility of the world going back into another recession. And my main reason for saying so was that even though the markets were recovering, the fact is that all the policy actions that have taken place since the recession have not been aimed at arresting the structural issues but rather at cosmetically creating an impression of growth. There was therefore little doubt that the problem would once again show its face.
The situation as it is today, with significant challenges in European sovereign debt, is even worse than I had thought it would get. I had expected a double-dip, and then a slow recovery after that. However, if the crisis in Europe is not managed properly then we could be looking at a decade or more of stagnation and a significant negative impact on currency values, higher inflation and interest rates, and no or low growth. The fact also is that any second recession as a result of challenges with sovereign debt could be worse than the 2008 recession.
Although Jamaica has fared relatively well, when compared to other countries, during and coming out of the recession, which took hold here in 2009, there are some realities that we face. The first is that Jamaica's main foreign exchange earners are discretionary and will be amongst the first expenditure cuts by foreign consumers if uncertainty sets in. On Wednesday last, for example, we saw markets fall by 3 per cent, a significant strengthening of the US dollar implying flight to quality, and all-time high Italian interest rates.
The second is that the IMF agreement is coming to an end, if there is no extension, and it means that funding support will also end. If the global reality results in greater uncertainty then capital markets could remain close to the required funding, as we still have an earnings shortfall.
Oil prices should continue to rise, even in a stagnating global economy, and in fact the International Energy Association has said that if enough investment in oil exploration does not happen in the short term, oil prices could reach to US$150 per barrel. Jamaica has not managed to reduce the 96 per cent dependency on fossil fuels.
The fiscal situation remains fragile, and the Balance of Payments shows a worsening situation because of the lower than projected global growth and the dependency on oil.
It is therefore very clear that the Jamaican economy would be very much affected if the European debt crisis is not resolved positively. The other problem is that there is nothing that any Jamaican government will be able to do about it, as any escalation in the European situation would see much of the multilateral resources being directed there, even while capital markets are closed.
Telecommunication industry threatened
The other issue which is of some concern is the competitiveness of the telecommunications industry. In June of this year I had written about this same concern, based on the then pending Claro-Digicel deal, and the continued poor results of C&W. I had pointed out at the time that the competitiveness of the industry is under threat because of the following reasons:
o Dominant position of Digicel while there was no number portability or regulation of internetwork charges;
o Continued losses by C&W, which implies that continued upgrade to the infrastructure is questionable; and
o The declining income levels of consumers means that this will affect their ability to afford the services.
The reason why this sector is so important is that apart from energy, telecommunications is one of the most important ingredients in business and consumer life today. It is not just about making a telephone call but business models now have telecommunication as a central part. Also any monopoly situation could see significant cost increases for businesses, if not properly monitored by regulation and the market.
It is for this reason that the continued losses being shown by C&W is of some concern, as this is unsustainable and already it seems apparent that Digicel's network has been having some challenges.
I say that C&W has challenges, as they have more than doubled their losses for the quarter, from $549 million in September 2010 to $1.323 billion in September 2011. One could argue that this includes depreciation charges (non-cash) of J$1 billion, but importantly the operating profit over the same period fell by 50 per cent, from $802 million to $435 million. Total revenues also fell slightly. More importantly the cash flow statement shows that the company had negative cash balance at the end of the quarter.
My own view is that the business model is such that irrespective of what they do within that business model they will continue to lose money.
Whether C&W survives or not is not important to me. What is important is that the regulators take the steps necessary to protect the consumers and the cost structure of the telecoms market. This should be done by regulation and competition. This is why it is important to address the matters of number portability and cross network charges with some amount of urgency, and not deal with it in the same way we have allowed our energy crisis to fester since the 1970s. Telecommunications is too important a component of business and individual life to allow it to go the way of the energy sector.