Friday, July 29, 2011

Jamaica's continuing energy crisis

In July 2006, I wrote an article titled "Oil - Jamaica's main external threat". At the time our use of fossil fuels (oil) was 96 per cent of our energy needs, and the oil price was US$78 per barrel. In February 2008, I wrote another article titled "Oil - still Jamaica's main external threat". At that time oil was trading at US$100 per barrel, and fossil fuels were still just about 96 per cent of our energy usage. Today oil is trading at just under US$100 per barrel and our energy usage is just about 96 per cent per barrel.

Does anyone see anything wrong with this picture? This energy crisis started from the 1970s, and as a country we have been talking since then about the need to rationalise our energy usage, and move towards cheaper forms of energy. After almost 40 years of talk, I think we can safely say that this is the longest-running talk show in the history of the country. Recently, even the City of New York announced an initiative to introduce significant numbers of solar panels, as a solution to high energy costs and future supply.

I find it very difficult to understand why it has taken so long for us to address this issue, as today energy is the biggest threat to production and industry in this country. Running close behind is the scrap metal industry and for the record I support the move to indefinitely ban the industry until a solution can be found. Hopefully a solution can come before next year, but any announcement of a temporary ban will only cause the hoodlums to continue to stockpile.

For the past two years approximately, we have seen the Balance of Payments (BOP) perform better than prior year comparative periods, as a result of the weak global demand, and hence the fall-off in oil prices. Still oil imports were approximately 25 to 30 percent of imports during that period. I had indicated at the time that this was just a respite and sooner or later oil prices would start to climb again, especially as global demand starts to pick up. Add to that now the crisis in the US, which is causing a quicker than expected depreciation of the US dollar, and a run to commodities, particularly gold.

The effect on Jamaica's BOP has been that the current account deficit has started to worsen again, and businesses and individuals will continue to be under immense pressure from rising energy prices. So we once again have not taken advantage of the lull in oil prices. But as I had indicated when oil prices were on the way down, we would forget about the urgency needed to address this, added to the bureaucracy involved, and it would only come to the fore again when prices started to go back up.

So here we are once more, fighting with the JPS and a worsening current account, which will no doubt affect our future demand of US dollars if not addressed expeditiously.

What is happening currently? I saw an ad on television this week where the NHT seems to have expanded its offering of solar panel loans. And this is a good move and one I have been pushing for a while. I hope that the level of bureaucracy that existed a few months ago has been improved, as it was way too onerous for someone to access a loan. No doubt this bureaucracy existed because of the need to protect government funds, but we should have found a way to protect the funds and at the same time disburse the loans, as the cost of high energy bills for Jamaica far outweighs any loss that could occur from increased risk in the lending practices for this purpose. In fact I still maintain that the GCT on the electricity bills should be used to credit compliant taxpayers who introduce renewable energy solutions at their homes and businesses.

I also see that the argument surrounding the JPS distribution monopoly has shifted to being impractical to break up because of the size of the country and cost of doing so. I think what is needed here is some out-of-the-box thinking. I totally agree with the position of the Energy Minister, when he says that the control of the distribution would have to remain with the JPS. The fact is that it would be much too costly and difficult to monitor otherwise, as JPS has the infrastructure to do so.

This, however, does not prevent competition in the market. And vibrant competition at that. This can be done in the following ways.

1. Competition will occur by persons generating their own energy needs, as this will reduce the demand for the electricity produced by JPS. I have been using solar panels at home for over one and a half years, and it is still going strong. My average cost of energy has been significantly reduced, and I expect a four-to- five year payback timeline. I also am not impacted in a significant way by JPS rate hikes, and power cuts don't affect me. In addition, at this payback period this amounts to a 15 to 20 per cent return on investment (if one considers depreciation), with no withholding tax.

2. We need to move immediately to net metering, as net billing is still not cost-effective for greater investments to take place.

3. We should allow independent electricity generators to establish themselves, and be charged by JPS a regulated distribution fee. These independents would then sell the power they generate directly to the customer, and not have to sell it to JPS for them to on-sell. This is where the OUR would be valuable in regulating the cost of the distribution (to ensure a standard and reasonable charge) and also to assist in monitoring how many credits each distributor puts on the system and can sell. The more cost-effective one would obviously sell their supply first. This way JPS also collects for the distribution, but competition will be introduced.

The other solution to significantly reduce demand is to invest in a much more efficient and safe public transportation system. Right here we have to commend the efforts of Mike Henry in getting the limited train service going. This will not only reduce the demand for energy but also ensure that competition forces the other operators into greater discipline and efficiency.

Note that none of these initiatives involve any significant project like the LNG, which is required for industrial production, but these alone could save 30 to 40 per cent in energy cost. If this happens it means greater disposable income and revenues for businesses.

Jamaicanisation of the US

The debt crisis debacle happening in the US is pointing towards the Jamaicanisation of that country. I never thought the day would come when I would see US politicians behaving like Jamaican politicians, where politics and party come before country. It is a sad day for the world when the world's leading economy starts to behave in that way, and we are seeing how destructive politics can be. In Jamaica we have long known about the destructive nature of politics as evidenced by our low growth rates, relatively worsening productivity and human development index, and increasing poverty.

I think after the irresponsible behaviour of US companies that led to the 2008 financial crisis, and the current debt impasse, the US is showing the whole world why it no longer deserves to be the world's reserve currency or benchmark for financial transactions. It is still the greatest country in the world for me right now, but is fast self-destructing.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Development can only occur if there is law and order

WHENEVER we discuss the various models for development (Ireland, Singapore, and Russia), we tend to focus on economic stability, interest rates, stock exchanges etc. We always speak about economics as if it is an exact science, not realising that economics, as a social science, depends on human behaviour. Perhaps more important than interest and exchange rates is consumer confidence. After all, economic development is driven by consumer demand and markets, not macroeconomic stability or low inflation.

For this reason one can always predict whether an economy is going to do well or not, because unless consumer confidence and spending is on the rise then an economy cannot develop. We only have to look at the largest economies in the world, led by the US and China. It is the rise in consumer spending and confidence that has allowed those markets to develop, not a few technocrats sitting in a room determining how to achieve stable exchange rates, low interest rates, and low inflation. In fact, a focus on macroeconomic stability, without developing consumer confidence, is only a short-term fix, and will lead to what we have seen for the most part in Jamaica — spurts of growth followed by longer periods of slump.

It would seem logical, therefore, that if we want a market to show innovation and develop, then we must encourage consumer confidence and spending. This means that market policy should always focus on more jobs, greater real income levels, and greater competition. There is justification for why the Caribbean GDP growth (less Trinidad) rate lags behind the rest of the world, as our markets are less developed. In particular, there is a reason why 2007 real GDP per capita and productivity in Jamaica was less than in 1972. The problem is that as a country we have for the most part focused on the outcome rather than the underlying problem, which our governors have failed to properly understand.

If, therefore, market development depends on consumer confidence and spending, then it's logical that we should pursue policies that will ensure consumers feel confident and have enough money to drive higher expenditures. And if this is accepted as the logical thing to do, shouldn't we then be identifying what is needed to drive that behaviour (remember economics is a social science)? The next logical set of questions then would include, how we expect consumers (or businesses) to feel confident about spending if there is rampant indiscipline and a general lack of law and order, and our institutions such as our courts and police force seem deficient. Even if the institutions are not deficient, a perception that they are is enough to stymie confidence.

For example, the way the police handled the Mais killing is an example of how not to communicate (even though, in my opinion, it was handled properly). The argument that social media is an inhibitor to policing and that ways must be found to curtail the use of social media is showing a bankruptcy of ideas. Shortly after hearing this comment locally, I heard an international report where it was being said by the police that with the growth of social media, the police now had to find more innovative methods to work alongside the new order, not to say it should be limited as we chose to do.

When will we realise also that the first thing to do in solving crime is to create a culture of discipline and law and order, as was done in Singapore? So if we truly want to see a sustained reduction in murders and other crimes then we must first address the general perception of law, order, and discipline. If this is not done then we may not see a sustained reduction. We only have to look at the recent killings. And it is this breakdown of law, order, and discipline that has been the biggest failure of governance in this country since the 1970s, which deteriorated at a much more rapid rate in the 1990s and 2000s.

So neither pedestrians, cyclists, nor motorists are safe on the road from reckless drivers. Only last week a cyclist was riding out at the Harbour View roundabout, for his morning exercise, and was mowed down by a speeding motorist, leaving a wife and a 15-month-old son. When that driver leaves prison he should be forced to support the child until age 18. But will that ever happen in Jamaica? More than likely not. And what about the persons who continuously ignore the Noise Abatement Act, and prevent persons from getting the rest they need to be productive the following day? I also continuously see cases where taxis stop in the middle of the road to let out someone, and a police car just drives past as if it is nothing.

It is not enough for the police to just set up a speed trap and expect to solve traffic violations that way. There needs to be more out-of-the-box thinking. For example, why aren't the police seizing the equipment and gate proceeds from persons who violate the Noise Abatement Act (which this Act already supports indiscipline as crafted)? Why don't they wait outside of clubs and parties to see who is staggering to the driver's seat and administer a breathalyser test on the spot? This would also certainly improve the revenue intake.

If one looks at the development of the US, Singapore, and Ireland (countries we love to look at as models), they have been based on a culture of discipline and the enforcement of law and order, that rewards productivity rather than in our case where we reward connections and strength. So in Jamaica we don't know how many Usain Bolts or Bob Marleys we could have produced because we either kill them when they are young or never allow them the opportunity to develop.

So, as I have always maintained, in no economics book I have read is there an assumption of the lack of law and order. On the contrary, economic development assumes a certain structure and culture of discipline. The Global Competitiveness report, for example, points out that before development can occur in a country, the institutions have to be functioning properly and there has to be access to good health care and primary education. Otherwise, any effort at development is only a lesson in futility.

So as we approach 50 years of independence as a country we need to understand that without discipline on our roads and an enforcement of law and order, we will never get around to achieving sustainable economic development, let alone get to being the country of choice to live and work. All we will do is create one big ghetto called Jamaica.

PS: I want to commend the direction being taken by the new minister of justice of focusing on the courts and backlog of cases, which the DPP has been saying for a while is a reason for the poor delivery of justice. I also want to commend the minister of national security for the introduction of the electronic monitoring for non-violent offenders, as all our prisons have done is create more hardened criminals.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Make the roads safe please

Just this morning a recreational cyclist was reportedly mowed down by driver, who apparently was drunk, and was reportedly racing another driver near the harbour view round about. The impact was so great that the car was badly damaged. He leaves a two year old child without a father.

A few months ago another recreational cyclist was mowed down by a car at port royal, where it was reported that the driver fell asleep. He also left fatherless a young child.

These drivers were coming from a night out on the town, where more than likely they were drinking.

This rubbish must stop, as motorists drive without any order, and also cyclists and pedestrians use the road without any order. Because of the lawlessness on the roads, neither pedestrians, cyclists, or motorists are safe. Approximately two weeks ago this lawlessness reached a new high when 17 year old Mais was killed by a lunatic. His actions are similar to the motorist who uses his car, because of irresponsible driving because of DUI or even being distracted because they are texting, talking on the phone, or even eating. And while doing all of that they are speeding.

When will the police realize that if they really want to assist in making Jamaica the place of choice to live and work, that discipline on the roads, and safety of all users on the road, is essential. Are reckless motorists any different from the murderers who in cold blood kill people. In both cases they have no regard for human life.

If this is contained then Jamaica will definitely be a better place to live, and crime overall will come down once there is a semblance of discipline. The lack of law and order is slowly killing us. How do we want to encourage a more healthy lifestyle but then persons who ride, run, or walk on the road are under siege. It seems logical that we have to arrest the perception of law and order if we truly want law and order.

My own recommendation is that those caught driving under the influence, or texting etc. should be charged, fined heavily, and have their licence immediately revoked. If they cause the death of a person or destroy property they should be arrested and put in jail immediately. The police have to get serious about this. It is very important.

If the police can’t deal with this then we must once again force them through the voiceof civil society, as it seems that this is the only way we get action.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Lessons from the ICAC conference part 2

Last week I looked at the presentation on the Singapore model, done by Professor Ghesquiere at the annual conference of Caribbean accountants. I want to now focus on the other two themes of the conference. Those of (i) Energy as a tool for success; and (ii) the role of competition in market development.


By energy I don't mean oil, gas, and electricity, but rather the effort that goes into productivity. This was the focus of a presentation done by Andrew Deutscher of the "Energy project" group. The main theme around the presentation is that it is not how long you work that is important but rather how you work. In other words, productivity does not mean long hours of work, and the fact is that the longer your hours of work is the greater the risk that you become less productive. He went on to say that not balancing your life to include exercise, time to think, and spend with family actually leads to less productivity.

I have always maintained that when you see someone working long hours then more often than not those are the more unproductive persons. If someone has to be working ten to fourteen hours a day to achieve a task then it either means that (i) the technology or human resources are insufficient for production; or (ii) the person is unproductive and not innovative. It actually costs the company more to have persons working longer than regular hours, because it means more utility bills; greater risk of errors, as people tire and productivity falls; greater risk of fraud, as the person working long hours becomes frustrated and too in control of the systems; increased risk of higher health premiums for the company; higher risk of absenteeism from fatigue and health-related issues; and other such indirect factors. The problem is that many managers are not able to see the opportunity cost of an action, and love to see persons spending all sort of hours at work.

Isn't it more efficient to have a worker who gets tasks A and B done in four hours, than one who spends eight hours doing the same tasks? If we think even further then couldn't we also see the benefit to the company of having persons work from home rather than go to the office? The company would have more productive time available to it, as the worker would always have their computer and work environment with them (as BlackBerrys have done); there would be less use of stationery and utilities for the company, so expenses would decline; the worker would be more productive, as they don't have to deal with traffic and spend time getting ready for work; and there would be less demand for employee benefits long term as worker expenses would decline. This is actually a growing trend in the US, but in Jamaica we love to physically see someone drag themselves to the office, even though when they get there they go sit around a computer and never have a conversation with anyone until they are saying goodbye when they depart for home.

So the presentation says that what we need to focus on is not the amount of time someone spends at work but rather how much value they produce. We could also extend this to the national debt, and as I have always maintained, it is not the amount of debt the country has, or the debt to GDP ratio, that is important but what value do we get from the debt.

It seems to me, therefore, that one of the main problems we have with productivity in this country (at the national and company level) is not the fact that Jamaicans don't work long hours, as some espouse, but rather that our managers and leaders do not set objectives and outcomes. The result is that people end up working long hours but really do not have a value-added outcome to match it against. So an accountant who spends seriously long hours working in many instances, do not produce the financial statements in a timely manner anyway, and more importantly the accountant does not understand the link between what he/she does and the value added for the company. So if there is a change in the value added he/she does not know what to alter to produce information that can bring it back in line.

So the energy project says create an environment that will allow greater productivity (as opposed to long hours) and have a way of measuring that productivity, because what really matters is how much energy is put into the outcome.

If we had applied this concept of "energy" and outcome to compensation for public sector workers then we would have (i) a more productive and better paid public sector; and (ii) we would not have had the recent opportunity cost of the protracted wage stand off. This is because we would have had a measurable outcome to reward persons based on and the more productive would naturally earn more, rather than everyone getting the same outcome irrespective of productivity level.

So the real take away for me was that one of our main problems with productivity is that there is not a great focus on outcomes and value added in Jamaica. This is the main reason why our productivity, and ultimately GDP per capita lags behind other countries.


The other theme is that of competition. The presenters were Michael Fairbanks, who looked at some of the benefits of competition, and yours truly, who looked at a competitive analysis of the region.

The essence of the presentations was that it is the lack of competition that has held back market development in Jamaica and the region. The fact is that there is no country that has seen sustained high levels of growth without a competitive environment. Governments cannot efficiently pick winners or drive markets efficiently. This we saw coming out of the FINSAC era, where many private companies were under the control of the government. Although some may argue that we had growth after that era, the fact is that growth was driven by increased national debt and was relatively weak compared to the region.

We saw a very good example of what competition has done for the consumer and market development when the telecommunications industry became competitive, when Digicel entered. This is a microcosm of what can happen if we encourage competition in our markets, rather than continue with protectionist policies. The Caribbean is amongst the least competitive regions worldwide, and when one removes Trinidad and Tobago from the equation is probably the least competitive.

Is it any wonder then that as a region we have lagged behind most regions of the world in terms of economic growth and GDP per capita?

There were some good lessons coming out of the conference and the accountants have managed to show their readiness to provide the leadership necessary for regional development. The hope is that they will continue to implement some of these recommendations.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Lessons for Jamaica from the ICAC conference

LAST week the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Jamaica (ICAJ) hosted the annual conference of Caribbean accountants. This was the most successful one to date, with over 900 delegates registered, and more importantly for me, the theme, "Third to First [World] — going the distance", was superbly handled.

The conference did not focus on traditional accounting topics, but rather illustrated the fact that accountants are now a lot more than just the perceived book-keepers, representing in fact the most rounded professionals in a country. The theme we used as the basis of a presentation made by Professor Ghesquiere, from the Lee Quan Yew School, which focused on the Singapore success story. In addition to this presentation, Andrew Deutscher made a very informative presentation on "The Energy Project", which focuses on the role of energy rather than just attempts to get things done; while Michael Fairbanks and yours truly did a presentation on competitiveness in the region.

There were also many other enlightening presentations, but I think that these themes of (i) The Singapore experience; (ii) Energy as a tool for success; and (iii) the role of competition in market development captured the essence of the theme.

There were numerous lessons for Jamaica coming out of the conference, and those not in attendance really missed out on a very educational experience. It's not that what was presented was anything novel, as many other commentators have been proposing these solutions over time, but the interconnectivity of all that was said placed a special perspective on the recommendations.

Professor Ghesquiere did a fantastic job explaining the main factors that led to Singapore's success. The first thing he mentioned was that Singapore had exceptional leadership that focused primarily on economic development and growth, rather than the constant political power plays that we are used to in this region.

In fact, he was at pains to point out that Singapore and Jamaica had the same GDP per capita and level of development in the 1960s. The major difference was in the choices made by both countries. While Jamaica chose to focus more on social and political issues, Singapore, under the exceptional guidance of Lee Quan Yew, made economic growth and development their primary objective. So while we fought among ourselves for political and social supremacy, all of Singapore's policies and actions were geared towards economic development for the entire country.

He also pointed out, as many of us have been saying, that a very important part of Singapore's success was the fact that there was respect for law, order, and authority. He did point out that Singapore benefited from being a one-party state. In my view, in Jamaica sometimes we confuse indiscipline for liberty. For example, the argument that persons need freedom of expression so they must be allowed to play music at any volume, at any time, ignores the fact that the liberty of those being disturbed and offended by the noise is being disrespected. So we tolerate indiscipline and call it liberty. What we don't recognise is that for companies, countries, or even people to grow successfully, there must be rules and structure, otherwise it becomes a "free for all".

In Singapore labour and capital worked together for the development of the country. So during the recent recession, labour understood the need to take a pay cut in order to minimise job losses and to ensure that the country weathered the recessionary storms well. So while Singapore saw a harmonious working relationship between labour and capital during the short-lived recession there, in Jamaica we continue to see the stand-off between the government and public sector workers. And as a result of the inability of politicians, labour, and capital to work together, we have experienced thirteen consecutive quarters of GDP decline. So who wins in our case? Nobody.

What was also evident from the presentation was that an essential ingredient of Singapore's success continues to be trust between leaders and the people. What we find from the recent study about trust in Jamaica, however, is that amongst the least trusted are the police and the politicians. What is ironic about this is that these are the persons who are supposed to provide everyday leadership. The fact is that if there is no trust, then irrespective of how good your intentions are, no one will follow willingly. On the other hand, if the trust level is high then even when you have bad intentions people will follow until they wise up. It would therefore seem to me that repairing the breach of trust between our leaders and citizens should be a top priority.

Singapore also focused on economic growth rather than pursuing political objectives. This is critical to understand, and while many of us talk about economic growth and development, it is somewhat different to actually make it your primary objective. The fact is that much of the talk about economic growth and development in Jamaica is shrouded in the greater priority of politics and individual reward. Economic development for Jamaica will always be good for politicians as long as it helps them to remain in power. So even though we may realise that certain types of expenditure can derail an economy's development, we do it anyway because it is necessary to keep the party in power. Even though we know that duty waivers are not in the best interest of the country, we will support the policy only as long as it doesn't affect "me". This is where it is necessary for exceptional leadership to do what is good for the country and not any special interest group.

The last thing I will mention from the professor's address is that of the need to live within our means. For too long Jamaicans have consumed 90 per cent of the money we have borrowed. We have actually been borrowing to support a lifestyle that we cannot afford. There is no way that we can continue on that path, as countries like Greece have seen. Those who argue that while we were borrowing in order to consume, the economy was actually getting better, fail to realise that we were actually getting better, fail to realise that we were actually digging our own graves. What we must do is cut our suit to match the cloth we have. On the other hand, though, I don't think this means that we must stop borrowing or spending, and I somewhat disagree with the notion that debt is bad. As long as the marginal return of debt exceeds the marginal cost, then debt is good. What we must change is the way we spend money: we must ensure that we spend it in such a way that we receive a value added in excess of the cost. This would include, for example, infrastructure spending to support industries such as tourism and agriculture. A country where the tourist capital is separated from the national capital by a single-lane bridge over a river that is impassable when rains fall, while having a debt to GDP ratio of 129 per cent, cannot be serious about development.

Next week I am going to look at the other two themes I found very interesting at the conference, those of energy and competition. Until then I urge us all to think about these things that the professor has brought from his experience and reflect on why Jamaica is in its current position, after having been the model Singapore looked at favourably in the 1960s.