Friday, December 28, 2012

Lessons for the economy — mountain bike style

IN October I used a bicycle ride to point out lessons for the economy. Today, I will do so again, using a different type of cycling — mountain bike style.

On Boxing Day, I started with a mountain bike ride from Liguanea to Irish Town and back. I hadn't been on my mountain bike for a while, preferring the road bike because of its speed and smoothness, but having already experienced descending from Newcastle on the road bike, on the rough potholed-filled road, I knew it wouldn't be pleasant. I therefore chose to go up on the mountain bike, which is sturdier, has shocks and much bigger tyres.

The lesson here is that as we go into 2013, it is critical to understand the vision of where we want to end up and ensure that we have the right people and systems in place to ensure we meet those goals comfortably. It is time we admit that Vision 2030, as currently being pursued, will not happen. In many instances, I think we have good people in the public sector but the system they have to work with does not facilitate initiative. So it is tantamount to buying a professional footballer to play in a prep-school competition. In other words, if we are serious about getting investments in the country in 2013, one of the priorities to address is the archaic bureaucracy that inhibits initiative and growth.

We started our journey through Hope Pastures, then unto Hope Gardens, before we made our way up the hill to Irish Town. Knowing fully well that we needed to conserve most of our energy for the climb, we spent the first mile or so just getting warm enough.

Going into 2013, the biggest tasks to face are the completion of the IMF agreement, tackling law and order effectively, the energy crisis, and unemployment. We must therefore recognise that it is essential to plan which tasks to tackle, and how to execute them, in order to receive the maximum benefit. We will not be able to do everything because of scarce resources so we must select the ones which will result in the greatest immediate benefits.

Take the IMF agreement, for instance. I agree with Minister Phillips that we must ensure that the programme is practical and does not leave Jamaica in a worse position. All the prior IMF agreements have not been to the benefit of the country, yet we always return to them. On the other hand, the longer we wait to sign the agreement, the less leverage we will have because it is a race against the NIR level.

When riding up a hill, there is always pain. Your legs burn as the lactic acid builds up and you have to keep drinking to get the electrolytes back in your body. The most important thing to do is to mentally block out the pain as you climb the mountain. If you think about it too much, and allow your mind to get the better of you, you will stop.

In 2013, we must set out at a pace that ensures we get to our destination, also ensures that we achieve our target. Setting impractical goals and making too radical decisions could result in pain without success. I am thinking about the targets under an IMF agreement. In 2010, the targets were unrealistic. Despite this, we continued with them until Minister Phillips recently admitted that we can't just take any agreement. It makes no sense to have pain with no gain. If the agreement is unrealistic all we will have is pain.

Just like riding up the hill we needed to drink, similarly in 2013 if we are to tackle unemployment and bring growth to the economy there needs to be stimulus spending from as early as the first quarter.

After we got to our destination, it was time to make the trek downhill. This is the fun part. Descending the hill at speeds of up to 27 mph, and having to avoid the pot holes, loose dirt, watching for the oncoming vehicles, and ensuring you make the corners without going over the cliffs, brings a certain rush. You have to ensure that you are focused on the task of descent, when going at those speeds; else you could easily end up in an accident. I have seen this happen. However, once things go well, it is most enjoyable.

In 2013, Jamaica will face its own challenges. We will have our own version of a fiscal cliff, as I expect revenues will be weak as the economy remains weak. It would also be bad for the economy, and ultimate fiscal revenues, to increase taxes. So I don't think that is a practical option. What we will have to do is focus on what are the underlying causes of the problems, and "spear fish" rather than "net fish" to solve them. In the past, what we have done is just place a Band-Aid on the problem. So we allow inflation, devaluation, borrow money, or raise taxes. What this has done, however, is just kick the can down the road. The reality we face today, however, is that there are no more roads to kick the can down. We are at a point where the "chickens have come home to roost".

One of the things we must do is take some risks in our policy decisions. I find that our bureaucratic rules are so conservative that nothing usually happens when needed. What we must do is take the risky policy decisions that causes a game changer.

The new year is one that we will either (1) feel the joy (adrenaline) of fixing the economy once and for all; or (2) see significant declines in our economic fortunes.

This takes me back to where I started, however. The journey to success depends on ensuring that the best people are on board and that the system facilitates the needed initiative. When I say correct people I just don't mean public sector workers, but very importantly the boards of public bodies and the leadership that will take the needed decisions.

I don't think the actions we need to take have to be very painful if the correct fiscal policy decisions are implemented. However, the longer we wait then the more painful the actions will have to be.

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