Friday, February 28, 2014

Holding back the reform agenda

ANYONE who has been reading or listening to my recent commentaries would realise that I am fully in support of the reform agenda otherwise known as the IMF programme.

Similarly, anyone who has been listening to my commentaries in the past will also realise that I was not in favour of the prior IMF programmes, because I never thought they would have worked.

The reason why I think this current programme stands a better chance than the prior ones, is that I think that the approach this time is a fundamental shift.

The previous programmes focused on providing funding support to prop up the balance of payments and fiscal accounts, without undertaking any structural changes to the economic and social order. In fact, the main theory under those programmes is that if we just devalue the dollar then everything will be OK after that. What occurred in those cases is that one had significant knee damage and got some steroid injections to keep running.

Under this current programme, before we get the steroid injections, we have done the corrective knee surgery to address the damaged ligaments and put a graft in to ensure that the damage is fixed. The IMF has said after you surgically fix the knee, then we will provide you with the steroid shots you need (funding), so that you can not only run but outperform the competition.

So I think we stand a very good chance at recovery, but there are some significant risks we face. So while we are better prepared to face the competition and finish the race, the fact is that our productivity is low because our muscles have been at rest for too long, and the shoes that we have are way past their useful life, so unless we change the shoes (support structures) we will only start the process of damaging our knee again, and maybe not finishing the programme successfully.

I have mentioned before that the significant risks to not realising our goals are no longer with the fiscal side, but rest outside of the Ministry of Finance (the only other monetary situation that was causing significant challenge is the liquidity problem which the BOJ has sought to address). The main challenges we face today rest in three main areas.

These are:

(1) Energy costs. Here, a lot rests on the 360 MW project, and therefore, the management of it by the OUR. Energy is a significant challenge for manufacturers, and is certainly one of the reasons why we have seen growth in agriculture, construction, mining, and tourism and a decline in manufacturing in the last quarter. High energy costs inhibit Jamaica from moving from a producer of primary to secondary products.

(2) Crime. Indiscipline is the major contributor to our fundamental problem and hinders productivity. Crime and indiscipline lead to low productivity of labour and capital, otherwise called total factor productivity (TFP). Jamaica's TFP has declined at a rate of approximately 1.5 per cent annually on average since 1972. An example of indiscipline can be seen in an article I wrote about a few weeks ago concerning Jamaican timekeeping and meetings, road indiscipline and night noise. Unless we get serious about this, then productivity will not be positively affected. Our current attitude sees us unable to successfully compete and everyone grows at a faster rate than Jamaica. I want to also mention in particular the demise of societal values and the failure to protect our children from abuse . This all leads to an even more unproductive work force.

(3) Bureaucracy. This is probably the biggest challenge facing businesses and results in low productivity. I recently had an example, which illustrates that while the Government is trying to pull in one direction (to move the economy forward) its functionaries of government are pulling in the other direction. In the past week I have had two instances that remind me of this. The first is being stopped by a policeman to say he was carrying out a spot check (no reason other than that) and then proceeding to seek to extract something from me, which I refused to do because I told him it was not right.

The second instance, however, is a situation where I had to go to the rent board to resolve a matter, even though the tedious process already set me back two months as that is the time period they gave to me to deal with the matter. So if you are unable to afford to be without the income for two months, then you will lose your property before the rent board deals with it.

After waiting for the two months, though (trying to follow the rules) I get a call the day before the matter is to be dealt with, saying it has to be delayed because the person handling the matter was unavailable, and I would be advised to select another date. After a few days I called to complain about the situation and eventually had to report it to the parent ministry (Transport). I then received a call the day after for a hearing to be set, which date was inconvenient, but then again I had to seek a remedy outside of the rent board, as I might have grown too old waiting on them.

The question, therefore, is what is the purpose of the rent board, as they were supposed to have made the process easier, but only succeeded in supporting the violation of the rights of a property owner, ensured that the Government loses tax revenue because no income is collected during the period, and maybe their delay has caused others to lose their property, and has caused rental costs to be more expensive for future renters as one will now have to demand enough security deposit to compensate for the delay of the rent board.

So, while the government is pressing ahead with the reform agenda in many respects, there are other forces pulling in the other direction.

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