Friday, April 24, 2015

What does economic and social change look like?

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PERHAPS the question I get asked most frequently is about the economy and the prospects for it. One of the things I hate the most is when people engage you on the economy and ask about the prospects, but then don't give you a chance to answer and then go on to curse everyone who is living and dead, about the difficulties in the economy. They then go into the history of our economic mismanagement and then naturally their argument progresses to placing blame on one political party or another. All of this before I have answered the question, which always leads me to wonder why they don't call a talk show to vent rather than ask the question.

Many times, however, people will have doubts about where the economy is going, and whether we are seeing any benefits from the economic programme, as admittedly things are not easy. I will be the first to admit that the past few years, since 2009, have been very challenging for some businesses and individuals.

So when I say to them that I am optimistic about the changes being made and where I see the economy going, they are surprised. Some even go as far as to say that when analysts like us speak that way, we are being spin doctors for the government. However, when we say things are not going well, under both administrations, they cheer you on. It seems they just want to hear bad news all the time. I can only imagine how such an attitude affects one's perspective.

Hope

The truth, however, is that we need to develop the ability to recognise when there is hope and when there is not. That ability helps make a successful entrepreneur, one who might be having a difficult time in their business but can still see the forest and not just the trees.

Not everyone has this ability, but what everyone can do is try to develop an open mind to see other people's reasoning. It is this tolerance of opposing views that enables us to develop our own thoughts.

The question to be answered is: are we making progress under the current economic programme? My view is yes we are, and, as I have said many times before, this time we stand a better chance than under prior IMF programmes.

Why do I think so? Because for the first time we are making necessary legislative changes to accompany the fiscal changes. And, as various analysts have said many times in the past, the only way any fiscal or economic reform can work is if it is accompanied by structural changes. The legislative agenda has provided the opportunity to change the structural environment to create a more competitive economy. So I don't think that anyone would disagree that this programme includes the much needed structural reforms.

There is also no doubt that the economic environment is getting more competitive and more challenging for many businesses and individuals. The reason for this is that as a country we were used to operating in an economy with less competitiveness, with many people and businesses benefiting from contacts and government welfare. When those avenues lessened it inevitably became a more challenging environment.

The role of bodies like the PSOJ is to help with that transition to a more competitive economy, where the playing field is level for all and the bureaucracy and societal conditions do not stand in the way of innovation or economic activity.

Recognising positive change

What we must ensure, however, is that while we acknowledge the difficulties, and the things that still need to be improved, we must also be able to recognise when positive changes are happening and the direction we are moving in. In other words, how do we recognise when an economy is positively transforming even while challenges are there. For example, in the two years after 2008, the US economy was still going through significant challenges, and the instinctive reaction globally was to move to austerity measures as Europe did. But the US administration, however, stuck to its guns, even in the face of opposition, and the end result is that the US economy is now the locomotive of the recovery.

It is also going to be very important for us not to prevent our own development, in the face of the immediate challenges, by deviating from the path we are on. Many times in the past we have embarked on fiscal and economic reform programmes, and at the first sign of difficulties we start running fiscal deficits and restart the process of decline all over again. This is how we have ended up where we are today.

I recognise the difficulties we face but all the indicators are showing me that we are on the right path. These include (i) much lower inflation and interest rates, with the difference between US$ and J$ interest rates much reduced; (ii) reducing balance of payments deficit; (iii) a more stable exchange rate; (iv) near zero fiscal balances; and (v) increasing business and consumer confidence.

But even with this, we must still recognise the challenges we have and must address. These include bureaucracy, crime, and governance. What we must do is address these challenges constructively, deliberately, and together. In other words, let us criticise each other, as this is good for progress, but let us do so rationally and constructively.

So what we must be able to do is understand that any transformation, including economic and social, to a better model, will always cause dislocation. What we must do though is forge ahead with any plan we have properly thought out, and be able to see the long-term outcome while at the same time dealing with the challenges that occur on the way to that desired outcome.

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