Friday, November 27, 2015

Requirements for sustainable growth

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The Planning Institute of Jamaica has reported good news that the economy is estimated to have grown by 1.5 per cent for the July to September 2015 quarter. Of note is that the goods sector has grown 4.4 per cent, with manufacturing up 9.7 per cent and agriculture up 3.3 per cent. At the same time the services sector grew 0.6 per cent, with all services growing with the exception of producers of government services, which declined by 0.2 per cent.

This performance is not unexpected, as the fiscal and legislative adjustments have had a positive impact on the macroeconomic environment, as well as the business environment. Certainly over the past year we have been seeing improved investor and consumer confidence, along with increased investments by large companies.

While we celebrate this return to growth, it is important that we set about ensuring that growth is not only higher, but also sustainable. It will therefore require an understanding of what the challenges are to sustainable growth and what must be done to fix them.

It is important to understand this, as in the past we have seen bouts of growth of around three per cent, only to slip back under one per cent, because of structural issues in the economy. The fact is that the fiscal and legislative reforms being undertaken have gone a far way to break down many of the structural issues. If we are going to have real and sustainable development it will be through deliberate policy actions.

Risk of uneven growth

The risk we run of course is that we will have growth, but that it will not be distributed evenly. In other words, the economy can grow but a significant part of the population cannot see any benefit. This is the situation we see in Haiti, for example, as growth in an economy does not necessarily translate into better income levels generally.

So, even as the economy grows, the gains can be restricted to a certain part of the population. This is a situation that we do not want to see, but we are at risk of seeing. This is because the main risk we face to sustainable economic and social development is the current state of our labour market. This is reflected in the low labour productivity numbers.

This means that even though we may see a decline in unemployment, it will primarily be with low paying jobs and it will be difficult (though not impossible) for the 100,000 jobs projected by the minister of finance to be realised.

If, however, we embark on a programme of training (eg through HEART) and labour market reform, then we can certainly see more than 100,000 jobs being created even before five years. The reason why this intervention is important is that a significant part of the labour market is not adequately trained for the more productive and higher paying jobs, and in many respects our labour market is still dependent on menial jobs.

Labour market reform will of course be necessary to attract even more long-term investors and also to promote labour productivity.

Shifting to SME growth

Secondly, sustainable growth will require a vibrant SME sector, and this means improving the ease of doing business on the ground and not just the legislative framework.

This is why although the Doing Business Report 2016 shows us moving up seven places, the Global Competitiveness report 2015-16 shows a slight decline effectively. What this means is that for us to develop a vibrant SME sector, deliberate policies must be aimed at reducing red tape and also providing a friendly legislative framework and customer service approach to facilitate the business environment.

Much improvement has already been done (and this is why confidence has been improving) but, to be globally competitive, much more needs to be done.

One of the very important things I mention all the time is a predictable environment for doing business. So even though many legislative improvements have been made, business people still have to consider that next year the finance minister could go to Parliament and impose a new tax, which is an additional cost to doing business. Or a bureaucrat could destroy their business by targeting them for audits or causing unnecessary costs from bureaucratic processes without any accountability.

I finally want to mention that sustainable growth is also very much about creating a safe and disciplined environment in which people will want to raise their families. In other words, the most stable environment for a person's family (in particular, children) will be where that business person's money finally comes to rest.

It is important to understand this point, as over the years we have seen where many people have made money through their business in Jamaica and shipped it out to other countries (namely North America), where they send their families to reside for fear of the crime rate or the general lack of discipline in the country.

So my message would be that, while we should celebrate the 1.5 per cent growth rate, we should be mindful that:

(1) if the proper infrastructure was in place we would be talking about growth of maybe three per cent, as the drought alone cost us one per cent of GDP;

(2) it is important to create an environment where we will have sustainable growth and not just acceptable growth for one or two quarters. My own view is that we are on the path to doing this, but we are still at a very delicate stage and any incorrect policy action can reverse these benefits;

(3) we must create a workforce that is equipped with the skills necessary to be more productive, and hence earn more income.

In other words, for sustainable growth to happen, we must reduce our reliance on large-scale projects and FDIs mainly, to instead concentrate on a vibrant SME market and internal investors.

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