Friday, May 15, 2015

Long-term view to solutions necessary


Recently, I said to someone that one of the challenges we have as a country is that we are too focused on immediate gratification, and not on the long-term effects of our actions. As a consequence we react to what people, or the media say, and throw out our long-term, well-thought-out plan in order to conform with the popular opinion of the moment, or to prevent the public saying anything negative about us.

This is not only a fault with our politics, but in many instances occurs in private companies also. Managers will often listen to the office talk and act based on that, rather than properly investigating and applying an objective process to finding a solution.

So, as I said to the person, it is not the best thing to manage your affairs based on what is being said, but rather manage based on whatever well-thought-out plan and long term objective you have, and ensure that you apply the right principles. You might not be "popular" in the immediate term, but that is only important if you are in a beauty contest. One of the primary responsibilities of being a leader or professional, is to always do what is right even in the face of being unpopular.

Economic climate

At the current time there is much debate about what are the right economic and fiscal policies to pursue, as there is no doubt that the economic climate is difficult for many in the labour force and some businesses. It seems paradoxical that many in the business community, buoyed by the business and consumer confidence numbers, are saying that the programme is going well and they see improvements, expecting a better economy. While there are others, and rightly so, who question the path we are on because it has become very difficult for them. Included amongst them are many well-qualified professionals.

I don't doubt that, as I have seen and heard about such situations. And I empathise with them, as there has been a significant change in the economic environment.

What we must not do, however, is bring about any radical change that will affect the long-term viability of our plan. I have seen many times in the past where at the first sign of criticism we falter and throw out all the accomplishments we have achieved. This is what leads to the view by many that new governments abandon all the good programmes and policies that are in place because of politics.

But, as I said, this is not unique to the country's governance, but also private sector companies which may have the wrong leadership; because I have found that when it comes to success, leadership is first, second, and third.

Great business leaders

And I know what it is like to come under severe criticism by people who either can't see the long-term vision, or those with different agendas. I have also had the experience of working with some great leaders, who have always looked at the bigger picture and don't worry too much about the immediate criticism.

Two such people, whom I worked very closely with on the Air Jamaica divestment, were Dennis Lalor and Don Wehby. I remember during that process that there was severe criticism from many, including comments also that we were securing financial reward for ourselves from the transaction. The irony of it is that none of the directors even received the normal stipend, and in many instances the bills were taken care of by Lalor.

In the face of the criticisms, however, these gentlemen would say to me that we have a job to do and we have to think about the long-term objective. Is it any wonder that both GraceKennedy and ICWI are very successful companies that have been around for a very long time.

I remember also when I was on the board on the Betting, Gaming and Lotteries Commission, and being much younger then I received a very important lesson from the chairman at the time, Gordon Robinson, who said to us that irrespective of what people say out there we will do the right thing -- even if it means that we will eat bun and cheese for the rest of our lives.

The fact is that credibility does not come from being popular. It comes from doing the right thing all the time.

This doesn't mean that as you go along the journey you don't make adjustments. In fact, having the flexibility to make adjustments is very important. Richard Byles always says that the economic programme is like driving to MoBay. You may change your speed or may get a flat along the way and have to fix it, but you should never forget that you are still driving to MoBay.

So we are at a critical juncture of the economic programme, and the change in the economic competitiveness, and reduction in government programmes is taking a toll. And I think we need to make adjustments where necessary but we should not make any decision that will cause us to be thrown off the long-term objectives. Any action that causes that will only lead to even greater hardship, as has happened in this country over the past 40 years.

What it will require is strong and visionary leadership. Leadership that must be able to communicate effectively -- not only what we are doing -- but the long-term objective and path to get there. Leadership that can sell this vision to the country so that they also are fully engaged.

One of the things I have always warned against, which we must not be tempted to do, is to install taxes as a short-term gap for the fiscal accounts while hurting the long-term objectives. I have seen us do that too many times, which ends up causing even greater fiscal challenges.

As citizens we also have a responsibility to engage constructively with the government. Criticism and disagreement is good but it must be done in a constructive and respectful manner, while in the long run doing what's necessary to achieve our objectives.

Friday, May 08, 2015

Public sector wage dilemma


One of the issues that has to be resolved, as we move forward with our economic programme, is the matter of public sector wages. Over the past three years, the workers have accepted a wage freeze.

Over this period the exchange rate has moved from approximately J$88:US$1 to over J$115:US$1. Also, inflation would have totaled approximately 30 per cent, which means that public sector wages would have been significantly reduced in real terms. What this means is that public sector workers would have seen a decline in living standards. This is not exclusive to the public sector, as private sector workers have not only faced wage freezes, but also job losses.

This sacrifice by the public sector workers has contributed positively to the the fiscal accounts. Over that period we have successfully completed eight quarterly IMF tests and, more importantly, the fiscal deficit balance has been significantly reduced to near balance. This has resulted in lower inflation rates, lower interest rates, increased business confidence, reducing debt to GDP ratio, and significant slowdown in the depreciation of the exchange rate.

Indicators point up

These numbers are significant, because for the first time that I can recall all indicators are moving in the right direction all at the same time. Previously we would have a combination of either (1) stable exchange rate, high inflation, high interest rates, and deteriorating debt to GDP ratio; (2) devaluation, high inflation, lower interest rates, and deteriorating debt to GDP ratio; or (3) all indicators worsening.

Another positive effect of reducing real wages has been the improvement in the balance of payments, as a result of reduced imports, caused by reduced demand.

One can therefore sympathise with the public sector workers, as significant sacrifice has been made resulting in lower living standards. The other challenge that public sector workers would face is that because of a lack of emphasis on performance compensation, persons who add greater value and go the extra mile still get the same compensation as someone in a similar pay grade who is much less productive. In the private sector this productivity is considered in compensation, for example incentive payments.

The March 2015 fiscal quarter shows that although the more important primary surplus percent target has been met, the amount was some $4 billion less than target. The implication being compressed expenditure, especially on infrastructure, in order to meet targets. This also means that in order to meet our targets at this time, the greater reliance is on expenditure management rather than revenues.

This news comes at a time when the public sector is negotiating for a wage increase and is demanding up to 15 per cent each year for the next two fiscal years. At the same time, the Government is correctly advising that this would threaten the fiscal targets and could result in us jeopardising future IMF tests.

The dilemna

The dilemma is: Do the workers have an argument for double digit increases, or is the Government correct in saying that more than 5.0 per cent would jeopardise the future targets? In the past, for example, when faced with pressure from the public sector unions, the Government would provide the increases demanded and then we'd start the whole process all over again, which is why 53 years after independence we are still in an economic quagmire.

My own view when the budget was presented is that an increase of between four and eight per cent was to be expected. This is simply because any amounts above that would jeopardise the fiscal and economic programme. Too high an increase would (i) eliminate any capital expenditure on infrastructure; and/or (ii) cause a lower primary surplus and higher deficit.

It is for this reason that the best option may be for public sector workers to compromise with the Government's position this fiscal year. This is because any increase that causes us to regress in the fiscal accounts will result in only very short-term benefits, but within a year that would be followed by higher inflation, increased debt, and greater devaluation. In very short order purchasing power would quickly be eroded. In fact, I think any misalignment now may cause even greater hardships than before.

This doesn't mean that public sector workers should continue to sacrifice indefinitely, and what I would do, if I were the union, is get a commitment from the Government that accepting the proposed increase in this fiscal year means that certain things will be put in place to ensure growth, and hence improved tax revenues.

One of the things that has resulted in this impasse, as well as the difficulty faced by public sector workers, is the failure of administrations over the years to adequately address public sector transformation. The focus of course is not on job cuts, but rather transforming the public sector into a much more productive unit, which will facilitate private sector productivity. This will of course result in greater revenues for the fiscal accounts. Bear in mind that a part of this also is to ensure that there is greater emphasis on tax compliance by persons outside of the net.

It is clear to me that any sustainable solution to public sector wages, for the benefit of both the workers and the fiscal accounts, can only happen if there is greater public sector productivity and workers are compensated based on their value added, rather than just seniority.

So I will end with what I also said when the first set of wage freezes started (I think in 2007). Wage freezes are not a sustainable solution to the fiscal accounts and will only delay the inevitable and during that time cause unnecessary suffering. If we want to see better circumstances for public sector workers and the fiscal accounts then public sector transformation must happen.

It is our failure to do this that has once again resulted in the public sector workers seeing declining real wages without any permanent solution to the fiscal accounts.