Speech by Ravi Suryadevara – Economic Outlook Forum 2017



ECONOMIC OUTLOOK 2017 – 19/01/2017



Good Morning Ladies and Gentlemen.

We once again approached this New Year with the mixed feelings of trepidation and hope, very much akin to how 2016 started. With continued global market fluctuations, Brexit, the rise and subsequent election of Donald Trump as the President of the United States, the major lesson of 2016 is that there is the certainty of uncertainty ahead.  Such is the message emanating from the current World Economic Forum (WEF) Annual Meeting in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland.

For over the last four decades, the World Economic Forum (WEF) has been performing its mission of improving the state of the world, as the International Organization for Public-Private Cooperation by engaging societal, business, and political leaders in shaping a multitude of agendas.  The message this year is very clear.  The temptation of nativism, protectionism, and populism, fueled by growing income disparity globally, need to be fought now with a sense of urgency.  The middle-class that forms the base of most progressive societies is under threat.

The global threats have changed significantly. Of 750 experts surveyed by WEF, the economic risks dominated 2008 to 2010, such as an oil and gas price spike and asset price collapse.  Income disparity risk dominated 2011 to 2014, which is widely believed to have led to the current wave of populism globally, as reiterated by the Christine LaGarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Now, environmental and societal threats dominate.  For 2017, the biggest global risks as identified by the WEF are:

  1. Extreme weather
  2. Involuntary Migration
  3. Major Natural catastrophe
  4. Large Terrorist attacks
  5. Massive data fraud/theft

Whilst the world marches on, one gets the uncomfortable feeling that Trinidad and Tobago is not keeping pace.  As countries adopt treaties, alliances, and agreements, both individually and collectively, those international commitments have to be translated into domestic law.  Hence, one major reason for the importance of the legislative agenda and concomitantly our selection of the Honourable Attorney General, Farris Al Rawi as the feature speaker this morning.

We learned that the views of those who speak the loudest, are not necessarily the views of everyone, and most importantly we learned that above everything else people want to be heard.  As we execute the legislative agenda we must be mindful of a vigorous process that is as wide as possible to capture the various stakeholders and perspectives that exist in our plural society.  We must not cower from the responsibility of a process that captures that plurality of our society.  However, when representing the plurality of views we must not cower from being responsible.

This year the American Chamber of Commerce of Trinidad & Tobago is celebrating its 25th Anniversary, 25 years of vigorous and responsible national engagement. At this stage in our organisational life we fully embrace our role as the Pathway to the Americas, to provide outward connections and reach when we are so inwardly focused. In this role, we recognise that to truly be of service to our members and our nation, we must not only lead but we must listen. This is why we continually encourage our members to come to us and discuss their issues and challenges. We also continue to engage with the Government of Trinidad & Tobago and other state agencies with the intention of positively contributing to the national agenda, such as this morning. It is through these discussions we continue to speak out on issues that not only will have a positive impact on the way we do business but also the quality of life for all in Trinidad & Tobago.

As The Pathway to the Americas, we will continue to advocate for policies and reform in areas that will increase economic growth.   For us, economic growth is not just a figure reflected in the GDP; growth must be a national philosophy, as the primary poverty alleviation tool. There must be a real focus on creating an environment of opportunity, the efficient provision of the necessary services, and income for all, not just a select few.  It is about security and safety.

We believe that for this growth to manifest, we must realise our power to choose.  The power to choose people over politics.  The power to make short term sacrifices for long term prosperity.  We can choose policies that will spread these sacrifices across the board, so that one portion of the society does not feel excessively burdened.  Growth must not be an option, but must be viewed as the only answer for a more just and prosperous society.  Based on our interaction with our members and different groups we believe that the two areas affecting growth that need particular urgent attention are trade and legislative reform.

We would like to urge the Government of Trinidad and Tobago, the members of the Opposition and all stakeholders that have the power to make decisions to consider this.  After all, from our research, only 10 bills were assented and became Acts last year.   The rate of legislative change domestically has to be tethered to and greater than the global rate of change for us to positively affect the lives of our citizens, not just as citizens of Trinidad & Tobago, but as global citizens.

We also appreciate that much of the change we seek cannot take place without a change in legislation. This brings me to what feels like a thorn in the side of businesses. The slow-pace, at which legislative reform takes place, leaves much to be desired. Job creators and foreign investors face excessive impediments to doing business in Trinidad & Tobago.  Regardless of the political rhetoric, we now realise that our leaders show their priorities, not by what they say, but how they vote in Parliament.

AMCHAM T&T believes that there are some key legislation and policies that would improve our business environment once implemented. We need to operationalise the Procurement legislation, to ensure that there is accountability and rationalisation of Government spending.  I am hopeful that the Attorney General can shed some light on what has been to date largely opaque modality by Government in the operationalization process for this piece of landmark and systemic change legislation.  I draw reference back to my earlier comments on process and inclusion.

If we are to get serious about international trade, we also need to show we are serious about curbing white collar crime. Careful consideration and support for the passage of all Anti-Money Laundering and Counter Terrorism Financing legislation is necessary for this to occur. We must increase and build on existing capacity to detect and prosecute fraud in both the public and private sectors.

A policy that promotes the use of alternate technology based channels for the delivery of Government services is also critical. We must provide for a seamless and integrated single electronic window would ease the administrative burden and improve efficiency in key areas such as customs and tax administration.

Looking beyond our shores I also believe that we need to think about how we can fully utilise the Strategic Engagement Act. The act was passed in the Senate in December, 2016.  It seeks to increase engagement with the governments of the Caribbean, the Caribbean diaspora community in the United States and the private sector civil society in both the U.S. and the Caribbean.  This allows for an evaluation of the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) and a breakdown of CBSI assistance provided to each country; and an evaluation of U.S. diplomatic engagement with the Eastern Caribbean. The United States still remains our biggest trading partner and despite the uncertainty of the priorities of the new President, we need to continue to align ourselves with the right people so we can be well prepared for any opportunity that presents itself.

AMCHAM T&T continues to advocate for the best interest of Trinidad & Tobago through our involvement in AACCLA. In early February we will be meeting with our AACCLA counter parts in Miami, where the theme of the meeting is “Outlook on the Americas”.  We believe that this involvement gives AMCHAM T&T to offer what no other chamber in Trinidad & Tobago can offer.  That is the ear of one of the biggest trade organizations in the world, the US Chamber of Commerce.  This will be closely followed by the mid-year meeting in Nicaragua for the Business Future of the Americas Conference, for which we are also leading a trade mission.

One issue that has had our attention for the last three years at least is that of PETROTRIN.   PETROTRIN has been a source of concern and AMCHAM T&T has included these issues as a part of our annual budget submission for several years and with the various Governments in office at that time. Governments have offered many solutions but these have either brought no resolution or not implemented. Mismanagement and inefficiency have continued to be a perennial problem for this state enterprise. With aging infrastructure and machinery, rising management costs, and a track record for delayed and unfinished projects with huge cost overruns. In his recent address to the nation, the Honourable Prime Minister sought to explain the predicament in which PETROTRIN has found itself. Last year, at our 20th Annual Health, Safety, Security and Health Conference we had Fitzroy Harewood, president of PETROTRIN candidly speak to the challenges facing the company.  Time and time again we have advocated that Government seek to ensure viability of PETROTRIN by rationalizing its cost base and operational inefficiencies. AMCHAM T&T remains concerned about PETROTRIN’s significant debt obligations, with US$850M coming due in 2019.  We understand that these and other critical challenges now occupy PETROTRIN’s leadership’s attention and look forward to the outcome of on-going discussions.

As a country we understand that there is an urgent need to look beyond our borders and into the Americas for trade. To do that we need to we facilitate a culture of trade and export. We must find the best way to make full use of the current trade agreements as well as aggressively look to increase our trading relationship with all of Latin America. This must be fostered at every level of our economy. The late Prime Minister, Dr. Eric Williams stated that “the future of our nation is in our children’s book bags” however, are our schools equipping students with the necessary skills that will prepare them for the job market that will exist in five to ten years? Or are we preparing them for jobs that may not even exist two years from now? It is this reason we have chosen the theme “Re-Engineering Education” as our theme for AMCHAM T&T’s National Youth Productivity Forum. The program now in its eight year will allow students to critically access the education system and determine if it needs to be re-engineered to keep up with the modern world. This we believe is critical for the realisation of future growth. If we do not address this, we are perpetuating a system where there will always be a subset of people that will become dependent on social intervention, not so much for their lack of trying to get ahead but the lack of structural and educational foresight of the leaders.

We cannot speak to trade without touching on the challenges that continue exist with the foreign exchange shortage, especially as we continue to grapple with reduced revenues and the US dollar continues to strengthen. The shortage in foreign exchange, which has now spread to other currencies such as Canadian and The British Pound, continues to negatively affect business and prospects of growth for small, medium and large businesses. In December, it was reported that The Bank of Guyana “temporarily” stopped purchase of Trinidad and Tobago and Barbados currency, in a bid to stabilise their foreign currency market. They realised that individuals from these two countries were coming to Guyana to purchase United States currency and in the process flooding their local market. This alone illustrates the lengths to which business owners and individuals are willing to go to ensure that they have adequate stock piles to pay their bills and keep their companies in good standing with international creditors. While many may think that the solution may be to advocate for the Central Bank to release more foreign exchange into the system, we believe that is a temporary solution. Injections as we have seen in the past are used up quite quickly. The bigger issue to consider is if we use without replenishing our reserves it will eventually leave us in a greater crisis than before. We need to focus on ways to bring foreign currency into the system. This can only be done through increased international trade.

While all businesses are being affected, it is the small businesses owners that are most vulnerable. We all know that it is the small businesses are the backbone of any economy, and they are the ones that often lead the charge when it comes to diversification and innovation. So again I ask the question: Are we adding strength to our backbone or are we adding strain to the very thing that holds together much of the fabric of our economy?  We need to take preventative and proactive measures in place to propel us into long term and sustainable prosperity.

We need to focus our energies on finding feasible solutions that can be implemented in the shortest possible time and in the best way. In times like these we need leaders who have the courage to make the tough decisions. Decisions that may not necessarily be in favour with everyone. It requires leaders with the foresight to know that if these decisions are not made, it will mean a greater burden to us all in the future. With the economic environment being as uncertain as it is we cannot afford to leave our future to chance, to the certainty of the precariousness we face.

AMCHAM T&T has and continues to show our commitment to free trade, economic policies that make sense both in the short and long term, and facilitating an environment that makes it easy to do business.