Economic Outlook Forum 2018 - President's Speech

Economic Outlook Forum 2018

President's Opening Remarks 

All protocols observed, Good Morning.

It is both a pleasure and a privilege to be here this morning to address you; a pleasure because every opportunity to engage with the membership and wider Trinidad and Tobago is always welcomed and a privilege as today we bring to you some of our country’s most prominent thought leaders, whose views I am sure you are anxious to hear. That said, please permit me the indulgence of your time, as I attempt to put into context why we are here and our desired outcomes.

Put simply, this event aligns with our emphasis on more meaningful engagement, AMCHAM T&T firmly believes that it is only by encouraging dialogue and creating appropriate forums for views to be articulated, shared, and challenged that we will realize many of the objectives that we set ourselves as a country. That said, the burning question is what are those objectives or more importantly what should those objectives be and why? I dare say that many of us in this room may not be entirely clear on the current policy agenda and if and how that agenda will lead to:

1. Improved fiscal discipline and accountability

2. Economic growth and diversification of our revenue base

3. A curtailment of crime and criminality in all forms

That list can go on, but I believe those three areas, broadly speaking, are representative of some of our most pressing concerns, which hitherto have not been addressed either as frontally as we would like, or perhaps in a manner that does not align with our expectations.

On the issue of improved fiscal discipline, in his latest address to the Nation, the Prime Minister rightfully highlighted the tremendous strides that his administration has made in reducing expenditure from approximately $60Bln to approximately $50Bln, a significant achievement to say the least. 

What we have not heard in the debate thus far and pardon me if I have missed it, are details on measures we are putting in place to prevent a reoccurrence of what I would like to term exuberance in planned expenditure. As our recently appointed Director, Bruce Mc Kenzie highlighted in our post-budget event, we have a tendency to significantly increase planned expenditure as planned revenue increases. Emphasis on the word planned, especially in relation to revenue. A pattern that AMCHAM T&T firmly believes cannot continue. What we need are fiscal rules, which will impose a discipline on us that has been prescribed by the IMF for Jamaica and Grenada and possibly others, but which at this juncture may be appropriately designed by us to meet our unique circumstances. Let’s not await the prescription but take decisive steps now. This is an area that my former colleague and one of today’s panelists Marla has been long advocating for and I am certain she will have a thing or two to say on this topic.

I am sure all panelists will have views on diversification and each may have a unique and insightful perspective, one possibly more than the others. 

Clearly, the need to diversify is self-evident and the questions of what, the scale of those initiatives, and whether or not they can augment and or overtake our current main contributor to the national purse are complex and require careful consideration and deliberate measurable actions. It is certainly not my expectation that our economy will be meaningfully diversified in the short to medium term, but it is not unreasonable to advocate that steps be taken today toward that outcome. This is where we, the private sector, need to be decisive and lead the State into the areas that we view as having the potential to shift our revenue base. The recent announcement of a Prime Ministerial appointed committee to act as an interface between the Government and Private sector to presumably achieve that outcome is interesting. Not wanting to be provocative or skeptical, but somehow that initiative feels and sounds as though there is some overlap between it and another that was constituted at the start of this Administration’s term. Let me be clear, AMCHAM T&T supports all meaningful initiatives that are designed to spur and encourage actions that will improve our current situation and outlook, but we are somewhat guarded when announcements are made with limited details provided.

While Ravi will speak more about this in his presentation, I feel compelled to make the point that anti-business language from policymakers, an unpredictable legislative and tax environment, and unnecessary bureaucracy all make it more unlikely that capital will be deployed in T&T in the midst of a recession. Our hope is that in 2018, the economy further stabilizes, that there is more cooperation between Government and Opposition, and that there is more meaningful engagement among Civil Society, Government, Labour, and Business on key national issues.

Immediately action is needed to pass anti-gang legislation, cybercrime legislation, legislation to bring us in compliance with our AML /CTF obligations, and e-payment legislation, to highlight but a few. There is likely consensus that far too many of our laws are outdated. We need a modern legislative framework – laws that are relevant in the 21st Century – to enable a competitive economy. Our Parliament must do more. For that to happen, we need to see more bi-partisanship. Our country is at a crucial juncture. Our leaders must rise to the challenge.

Turning to my third highlighted issue; much has been said about crime and criminality with a decided focus on prosecutions, arrests, and detention. As we all know, these deal and treat with the symptoms of crime but fail to address the root cause. Faster detection, swifter prosecution, and greater visibility of law enforcement and regulators alike are essential yes, but a thorough analysis of what gives rise to these issues is what is needed, and again the recognition that the benefits of the actions we take today will not be immediate, rather gradual at first and increasingly impactful with the passage of time. 

Allow me to emphasize the point on regulatory visibility and enforcement, I think we would all agree that there is a correlation between white-collar and violent crime, yet on a relative basis our detection and prosecution of the former appear to significantly lag the latter. All too often the Private Sector’s commentary on criminality is perceived to be skewed toward violent crime, while that may not necessarily be the case it is a perception that for some this is a reality. We must change that perception and be equally vociferous about all forms of illegal activity and in so doing share our burden of the blame and shoulder the responsibility for developing solutions by giving generously of our time and talent, something that far too few of us have done. The Private Sector’s efforts in getting procurement legislation passed and a board and regulator appointed are apt examples of what we can achieve if our efforts are focused. We must be willing to give the same level of sustained commitment and sacrifice in matters such as the Revenue Authority and other critical areas that will ultimately allow for the creation of a more just, equitable and safe society. 

In conclusion, my hope for today’s event is twofold. Firstly, we leave you with a more informed perspective of our economic reality and secondly, we all recognize that it is only through meaningful engagement and commitment that we will return our country to prosperity.

Thank you, ladies and gentlemen.

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