Today the transition committee appointed by Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley to come up with plans on how T&T will navigate the severe economic contraction brought on by the fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic will present their initial report to the government.
As far as we know the committee was subsequently broken up into smaller sub-committees and is expected to guide government on two things, how to avoid a total meltdown of the T&T economy and how to ensure that the country moves forward on a more sustainable and resilient path.
The situation could not be more grave as the Finance Minister revealed to the Parliament that the country was running perhaps its largest ever budgetary deficit and would have to both borrow heavily and also access its savings by drawing down on the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund.
Finance Minister Colm Imbert told the Parliament on Monday that there has been a 35 per cent decline in natural gas prices since September 2019, as result of weak demand, restarting of nuclear power plants in Japan and sharp increase in the availability of LNG from non-traditional exporters.
Added to this the Finance Minister spoke of an unprecedented collapse of oil prices over the last three months, caused initially by a price war between Russia and Saudi Arabia, which drastically reduced the price of oil from US$60 a barrel in January to US$30 a barrel in March and then, the global economic shutdown resulting from COVID-19, which so depressed the demand for oil that last week the May futures price for West Texas Intermediate (WTI) oil dropped to US 1 cent per barrel and then turned negative for the first time in history.
Imbert noted that the IMF’s baseline scenario,which assumes that the pandemic fades in the second half of 2020 and containment efforts can be gradually unwound will lead to the global economy growing by 5.8 per cent in 2021 as economic activity normalises, helped by policy support.
But the Finance Minister acknowledged that these projections were highly unreliable because no one really knows how the world is going to get out of this situation and what may be an acceptable level of risk, death, pain that will allow the world’s economy to return to a level of normalcy.
It is true there will be pent-up demand but there will also be significant uncertainty that will make people more careful in the way they spend their money.
According to the Minister of Finance the impact of low energy prices and lower than anticipated receipts has now caused the rise of the country’s fiscal deficit for fiscal 2020 from an estimated $5.3 billion to expand to $15.5 billion, $10.2 billion higher than was envisaged in our FY 2020 Budget.
In calculating this revised deficit Imbert said he estimate a loss of $3.8 billion in taxes on incomes and profits, and losses of $750 million in Business Levy and Green Fund Levy, $600 million in taxes on goods and services and international trade, $2.5 billion in royalties and production sharing and $1.2 billion in profits from state enterprises, among other areas.
Accordingly to the Finance Minister the government has taken note of the fact that the collapse of the price of WTI oil to US 1 cent per barrel last week is having an adverse effect on other oil prices. For example, Brent oil, which is closer in price to our local crude than WTI, has dropped to US$20. Such low prices were previously undreamt of.
Notwithstanding the forecasts of the USEIA and WEO of oil in the $30 range and gas in the US$2.10 range for the rest of 2020, government’s latest revenue projections, are based on US$25 per barrel for oil for the rest of the year and US$1.80 per MMBTU for natural gas. This results in a projected loss of revenue in fiscal 2020 of US$9.2 billion, to which must be added another net US$1 billion in extraordinary expenditure, Imbert explained.
Imbert’s numbers clearly show that as a country we are in trouble and we will only dig ourselves out of this hole by discipline, hard work and smart decision making.
Rowley has appointed two former Finance Ministers to his team. To me that decision was a wise one because Winston Dookeran was Minister of Planning in one of the most challenging period in the country’s history and along with his colleagues took the hard decisions needed to stabilise the economy and walk us through an IMF standby arrangement.
Those were difficult times and at that time I had just started secondary school and you learn later on in life how much you are protected from these difficult moments. But I remember well the impact it had on families as they suffered pay cuts if you were lucky and job loss if you were not so lucky. Mr Dookeran should have some wisdom on this matter even though the economy is changed from a complete reliance on oil to a reliance on gas and oil with some financial services and manufacturing thrown in for good measure.
Secondly, Wendell Mottley who became Finance Minister while the country was still in recession and took tough measures is also a trump card for the country. When he exited as Minister of Finance he was credited for continuing the transformation of the economy, its liberalisation and left it growing. A growth that continued uninterrupted for 13 years.
The committee is also populated with people who are well known for their competence in various fields and I have no doubt they will make sound recommendations to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet. Where I worry is whether Dr Rowley, or whoever becomes Prime Minister after this year’s general election, will implement the advice or at least implement the workable ones.
It is hard not be cynical in a country which has a history for reports lying on shelves, which allowed the hard work of some of the country’s best minds on the Vision 2020 committee to go to waste as we were more concerned about political expediency.
I said last week we are all to blame for this lack of diversification, for this lack of will to implement, for this constant rum shop talk and for us being afraid to make big decisions.
There is no reason, other than a lack of will, that we are not a more resilient country. It is this sense that a good time is all that matters and the willingness to put issues of tribe and politics ahead of good sense that our capital city still floods every time it rains. The iconic picture of the late Jean Pierre wading through mud and slush after a sitting of the Parliament as she tried to get to her constituents during the great flood of Port-of-Spain should not be forgotten.
We have to hold our leaders to account and to ensure that we are not part of the problem by not ensuring this is a real democracy and a real country.
It is not good enough to tell us that we need more tests before a decision can be made to re-open but no real explanation why it took so long to get the tests going.
We need to safely get this country going again, more than that we need not to reinvent the wheel bur rather to get the economy rolling.