Whichever political party wins the Tobago House of Assembly (THA) election on December 6 is likely to inherit a Tobago that is facing significant economic challenges.
Moody’s Investor Service in its latest credit opinion dated September 13, has given the THA a negative rating outlook and long term rating of Ba1.
Limited economic diversification, very low own-source revenue, and weaknesses in reporting of financial statements have been identified by Moody’s in that report as challenges to the THA’s credit profile over the medium to long term.
In 2012 the THA took the decision to obtain a stand-alone credit rating.
The THA was the first such “sub-sovereign” rating to be issued in the English-speaking Caribbean.
“THA’s very low own-source revenues are a product of both its limited revenue-raising authority, as well as its limited economic base, with more than half of the island’s labour force being employed in the public sector. This results in own-source revenues that averaged 1.2 per cent of operating revenue during 2016-2020 and that equalled 0.9 per cent in 2020. THA’s low own-source revenue limit its financial flexibility and leave it highly dependent on transfers from the central government.
“This limited base of own-source revenue restricts THA’s capacity to fund long-term capital projects and social programs on its own, but also contributes to revenue stability in periods of stress,” Moody’s stated.
The most recent labour market data from the Central Statistical Office (CSO) indicated that in the second quarter of 2018, approximately 60 per cent of persons with jobs in Tobago were employed in the state sector, with the private sector employing approximately 40 per cent.
“The services sector is the largest and the most dominant sector in Tobago’s economy. Government activity accounts for the largest share of the economy, representing 45.7 per cent of Tobago’s GDP on average between 2011 and 2018, followed by services including finance, insurance, real estate and business services, and then by the tourism sector,” Moody’s stated.
Tobago has launched initiatives to boost economic diversification and has provided grants and loans to support entrepreneurs to grow the private sector.
The THA government has also made investments that seek to increase productivity in the agriculture sector through training programmes and initiatives to improve land access.
“However, given the island’s small size with a population of under 70,000 and given economic setbacks caused by the pandemic (preliminary estimates indicate the THA regional economy contracted 14 per cent in 2020), the low level of economic diversification will continue to be a credit challenge over the medium to long term. Moody’s projects a modest recovery in the T&T economy in 2021 and 2022, though the recovery in THA could lag the national economy given ongoing limits on economic activity related to the pandemic,” it stated.
“Aside from economic constraints, THA’s institutional framework also structurally limits its revenue collection to the levying of certain fees and revenue earned from government-owned enterprises. THA does not have independent authority to levy taxes on its own behalf. Given these constraints, we expect THA’s own-source revenue will remain in a similar low range over the medium to long term,” it stated.
Moody’s stated that the THA’s credit profile reflects ample liquidity, low debt levels and recurring operating surpluses combined with a high dependence on transfers from the Government of T&T to fund both operating expenditures and capital projects.
“THA recently raised long-term financing to fund additional capital expenditures through its first bond placement which will result in a modest but manageable rise in debt levels,” Moody’s stated.
Moody’s said it expects that the THA will report cash financing deficits averaging 4.1 per cent of total revenue in 2021 and 2022 given plans to increase capital outlays, but the impact on liquidity will be limited.
“Finally, T&T’s parliament recently approved certain reforms to the THA Act, including a formalisation of its process for acquiring new long-term debt. Additional institutional changes have been proposed, though these will not likely alter our assessment that THA will continue to benefit from high levels of support from the central government,” Moody’s stated.
The THA has identified significant long-term capital spending needs for a broad spectrum of projects ranging from housing development and education facilities to coastline restoration.
“While these projects have historically been funded almost exclusively with federal transfers, the island government is seeking to expand its capability to finance capital projects through debt and public-private partnerships. Given the recent bond placement, we expect THA’s cash financing deficit will widen to 5.2 per cent in 2021 and three per cent in 2022, compared with an average surplus of 1.1 per cent between 2016-2020.
“Cash financing deficits at these levels in the medium term will not exert significant negative pressure on THA’s credit profile, especially given its very low debt levels, but would be difficult to sustain over the medium to long-term without leading to a deterioration of debt and liquidity metrics,” it stated.
Moody’s stated that the THA has historically maintained very low overall debt levels primarily as a result of its institutional framework, which requires that it seek T&T’s approval before acquiring new financing.
However, in September 2019, THA received authorisation to issue for the first time up to $300 million in bonds to fund capital projects and it placed an initial $164 million tranche in May 2021. The bonds were issued at par value at a term of six years with a 5.2 per cent fixed rate.
Currently, Tobago has an overdraft facility of $250 million, which is used to bridge the timing gap between THA’s expenditures and the release of funds by the central government.
“The interest rate is a fixed 8 per cent, and it is paid from the tax and non-tax revenue collected and from the central government’s appropriations. THA uses its overdraft facility very occasionally, and it has been recurrently repaid within the next 30 days. We expect THA to continue to use this liquidity facility in 2021 and 2022,” Moody’s stated.
In October 2012, Kairi Consultants Limited submitted a Comprehensive Economic Development Plan 2013-2017 to the THA.
Kairi Consultants’ chairman economist Dr Ralph Henry spoke to the Business Guardian about that report.
“Even though there has been a global crisis, the likes of which were not foreseen in 2006, when the first plan was written, the fundamentals of transformation and diversification of the economy of Tobago remain the same and need to be addressed, but with even more urgency, based on informed projections of the future,” it stated.
In that report, Kairi Consultants highlighted Tourism, Agriculture and Agro-processing, Fisheries, Manufacturing, as sectors that could transform and diversify Tobago.
“The transformation of the economy cannot be realised without the growth of key sectors. The realisation of the goals of CEDP 2.0 will depend on the degree to which the THA and the private sector in Tobago can raise the rate of growth of the economy over the period of the plan. This might mean a rate of growth of at least five to six per cent or more over the period of the Plan. To the extent that these stakeholders succeed, Tobago may well come to represent much over 2.0 per cent of the national economy by 2017,” it stated.
“The THA will need to be resourced appropriately to establish the relevant institutions and to invest in the necessary physical and economic infrastructure. The imminent reform in intergovernmental relations must take account of the previous under-funding of Tobago’s development over the first half and more of the 20th century.
“Devolution to a federalist oriented model a la Canada, will entitle Tobago to proceeds from its maritime space that may well dictate that it receive in excess of 8.0 per cent of the revenue raised by the Government of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago,” it stated.
Henry said if a proper investment is made into Tobago then tourism will be able to help the overall economy.
He said in the 1980s when the economy took a nosedive the tourism sector in Tobago helped slow the decline
“It was going south fast and when you looked at the date it was the fact that Tobago started to earn foreign exchange that reduced the rate of decline in the economy of T&T,” he said.
“Back then we understood that Tobago had enormous possibilities for generating foreign exchange from the tourism sector,” he said.
“A vibrant Tobago is likely to be the locus of faster pace development in the next five years, given all the prospects that attend the gas-driven economy of Trinidad. The rapid transformation of the economy of Tobago may well rescue T&T from further decline in its rate of growth. Tobago has established its capacity to complement Trinidad in the development of the nation. Over the next five years, through CEDP 2.0, its role in national development will become even more critical as the imperative of economic diversification emerges as the ultimate survival and revival strategy for the country as a whole,” it stated.