By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
A former finance minister has blasted the private sector for continuing to criticise the Government despite largely getting the Value-Added Tax (VAT) regime it wanted, arguing that many did not understand the fiscal “complexities”.
James Smith, who remains a key Ministry of Finance consultant, said many in the business community appeared to be parroting “what they hear in the US” with regard to ‘fiscal rules’ and ‘spending caps’.
He suggested these were “not appropriate” for a small country such as the Bahamas that was prone to natural disasters, while merely eliminating waste and spending inefficiencies in government was “not going to be enough” to close the existing $462 million fiscal deficit.
And Mr Smith, also a former Central Bank governor, warned that the private sector was effectively ‘cutting its nose off to spite its face’ with calls for deep cuts in recurrent (fixed cost) spending.
He told Tribune Business that this, with salaries and wages accounting for 55 per cent of recurrent spending, generated about 25 per cent of aggregate demand within the Bahamian economy. Slashing this would merely “choke the private sector to death”.
“There seems to be, based on the commentary in the press, little appreciation of the complexities of the exercise and the people advising on it. It seems as if they feel these people don’t know what they’re doing,” Mr Smith told Tribune Business.
“I’m certain these people making the commentary do not have an appreciation for how complex this is. I don’t think most of them understand econometrics.”
Making clear his frustration with some of the Bahamian business community’s reaction to the 2014-2015 Budget, Mr Smith implied that much of its content had been based on private sector feedback.
In particular, it had got the low-rate (7.5 per cent), simplified Value-Added Tax (VAT) it had wanted, together with few exemptions.
“I would have found it very difficult to be making decisions in this kind of framework,” Mr Smith revealed. “It appears you push me in one direction to continue criticising me, when I’ve done that which you suggested to me.
“I hear these horrible comparisons some times; these guys [the Government] have not run a business, they don’t know what they’re doing. The Government is not a typical business. You’d better leave it to the people who have been doing it for a long time.”
Mr Smith said that given the Bahamas’ susceptibility to hurricanes, it was simply impractical to tie the Government’s hands with so-called ‘fiscal rules’ and limits on its spending. This, he suggested, would handicap its response in ‘life and death’ situations.
Together with cost overruns on capital projects, the former finance minister told Tribune Business: “There’s so many things that can throw you off track.
“It sounds to me that they’re simply echoing what they hear in the US, and I don’t know how appropriate these are for a country like ours.
“Government spending in a country like the Bahamas is probably 25 per cent of aggregate demand, and some businesses calling for it seem to forget the Government is their customer, or people working for the Government.”
Recurrent spending in the 2014-2015 Budget is projected at 19.9 per cent of the Bahamas’ $8.99 billion GDP, implying that one out of every $5 spent in the economy will come from the Government.
Mr Smith implied that recurrent spending cuts, if they resulted in either job losses, wage reductions or a combination of both, would automatically cut spending with private sector businesses and total aggregate demand. This, in turn, might result in business closures and/or private sector job losses.
Pointing out that the Government was also leasing property from private sector landlords, Mr Smith said the easiest cuts to make were in the capital budget. Yet this had already been reduced from $400 million to $300 million, and infrastructure demands (roads, schools and hospitals) meant there was little room for more.
“You can’t go down too much on that,” he told Tribune Business. “Our economy is a combination of foreign direct investment, local investment and tourist spending.
“That’s the way to grow it unless they [the private sector] know some other way. You choke it [the economy] to death if you pull government spending from the private sector. This economy is not the US economy because we do not have a convertible dollar.”
Mr Smith said escalation clauses in rents and union contracts, and the latter’s stipulations on the likes of civil service wages, gratuities and pensions, meant it was inevitable the Government’s size and spending needs would keep on increasing.
“The expenditure growth, despite what they say, has not been that drastic,” he told this newspaper. “This talk about expenditure controls, they need to look at these items very closely.
“There may be savings in terms of finding efficiencies and eliminating waste, but trust me, it’s not going to be enough.”
Asked whether the Bahamas had done enough to avoid a downgrade of its sovereign creditworthiness, Mr Smith replied: “It depends on the extent to which they buy into the plan.
“An entirely new tax regime will be brought into effect on the target date, and the infrastructure will be in place to support it.”