By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Commonwealth Bank's president says the COVID-19 pandemic fall-out has again exposed the urgency for The Bahamas to attract "game changer" industries that will diversify its economy.
Raymond Winder told Tribune Business that this nation had done little to mitigate its vulnerability to external shocks in the two decades since he was Chamber of Commerce president, and the 2002 Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) report that ranked The Bahamas as fourth most expose to such events.
"It hasn't changed," he told Tribune Business, "and now we finally get to see it played out based on the fact we are so tied to one specific industry, tourism, and the implications of not having sufficient tourists coming to our properties for the next two to three months in terms of the impact on our economy.
"Once again we need to be reminded of that, and how critical it is to create and attract new types of investors into our country. It was critical back in 2001-2003, and it's just as critical now that we do all we can to diversify our economy."
The Commonwealth Bank chief spoke out as he unveiled a raft of measures to help any borrowers and clients that ran into distress as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, which has resulted in the immediate near-total shutdown of the Bahamian tourism industry.
Mr Winder revealed that Commonwealth Bank is "giving an automatic six-month loan payment deferral" to clients, who are current and in good standing, throughout The Bahamas - including the two islands hit by Hurricane Dorian.
He added that assistance will also be provided "on a case-by-case basis" to Commonwealth Bank's mortgage and commercial loan customers in addition to the six-month loan repayment deferral.
"We are working with our clients who may be experiencing challenges, and we expect a number of them to reach out to us," Mr Winder added. "As a Bahamian bank we want to be able to reach out to our Bahamian colleagues as we realise these are uncharted waters, and our customers have been good to us for the past 60 years.
"In times like these we feel we have a corporate responsibility to assist them wherever we can in making this period of their life as less stressed as possible."
Turning back to the diversification theme, Mr Winder added: "I think when you look at diversification in terms of the wealth creators in the world today, the new wealth is being created in technology through money that doesn't have to be in New York or Silicon Valley to be able to participate in this marketplace.
"We in The Bahamas continue to have one of the best locations in terms of attracting individuals to live in The Bahamas. It behooves us to continue to seek to attract this type of investor that does not always have the dollar capital but the mental capacity to create this new technology platform in The Bahamas. I see that as a real game changer for us."
The Minnis administration came to office in May 2017 seeking to establish Grand Bahama as a so-called "technology hub", but the effort has truly yet to take hold or gain critical mass almost three years later.
Meanwhile, the slow attrition-based decline of The Bahamas' financial services sector, the "second pillar" of the economy, has increased this nation's dependence on tourism in the absence of new industries being attracted to this nation's shores.
"I think the main takeaway again is to understand and appreciate that we live in a country that is vulnerable to external shocks," Mr Winder added of the COVID-19 impact, "and it behooves all of us as individuals, entrepreneurs, the Government and as a country to seek to have reserves earmarked for these occasions.
"This will not be the last one. We live in a hurricane belt, and will experience external shocks in the future. And the big take away for me is our preparation that we as individuals, companies and governments do to withstand external shocks.
"To make this happen this may require additional sacrifices during the good times to prepare for the bad times when they arrive."