by Larry Smith
Against the backdrop of this year's post-election budget debate in Parliament, we thought it would be useful to look at how our economic circumstances have evolved over the past decade.
When the first Ingraham administration tabled its final budget, Finance Minister Sir William Allen talked about containing the demands of inefficient, money-wasting state corporations like Bahamasair and ZNS.
He deplored the three-year delay in divesting BTC, which he attributed to the sorry state of the corporation's accounts - meaning it had been allowed to operate incompetently for decades.
But the future looked bright. The Bahamian economy had grown by 5 per cent in 2000, with more of the same projected for 2001. And the government-debt-to-GDP ratio was about 30 per cent ($1.5 billion), considered sustainable by most economists.
"The declining debt and lower interest rates have reduced the cost of debt servicing," Sir William said. "Unemployment has been reduced to the lowest levels ever recorded (6.9 per cent), living standards are approaching those of the advanced OECD countries, and Bahamian society is prepared to meet the future with greater certainty and confidence than ever."
These were certainly achievements to brag about. An overall budget balance had been recorded for the first time since the early 1970s, and Allen was predicting that fiscal imbalances would become a thing of the past.
But that optimism was fleeting. Within months, the deadly terror attacks on New York and Washington produced panic in the US and sparked a worldwide recession that halved global economic growth. A sharp fall-off in travel forced the Bahamas to take emergency fiscal measures.
So Perry Christie was able to say when he took office in 2002 that he had inherited a big deficit. His new government stressed the importance of containing public debt so that the country's limited resources could be applied more productively.
In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, State Finance Minister James Smith warned that revenue losses and emergency spending, combined with the demands of the loss-making public corporations, were straining the country's resources. And the government promised to complete the sale of BTC by 2003 at the latest.
By the middle of his term in office, Christie was decidedly more upbeat. The impact of 9/11 on tourism had been short-lived, Sol Kerzner was investing a billion dollars to expand Atlantis, and the credit boom underway in the US was having a marked spillover effect on the Bahamas.
Although the administration promised to reduce government debt (which now topped $2 billion) to that 30-per-cent-of-GDP sweet spot, this time there was no talk about containing the demands of state corporations. And when Christie left office three years later, the BTC privatisation process was still in limbo - a full decade after it had been launched.
As you might expect in what was to be his last year in office, Christie presented a grandiose budget in 2006-07. He talked about transforming the tourism and transportation sectors of New Providence, restoring Grand Bahama's prosperity, ending poverty, and getting crime and illegal immigration firmly under control.
"We have secured the future economic prospects of The Bahamas," he declared, "which are unrivalled in this region and without precedent in the economic history of our country...a scale of inward investment without parallel anywhere in the world..the economy has reached take-off point into what could be the longest, highest and most sustainable expansion of our history."
But ironically, and little noticed at the time, storm clouds were already gathering. Oil prices were about to spike, but energy was simply not on the government's radar. And the housing bubble in the US would soon burst, leading to an unprecedented global financial crisis with severe and long-lasting consequences for the Bahamas.
When the FNM returned to office, they appeared to sniff the approaching storm. Hubert Ingraham tabled a balanced budget and promised to eliminate the deficit within five years, in the process bringing government debt down from over 37 per cent of GDP to around 30 per cent.
When Ingraham regained office, the total public debt (i.e borrowings by both the government and state corporations) was $2.9 billion, having grown by $656 million, or 29 per cent, during the Christie administration. At that time, the country was paying an overall interest rate of 7 per cent on borrowed funds, and servicing this debt was costing more than $141 million a year.
"It is crucial that we move quickly to reduce the ratio of debt to GDP and not allow it to drift upwards as it has in recent years," Ingraham said at the time. To do this, the government planned to rely on improved revenue collection and projected growth of more than 4 per cent.
Although state corporations were not mentioned in that budget communication, for the first time energy was a talking point. The government announced a review of alternatives to fossil fuel imports for electricity generation - including solar, wind and wave energy technologies - and set about formulating a national energy policy.
But the FNM's honeymoon was brief. By early 2008 the prospect of a deep global recession was looming, as financial markets came under increasing stress. In the second budget of his new term, Ingraham pointed to economic uncertainty and spiralling energy costs as major factors in the government's decision-making.
With the economy suffering "severe setbacks" from the credit crunch and from the surge in energy and food prices, the government sought to provide a targeted fiscal stimulus as unemployment began to rise. A $100 million loan from the Inter-American Development Bank was also secured to complete the much-delayed New Providence Road Project.
And all the loss-making state corporations were still receiving big subsidies - $28 million for Bahamasair, $22 million for Water & Sewerage, and almost $12 million for ZNS. As fuel prices reached record highs, BECs financial position worsened, and it was exempted from paying import duty on fuel, further impacting the government's finances.
In September the giant Lehman Brothers investment bank collapsed, sparking a panic in the financial world. It was a seminal event that dramatized the severity of the Great Recession, which had actually begun in late 2007. The fallout shrank the Bahamian economy by 1.5 per cent in 2008.
The following year's budget acknowledged the "extraordinary" impact of the financial meltdown. Government debt was now over 38 per cent of GDP, while the deficit had grown to 5.7 per cent of GDP. But more borrowing was necessary, Ingraham said, if the country was to avoid painful adjustments.
Meanwhile, the seemingly never-ending privatisation of BTC was entering its final stages, and the government began to mull the sale of other public corporations. Plans were also drawn up to cut ZNS' bloated staff level by more than a third.
"The financial resources released from propping up these corporations, plus the proceeds of privatization, would provide welcome relief to the Bahamian taxpayer," Ingraham said.
As the vaunted Emerald Bay resort on Exuma closed and other major foreign developments were put on hold, the government sought to cushion the impact of "these deeply troubling times" with unemployment benefits and a national re-training initiative to help laid-off workers find new jobs.
The 2010-11 budget prescribed the most stringent fiscal retrenching of recent times, against a backdrop of 15 per cent interest on the nation's $2.9 billion public debt. Unemployment rose to more than 14 per cent.
Ingraham acknowledged that the country could not sustain more deficit spending. This was in line with the IMF's view that emergency fiscal measures should now be withdrawn, to signal a credible commitment to contain debt.
Spending was essentially frozen at 2009 levels and the government said it would pursue tax reform to raise revenue collection to 20 per cent of GDP to slow the growth of debt. After contracting by about 7 per cent in 2008 and 2009, the Bahamian economy barely grew in 2010 - by less than half a per cent - while government debt soared to 48 per cent of GDP.
By 2011 the debt had climbed to 53 per cent of GDP, as the government borrowed more to strengthen the social safety net and continue major infrastructure investments.
"Reforming and modernizing tax administration will be crucial to deal with future changes in the tax regime that may flow from a much-needed and overdue reassessment of the revenue structure of the government," Ingraham noted.
Meanwhile, revenue was bolstered by $210 million received from the sale of BTC in April, which reduced the deficit somewhat. Government debt was put at $3.8 billion, or 46 per cent of GDP, while revenue collection was 18.5 per cent of GDP. And the economy grew by a modest 1.6 per cent in 2011.
In the first budget of his current term, Prime Minister Christie said the financial picture was worse than anticipated and promised to maintain fiscal prudence, while forecasting major new spending on mortgage relief, education, urban renewal and healthcare. He also undertook to explore ways of re-nationalizing BTC.
Christie said tax revenues would have to rise, suggesting they should be 25 to 30 per cent of GDP - a significant jump over previous revenue collection proposals. "Our tax base is much too narrow, focusing as it does on goods to the exclusion of services," he said. "This is simply unacceptable in a modern economy."
The government said it would appoint an economic advisory council and prepare a White Paper on tax reform, along with a centralized tax administration system. "The current structure is disjointed, inefficient and inequitable in many respects," Christie said.
Unemployment spiked at 16 per cent in late 2011 and economic growth this year is projected to be about 2.5 per cent, driven by tourism and foreign investment, especially the Baha Mar development on New Providence. Similar modest growth is expected next year.
Government debt was just over $4 billion in May, over 50 per cent of GDP, and the IMF warned that delaying tax reform will raise financing costs and threaten the economic recovery. This year's budget includes spending of $1.82 billion against revenues of $1.55 billion, producing a deficit of $550 million - or 6.5 per cent of GDP. Debt servicing is now $328 million, or just over 18 per cent of total recurrent expenditure.
This potted history makes it clear that, from the beginning of the 21st century - when the US economy to which we are firmly attached had just experienced the longest economic expansion ever - successive governments have been ratcheting up the national debt, no matter what they said to the contrary.
There are valid reasons for this - the country needs better social and physical infrastructure to achieve orderly growth and improve the quality of life. This requires investment that has to be paid for. Simon Townend of KPMG (Bahamas) has said we need to spend more than $2 billion over the next few years in transport, health, education and other sectors to remain competitive.
The upshot is that the Bahamas has a serious infrastructure deficit - despite significant recent investments in roads, electricity and water supply, air and sea ports. There are still large backlogs of needed work on existing systems, together with new demands that go unmet. Meanwhile, scarce public funds are being poured into dysfunctional state corporations that provide very little public value.
Successive governments have also known for years that they have to tackle tax reform - changing revenue collection from an outdated system based on import duties to one based on consumption or income. But they have postponed all the hard decisions. Prime Minister Christie appears set to grasp this nettle, but it is critical that we achieve the right balance between revenue, spending and borrowing. And that requires the considered input of civil society, not just the pontifications of politicians.
One of the biggest contributors to deficit spending (and to the national debt) over the years has been the public sector. Despite the sale of 51 per cent of BTC last year (after 13 years of trying), inefficient state corporations continue to absorb hundreds of millions of tax dollars. Is it really necessary for the government to own and operate all these corporations?
And although energy is a critical problem for both the public and private sectors, it does not appear that urgent steps are being taken to (in the words of the National Energy Policy) "aggressively re-engineer our legislative, regulatory, and institutional frameworks and implement a diverse range of sustainable energy programmes."
Back in the good old days of 2001, Sir William Allen warned that unless fiscal deficits were curbed, "the resources required to service the increasing debt will eventually bankrupt national programmes." He added that "increasing the share of GDP taken in taxation above 20 per cent...would adversely impact the competitiveness of the economy and eventually...destroy jobs."
According to PLP Senator Jerome Gomez, the days of borrow, borrow, borrow and spend, spend, spend are over. Well, let's give him a raincheck on that.
In the meantime we should focus on this: many experts say that an economic shock from Europe, which is quite possible in the months ahead, could push the US and most of the rest of the world into another big recession.