THIS WEEK IN THE BAHAMAS BY ELCOTT COLEBY

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coleby19 December to 23 December

31,735 jobs added to the economy in 4.5 years

The latest labour statistics were released by the Department of Statistics on Wednesday of this week where the department reported that since May 2016, “the unemployment rate declined from 12.7% to 11.6% due to an increase (4,025) of employed persons and a decrease (2,155) of unemployed persons” said the department

The labour survey was conducted between 24th and 30th October 2016 and the three most populated islands surveyed experienced decreases in their unemployment rates: New Providence stood at 12.9%; Grand Bahama at 13.3%, and Abaco at 9.1%. According to the Department of Statistics, the islands of Bimini and Exuma recorded unemployment rates of 4.0% and 8.0%, respectively.

There was a slight decline in youth employment (15-24 years of age) during this period, but when compared to November 2015 where youth unemployment stood at 25.1%, employment among this demographic grouping actually increased by 4.3%.

Discouraged workers declined by 15% over the last six months. “New Providence, Grand Bahama and Abaco experienced declines in the number of discouraged workers – 16%, 18% and 11%, respectively” said the statement.

According to the standard definition of the International Labour Organization (ILO), discouraged workers “did not look for work because they believed no jobs were available for them.’’

Bahamas Central Bank reduces the discount rate

The Central Bank of The Bahamas advised the public on Thursday of its decision to reduce the Discount Rate by 50 basis points to 4.00 percent effective immediately.

It said in a statement that it expected “financial institutions to follow suit with a corresponding reduction in the Prime Rate, from 4.75 percent to 4.25 percent and adjustments in lending rates on new credit facilities. Interest rate reductions for existing facilities should be accorded in line with contractual provisions that govern the timing of such changes” said the commercial banking regulator via press statement.

“This policy action” the statement continued, “is intended to position the domestic business sector to take more advantage of growth opportunities in the near to medium term and to provide more support to housing sector investments.

“In taking this action, the Bank considered several factors, including the prospects for a pick-up in growth in the coming year resulting mainly from the expansion in the tourism plant and the potential for increased foreign currency inflows to buttress the external reserves, which stand currently at $928.6 million or an estimated 17.4 weeks of total merchandise imports—well above the 12.0 weeks benchmark.

The statement also pointed to reduced pressures on the balance of payments “given the significant reduction in the oil import bill” as a contributing factor.

PM touts public-private sector partnership with new administrative complex During the signing ceremony between the Bahamas government and Top Notch Builders for the construction of an Administrative Complex in Eight Mile Rock, Grand Bahama on Thursday, Prime Minister Christie extolled the fiscal virtues of public private sector partnerships (PPP’s) as “innovative” policy tools in facilitating national development through economic expansion, controlling excessive borrowing and better management of the national debt.

“So you can see therefore, that the innovation allows the government to become more involved in an expanded way in the economy of The Bahamas and not be tied down to a debate where people accuse the government of borrowing too much or increasing the National debt through borrowing” said Mr. Christie as he addressed the crowd.

“We’re trying really to find a way to keep our country going using this innovation.”

The new administrative complex will serve the entire West Grand Bahama community, inclusive of Eight Mile Rock, Pinedale and West End. It is expected to be completed in 2017.

Mr. Christie pointed to the fast ferry jetty, the airport runway upgrade and new road works in Bimini as successful examples of public private sector partnerships. He listed additional partnerships taking place around the country as further evidence of his government’s commitment to the policy of PPP because of its positive impact on public finances and public debt management.

“So right now, the government is superintending, through public-private partnership, the building of an Administration Centre in Harbour Island, the building of a special facility to house a new post office building, a building to house the Road Traffic Department in New Providence, and a building to provide accommodation and services for Special Children — all through Public-Private Partnerships” said the Prime minister.

Bahamas government disappointed with S&P ratings decision

On Tuesday of this week, the international credit rating agency Standard & Poor’s (S&P), downgraded The Bahamas’ credit rating, from BBB- to BB+, although upgrading the outlook from negative to stable.

In its statement, S&P noted that this rating decision was influenced by “lower than expected GDP growth, fiscal consolidation results that are developing at a slower pace than anticipated and certain structural weaknesses that negatively impact economic growth.”

In a detailed response, the government of The Bahamas openly expressed its disappointment in S&P’s ratings decision and outlined several policy initiatives designed to improve the country’s public finances and grow the economy.

On the issue of public finances, the Government said Value Added Tax (VAT) in addition to some aggressive tax administration and compliance measures continue to place the country’s public finances on strong footing.

“A strategic programme was recently launched to bring revenue administration processes, tools and techniques in line with international best practices, to safeguard the revenue base” said the statement. “These optimizing initiatives, in the areas of real property taxes, business license, VAT and customs administration, are targeted to generate sizeable additional revenue during the upcoming 6 to 12 months period. On the expenditure side, measures have been taken to rationalize spending through initiatives such as centralized procurement of goods and services and public private partnerships.”

“The Government is disappointed in this development, and is of the view that S&P’s decision does not give appropriate weight to important developments on the ground, nor The Bahamas’ strong commitment to address its economic and fiscal challenges” said the statement released from the Ministry of Finance on Tuesday afternoon.

“There is now no uncertainty regarding the restart and completion of the Baha Mar project which, alongside the other foreign investment-related projects underway, will help to ignite growth, boost employment, improve business and consumer confidence and contribute to government revenue” said the statement. More than $100 million in ex-gratia payments to displaced employees and contractors; employment projections to reach 3,300 by August 2017; and capital injection nearing $1 billion to complete and open the resort were some of the initiatives designed to stimulate economic and improve government revenue.

15 key objectives of National Development Plan (NDP) revealed

Fresh off their conclave on 8th December 2016 to provide further public updates on the country’s first ever National Development Plan (NDP), Project Director Dr. Nicola Virgil-Rolle discussed the scope of the project while appearing as a guest on the Plain Truth Speaking talk show on ZSR103.5FM on Wednesday of this week. She was accompanied by Helen Mukiri-Smith and Denise Hinds-Jordan, two members of her technical team.

Dr. Virgil–Rolle revealed that the NDP comprises 105 individual strategies and 579 action items in support of the plan’s four pillars and fifteen key objectives.

The four NDP pillars are THE ECONOMY, THE NATURAL ENVIRONMENT, GOVERNANCE, and SOCIAL DEVELOPMENT. The fifteen key objectives of the plan are as follow:

1. Accountable Government

2. Public Service Reform

3. Rule of Law

4. Administration of Justice

5. Health Care Reform

6. Universal Education

7. Poverty/discrimination alleviation

8. Land Administration (comprehensive map and registry)

9. Inter-connected transportation

10. Modernized infrastructure

11. Protection of the natural environment

12. Macro-economics (financial/economic literacy to assist in decision making)

13. Creating a competitive Business Environment

14. Economic Diversification

15. Creating a fair and flexible labour regime

For more information on the NDP and to review a copy of the plan in its current draft form, please visit the NDP’s website at www.vision2040.org. This project is sponsored by the Inter-American Development Bank.

In Passing…

The problems facing Dr. Minnis, the embattled leader of the FNM, continue to mount with the Long Island Constituency Association accusing him of dishonesty and untrustworthiness over the revocation of Butler-Turner’s candidacy for the next general election. In an open letter to the party leader signed by the entire executive of the Constituency Association, Dr. Minnis is accused of falsely representing the views of the association in allegedly telling the party’s General Council last week that it had voted to withdraw the nomination from Butler-Turner, the island’s MP.

During negotiations for a union between their two parties earlier this year, DNA Leader Branville McCartney wanted the FNM to leave as many as 14 seats uncontested to clear the way for DNA candidates in those constituencies, sources familiar with the talks said. But the negotiations broke down during the summer after FNM Leader Dr. Minnis refused McCartney’s request.

The Minister of Tourism slammed a major cruise ship operator earlier this week for trying “to blackmail the Government of The Bahamas” over negotiations for a longer term deal for its Freeport service. Obie Wilchcombe hit out at Bahamas Paradise Cruise Line, operator of the Grand Celebration vessel, for disclosing to the media that it might pull out of Freeport and The Bahamas if it could not strike a favourable agreement.

The Grand Bahama Celebration’s owner has warned that its restructuring hinges on a new agreement with the Ministry of Tourism, and that a pull-out from Grand Bahama would be a “worst case scenario” which costs the Grand Lucayan 50 per cent of its pre-Matthew business.

The Minister of Tourism the Hon. Obie Wilchcombe has promised that the 140 terminated Treasure Bay Casino employees will receive their severance pay on Monday, and interviewed for re-hiring early in the New Year. Mr. Wilchcombe also said that Grand Bahama’s sole remaining casino was set to be taken over by a group that owned such facilities in Latin America and Spain, although he declined to name them.

Prime Minister Christie urged Bahamians this week to register to vote, declaring “it’s not long now when you will be called upon to exercise your democratic right to vote in general elections”. On Sunday, Parliamentary Commissioner Sherlyn Hall said voter registration was just under 72,000.

Dredging activity would not have occurred on or around Nygard Cay without the permission of the property owner, Canadian fashion mogul Peter Nygard, a Supreme Court judge heard on Friday, 16th December.

Bahamian-born Sharlene Cartwright-Robinson is now the first female premier of the Turks and Caicos Islands after leading the People’s Democratic Movement (PDM), the main opposition party, to victory in the general election.

The government is targeting the 1st March 2017 as the effective date for the increase in the minimum investment threshold from $500,000 to $1,000,000 for foreigners wanting to be fast tracked to permanent residents of The Bahamas. A Bahamian developer is urging the Government not to suddenly “destabilize” the real estate market with this new policy, expressing concern for his $60-$70 million in active sales in the pipeline based on the current investment threshold of $500,000.

The Bahamas’ new mobile operator needs help from regulators and its main rival to maintain what its top executive described as a “double quick” roll-out timeframe. Damian Blackburn, Aliv chief executive, said that the pace of its network infrastructure build-out was “no mean feat”, especially given the interruption created by Hurricane Matthew.

The Minister of Transport and Aviation has visited Florida’s St. Lucie County to meet officials and tour its Treasure Coast International Airport, port and city, in an effort to explore economic opportunities in agriculture, fisheries and tourism.

Speaking to the media after his address at the official opening of the Leadership and Management Training Centre on Monday, National Disaster Recovery Coordinator and Minister of Labour Shane Gibson said his office remains unable to put a finite cost on repair efforts as many aspects were still in flux. He said that while hundreds of contracts are about to be signed, a large number of contractual works are coming to an end.

Opposition leader the Hon. Loretta Butler-Turner announced Monday night the appointment of talk show host Rodney Moncur to the Bahamas Senate. Also appointed were Monique Gomez and Jude Knowles.

FNM Chairman Sidney Collie on Monday said the door to a party nomination for Long Island MP Butler-Turner in the upcoming election has been “slammed shut”, telling supporters from the Long Island Constituency Association to “forget it”.

The Baha Mar Claims Committee, established to oversee the payments of funds provided ex-gratia by China EXIM Bank, has paid in full the money owed to BPL, Committee Chairman James Smith said on Monday.

President of the Senate Lady Sharon Wilson on Tuesday cautioned senators to follow decorum in the Upper Chamber, noting that it is crucial that “we in fact conduct ourselves in the manner that we would want to see emulated, especially by the impressionable young”.

Local pastors on Tuesday continued their reproach of the position taken by The Bahamas on a United Nations resolution on human rights. Apparently the pastors wanted the provisions in the report for the appointment by the UN of an independent expert to investigate worldwide cases of discrimination and abuse against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people deleted from the human rights report. The Bahamas voted to accept the entire report without deletion. In its response to the pastors, the Bahamas government pointed out that the vote was consistent with the way the country has always voted and in accordance with abiding Christian values and principles as articulated in the preamble of the Bahamas Constitution. The Bahamas simply could not encourage or condone violence against any person or groups of people.

The “clock is ticking” for the Government to decide to either increase pension contributions or cut down on benefits offered by the NIB, according to Minister of Labour and National Insurance Shane Gibson.

Attorney Adrian Gibson, a Tribune columnist, was ratified by the FNM to run in Long Island, and James Albury, an employee at The Abaconian newspaper and Bahamas WiMax, was ratified for Central and South Abaco on Wednesday evening.

Rodney Moncur’s first debate in the Upper Chamber got off to a rocky start this week, with Leader of Government Business in the Senate Allyson Maynard-Gibson declaring she “will not allow the Senate to be turned into a circus” and repeatedly admonishing the new senator to follow Parliament’s rules and procedures.

The Government ‘s total spending increased by 26 per cent over the six fiscal years to end-June 2016, the Inter-American Bank (IDB) warning that it is prioritizing the wrong areas for sustainable, long term growth. The IDB, in its Caribbean Quarterly Bulletin, said the bulk of the spending increase had gone on civil service wages and the Government’s fixed costs, with recurrent spending up by 27 per cent since the 2010-2011 fiscal year.

Official Opposition Leader Butler-Turner publicly apologized on Thursday for the “inappropriate and insensitive comments” made by Senator Rodney Moncur towards a Tribune reporter while defending his right to free speech and expression.

FNM MICAL candidate Walt Saunders has withdrawn his candidacy for the 2017 general election amid health concerns, according to party Chairman Sidney Collie. He is the third ratified FNM candidate to withdraw from the race ahead of the 2017 general election.

Amid global increase in oil prices, BPL fuel charge firmed by 21.1 percent over the third quarter of 2016 to $11.27 per kilowatt hour, but declined sharply by 25.8 percent on an annual basis, according to the Central Bank of The Bahamas’ Quarterly Economic Review for September 2016, published on Thursday. Additionally, the public debt-to-GDP ratio increased to 85.3 per cent

Urging Bahamians to “get registered now”, Prime Minister Christie said on Thursday that, considering the “meltdown of the opposition parties”, the electorate should not “roll the dice with governments”.

In the face of another downgrade of the country’s sovereign credit rating to sub investment grade level, Prime Minister Christie said on Thursday that it must be acknowledged that international rating agency S&P noted in its report that the downgrade is due in part to the impact of Hurricanes Joaquin and Matthew.

NIB unfunded liabilities “could trigger a fiscal crisis” beyond the near $7 billion national debt within the next 12 years unless radical reforms are enacted, the Inter-American Bank (IDB) has warned. The Bank, in its latest Caribbean Quarterly Bulletin, said NIB’s funding deficit-equivalent to 50 per cent of The Bahamas’ $8 billion GDP – represented a “large increase” in the national debt, and major “downside risk” to the economy, without corrective action.

The Central Bank’s governor on Thursday reassured Bahamians that their dollar is at no risk of devaluation because of S&P’s decision to downgrade this nation to ‘junk’ status. John Rolle confirmed that “the fundamentals” underpinning the one: one fixed exchange rate peg will not change due to S&P, with the $928.6 million foreign currency reserves almost 50 per cent above international benchmarks.

The Chamber’s Chairman warned on Thursday that the Central Bank’s 50 basis point interest rate cut, designed to tackle anaemic economic growth, “must not be seen as a knee jerk reaction” to The Bahamas’ new ‘junk’ status.

About the author: Elcott Coleby is a Deputy Director at the Bahamas Information Services. He holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry (B.Sc) and a Masters of Business Administration (MBA). He provides frequent commentary on public policy and communicates the works of the government. Address all comments to the following email: egcoleby44@gmail.com