By Dennis Chung
As Jamaica pursues our eternal search for economic development, one focus has been on the need for us to purchase local goods and services in preference to imports.
The reasoning behind this seems logical, as it should mean that the balance of payments should improve, and this should mean a stable exchange rate and employment for more Jamaicans.
As a result, there have been many calls for us to ‘Buy Jamaican’.
Former senator Norman Grant has been at the helm of this initiative, which, in my view, has reaped much success. Even with this successful campaign, however, we have continued to see currency depreciation, high inflation and interest rates, and increased unemployment over the period. So the question is, why wouldn’t things improve if we had such a successful ‘Buy Jamaican’ campaign?
There are a few reasons for this, and it underlines the fact that simply saying we should ‘Buy Jamaican’ will not improve our economic fortunes.
So while the campaign was very good and necessary, the truth is that we never really supported it with policies that would sustain a move towards consuming more Jamaican-made products and services. In addition to lack of policy stimulus, many local producers have not improved the service and product quality to properly compete with imported products.
The first thing to note is that it is a futile exercise to be pushing a ‘Buy Jamaican’ campaign when we are unable to significantly increase the production of Jamaican goods and services. So what we have failed to do as a country is ensure that appropriate policies address this failing. To do so all we had to do was ask the question – what is it that prevents capital from making long-term investments in locally produced goods and services? In other words, does capital feel comfortable investing for the very long term in sustainable production, and – importantly – locating their facilities in Jamaica?
The answer to this is that government policy has never effectively addressed the issue of being more attractive to capital than our competitors. Sure we have done it by creating special incentives for industries such as tourism, bauxite, free zones, etc. But the fact is that government’s attitude to capital generally has been very wanting.
As an example, tax policy in Jamaica has always pinpointed increasing fiscal revenue as its primary purpose. Never mind that it ends up killing incentives for capital and businesses generally. In contrast, countries like Panama have a direct policy of focusing on attracting capital, and as a result they have consistently grown at 6.0 per cent to 8.0 per cent per annum.
Government policy in Jamaica has always created a hostile environment to capital, and then created special carve-outs for foreign direct investments. Small wonder then that local investors are reluctant to risk their savings and pensions in business ideas.
The fact is that if government policy was focused on addressing the four most problematic factors in the 2016 Doing Business Report: inefficient government bureaucracy, crime and theft, tax rates, and corruption — then not only would we solve 54 per cent of our business challenges, but we would also see increased capital inflows and employment. Instead we have struggled for years to implement a computerised tracking system for development approvals, and then we wonder why growth remains anaemic.
Secondly, many of the Jamaican products and services produced are not able to compete in terms of quality and price.
Price in many instances is again affected by government policy, which seeks to extract as much revenue as possible without much concern for the survival of businesses and their ability to compete. But there are also quality issues with some of the goods and services produced. As an example, last year I took my daughter to the Easter Funfest at Hope Gardens, and it was a great event for children. I got there very early and she was almost alone on the rides so it was good.
This year I went early with her, only to be greeted by blaring music, with speaker boxes lining the route to the rides. The music was so loud that my daughter started crying and wanted to leave, and it was equally unbearable for me and some of the staff. Later I got a video of them having a stage show there with children dancing on the stage to a large audience of cheering adults.
A significant deterioration over last year.
This is a similar story for many Jamaican products and services. They start out well and end up being uncompetitive. This is okay in a competitive market, but the problem is that this mediocrity is supported somewhat by government policy, which in many respects creates significant barriers to entry. The result is that the invisible hand of a competitive market does not get to work properly. For example, something as simple as not enforcing zoning laws allows some businesses protection by allowing them an unfair advantage from a cost point of view. The result is mediocrity.
Other inhibitors are lack of information and inability to move goods effectively. Just look at the deplorable state of most farm roads.
The point is that we should not ‘Buy Jamaican’ just because it is a Jamaican product or service. But rather we should ‘Buy Jamaican’ because it is just as good or better than the imported products.
It is only when we can produce competitively that we will see improved growth and employment. This is because buying an inferior product actually does have economic costs: (i) higher cost of living, (ii) lower productivity and hence lower wages, and (iii) decreased potential for foreign exchange earnings.
At best then, producing inferior products and services will produce a more closed economy which becomes more uncompetitive and produces lower income levels, as happens in Cuba.
If we are to grow the economy at acceptable levels, then we must increase the number of Jamaican products and services. This, however, must be done competitively if we are to benefit.
Dennis Chung is a chartered accountant and is currently Vice President of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of Jamaica. He has written two books: Charting Jamaica’s Economic and Social Development – 2009; and Achieving Life’s Equilibrium – balancing health, wealth, and happiness for optimal living – 2012. Both books are available at Amazon in both digital and paperback format. His blog isdcjottings.blogspot.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.