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T&T needs tough treatment to cure foreign capital addiction; and unions have role to play

With the election of US President Donald J Trump, international policy and geopolitics are fast changing, becoming more and more unpredictable. Trinidad and Tobago is certainly not immune to the down-stream developments, especially since we depend on foreign investment and trade for the majority of our economic output.

One such recent development, BP’s decision to construct its Angelin platform elsewhere than in T&T, and the scapegoating of trade union leaders have caused much discussion.

Photo: Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) president general Ancel Roget. (Copyright Industriall-Union.org)
Photo: Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) president general Ancel Roget.
(Copyright Industriall-Union.org)

Apart from the fact that recent reports show that BP was more concerned about the reliability of natural gas and current economic conditions and that the company’s decision came before Ancel Roget’s recent pronouncement, many social media analysts have targeted Roget as being responsible for BP’s decision.

Politicians and citizens alike have become almost tizick about the need for foreign investment, highlighted by the Prime Minister’s recent visit to Houston and to major oil companies. It has also been an issue in past elections—with politicians boasting about who can attract the most investment. Even online commenters have suggested that Roget should have been ‘more prudent’ or ‘responsible’ knowing how dependent the country is on foreign investment.

These views are misguided and not really supported by robust research on foreign investment. They also appear to be an emotional reaction to the pains precipitated by downturns and, in my view, highlight the failures of the ‘free market’ doctrine adopted over the past three decades.

Reliance on international markets by itself is not a huge problem as most advanced economies also show great interdependence. The deeper problems are, however, associated with the limited linkages in the national economy between these investments and other non-energy sector activities, an over-reliance on foreign capital for local production needs and limited structural change or diversification.

Roget’s and trade union leaders’ predilection for not accepting the prevailing rules of the game set by transnationals does not make them irresponsible but can be seen as an opportunity to rethink these rules and the associated policies and decide whether they are in fact in the country’s best interest.

Photo: The fight for better wages.
Photo: The fight for better wages.

In the early 1990s, foreign direct investment amounted to US$1 billion in the natural gas and energy sectors, even exceeding many Latin American countries—a trend that continued throughout the 2000s up to 2008. This hike in foreign investment came after the sale of major state assets like the Iron and Steel Company (which became ArcellorMittal), and structural adjustment policies that favoured oil and natural gas instead of new areas of activity.

A study done at the University of the West Indies by Ronnie Ramlogan, now of Manchester University, UK, proposed that the iron and steel plant should have been restructured in such a way that the materials required for offshore plants by major energy companies like BP, which operated in T&T, could have been manufactured locally.

If this were done and the links created with the local economy, BP would probably have greater incentive to fabricate its plant locally. Also, in addition to the meagre level of employment that the energy sector has generated, there might have been more benefits and more of a move towards downstream inter-sectoral activities.

The over-reliance on foreign investment which now plagues us is a political issue that requires immediate attention. What some politicians and mainstream economists—these are often the ones cited in local media—tend to ignore is that long-term dependence on foreign investment has had negative effects on our development.

Studies show that it has short-term benefits but often distorts the economy’s capital structure i.e. how credit is sourced and put into production ‘crowds out’ domestic investment and generates little direct employment, especially in resource-rich countries like T&T.

Photo: A second look at globalisation...
Photo: A second look at globalisation…

T&T has also shown little capacity for mobilising local investment, owing in part to the modus operandi of our financial sector. Local investment opportunities are not given the same pomp and fanfare as the Angelin platform was recently given nor do they receive anything like the same level of investment from local capital markets or the financial sector unless they are shown to be likely to generate immediate short-term returns.

In her study on T&T’s socio-economic development, Dr Zophia Edwards, Assistant Professor at Providence College, concluded that “higher concentrations of FDI (foreign direct investment) have a significant and negative effect on development, which supports the view that greater dependence on foreign capital may allow foreign investors to exert more influence over the host country’s resource-extracting and economic policies in ways that are incompatible with national development.”

She adds: “The strength of labour movements creates states with different bureaucratic capacities, which affected the extent to which they could provide developmental goods to the population. Strong organized labour movements forced states to develop new agencies and new machinery to mediate between capital and labour, to develop meritocratic rather than racial hiring in industry and within the state, to expand the productive sectors of the economy, and to provide social welfare to the population.”

That seems to be saying that labour unions have a role to play in ensuring the State acts in the best interests of the country and not only on behalf of investors or private interests.

Photo: An All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest. (Courtesy ATGTWU)
Photo: An All Trinidad General Trade Workers Union protest.
(Courtesy ATGTWU)

Unlike the rhetoric that has been paraded over the past 30 years, economic growth is not achieved solely by the State providing a legal framework, incentives or a social safety net. But with the actual participation of the State in production and investment activities, achieving higher levels of progress is possible.

More recently, except in very few cases, state companies act simply as ‘service providers’ for the energy sector and other private companies. Most government contracts have also been implemented by private sector companies—e.g. UDECOTT, Piarco Airport, HDC, etc—and have created more opportunities for corruption and backroom deals.

Without denying some failures—and I do not consider the iron and steel company one of them—studies show that when the State acts in the interests of investors, democracy is undermined. The growth in influence of certain private sector companies and the increased demands they make of the State for incentives, tax holidays, infrastructure projects and more contracts without effective regulation and steering have undermined the country’s development.

A closer look at the evidence suggests that satisfaction of our huge appetite for foreign investment will not solve our current challenges unless there are also important changes in political strategy by our politicians which are directed by a coalition of inspired citizens, unions and professionals.

We need to loosen the undue stranglehold that foreign investment has had on T&T’s development and mobilise more long-term domestic sources of investment.

We must also not become victims, willing or unwitting, of an alternative-fact universe consciously crafted by certain mainstream economists and commentators.

Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert. (Courtesy Ministry of Finance)
Photo: Finance Minister Colm Imbert.
(Courtesy Ministry of Finance)

About Keston K Perry

Keston K Perry
Keston K Perry is a political economist and scholar specialised in development policy, with extensive experience in academia and the public sector. He was recently a postdoctoral scholar at the Fletcher School, Tufts University and holds a PhD in Development Studies from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London.

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74 comments

  1. So sorry I missed this conversation – valid points on both sides. A few observations:

    In regards to locals being involved in the energy sector, keep in mind that CLICO built a successful downstream business partnering with foreign firms. It has been and can be done.

    I would argue that the government did not move early or aggressively enough to encourage FDIs to partner with locals in joint ventures. We could have been a lot further along had that been the modus operandi.

    Our greatest resource is our people. Locals trained here in the energy sector have moved to success careers worldwide. I know several who have worked everywhere from USA to Chile, Australia, Egypt and Oman and all points in between. A global services firm would certainly be a great success leveraging on our technical skills.

    The energy sector is not a large employer. A plant requires thousands of workers to build over 2 – 3 years but will run with a staff of less than 100 for decades thereafter.

    We have very talented software developers right here in Trinidad. You would be amazed at what we have the capacity to do even right now despite a lack of support both public and private.

    If there’s to be a discourse on this topic fostered by Wired868, I would love to take part in the discussion.

  2. If you talk to Barbadians, you would hear their tales of woe. They are in a really tough spot.

  3. What have they done to innovate ?

    Anytime u talk innovation you talking risk and failure

    They don’t want to hear that

    You can’t wonder why the economy faltering why poverty is looking over our shoulders and then say na too much risk

  4. What have they done to innovate ?

    Anytime u talk innovation you talking risk and failure

    They don’t want to hear that

    You can’t wonder why the economy faltering why poverty is looking over our shoulders and then say na too much risk

  5. Again, who is going to invest 100s of millions in risky oil exploration? If it were that simple why haven’t the local conglomerates done it?

    • I’m always amazed when people knock the MNCs. It’s is a fact that a nation of our size in the 1960 & 1970 didn’t have the financial ability nor technological capabilities to take on such risk. Before the advancements in 3D seismic and other technologies which increased the probability of success to where it is today, why would we mortgage our future to achieve a paltry 7-11% success frontier drilling. The MNCs came and did it and had to be rewarded for their risk and investment! We also benefited, what we did with the benefits is our problem and issue and that’s what we need to address. We were never raped or plundered !

    • http://www.ogj.com/articles/2002/11/exploration-of-trinidad-tobagos-deep-waters-continues-apace.html

      BP’s drilling program
      While Shell has committed itself to drilling another well come December, BP is still trying to determine if it made a commercial discovery on Block 27. It was 5 months ago that the company drilled its first deepwater well, Catfish 1, which turned out to be the most expensive well ever drilled in Trinidad and Tobago, costing BP Trinidad & Tobago LLC $100 million. Peter Rattey, recently appointed president of BPTT’s exploration performance unit, said, “It is impossible to say at this stage what we have found. We are still doing seismic reprocessing on the well, and that will not be completed until the fourth quarter of 2002. We can’t rule out an oil pool, though we can’t say if it’s there either.”

    • Which local conglomerate could survive spending 100 million on a failed well?

    • Nit that they won’t survive it but they won’t take the risk

  6. Develop what? They have tourism and import most of their manufactured goods from Trinidad. With a debt-to-GDP ratio of 101%. What do they produce? What does the region produce? It’s all tourism with some agriculture.

  7. Doing it ourselves
    Local ownership doesn’t have to be under the govt control or sustained lifeline

  8. “Do it ourselves” means what?

  9. In the vein of Caricom, how did Barbados develop without oil and gas?

  10. Who said state run? BP is practically a private arm of the British state and shell is owned by monarchs

    There are ways and means

  11. Other players would accept less when other countries are offering more? Do it ourselves? Like Petrotrin? When has state run enterprise ever been profitable?

  12. These imports are not only physical goods that hampering our development

    If BP playing hardball and want more subsidies from our Govt we need to explore other players or do it ourselves

  13. We cannot finance innovation if we continue to import everything

  14. Innovation is the one sector where we have fallen completely flat on our faces.

    • Which is the heights of irony to me, given the wealth of talent and creativity we know we possess. The issue to me is how to translate the creativity into a tangible and sustainable product. Maybe our lack of discipline (=follow through) might have something to do with it.

  15. Of course. There is an oversupply of oil and gas in the world which has reduced governments negotiation leverage. Like AC Mital, why would BP continue to operate here when they can do it for cheaper elsewhere? The world doesn’t revolve around Trinidad & Tobago.

  16. I am a strong proponent of mobilising domestic sources of capital. One thing I did not say was run those crazy bald head out of town. I’m not naive, but we need to lessen our dependence. Do you know what has been a major cause of hold up with the BP negotiations? BP wants more and more concessions from the state. They’ve delayed natural gas production, almost holding the country at ransom and causing closures at Point Lisas.

  17. Understood, but if FDI is an issue the article should offer an alternative. You shouldn’t curse FDI if there isn’t a better alternative; what could replace or displace the billions of dollars multinationals have invested in Trinidad & Tobago? Our CARICOM neighbours are some of the most indebted countries in the hemisphere; without oil and gas and FDI we would join them.

  18. I wrote an entire thesis about this. This article was not about specific recommendations. It was about a specific concern: foreign investment.

  19. Yes Logie it’s not suppose to be so long term

    What we are seeing here is permanent domination of the economy by Foreign entities

  20. Arthur Lewis’s industrialization by invitation spoke about these MNCs transferring knowledge,which to date has not happened. Niche markets is another area that has not materialized from his economic theory. We are a country of 1.3 million people who are still focused on traditional economic models such as comparative advantage that will never materialize. We have to remove our demand for foreign exchange to purchase goods. We will never have a comparative advantage in energy. Our gas should be sold to downstream industries here, rather than collect taxes on the Henry hub price when the said shipments are diverted to Asia and sold for 3 times the Henry hub price. Traditional economic theory in my opinion has failed us. New thinkers are needed. We cry down the government for not creating the environment for economic growth when the reality is that our good life depends on government policies that pay to keep UWI and other schools of higher learning open etc, etc. Governments should have done like China and control FDI. It may be too late for us as these MNCs which include most of the banks operating here, have a first say on our economic development. Apparently they are too big to regulate. I await to see how we will regulate Uber and Sandals!

  21. Two questions, how do we end our dependence on foreign capital. Also how do we stimulate local sources of capital? Because honestly, we’ve heard this all before. How does the relationship with the unions affect this capital environment? This part seems pretty unclear.

    I agree with a lot of these points but they don’t seem very far beyond what has already been advocated for and I think we’re well past the point now where we have to figure out HOW we achieve this.

  22. We have zero competitive advantage in anything outside of energy and some cocoa products. Zero. If you had to pick a beach in Trinidad, Bdos, Grenada, Cayman, Bahamas or Anguilla would someone seriously pick Trinidad? Very soon even carnival won’t be unique because everyone is copying it. Competing internationally requires competitive advantage, where do we have that?

    • Brian it’s also and maybe more so about comparative advantage and in some areas we have some. We also can’t try to be good at everything and so there has to be some cherry picking around opportunities that for our unique niches. When we do this and are focused in our investment promotions efforts, we’ve done well

    • Agreed, will any of those opportunities generate billions of dollars and thousands of high paying jobs like the energy sector? Not at all. Why do we continue to curse that hand that feeds us?

    • I do feel we have to make the first steps though Brian. Often I feel like we dismiss alternate earners because they don’t offer much return in the short term.
      But how can we ever get the long term benefits if we don’t make a serious push in those other directions? Of course we do need to understand what DOES offer possible long term benefits and what does not.

    • You are not correct Brian – many of them will. And further the energy sector is not know as a big figure employer anywhere in the world . It’s a prominent industry and there’s always this assumption that they create lots of jobs – no! Where the jobs are created is in the downstream manufacturing etc. I outlined much of this in an article soon to be published in wired

    • Agreed, the jobs are in the downstream. What other industries do we have a competitive advantage? It will have to come from offering services – financial, tech, otherwise… It cannot be agriculture; where some Latin American countries have land holdings larger than Trinidad and Tobago and workers are employed at a fraction of the local cost. The Hyatt hotel has made us the business conference capital of the region because of its ability to host large business conferences – which was the point of building it in the first place. Where else do we have competitive advantage to compete internationally in a significant way?

    • It’s a worthwhile conversation to have but first I would let Mr Wired edit and publish what I’ve written and welcome your reaction.

    • Brian Manning thousands of high paying jobs? You mean the 5% of the 1.3 million people?

    • Where will the other jobs come from and in what types of industries? We could be a country people making straw hats or the industrialized country that we are; that all comes from oil, gas and FDI. Where would our manufacturing sector be without subsidized electricity prices? The cost advantage has given local manufactures a dominant advantage in the region. Even our non-energy sector depends on the energy sector which is why you are seeing such a collapse in our economy and employment figures with the sustained lower energy prices.

    • “Very soon even carnival won’t be unique because everyone is copying it. Competing internationally requires competitive advantage, where do we have that?”

      there are aspects of our carnival that cannot be copied. the part that has been is the well marketed part, the sexy women in skimpy recycled costumes that can be easily copied. and given the overall reaction post carnival 2017, it is clear that people are thirsty for something different and new. and that is where the innovative thinking has to come in, not only internally but what can be exported.

      the ironic thing is that in the very brazil that we love to seemingly copy one costume prototype, has somehow managed to monetize their costume designs, beyond carnival, down to the frame.
      you can go on several websites and purchase wire frames for various costume elements.

      considering the level of craft and talent here, i do not see why this cannot be done here. just in the same we we import costumes from china, we can also explore the possibility

      there has been innovation in the carnival product, at the expense of what should be the most important aspect of carnival. costuming. and i think once we begin to really innovate there there is potential for a carnival renaissance as it were.

    • You do not have to have competitive advantage to create an industry. You build the industry to become competitive. I do not subscribe to the view you need to only use what you have to build on that – that theory supply side/comparative advantage as Lester Logie has suggested has been debunked by many examples in East Asia. No country in Asia started off with competitive advantages in car manufacturing or steel or electronics or semi-conductors. They practically built them from scratch. It’s also not about selecting random seven sectors. What you do is identify emerging or growing industries and put effort into developing a niche.

    • You need to have competitive advantage to compete internationally and generate any kind of serious revenues. Or your market is limited to a fraction of 1.3 million people. In a declining economy. With dwindling purchasing power. That’s not a context that suggests success.

    • Brian Manning also we kinda forgetting that oil and gas are depleting resources and clearly very volatile because we are price takers and as a small country have no control over demand.

    • The challenge is to use oil and gas locally to fuel downstream production and local manufacturing for export. That makes a low oil and gas price work for us and not against us. Also the development of services industries with global scope: financial services, tech… those are billion dollar industries that will add significant revenues.

    • Downstream oil and gas would include aluminum, steel, plastics and iron. All can be used locally by local manufactures to create value added products or can be exported.

    • You seem to mixing up cause and consequence… As I just said, you develop advantages and capabilities. For example South Korea’s “advantage” was wigs in the 1960s. It said it’s going to do its own thing and build a steel industry and pivoted into automobile manufacturing. I would be the first to admit that times are more challenging, but it’s just to prove that that theory is not useful to explain any successful industrialisation experience. Lloyd Best and Trevor Farrell also debunked that “small market” myth. We are looking to satisfying demand for international markets through export, not our own. Have an awesome day!

    • Aneka Nicole , I agree and I don’t see anyone on the arts and culture area speaking about properly re-packaging Carnival and all the opportunities that come with it. Rather the industry has relied on government to continually subsidize a product that has been on the decline for a long time. The time has come for review and revamp. Let’s see. And BTW there has been well qualified suggestions, studies and blueprints done for this to happen, but never implemented

    • Brian Manning agree, but will add that there are ways to gain market share. Definitely a market of 1.3 won’t cut it. However, differentiation comes in many ways – for example, unique product attributes. We also won’t have the capacity to serve huge markets so we focus on the 34 million Caribbean people and the global diaspora. What products would they need that we can produce with consistent quality and how can we leverage technology to add value to the manufacturing process? remember as small as we are we once led the world in teh production of the coarse golden crystal sugar – which was teh sugar of choice in europe. We can! We need to be sure we have the will!

  23. Ah the benign utterances of Keston Perry, he has fashioned his argument utilising some solid arguments but sadly he has drifted like our politicians into rhetoric. The state has to fashion the environment for new business entities to grow but to be a full time active participant that’s where the line has to be drawn.

    The question that needs to be begged what can we offer in the short to medium term to earn foreign exchange as we invest into new sectors for long term earnings.

  24. Rubadiri Victor, I know there is always talk about making more use of the arts. But how far away are we from that? And how much can we reasonably expect to earn anyway?
    Brian Harry could probably tell us about tourism possibilities.

    • Well we have to package the arts and culture pieces properly!!! We tried doing his in 2003-2005 and had good success. In the area of tourism, let’s get smart and stop defining tourism according to what others are doing- we are not and never will be sun sand and sea – plate tectonics determined that. The niches in Tobago and Trinidad are different but quite specific . We have to now translate that to a product that support the comparative natural and ethnic advantages. As one example – what types of hotel products match the tastes of the target visitors? Who are the target visitors? We’ve done this work and taste tested it in several North American and European markets so we know. W had some success in attracting FDi in tourism but the work to sustain it hasn’t continued

    • Deep DEEEEEEP Sigh… How far are we? Further than we were at Independence… Where do you start when we talk about the tragedy of T&T- blest beyond belief with all the Gifts yet still collapsing like a cursed cockroach … All the solutions, enablers, and interventions for anywhere in the Creative ecosystem as well as the system overhaul has been authored and battled for ad nauseum. Our political class AND vested interests in the public sector do not want it to happen or are incapable of actually comprehending any of it. Because this admin speaks to and listens to no one who knows if any of the lobbying has excited them in any way? We at ACTT have given up on local politicians and the public sector as agents of the necessary changes. After engaging them over 17 years where we exhausted every single legal strategy to effect progressive change and buried two generations of our Elders we have seen it fit to change tact. The definition of madness being “doing the same thing again and again and hoping for different, etc etc” We are now partnering with international agencies and mobilising to create self sustaining independent institutions to try and create the Best Practice interventions we have fought for. The state of collapse on many fronts is deep, we have squandered billion dollar legacies and opportunities which will never come back. That said we have not absconded from the field of play completely: we have engaged the Economic Advisory Board seriously and hope some of our suggestions are in their submission to Cabinet. Meanwhile our campaigning for the idea of clusters seems to have gotten some traction at the Tamana Industrial Estate and there are one or two other possibilities. The crossroad I feel is this year’s Budget. We’re willing to fight one more time to get some goals in because of two things: one, the country needs our Intervention- I mean the Creative and Innovative class- now more than ever because we are on the brink of bloody anarchy. And two, despite all the collapse there is an incredible resilient creative revolution which has been bubbling underground for the last 9 years or so that is cross generational and that can transform this place in a second if give the facilitation and the chance. That local creative revolution is happening at a moment where there is an enormous appetite and brand buzz for T&T products and sensibility globally that has been spawned by brand ambassadors like Nicki Minaj, Romany Malco, Heather Headly, and dozens of others. If we move to implement core system enablers and move to facilitate our top 10% of creatives we can have $2 billion more in foreign exchange in less than two years and be well on our way to Renaissance. It can happen that quickly! The very same communities we see that are collapsing will flip into being points of light…. I’m game to rally dispirited troupes once more for and behalf of a wounded nation to try and get government to do the right thing this Budget. If this does not happen I advocate complete Maroonage for our Creatives and strategic exile…

    • What do you think Dan Ethan Martineau?

    • How do you come up with the $2 billion figure though Rubadiri?
      And in two years?! That’s actually well within the cycle of a government. That’s quite a claim.
      I do like the innovation for sure. And we will happily publish a blog from you that speaks with more detail on this topic.

    • At one time, we also had decent fashion industry, our food has been featured internationally-what happened to the food festival that I assumed transformed into restaurant week?-Tobago has the heritage festival, our best village is dead, I believe, we have many talented local craftsmen who were around the Savannah for Carnival, why do we not have a booth featuring our local craftsmen at the airport (and yes, I see what we have there, and what was available around the Savannah). Even Store Bay has better options for souvenir imo. We even have small films winning awards, a local film festival I recall. Where is the sustained thrust, funding, publicity.

    • We have to start thinking beyond “booths at airports” for carnival craftsmen.
      As a matter of fact just on the basis of the many trini styled carnivals around the world we should be looking at ways of monetizing our craft for export.
      One of the most painful ironies is the “made in china” phenomenon with the excuse being we do not have the capacity to produce.
      I don’t think this cannot change. It is not impossible. Just nobody in the private sector is willing to take that risk..

    • I was thinking the small craftsmen could be assisted with setting up websites, and also to be able to ship orders internationally. We live in a global village, our craft should be easily accessed internationally. I am not sure if the Ministry of Community Development (?) would be in a position to help them set up and provide links on relevant ministries websites.

  25. The strongest economies in the world do everything possible to attract as much FDI as possible because it adds exponentially to the overall GDP of a country creating wealth and jobs.

    How is TT to survive in a depressed energy price economy without attracting new investments?

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_received_FDI

    • I really don’t use wikipedia. We need to have a nuanced informed debate. FDI can have developmental impacts when there are strong state institutions and the political system that can manage transnational enterprises. Singapore is a good example. However since the 1980s with the opening of trade and liberalisation of markets and WTO rules, countries have. Been really challenged to attract the types of FDI which can help them develop. Lou-Anne Barclay makes similar conclusions as Zophia Edwards about T&T.

    • The list of ranked countries by FDi is referenced from the CIA Factbook. T&T is ranked 44th in the world. Venezuela, with 30.4 million people, is ranked 56th. The top five are all developed countries: US, Hong Kong, China, UK and Germany. FDI is essential to developing and growing our small economy.

    • Erm… Let’s be careful about the direction of causation. FDI does not necessarily cause growth. Study after study shows otherwise. There are many other factors involved, and one can also suggest that a country’s level of development may in fact increase foreign investment. The majority of FDI go to advanced economies because their institutions and markets are more developed. Not necessarily the other way around.

    • Ask Barbados, Grenada, St Kitts, Jamaica… what a lack of FDI can do.

  26. The largest users of foreign exchange are the citizens of Trinidad & Tobago. Period. These companies can only sell what you buy. Also, they are the largest employers in our economy; if they can’t get foreign exchange how are they to pay employees from sales of those imported goods?

  27. He makes a recommendation without articulating how. How is Trinidad & Tobago to generate huge revenues outside of oil and gas with only 1.2 million people and few natural resources outside of energy?