Mid Ocean News (24 Mar. 2005)
UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'
Bermuda's a community of shoppers, not shopkeepers
TRUMAN Capote said it best, Mr. Editor: The dogs bark but the caravan moves on. So with the House down and out for Easter, and then some, and with the dust and the hyperbole of the Budget Debate behind us, it’s time to take stock, Mr. Editor, of what else but the Bermuda economy.
Something the Minister of Finance Paula Cox mentioned in her Budget Statement first caught my ear and then my eye.
“One of the hallmarks of the successive Progressive Labour Party administrations”, Ms. Cox proudly opined in her written Statement, “has been the disciplined focus on stable macro-economic management that has resulted in a general improvement in the economic well-being of all members of our community.”
That’s some claim, Mr. Editor, a general improvement for all members.
The Finance Minister had her cheerleaders too. Her PLP colleagues on the front and back benches consistently and constantly proclaimed throughout the debate that the PLP administration was responsible for “a buoyant economy”. Nothing new about that, Mr Editor, this is what governments typically do. Anything that looks remotely successful has many fathers; only failures are orphans.
But how about this week, we drill down a bit and ask: If buoyant, buoyant for whom? Or perhaps as you read on, ask yourself this: In which Bermuda am I living and for which Bermuda am I preparing my children?
I take you then, Mr. Editor, and readers, to the 2004 Economic Review, a short but insightful review prepared by the Ministry of Finance and which annually accompanies the BS ( excuse me, Mr. Editor, but that’s short for Budget Statement). This report - which comes in plain black and white wrapping - doesn’t tend to feature front and centre in the debates and as a consequence doesn’t get much play, yet the facts and figures it presents tell a story or two if you take the time to piece the parts together.
Let’s start with this observation found very early on in the Review:
“A look at Bermuda’s domestic demand demonstrates that personal consumption was sustained by growth in employment income. Although total visitor arrivals decreased and Bermudian overseas spending increased, the local retail sector posted strong results”.
It seems, Mr. Editor, that we are a vibrant community of spenders.
While the results may not have been strong enough to save Triminghams, the Review still noted that the increase in sales in 2004 over 2003 was “extraordinary”. It was said to be extraordinary given that:
* the number of residents travelling abroad increased by over 20 percent during the first three quarters of 2004; and
* the overseas purchases declared by residents (and “declared” is a key word here, Mr Editor) upon their return to Bermuda during the same period increased by 30.2 percent; and
* consider that this doesn’t take into account the growing number of purchases by mail order and online shopping over the internet – which is, I am told, a burgeoning cottage industry in Bermuda .
For further proof that we are a community of shoppers, not shopkeepers, Mr. Editor, turn to imports. For the first nine months of 2004, Bermuda recorded an increase of $87.5 million or 13.9 percent year-over-year. There was only one “commodity group” that showed any significant decrease year over year and that was clothing, which was down by 2.5 percent. Again, Trim’s probably could have told us that, and Smith’s … and maybe still others will too.
Rather the largest components of personal expenditure in 2004 were reported to have been: housing, household goods, services and supplies.
But where’s the money coming from? Increases in employment income, we are told by the Review: -
“Employment income in Bermuda has been rising by increasing levels over the last few years. Specifically, the increase in 2002 was 6.1 %, 2003 was 23.1 % and the first three quarters of 2004 recorded a 26.5 % rise.”
This, of course, is in the aggregate, Mr. Editor, and the best illustration of what the aggregate means is this: Bill Gates walks into a bar of largely unemployed patrons and the per capita income shoots up to $250,000.00 per person per annum. But, of course, it isn’t.
Here in Bermuda, the Review tells us what most of us already know: two sectors were largely responsible for the increases in employment income for the first nine months of last year: international business (up 15.3%) and the construction industry (up 16.7%).
Let’s take a look at jobs then.
As for the actual number of jobs in Bermuda, they were predicted to be up year over year: 38,259 in 2004 compared to 37,686 in 2003, an increase of 573 jobs. But perhaps the most telling statistic, Mr. Editor, is that which shows that jobs held by Bermudians have declined over the last five years from 28,717 in 1999 to 27, 345 jobs in 2004 f or a decrease of 1372 jobs. Jobs held by non-Bermudian spouses over the same period have gone up 282 in number, while those held by non-Bermudians have risen 1500 from 1999 to 2004.
Meanwhile, the economists at the Ministry of Finance, who penned the Review, are anticipating a further increase of 15 % in employment income in 2005 – and that it will continue to lead to spending and more spending.
Not so blooming good
CREDIT also helps - or hurts the spending cause, Mr. Editor, as the case may be – and it would seem there is plenty out on credit here.
A small table in the Review shows that the total credit advanced to residents by banks and deposit companies has risen steadily from $2,113 million in 2000 to $3,521 million by mid-summer 2004 – and this is money reported to be out there in “loans, advances and mortgages”.
Spend. Spend. Spend. Mr. Editor. They’re counting on it.
Predicts the Review:
“With the expected increase in employment and income levels in 2005, consumer expenditures will once again be a major source of economic growth”.
When it came to spending, visitors – as in tourism – used to be a help, Mr. Editor, certainly more help than they have been in recent years. Spending by all visitors (air and cruise) has dropped from $477.2 million in 1999 to $347.9 million for 2003, and is still dropping – and not just because of fewer numbers. Based on the figures for the first three quarters of 2004, per capita spending by visitors arriving by air had slipped to $1,109 compared with $1,151 in 2003.
So we are counting on international business to continue to pull us through. But there are signs there too, that we should not ignore.
The rate of international business registrations appears to be levelling off, according to statistics kept by the Registrar of Companies: 13,318 in 2002; 13,509 in 2003; and 13, 573 or a 0.5 percent increase in 2004.
On top of this, we have our challenges from outside – organisations of alphabet soup name fame and the onshore jurisdictions, typified perhaps by the New York Times tax reporter David Cay Johnston and his book Perfectly Legal which features Bermuda as its poster boy in the chapter entitled “Profits Trump Patriotism”. As we learned in the last Presidential election campaign, it’s a line that plays not just in Washington but in Des Moines, Iowa.
The bloom on this rose is going to need more than just nurturing; protection too.
Tourism is flagging and there is no prospect of an immediate turnaround and we have a long way to go. These stats tell the story: The total number of bed nights sold in 1998, according to the Department of Tourism was 1,628,956. In 2004? 1,056,543 bed nights - over half a million less.
A rejuvenation is hoped for and the forecast for 2005 is further modest expansion … if employment income keeps on rising and we keep on spending.
Leading the way folks
WHEN it comes to spending, Mr. Editor, you can count on the PLP Government to lead the way. How about I share a few sure-fire, tell-tale signs to help our readers along: -
2005/2006 Budget: It’s a $711-million Budget up close to $51-million from the previous Budget of $665-million, or an increase of 8 per cent. By my calculations, $415-million of that total will be spent on salaries and related personnel items or roughly 60 cents of every tax dollar is what it costs to actually run the business of Government – and no, Mr. Editor, I haven’t included the projected $5.1 million to be spent on travel in that figure which is almost twice what it was back in 1999.
Capital spending: In last year’s Budget, revised figures for capital expenditure (some $110.1 million) exceeded the previous year by more than 34 per cent, or nine times the rate of inflation. This year capital spending is projected to rise to $137 million, a further 24 percent over last year’s huge increase and seven times the rate of inflation.
Debt capacity: The PLP have moved to increase the statutory ceiling on what can be raised by way of debt to $375 million, up $125-million from the previous limit of $250 million. This has been done, we were told, because the new limit “would allow for more flexible capital financing arrangements” and the projected estimated debt for the coming year is $250-million.
Rate of inflation: The increased spending, led by the PLP Government, only adds to the rate of inflation which appears to be creeping along, steadily, in the wrong direction. Their projected current account spending will be twice the current rate of inflation which has now reached 4 per cent. It has already outstripping the 3.5 percent increases in pensions which has been promised seniors effective August 1st. Health and Personal Care was up 8.8. percent and that’s on top of a 7 percent increase the year before and this year nothing less is expected, and it won’t be long before health care costs rival affordable housing as one of Bermuda’s biggest issues.
Add it all up, Mr. Editor.
That’s sum Social Agenda.