Colm Imbert has failed as Finance Minister! There is no other way of saying it. He must now do the honourable thing and resign since it is clear that Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley will not do what he must know is in the best interest of the country and sack his Finance Minister.
In this hyper-partisan society that we live in where the tragic death of a young woman could be painfully seen by so many through the eyes of politics, I am sure this call will be interpreted as me either not liking the minister, or not liking the government or the ruling People’s National Movement (PNM) or even being a supporter of the Opposition United National Congress (UNC).
The truth is that as a citizen of this country and having spent some time looking at the performance of finance ministers from Selby Wilson to Wendell Mottley all the way to Imbert, the fact is the present minister does not and cannot engender confidence, that he has any real plan to fix the economic woes.
He just does not have the ideas, skills or open-mindedness to solve the problems. The last six years have proven Imbert has already taken us down the road to perdition with the real prospect of hell facing us, unless we do something quickly.
Let us just look at the facts. Minister Imbert inherited an economy facing significant challenges. The crude oil prices had collapsed from averaging almost US$100 during the term of the Kamla Persad-Bissessar administration. Crude production had also declined 20 per cent from over 100,000 barrels of oil per day(bo/d) when the UNC came to power, to closer to 80,000 (bo/d).
Natural gas prices were also on their way down from US$10 per million British thermal units (mmbtu) in Asia to close to US$4 (mmbtu). Remember what impacts the offshore economy significantly determines the health of the onshore economy.
Imbert’s appointment came after five years of profligate spending by the UNC government in which the country’s patrimony was frittered away with billion-dollar projects, many cost overruns, allegations of corruption, massive increases in transfers and subsidies.
Do you remember the baby milk fiasco? Imbert found a country living above its means. So he did not inherit an easy situation.
What did he do? Instead of tackling head-on the need to adjust our spending to meet the reality of our situation and move quickly to transform the economy, he spent five years being a shop keeper, cutting here and there and blaming the UNC for our hardship.
Not once has Imbert or this government owned the economy. It has been a case of pure smartmanism, blaming the former government and now the COVID-19 pandemic.
The structural problems we face as a country are not related to the pandemic but are completely based on our reluctance to take decisive action to ensure value for money and investment into the future of the economy.
When Imbert took up the position of Finance Minister the country’s total debt was $84.1 billion. By November last year, it had risen to $101.1 billion according to the Central Bank of T&T.
Public debt as a percentage of GDP has moved from 53.9 per cent to over 80 per cent under Imbert. This massive increase had been happening prior to COVID-19 because by 2019 it had gone up 10 percentage points. No amount of smoke and mirrors can hide that reality.
It does not take into account the $15 billion he has over the years taken out of the Heritage and Stabilisation Fund.
When Imbert took office in 2015 the per capita gross domestic product was US$18,484 that had fallen to US$17,370 by 2018. The country’s official foreign reserves have fallen from US$10 billion to just about US$7 billion.
With the exception of the inflation rate, almost every economic indicator was in decline prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond the raw numbers the minister’s proclivity to be economic with the truth does not inspire confidence.
He has consistently been wrong in his assumptions particularly on the oil and gas sector. Imbert with the backing of the Prime Minister, has tried to shut down anyone and any institution that dare have a view that is at variance with theirs.
We can only remember the scurrilous attack on economists, particularly Marla Dukharan seeking to suggest that there is some kind of political motive in their analysis.
He has never apologised to the Parliament for his claims of natural gas production to average 3.8 bcf/d in 2019, even though anyone who knew anything about the industry knew this was wrong and would hurt government’s expected revenue.
Imbert’s lack of candidness makes it difficult to believe what is real from what is a smokescreen.
Another shortcoming of the minister is his unwillingness to listen to advice. From all reports he did all he can to frustrate the work of the economic development board.
His advisers at the Ministry of Finance have left him. Therefore, the engineer-cum-Finance Minister is doing it with little high-level support. It might be good for your ego but not for the country.
So we have established that the minister has failed in all the crucial areas. For him to come now and seek to tell us the truth about revenue generation and blame it on COVID is to play smart with foolishness.
He has been able to reduce the overall size of the budget by taking some decisions that reduced transfers and subsidies, particularly on the fuel subsidy which he has now removed.
But Imbert has not dealt with the over-valued exchange rate, he has raided the Heritage and Stabilisation fund.
Imbert has not seen one year of growth under his tenure. He has not implemented the Roadmap to Recovery report. He has not set this country on the path to sustainability. Imbert has simply failed!
As a country and as the party of Williams and Mottley surely the PNM could do better. We deserve better than Imbert!