Saturday, January 20, 2018

Confidence needed to face challenge

THE silver lining under the cloud of pessimism that has settled upon the country over three years of depressed energy income may be in the growing willingness of citizens to accept responsibility for the state of the economy, whether collectively or personally.

This is one of the more intriguing interpretations to be gleaned from the recently-released socio-economic poll conducted by Market Facts and Opinions (MFO). In presenting the findings last week, MFO head Noble Phillip noted the nine per cent increase from 2016 to 2017 in the number of respondents who blamed “ourselves” for the state of the economy.

Phillip interpreted the 39 per cent admission as a willingness by the population to take ownership of the challenges which, in his view, was a good place from which to begin the process of fashioning responses.

It should be obvious that the ultimate responsibility for the state of our society and economy falls on each of us. But in an economy that remains defined by forces beyond ourselves, this view cannot be taken for granted. Since 1974, the price of oil has been the deus ex machina that has repeatedly come to our rescue just as we are about to fly off the economic cliff, and vice versa.

The highs and lows that we have enjoyed and endured have not all been of our own making, although we did succeed in capitalising on the opportunities created by others through our downstream investments.

By and large, however, the economy has waxed and waned according to the interests of the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), although, admittedly, OPEC’s influence on us has been reducing in line with the reduction in our oil reserves.

The act of seeing our own impacting role on the economy might well be the beginning of wisdom, for if our own actions are to be blamed for the state of the economy then, surely, by our own actions we can change it. This, in essence, is a position of power from which to face our challenges, economic and otherwise.

In the face of the poll’s findings of the population’s growing anxiety over financial security, it is worth reminding ourselves that Trinidad and Tobago is still far from the depths plumbed during previous recessions.

After a high of roughly US$120 a barrel in July 1980, oil prices fell to around US$69 in November 1985 before its precipitous collapse to US$23 in 1986, triggering record high unemployment of 22 per cent in 1987. Then, after recovering to US$73 in September 1990, the price of oil fluctuated until the calamitous fall to US$17 in November 1998.

Apart from the price of oil, however, there are many more variables to be considered in determining the economic health of the country. One of them is confidence.

Today, with the price of oil at US$58 and climbing, the level of pessimism suggested by the MFO poll findings may have well more to do with the loss of self-confidence in the population’s perception of its own ability to create meaningful and sustained change. Exploring this is an opportunity for self-knowledge that should not be missed.