Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Govt data basket case reaches scandal level

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Mark Fraser

 Latest appraisals by the presumably no-nonsense reviewers of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have allowed Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar to indulge in self-praise of her government’s economic management. Displaying exemplary promptness in its reporting and disclosure, the IMF team released its much-awaited findings on April 2, the day after the close of its annual Article IV mission. 

Nobody had been waiting more impatiently than a Persad-Bissessar administration hungrier than ever for good news from reliable sources. The IMF report obligingly rehearsed indicators such as “healthy” foreign reserves; low unemployment; ample cash resources enjoyed by businesses; “relatively quiescent” inflation; rebounding energy exports, and growing imports particularly of motor vehicles.

“Trinidad and Tobago is experiencing more robust growth after several years of sub-par performance,” said the report. It also projected a quickening of growth and a lessening of the Budget deficit. With such references, the report could be taken as hailing an uptick in economic management and performance. 

Days later, as she addressed the American Chamber of T&T, Mrs Persad-Bissessar was encouraged to perform as cheerleader-in-chief, offering a political road march on the theme: “There is a success story in T&T”. 

Only in the eyes of People’s Partnership beholders, however, can the IMF report be read as lyrics for any song-and-dance celebration. The Fund team associated the growth with renewed energy sector activity, as it characterised the non-energy sector as “fairly buoyant”. 

By any prudent measure, the IMF reviewers appear to be saying: So far, so good—rather than applauding the accomplishments of T&T’s economic managers high up in the Twin Towers. The report urged shifting the emphasis of state financial outlays away from consumption and toward investment, and called for an end to “costly and inequitable” fuel subsidies. 

Even more critically, the IMF inspectors, having found “serious data deficiencies”, appeared to question the reliability of official T&T figures on which both reporting and planning are based. Absent data of the quality needed, their report resorted to making its “best estimate” and relied elsewhere on “anecdotal data”.

T&T should not have needed the truly sobering reminder bluntly highlighted in the report: “We wish to place the greatest stress on remedying the continued shortcomings of the Central Statistical Office (CSO) in generating critical data, which hamper effective policy making and lessen transparency.” The mission thus rubbed the faces of official T&T in a too-long familiar reality: the once-vaunted CSO, now much-neglected, has become the basket case of public administration. 

At least since 2012, an IDB-Statistics Sweden remedial project was reported to be rectifying CSO shortcomings. The IMF assessment has found little or no sign of CSO betterment. This counts as a scandal which should not be allowed to endure until the IMF once again comes and cries foul.