Sunday, July 27, 2008

The role of the Privatisation Unit in the QAII deal

Business Page

Posted By Stabroek News On July 27, 2008 @ 5:11 am In Features, Sunday
The role of the Privatisation Unit in the QAII deal

The President’s postponed Privatisation and Taxation Seminar finally gets underway this Tuesday at Le Meridien Pegasus, on a by-invitation only basis. I am touched at the unusual number of enquiries about my travel arrangements which I hope reflect an interest in my welfare and are unrelated to the seminar. The invitation does not include a programme, which is probably still being worked on, as the government this week was cleaning up the relevant incentives legislation which it passed with much fanfare in 2003 and then misunderstood and misapplied for five years. Hopefully the sponsors of the seminar will tell us how much their failure has cost the nation and how the government plans to regularise all the improprieties since the hurriedly introduced legislation does not. I understand that the seminar will be addressed by Messrs Winston Brassington, Geoff DaSilva and Khurshid Sattaur of the Privatisation Unit, Go-Invest and the Guyana Revenue Authority respectively, all associated with the Queens Atlantic Investment Inc (QAII) deal that has raised serious concerns about governance, accountability, the rule of law and competence.

Readers will recall that when Business Page entered the exchange on the QAII deal on June 8 it sought mainly to clarify some issues arising from statements made by President Jagdeo on the perceived tax concessions given to QAII. As early as then, this column suggested to the newly established Guyana Times that it run its own story on the concessions and called on the government to observe its own laws and disclose in the Official Gazette information on the fiscal incentives granted, as required by section 37 of the Investment Act 2004. The whole truth from those with access to the relevant information would have avoided much of the speculation among members of the public who have become cynical with the knee-jerk reactions and piecemeal, half-accurate information from the government. The consternation generated is partly responsible for the corresponding deluge of information which well-placed members of the public have volunteered, and that highlights serious credibility problems particularly for the Minister of Finance and the agencies under his control.
Without exonerating the Cabinet and very specifically the Minister of Finance for the disastrous public relations and credibility problem caused by the handling of this matter, the role of the Privatisation Unit (PU) headed by Mr Winston Brassington has been Privatisation Board/Cabinet Submission seriously exposed by a document I received earlier this week titled dated May 3, 2007. It is clear from that document that the Privatisation Board – which includes Ministers Robert Persaud and Manniram Prashad – was prepared to rush into an agreement with QAII. Notice of the meeting to consider the application for concessions was given even before the application had been received from the company, and within one day of an unsigned application involving hundreds of millions of dollars, the PU had not only considered but could actually recommend the concessions sought. To place that into perspective, my experience is that it takes the unit more time to return a simple telephone call!

Schedule of planned construction
According to QA II the project should have started in 2007, but for reasons unknown there has been a delay of about one year. Making allowance for this the investment programme of QAII will run into 2013 as follows:
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Without seeking to understate the group’s much hyped promised investment, the only project set for completion within a year is the printery, with the construction of a hardware warehouse and a bonded duty-free pharmaceutical warehouse scheduled for completion in two years. Contrary to what the President had said the only commitment on a textile mill is for a feasibility study to be completed within 18 months, while two full years are expected to elapse before a 3 ½ year construction of the antibiotics plant, to be followed five years later by the construction of the Research and Development Facility. In other words the 600 jobs will be a long time in coming, if they come at all, and so too, will the much emphasised US$30 million investment. In any case they will be very welcome, and assuming that the investors have been acting in good faith, Business Page wishes them well.

Where is the newspaper?
What is striking in reading the application by the company and the recommendations of the Privatisation Unit is the absence of any reference to the printing and publishing of the newspaper which in fact is the first real venture to materialise and which would have benefited, if not directly then indirectly, from any concessions granted to the other companies. The paper is being produced at the Sanata Complex for which QAII companies have received approval for concessions for all kinds of building materials, generators, etc.
The proposal by QAII assumes that the group will benefit indefinitely from the sweetheart arrangements it has with the government for the purchase of drugs, and speaks of being “able to order and retain buffer stocks to prevent drug shortages, which is a recurring problem with the existing system.” It does not explain, and nor does Mr Brassington explore, the relationship between the retention of buffer stock and the vast advance payments the group receives from the government for the purchase of drugs. What if this arrangement comes to an end – does the project stand or fall on this?

The lease payment
Messrs Brassington and DaSilva have told us that the country will receive $50 million dollars in rental per year, pegged to the US$ and adjusted for US inflation. Brassington’s document tells us otherwise. These are the arrangements:

i. The lease of the land and buildings for 99 years at the US $ equivalent of G$50/annum per square foot (payable in G$ at the prevailing exchange rate) subject to:
a. A rent free period of 5 years for the printing and dying section/with storage. This area is estimated to be approximately 6 acres; and
b. A 60% reduced rental for the remaining 14 acres for the first five years commencing from the date of execution of a lease agreement.”

While from year 6 the rent will be the equivalent of G$43.5 million in today’s money, during the first five years it is a mere $18 million for 871,200 square feet of land plus the building, and here I am giving Mr Brassington the benefit of his miscalculation since he reckons it will be only $12 million. Let me say as well that I believe that the government’s financial experts are confusing indexation with the discount rate, but that is not an issue for this column even though the implication is a cost to the country.

Professional valuators value property including land by reference to recent transactions in the same or similar areas. In 2007 the government charged John Fernandes Limited $320 million for 6 acres of land in the same complex, so that on a proportional basis, 20 acres of land to QAII will be valued at over G$1 billion dollars.

To convert a capital value to an annual lease payment, professional valuators as a rule of thumb divide the capital sum by ten years, which would put the amount of the annual lease for the 20 acres at over G$100 million. In other words, the lease payment is reduced by over $80 million per year for the first five years with the building thrown in free! And in each year thereafter, the reduction is approximately G$50 million.

Expedient law-making
We will look next week at other issues concerning the Privatisation Unit whose very existence in law is doubtful and which takes advantage of its questionable legal status to engage in creative governmental accounting. For now we turn attention to the bill tabled by the Finance Minister this past Thursday designed to restore discretionary concessions being granted by the political directorate. It is a complete reversal of the 2003 repeal of a 1970 provision in the Income Tax Act which allowed the President to remit taxes where he had felt it was “just and equitable” to do so. The 2003 repeal was explained as the elimination of the broad discretionary power to concede amounts of income tax payable and under some extremely narrowly defined conditions such as “natural disaster, disability, mental incapacity or death” and only if it was expressly provided for in a tax act. Five years later Bill # 14 of 2008 empowers the Minister of Finance to make regulations for the remission of all or part of the tax payable by any person or category of persons subject only to negative resolution of the National Assembly! In respect of discretionary waivers, we are now worse than we were 38 years ago, let alone 5!

If passed in its present form, the bill could render meaningless critical sections of the Financial Administration and Audit Act even as it fails to legitimise all those concessions given since 2003 based on a wrong interpretation and application of the Income Tax (In Aid of Industry) Act, including tax holidays granted to non-companies. It is possible that since the Minister and those under his control are the only persons with access to that information and further, since there appears to be no intention to comply with section 37 of the Investment Act 2004, there is nothing to correct.

The last hope is that the Audit Office will highlight the improprieties and one hopes the almost two year delay in the publication of the 2006 Audit Report has allowed the Office enough time to do a thorough job, including the Investment Act section 37 omissions. The bill now allows the Minister of Finance in his discretion to grant tax holidays in respect of infrastructural development for an indefinite period as opposed to existing legislation which does not include infrastructural development and limits tax holidays to ten years. It will also allow the Minister to grant tax holidays to value-added wood processing, rice millers and chicken farms, sugar refining and of course to the QA II investments like textile production, new pharmaceutical products (new to science or to Guyana?) and the processing of raw materials to produce injectables. Instead of limiting tax holidays to 30 + room tourist hotels the Minister will now be able to grant these to any tourist facilities, the definition of which he will decide for himself.

The bill
It maintains the geographical as well as the industrial-type classes of investment for which the Minister can grant tax holidays so that in practice, once the activity creates new employment in a widely defined range of economic activities that leaves out mainly financial and distribution services, it can benefit from the Minister’s generosity. The scope of this legislation in my judgment and experience borders on the reckless, and if this is the government’s considered view then it may as well abolish Corporation Tax altogether.

Business Page offers no prize for guessing who will finance all this extravagance – of course it will be the salaried workers in the more legitimate and formal businesses and the consumers in the form of VAT. Coupled with the generosity of the politicians to some entities, this is a dangerous piece of legislation that shows how little the powers understand the tax system and how it works.
I hope that the debate on the bill in the National Assembly will be lively and that it will resonate with civil society and the trade union movement. Most of all I hope that that debate starts at the seminar or else more difficult times will lie ahead for the working and unemployed poor. And I hope too that the International Financial Institutions that have helped so much to avert economic disaster are now paying attention.

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