Business Page - GO-INVEST – Investment and reality
BY Christopher Ram
Stabroek News, 17 August 2008
As we conclude the series of columns on the QA II privatisation, we turn our attention to the Guyana Office for Investment (GO-INVEST), an entity established in 1994 under the Public Corporations Act 1988 to replace GUYMIDA, an agency with similar objectives closed down soon after the change of government in 1992. GUYMIDA had operated a very structured process for incentives including tax holidays but as is so often the case we throw the baby away with the bath water and there is no documented evidence of the experiences, lessons and mistakes of that agency that would have avoided some of the failures we are now witnessing. The functions of the GO-INVEST as set out in the Order creating it include the facilitation of investments though the identification of investment opportunities and providing profiles for such opportunities.
These functions were expanded in 2004 with the passage of the Investment Act that reposed in GO-INVEST responsibility for setting up and operating the Secretariat of the Investment Promotion Council (IPC). In fact it is that act that placed GO-INVEST in the eye of the QA II storm since GO-INVEST is required to, “at least once annually, review and recommend to the Government alterations in the Priority Lists for Investment categories under section 2 of the Income Tax (In Aid of Industry) Act” – the section that allows the Minister of Finance to grant discretionary tax holidays and to “annually recommend to the Government alterations to the regime of fiscal incentives established for investment including incentives relating to tariffs and taxes, import duties and to export-oriented enterprises.”
Any amendments to the regime of fiscal concessions should therefore have emanated from GO-INVEST and the haste with which Bill # 14 was passed to restore wide-ranging discretionary concessions to the hands of the Minister of Finance was another case of the abrogation by the politicians of a function embedded in the law to be performed independently and professionally. The considerable reduction in the scope for discretionary concessions under a change in the law in 2003 was not only a condition of the multilateral financial institutions and donors but was a way to provide better and more transparent governance. That the status quo is being restored so soon after our exit from the IMF programme is surely not reassuring.
My enquiries concerning this area of GO-INVEST’s statutory responsibility suggest complete confusion at GO-INVEST about whether or not some of its directors are even aware of, let alone, discharge this responsibility. It was simply unbelievable how difficult it was to obtain from that source a copy of the GO-INVEST Order and how confused persons are as to whether the functions of the IPC have been taken over by the National Competitive Council headed by President Jagdeo. We shall leave for later the accomplishments of that council, expenditure on expensive consultants, the usefulness of no less than six ministers sitting around discussing matters that have been fully ventilated and decided on more than a decade ago, and why we need to borrow $5.4 billion dollars on what, from occasional publications issued by the National Competitiveness Council, appears to be a complete waste of resources. Just think of the many better uses to which that money can be spent.
The executive head of GO-INVEST is Mr Geoff DaSilva, a long-time PPP activist in Canada whose appointment as Minister of Trade ended with his replacement by Mr Manzoor Nadir of the TUF. GO-INVEST’s acting chairman is Mr Keith Burrowes who heads a number of other government controlled entities. Apparently because the government treated QA II principally as a privatization the role of GO-INVEST was secondary to that of the PU/NICIL headed by Mr Winston Brassington. GO-INVEST did take a lead salesman’s role in representing the transaction and in language not quite suited to an investment promotion agency attacked “the very small cabal of self-appointed business leaders” who had called for an apology from President Jagdeo for his widely criticized response to business leader Yesu Persaud’s call for the rest of the private sector to be granted similar concessions as QA II. Repeating the language of the President, GO-INVEST described a statement by the Private Sector Commission as “reflecting ignorance of the privatisation framework.”
While falling short of an apology, it must have taken some guts then for Mr DaSilva at the PU/NICIL’s seminar on taxation to admit that “we made a mistake” in awarding tax holidays to two of QA II’s companies, an admission that none of the other players in the saga has so far had the courage to make. At the time of the seminar the misrepresentation of the $50 million per annum rent had not yet been revealed, nor was the claim about a textile mill, a misrepresentation that has so far gone unacknowledged by GO-INVEST, an agency that had described as “totally dishonest” an innuendo by the Private Sector Commission.
GO-INVEST has had no chairman for some time and the acting position is held by Mr Keith Burrowes, who is, among many other public offices he holds, the Chairman of the Guyana Chronicle, which was another entity cheerleading for the QA II deal. While the Guyana Revenue Authority is represented on the Board there has been no private sector representative since the withdrawal of Mr David Yankana several years ago on account of ill-health.
Mr DaSilva’s presentation at the July 29 Taxation Seminar emphasised the “investment projects of 285 companies totaling US$835M” between 2002 and 2008. He announced that these projects had attracted some 1006 concessions in the form of duty free concessions for machinery, equipment, vehicles and furnishings amounting to sixteen billion dollars between 2005 to June 2008. Mr DaSilva’s paper did not offer any reason for giving the investment projects for one period while stating the incentives in the form of tax exemptions for a considerably shorter period. In fact not all of the 285 entities are companies and it would have been instructive for Mr DaSilva to have indicated the value of the concessions granted to the self-employed and other unincorporated businesses that continue to deprive the country of billions of dollars of tax revenue each year. In effect these businesses get more in the form of concessions than they pay in the form of taxes or benefit they provide to the economy.
The public is understandably still concerned about the revelations of the QA II details but there is a bigger picture in which there has been exposed a massive failure on the part of key government agencies and officials to discharge a professional quality of coordination, due diligence and necessary follow-up work on concessions granted to investment projects. The entities are set up and officials are paid, often tax-free $US to do a professional job for the taxpaying public, not to act as servants to politicians.
Matching the numbers
GO-INVEST’s numbers have always attracted attention for their lack of support and in their 2006 Budget Focus, Ram & McRae commented that the GO-INVEST “seems to have its own measure of identifying projects, the investments made and the jobs created. This time  it appears to have out-done itself with the minister’s statement that it [GO-INVEST] has facilitated nearly 140 private sector projects, representing investments of $68Bn which generated an additional 9,000 jobs.” Those numbers translate into an average of 65 jobs and an investment of $485M per project or $7.5M per job. Even the economic powerhouse China could not attract such investments! Focus had also noted that the Finance Minister had announced in his 2005 budget presentation that seventy-five investment projects had been facilitated by GO-INVEST which should have created 1,900 direct jobs and the firm suggested that it was unfortunate that the Minister in his presentation in the following year did not indicate how many of the 1,900 jobs were actually created.
Co-incidentally no investment or job numbers were announced in subsequent budget speeches.
Mr DaSilva also told the seminar that only about 60% of the investments are notified or facilitated by Go-Invest. Adding the remaining 40% would put investments between 2002-2008 at US$1.4 billion or in private sector investment. How do these numbers match up with other data in the economy?
2001 2002 2003 2004 2005 2006 2007
Active employed (thousands) 121 120 115 115 117 117 118
Active self employed (thousands) 11 10 9 9 7 7 7
Taxes paid by Self-employed ($M) 725 778 887 993 919 1,030 1,243
Source of information: National Insurance Scheme & National Estimates
Mr DaSilva usually dismisses questions about Go-Invest’s numbers by questioning the effectiveness of the National Insurance Scheme but the GRA which actually grants concessions sits on his board in the person of one of its officials, some of whom have been sent on leave in relation to a high profile tax-evasion scandal. Are we to believe that the GRA is so generous and careless about the billions of dollars of concessions that it grants every year or that the NIS is still troublingly inefficient and expensively incompetent after sixteen years?
Taking a tax holiday
There is undoubtedly a high degree of underreporting by businesses to the GRA and the NIS and many Guyanese taxpayers including companies that are audited do not wait for tax holidays but take them, adding another dimension of “discretion” to them. But Go-Invest’s role is the promotion of investments not tax evasion, even as it expects the GRA to do a better job particularly since up-front concessions are given for investments that are often overstated. There is no single instance of the revocation of concessions or the prosecution of those businesses that provide false information to get concessions from the GRA.
A close examination of the investments for which concessions have been granted by the GRA on the recommendations of Go-Invest leads to questions about some of the information published by Go-Invest. Here are some examples obtained from comparing GO-Invest’s information with that contained in the financial reports of public companies and other verifiable sources.
Sterling Products Ltd is stated as having been granted concessions in 2004 for machinery, equipment and vehicles for an investment of $600M. According to the financial statements of the company the amount invested in 2004 and 2005 was $155 M.
The DDL subsidiary TOPCO is stated as having invested $800M in 2004 and 2005. In fact the bulk of the investment was done in 2003 while the total investment by all DDL subsidiaries in 2003-2005 was under $800 million.
Caribbean Containers Inc, another public company is shown as having invested $310M in 2004 and 2006. In fact, the company’s financial statements show capital expenditure for those years of $6.9M.
The same G&C Sanata Company Inc that has been described by QA II as abandoned for fifteen years is shown as having invested $800 million in 2005 while CGX is shown as having invested $12 billion or US$60 million.
The same level of casualness appears with regard to private companies including clients of Ram & McRae whose investments in their books are nowhere close to those reported by Go-Invest, while in the case of the Omai/IAMGold/Bosai there seems to be evidence of double-counting with the payment by Bosai to IAMGOLD being shown as an investment.
QAII has been more than an embarrassment for this government. It has been a revelation of how government business is transacted, public assets are sold, tax concessions given away and the public is misled by, to use the words of Go-Invest “a very small cabal” of political functionaries and professionals who seem willing to compromise their professionalism to meet the objectives set by politicians. All of the key players involved, the President, the Minister of Finance, Cabinet, the Privatisation Board, PU/NICIL, Guyana Revenue Authority and G-Invest have been found terribly wanting.
The fact that during the revelation of this saga the law was changed to facilitate even looser action by these persons and institutions must be a great cause for concern and reinforces the view that legislation was introduced to legitimize the unlawful.
There is clearly a need to review the operations and mandate of each of these offices and functions with the requirement for considerably more rules-based decisions carried out in a system of proper checks and balances. Too much is at stake for the revenues, assets and welfare of the nation. The rest of society including the accounting profession needs to demand a greater say in these matters.
Next week we will look at the Auditor General’s Report for 2006