Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Will we increase the productivity by changing the working hours from 08:00 to 16:00?

There has been a surprising change in the structure of civil service pay structure and the timing of government offices, to be implemented in February 2009. According to the press briefings and various interviews, there will be a slight pay rise to all government employees due to this sudden change, and starting from February 01st, the working hours of all government offices will be 08:00 to 16:00, with a lunch break of one hour from 12:00 to 13:00. The total working hours remains at 07, which was the same even with 07:30 to 14:30 as the official working hours. So, what is the objective of changing the work hours? What are we trying to achieve? Normally, one would expect an increase in pay rise to be associated with an increase in working hours in order to increase the aggregate output of the country. If the change does not increase the number of working hours, I don’t see too many economic benefits of simply starting 30 minutes late, and finishing 1.5 hours late, with one hour break in between (which becomes technically an unproductive one hour).

Due to this change, the civil service employees dependent on part-time employment are mostly to suffer. As many may not be able to continue their part-time jobs, and as a result lose a significant amount of their previous income. If the pay rise does not compensate such loss, then there will be a net loss in the economic welfare. The economy also loses as many leave their part-time employment. Normally, these part-time employments are placed in the private sector, and people are hired selectively based on productivity. This recent reform may in the end lower the productivity in the economy.

Brining our work hours in line with international practice is one of the reasons that were often heard as justification for the change in government working hours. In almost all other countries, people are required to commute hours to work every morning, thus justifies late starting time. But in Maldives, we could get to work within a maximum 15 minutes even in the largest islands in the Southern atolls. Starting our work even at 7:00 will not be a problem for us (Staff at schools start at this time even now). If our objective is to increase productivity, starting at 07:00 and finishing at 14:00 would be a much better option.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

New resort developments: the lost revenue

Maldives government has decided to grant an extension to all the new resort developers, so that they get an additional 12 months before they start paying rent to the government.
The lease agreement between the investor and the government requires the investor to start operations and start paying the lease rent within 24 months of the signing the agreement.
The decision by the government to grant an extension would result in a decline in the expected government revenue within the next 12 months, on top of the escalating government expenditures.
The delay in opening the new resorts for operation also means the lost revenue to the government through bed tax.

So, the delay and extension costs a lot to the government, and these factors make us wonder, why the delay in opening those resorts?

The leasing of islands for tourism development is carried out by the Ministry of Tourism and follows a model in which uninhabited islands are auctioned off in a bidding process with government publishing the criteria in advance.

The Ministry of Tourism embarked on an ambitious expansion of the tourism industry with 37 new islands opened for bidding in the period 2004-2006. The first round of developments was announced in 2004, with 11 islands being opened for bidding.

In 2006, with the new set of islands, government tried to be more transparent and objective and opened islands for bidding under the ‘open-rent’ and ‘closed-rent’ categories.

If we were to construct a model for determining the probability of opening a resort for operations within 24 months of awarding the island, it would depend on the following factors: availability of investment finance; management expertise; location of the island; proposed lease rent; assuming all the other factors remain the same.

The availability of investment finance or the ability of obtaining debt finance from banks is linked to almost all the factors mentioned above. For example, the higher the proposed lease rent, the lower will be the profitability, and thus feasibility of the investment. The location of the island has significant implications on the transportation costs and the construction costs of the island, and thus affects the prospect of obtaining finance as well.

The lease rent plays a major and a significant role in making the investment worthwhile, and thus the sustainability of the venture. Hence, bidding procedures need to be de-linked to the rent component in order to make new resort developments a success. The policies adopted in 2004-2006, especially in the case of the ‘open-rent’ category of islands, has done nothing but inflated the lease rents above the true market value. As a result, new investors are struggling to obtain the necessary finance.
If these islands were awarded with industry average lease rents, the probability of getting those islands opened would have increased, and with it the government revenue through bed tax.
Sustainable tourism development is much more important than trying to squeeze short-term gains through high lease rent payments. Sustainable it can be made only through allowing true market values to be reflected in the lease rents.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

"Will increasing the incomes of all increase the happines of all?"

Few years back a group of economists conducted a study in which they compared the happiness levels of societies across the world. One of the questions they raised was “will increasing the income of all increase the happiness of all?” When we think about it, most of the time we relate people’s financial well-being with happiness. If this is true, the happiest people in the world would be the wealthy population.

Addressing this issue at a micro level, you may expect your happiness level to increase a little bit, if there is a bit increase in your monthly income. With the rise in income, probably you would be able to afford more leisure, fancy goods, or a nice home. Will any additional rise in income increase your level of happiness? According to those economists, happiness often depends on relative income as well. If your income doubles, and at the same time, incomes of your neighbor and friends triples, then it may not increase your happiness level. If your income doubles, while incomes of all the others remain the same, then will you feel happier? Depending on the answers that we give these questions, it may be true that increasing the income of all may not increase the happiness of all.

We may bring political reform with it provide us many civil liberties. We need economic reforms, with it should provide a livelihood. We also need social reforms, so that we can achieve the kind of ‘happiness’ that I’m talking about.

We may establish a society based on good democratic principles and even progress economically. However, economic progress not necessarily means improvement in living standard. With a rise in income level, there must be mental happiness, and the emotional well-being of the people in the country. Economic development if achieved at the expense of a wealthy society with high suicide rates, increased crimes, and broken families, then increasing the incomes alone may not the improve the happiness of all.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Discussion with Economists: youth, employment & wave motorcycles

I thought of sharing the views and ideas expressed in our various discussions as it might help many others and trigger the thought process, and lead to useful recommendations for development policies.

Majority of the youth aged between 18-35 at present fall under a unique category when we compare it to many other countries in the world. In most other countries, when a young person graduates from college and enter the job market, have many aspirations like owning a house, a car, or a good pension (retirement plan). In Maldives (particularly, in Male’) : a ‘wave’ motorcycle, or probably a small 12 x 10 bedroom. There’s no motivation or a driving force for most of the youth to get a good job and work hard to earn a good living. Earn all that money for what? We can’t own a decent house and have a quality life. The most we can fulfill is to own a motorcycle and ride for 30 minutes every night. Some of the tsunami victims who live in temporary camps, when given a little money chose to own a ‘Lifan’ motorcycle, that happens to be parked outside the ‘tent’. Bank of Maldives availed Rf15,000 soft loans out of the proceeds of international aid after tsunami. Most of these loans were being used to purchase motorcycles on installment.

The bottom line is, we need to induce a motivation within the youth, so that they have at least something to work for. When there’s no important goal in life, when hard work and earned income doesn’t provide them an incentive to lead a better life, we may not be able to solve the youth employment problem. We may not be able to reduce the expatriate labor force.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Discussion with fellow Economists -political economy

Last night I got the privilege of having a meaningful and very fruitful, and inspiring chat with four of the most prominent and experienced Economists in Maldives. It was just a friendly coffee and happened to last for four hours. We discussed various issues in our economy; including but not limited to; the nature of the political economy in Maldives, current financial turmoil in the world, dollar liquidity in the market, and youth employment problem in the country.

The political economy in Maldives, as it happens in many other developing poor countries is very much depressing. The President we had for the last 30 years had absolute power, the means and a few capable minds to shape up and ‘sequence’ the correct economic measures and bring about much needed economic reforms to our country. However, he provided the opportunity to those businessmen to pat on his back, and as a result, these businessmen were rewarded with ‘resorts’ and many other privileges with the blessing of the government, and at the expense of the rest of the Maldivians. These powerful businessmen then hindered the economic development of the whole country in many ways, and enabled them to establish and maintain a monopoly on major sectors of the economy. They try to squeeze as much of the scarce available wealth and resources in the country with the help of the government and the President. The mistake made by the President: to let the businessmen pat on his back!

What has happened since then? The same businessmen contested for the parliament and controlled seats in the parliament while under oath to serve and protect the rights of the fellow citizens. But, it is their self-interests that they are protecting. Their own businesses that they want to grow - At the expense of the rest of the people in the country.

I should write about the rest of the discussion at a later time.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Can our country afford these political games??

Yesterday I read an article from one of the newspapers that talked about an interview of the Press Secretary at the President's Office, and according to the article, the President has somehow obtained legal opinion from somebody and is considering declaring 'state of emergency' in order to conduct parliamentary elections. It'd be a dissapointment to those who love democracy, to see one of the three powers, 'Parliment', to be declared void, and the Executive taking charge in the absense of a parliament. I don't understand a way the President can actually call for an election when the constituencies and other laws are still not being determined.

There are a group of parlimentarians and other politicians who want the President to do such a mistake, and prove to all of us, what a great 'dictator' Nasheed can become. There are also a group of parliamentarians who deliberately wants to go against the spirit of the Constitution by supporting to take leave. There are a group of parliamentarians who think that the Constitution was made by them, so they can act as they will and interpret the constitution their own way. There are group of parlimentarias who just cant let go the high salaries and the privileges that come with the job.

My question is, can we at all afford all these politics at this time? It was only three months ago when these politicians appeared on tv and declared that Bank of Maldives is bankcrupt, that the whole economy was collapsed, and so many other things. As a result, public confidence towards banking system, economy, and the government went to an all time low. Our economy is still suffering from that low confidence, and as a result undesired speculations.
After all the dirty tactics and the political games, at last the people have decided, and a new government has been formed.

The National reserves are very low, fiscal deficit is very high, and the economic growth is slowing down. The world economies are in a recession, and there is fear of our economy going into a deep recession if we dont take prudent measures to revive the economy. At a time like this, do we still continue with playing political games,; declaring emergencies, protecting self-interests?? and what not.

It is a time to unite together. Work with the government, private sector, and the people to re-build the nation. It is time for us to put our national interests ahead, and try our best to survive the global economic down-turn. It is time to end these political games and move on.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

The Economics of Corruption

Corruption is one of the serious diseases that a society has, and detrimental to the economic development of a country. It is often corruption at higher levels that significantly harm the welfare of the society, and impact the economy unfavorably. For example; a huge loan of $30 million for a highway or road project such as the Addu Link Road Project, if at some point a senior official takes a ‘cut’ and as a result only $27 million is actually spent on the project. The society loses due to the poor standard of road construction, and additional funds need to be spent for unnecessary maintenance of the road.

Same goes to harbors, airports and other major infrastructure projects mismanaged due to corrupt officials or managers who choose to satisfy their personal gains at the expense of the society. The economy suffers from unutilized resources as a result of corruption.

Corruption in Maldives is also at an alarming level, according to the recently updated corruption index by the Transparency International. In order to combat corruption and minimize it, we need to understand the economics of corruption at a micro level.

As an individual (especially a person at an influential position), a person chooses to get ‘corrupt’ after making a simple cost-benefit analysis of the situation. The individual makes a rational decision based on this analysis. The benefit to him/her would obviously normally be the amount of money that he gets to put in his pocket from the ‘inside deal’. The costs will be the penalty he has to pay in the event that he gets caught. Hence, the probability of him getting caught, and the penalty he pays play a key role in deciding whether to get corrupt or not. If the person believes that the probability of getting caught is very low, given the loopholes in the system, then there is a higher tendency for getting corrupt. On the other hand, even if the probability of getting caught is high, however, the penalty is very low, then, it makes sense to take the risk of getting corrupt. If the penalty is very high, but the probability of getting caught is pretty low, then the person would have to make a decision considering the benefit (amount of money) he gets to keep.

Based on the above analysis, policy makers have a simple formula that can be used to combat corruption. Either increase the penalty or design the system in such a way to increase the probability of getting caught. In the case of Maldives, what we have seen in the past 10-20 years is that people get caught, or corruption cases are well known in the society, however, the penalty is sow low that corruption has grown and become very popular. Then again, I sometimes ask, how high can the penalty get? Death? If a person is caught on a corruption case exceeding one million rufiyaa, he will get death penalty! Wow. Does that sound reasonable? Will people accept executing a person for getting a little greedy and taking a few bucks from our money?
The perception of the society towards corruption also plays an important role here. If it is perceived ‘ok’ to be corrupt, and a short-cut to getting wealthy, then incidences of corruption may increase. On the other hand, if corruption is generally perceived as a bad thing, and anybody who gets caught has to face the ‘disgrace’ from the society, it could be one other factor the person would consider when choosing to get corrupt.

Friday, January 2, 2009

Hello 2009 !

Wishing everybody a happy new year, and hope that it'll be a successful year for all of us. As we enter 2009, the world is facing its worst economic recession since the Great Depression of 1930s. The American economy is facing deflation as the price of oil has declined to a record low of 37 dollars after hitting a high of 146 dollars in July 2008. It is predicted that price of oil may fall to even 20 dollars within this year, meaning deflationary fears throughout the year. Prices of major commodities are also falling, and major commodity traders like New Zealand, Australia, and Canada all fear economic slowdown within this year.

At a time like this, what's happening in our economy? We sure are not facing deflation. Government expenditure (especially current expenditure) is accelerating each month, with it the government fiscal deficit. Last three years of fiscal mismanagement has led to unsustainable levels of government deficit. It is estimated that the total fiscal deficit in 2008 exceed Rf5 billion. As part of this deficit was financed through the central bank, inflation is on the rise.

The european and the world economy has entered a deep recession, and tourism revenue is expected to decline in 2008. However, the newly elected government seems determined to fulfill all its campaign promises, and the people have all their expectations at the highest level. Current expenditure is expected to inflate further with the ever increasing political posts being announced almost every week. Newly formed independent institions and commissions also demand higher expenditure for their salaries and running costs. All these expenditures - mostly unproductive, and politically motivated, aren;t doing much good to the economy and the productivity of the country. When the economy is not growing, the living standard of people will not increase.
For all these reasons, and many more, it is critical that the President and the officials in the President's Office involved in formulating policies understand the economic reality of the situation our country is at present. They need to understand the implications of their policies to the economy. More specifically, the fiscal deficit and the resulting government debt of the country.