Published On: Wed, Jul 24th, 2013

Central Bank 2012 year report – President’s report

Central BankThe year 2012 marked the fourth year since the outbreak of the global financial crisis. The pace of recovery from this crisis has been slow and is characterized by financial sector stress, high public debt burdens, and fiscal austerity measures. In 2012, world economic growth decelerated to 3.2%, reflecting weakened economic activities in the advanced, emerging, and developing countries.
Contrary to the global economic trend, the Sint Maarten economy rebounded from its weak performance in 2011, registering a real GDP expansion of 1.5% in 2012. Consumer price inflation eased to 4.0% in 2012 against 4.6% in 2011, caused mainly by a deceleration of international oil prices.

In Curaçao, real GDP contracted by 0.1% in 2012, following an expansion of 0.6% in 2011. The economic contraction was accompanied by a heightened inflation rate of 3.2%, up from 2.3% a year earlier. The increased inflationary pressures were primarily the result of the raise of the sales tax rate from 5.0% to 6.0% in 2012.

The fall in real GDP in Curaçao was driven by domestic demand. Both private and public demand contracted in 2012. Private demand shrank because of lower consumer spending. The increased inflationary pressures throughout 2012 eroded consumers’ purchasing power, leading to a decline in private consumption. By contrast, private investment recorded a tepid growth supported by
investments in among other things, the refinery and the utility sector. Meanwhile, public demand fell, as a result of declines in both government consumption and investment. The contribution of net foreign demand to growth was positive in 2012, as export growth outpaced the rise in imports.

The poor economic performance in Curaçao was largely the result of a contraction in the manufacturing and construction sectors combined with weakened activities in other sectors of the economy. In the manufacturing sector, real output contracted due mainly to a decline in production activities at the Isla refinery. The lower production was caused by maintenance work that took place during most of 2012 and delays in the start-up process of the cat cracker after completion of the maintenance work. In addition, ship repair activities shrank, as reflected by a decline in the number of man hours sold. Similar to the previous two years, activities in the
construction sector declined in 2012, owing to a lack of major construction projects. Over the past years, the number of major private investment projects has been declining due to, among other things, difficulties in the financing of projects, a lack of investors’ confidence and, the worsened economic conditions in the Netherlands, which is an important market for residential real estate in
Curaçao.

Activities weakened in the wholesale and retail trade sector due to a decline in domestic spending. However, increased re-exports by the free-zone companies and positive developments in the tourism industry contributed positively to activity growth in the wholesale and retail trade sector. Activities weakened in the utilities sector because the increase in the production of electricity and
water was less pronounced in 2012 compared to 2011.

Real output grew in the transport, storage & communication sector, although the pace of growth was less pronounced than in 2011. Air transportation and airport-related activities expanded in line with the growth in the number of stay-over tourists. Furthermore, the number of commercial landings increased in 2012 compared to 2011. The harbor also recorded positive results as the
number of ships handled increased, cargo movements rose, and oil storage activities expanded.

Activities in the financial services sector weakened as well in 2012. Real value added by domestic financial services expanded because of an increase in net interest income. The higher net interest income was attributable to a decline in interest expenses. Developments in international financial services were, however, disappointing as activities contracted, owing to a decline in wages and
salaries.

The positive development in the restaurants and hotels sector was ascribable to a growth in both stay-over and cruise tourism. The encouraging development in stay-over tourism throughout 2012 underscores the importance of more airlift. In 2012, airlift to South and Central America increased, as COPA airlines started regular flights between Curaçao and Panama. Also, Air Berlin introduced
direct flight connections between Düsseldorf and Willemstad. An analysis of the several market segments reveals that the number of visitors from South and Central America, notably Venezuela, rose significantly in 2012. In addition, the number of European tourists increased, due mainly to a marked growth in the number of German visitors. However, a decline in the number of Dutch
tourists, which is Curaçao’s main tourism market, mitigated the growth in the number of European visitors. The expansion in stay-over tourism was dampened by declines in the number of visitors from North America and the Caribbean.

In Sint Maarten, 2012’s real GDP expansion stemmed primarily from a growth in the restaurants & hotels and transport, storage & communication sectors. The restaurants & hotels sector performed well during 2012 as a result of an increase in both stay-over and cruise tourism. The increase in cruise tourism was the result of more cruise calls. However, cruise tourism increased at a slower
pace than in 2011. Meanwhile, stay-over tourism grew thanks to a rise in the number of visitors from North America, which is traditionally the main tourism market for Sint Maarten. After a decline in 2011 because of, among other things, the cancellation of flights by American Eagle, airlift capacity to and from the United States was restored in 2012 after JetBlue initiated flight
connections between Philipsburg and San Juan, supporting the growth in stay-over tourism from North America. Growth in the European and Caribbean market segments also contributed to the expansion in stay-over tourism.

Real value added in the transport, storage & communication sector rose due to increased activities in both the air and sea transport. Thanks to the growth in the number of stay-over arrivals, the number of passengers handled at the airport rose, contributing to the positive development in airport-related activities. Meanwhile, the harbor of Sint Maarten performed well because of an
increase in the number of ships piloted into the port and a rise in cargo movements.

The wholesale and retail trade sector recorded a growth, due to the positive developments in the tourism industry, particularly stay-over tourism. However, a decline in domestic spending, reflecting largely a contraction in private consumption, mitigated the growth in the wholesale and retail trade sector.

The utilities and financial services sectors also contributed to Sint Maarten’s real GDP expansion in 2012. Activities rose in the utilities sector as reflected by an increase in the production and consumption of water and electricity. Meanwhile, real output increased in the financial services sector as indicated by a rise in the net interest income of the domestic banks.

Growth in the construction sector of Sint Maarten was flat in 2012 as an increase in public construction projects, including a public housing project, was offset by a decline in private investments. The lower private investments were in line with the drop in business loans and mortgages extended in Sint Maarten. Meanwhile, the manufacturing sector contributed negatively to growth due mainly to a decline in repair activities on yachts that visited Sint Maarten throughout 2012.

The developments in Curaçao’s public finances were dominated by the official instruction of the Kingdom Council of Ministers to the Curaçao government. One of the conditions for the debt relief as agreed upon in the Kingdom Act Financial Supervision for Curacao and Sint Maarten, was the adherence to the balanced budget rule. However in 2012, it became clear that contrary to this
rule, the Curacao government recorded a budget deficit in 2010 as well as 2011. Also, the developments in the public finances indicated that in the absence of proper and timely measures, the Curaçao government would be confronted with progressively increasing budget deficits in 2012 and beyond. Therefore, the instruction was given to take measures to prevent a budget deficit in
2012 and compensate for the deficits recorded in 2010 and 2011.

Nonetheless, Curacao was not able to comply with the instruction before the end of 2012. Consequently, the country posted a deficit on the budget’s current account of NAf.110.3 million, down from the NAf.153.7 million deficit in 2011. The lower deficit was due to an increase in government revenues, mitigated by a rise in government expenditures. Government revenues increased, owing to a rise in both tax and nontax revenues. The rise in tax revenues was largely the result of an increase in the sales tax rate from 5.0% to 6.0%, mitigated by a decline in the proceeds from excises and import duties. Meanwhile, nontax revenues were up, due to grants received from the Netherlands related to the BRK tax arrangement. However, since the withholding tax assessments are being contested in court and the funds might have to be reimbursed to the Netherlands, the grants received were also booked on the expenditures side of the budget. The latter explains part of the increase in government expenditures. Increased outlays on wages & salaries and goods & services also contributed to the growth in government expenditures during 2012. A decline in subsidies and transfers, due to fewer disbursements made by the government to households, mitigated the growth in public expenditures.

Similar to the previous two years, presenting a balanced budget has been a challenge for the Sint Maarten government in 2012. Also, adherence to the limits of the approved balance was difficult for the Sint Maarten government.

Based on the available data, it can be concluded that the Sint Maarten government recorded a surplus on its current budget of NAf.27.9 million in 2012, up from the NAf.10.3 million surplus that was registered in 2011. This positive outcome was the result of an increase in government revenues that exceeded a rise in government expenditures. On the revenue side, tax proceeds increased due mainly to more sales tax revenues reflecting the economic expansion in 2012. Also revenues from room tax and wage tax were up compared to 2011. In contrast, proceeds from taxes on profit and property contracted. Unfortunately, no breakdown was available of the government expenditures.

The balance of payments of the monetary union recorded a deficit in 2012 since the current account deficit was not covered by external financing and net capital transfers. The balance of payments deficit was reflected by a decline in the gross reserves of the central bank.

As a result, the average import coverage declined from 3.7 months in 2011 to 3.2 months in 2012. The current account deficit narrowed in 2012 compared to 2011, due to an improvement in the net exports of goods and services. The improvement in net exports was the result of an increase in exports mitigated by a rise in imports. Exports rose because of more foreign exchange revenues from the tourism and transportation sectors, increased re-exports by the free-zone companies in Curaçao, and more trading activities by the Isla refinery. Meanwhile, imports expanded as a result of among other things, more oil imports in Sint Maarten. Also, the free-zone companies in Curaçao imported more merchandise to meet foreign demand and replenish their inventories.

More imports of construction material and increased payments for services provided abroad to local airlines added to the import bill. The income and current transfers balances deteriorated in 2012 compared to 2011. The worsening of the income balance was largely due to a decline of interest income earned on foreign assets, combined with an increase in dividend payments to foreign investors. Meanwhile, the current transfers balance worsened due to a decline in current transfers received from abroad.

The current account deficit was financed primarily by external financing as reflected by a worsening of the portfolio investment, direct investment, and loans and credits balances. The deterioration of the portfolio investment balance was to a great extent related to the debt relief program. In 2012, several debt securities issued in the past by the entities of the Netherlands Antilles and taken over by the Dutch government, matured. Many local institutional investors that held these securities in their portfolios did not reinvest the received funds abroad. Net direct investment into the monetary union expanded mainly because of an increase in liabilities of
domestic companies with their foreign parents and more real estate purchased by nonresidents, both in Curaçao and Sint Maarten. Meanwhile, the loans and credits balance worsened mainly because of the net decline in domestic companies’ foreign bank balances to finance part of their imports, more trade credits received on imports, and the net repayment of trade credit extended to
foreign customers. Net capital transfers into the monetary union dropped in 2012, due mainly to a decline in development aid funds. The phasing out of the development aid from the Netherlands was one of the conditions of the debt relief program.

The monetary aggregates expanded slightly stronger in 2012 than in 2011. The expansion in 2012 was attributable entirely to a growth in net domestic assets. In contrast, net foreign assets dropped both at the commercial banks and the central bank. The growth in net domestic assets was caused primarily by an increase in credit extension to the private sector. All loan components in Curacao,
except consumer loans, increased in 2012. Similar to 2011, Sint Maarten registered a drop in all private loan components. Net domestic assets grew also due to a rise in net credit to the government reflecting a drawdown of deposits.

Due to the high deficit on the current account of the balance of payments, the relatively rapid expansion in credit compared to GDP growth, and the declining trend in reserves, the Bank continued tightening its monetary policy throughout 2012. The percentage of the reserve requirement was increased gradually from 10.50% at the end of 2011 to 14.25% at the end of 2012. However, given the magnitude of the excess liquidity, increasing the reserve requirement percentage alone was not effective in containing credit growth. Therefore, the Bank introduced a temporary credit freeze for the period March – August 2012. As private credit growth decelerated
towards June and the decline in international reserves slowed, the Bank eased the credit measure by allowing a maximum credit growth of 1% when it was prolonged for the period September 2012 – February 2013. In addition to the commercial banks, the Postspaarbank and the Centrale Hypotheekbank were also included in the second term of the credit measure.The other monetary policy tool of the Bank, the auctioning of the Certificates of Deposit (CDs) was deployed in a neutral manner. During the biweekly auctions of CDs, the Bank aimed only at the refinancing of maturing CDs. Meanwhile, the pledging rate, which is the Bank’s official lending rate, was kept unchanged at 1.00%.

1.2 Policy considerations
Over the past years, the economic performance of Curaçao and Sint Maarten has been weak compared to the region. It is estimated that real GDP in the Caribbean region expanded by approximately 3.0% on average during the period 2010 – 2012. By contrast, the Curacao economy registered a meager average growth rate of 0.2% while Sint Maarten’s economic growth was on average flat. In other words, Curaçao and Sint Maarten are lagging behind the region.

It is noteworthy in this context that Curaçao and Sint Maarten, contrary to most countries in the region, do not face a high public debt burden. This favorable situation is attributable to the debt relief program that was agreed upon as part of the dismantling of the Netherlands Antilles. However, despite this unique fiscal situation, the two countries seem not to be able to achieve a
higher steady growth path. One of the reasons behind this situation is the fact that private sector investment growth has been rather slow over the past years.

Investors’ confidence has been negatively affected by several factors, including the sluggish economic recovery in our main trading partners, dampening the growth in net foreign direct investment in the two countries. Also, the frequent government changes, lack of policy consistency, and failure to address the weaknesses in the investment climate of Curaçao and Sint Maarten have affected investors’ confidence negatively.

As mentioned on several occasions, the areas that need to be addressed considering the investment climate include the rigidities in the labor market, the red tape and administrative burden, and the high tax burden. Failure to address these weaknesses will deter growth in private investment and, consequently, a higher steady growth path.

In the case of Curaçao, the government had to address the budgetary situation in order to comply with the balanced budget rule as agreed upon in the debt relief program. Several measures have already been taken to reduce government expenditures. In the area of health care costs, a general public health insurance scheme was introduced. In order to reduce the deficit in the old-age
pension fund (AOV), the government increased the retirement age to 65 years and raised the premiums for both employers and employees. Government revenues have also been addressed through, among other things, a differentiation of the sales tax rates.

However, the disproportionate emphasis placed on fiscal consolidation went at the expense of economic growth, resulting in a contraction of the economy and increasing social constraint. Therefore, in addition to further addressing the budgetary situation, the government should focus on starting public investment projects that will give a boost to economic growth and facilitating
private investment initiatives. In this respect, the Bank welcomes the recently announced public investment program, including the improvement of Curaçao’s road infrastructure, which could provide a major impulse to economic growth. Through public investments, together with adequately facilitating private investment projects, and consistency and transparency in government
policies, a major step can be made in restoring investors’ confidence and reaching a higher growth path. The recent stable rating of Curaçao by Standard and Poor’s is a welcome support for this strategy.

Since its autonomous status within the Dutch Kingdom, Sint Maarten has been facing difficulties in presenting a balanced budget and adhering to the approved budget. Instead of addressing economic ills and stimulating economic growth, Sint Maarten had to focus primarily on financial and budget management. So far, progress has been made in the areas of statistical data gathering
and reporting. However, the timely provision of complete fiscal data is an important area that still needs to improve.

Sint Maarten’s economic growth in 2012 was attributable primarily to the tourism and transportation sectors. However, an analysis of the tourism sector reveals that Sint Maarten needs to improve its tourism product to safeguard future growth. Also, growth in cruise tourism has been slowing down. Cruise visitors spend less on the island because the cruise ships nowadays offer a wide variety of retail products at competitive prices to their passengers. As the contribution of the cruise tourism sector to the economy might be declining over time, Sint Maarten needs to diversify its tourism product to grow stronger in other markets.

Meanwhile, competition from other Caribbean destinations has been increasing recently. For example, the marine trade sector, which traditionally contributes significantly to Sint Maarten’s economy through ship repair activities and the provision of goods and services to yachts is facing increased competition from other islands that offer the same services at more competitive prices combined with less red tape. These challenges need to be addressed soon for a stable long-term growth of Sint Maarten’s main economic pillar.

The balance of payments of the monetary union remains an area of concern. The deficit on the current account of the balance of payments is high according to international standards. Meanwhile, external financing and capital transfers from abroad have not been sufficient to cover the deficit. Consequently, we have been noticing a declining trend in our international reserves and import coverage.

Given the situation on the balance of payments, the Bank has continued its tight monetary policy stance. The reserve requirement percentage has been raised further to 16.00% as of June 17, 2013. In addition to increasing the reserve requirement, the Bank prolonged the credit measure for a third term until the end of August 2013. However, monetary policy tightening is only a short-term
remedy for a structural problem. To prevent that monetary policy will ultimately stifle economic recovery, the governments of Curaçao and Sint Maarten should take the lead with economic policy measures that will boost the economies in the short run and achieve a sustainable higher growth level in the future. A consistent implementation of such a growth strategy will contribute to the much-needed stable macroeconomic environment in which our young countries can prosper.

A higher growth path is also critical to improve the social environment for our citizens. It is well known that various public service areas, such as health care, education, public housing, public safety, public transportation, and the environment, currently do not meet our aspirations. To finance the necessary improvement in these areas, two percentage points of extra growth, for example, could generate NAf.30 million in additional tax income in Curaçao and NAf.7 million in Sint Maarten. However, to ensure that those extra revenues are indeed allocated for the implementation of such social program, subjecting expenditure growth to a ceiling is an
indispensible condition.

E.D. Tromp
President

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