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Pensions Under Pressure.

First let me thank APS (Algemeen Pensioenfonds Sint Maarten – General Pension Fund Sint Maarten) for putting together a well informative pension seminar on May 19, 2017, with the theme “Your Future is Our Day to Day.”
The conference was opened by Ms. Rachael Geerlings followed by opening remarks by the Honorable Minister of Finance Mr. Richard Gibson sr. Mr. Gibson opening speech gave a bleak picture of trillions of underfunded pension obligations in various states in America. He referred to an article in the Financial Times with the headlines “US faces a crisis as pension funding hole hits $3.85 trillion”. The article mentions that for Chicago it has been estimated that they are underfunded as far as pension liabilities are concerned with an amount that equals 19 years of the total tax revenues Chicago expects to receive. Mr. Gibson went on to say that this is a looming crisis that not only Chicago is facing but it is a looming pension problem that keeps increasing. Looking closer to home, Puerto Rico is also in hot water. Mr. Gibson said that the only way out is either: increase taxes (which nobody wants), reduce pension benefits, or a combination of both. It spells misery Mr. Gibson said. “APS pension fund is healthy. We are one of the few that can boast that our pension fund is healthy” Mr. Gibson said.
Mr. Franklyn Richards, Chairman of the Board, basically gave a summary of what the other speakers would present while also highlighting that APS is fairly new while the Curacao pension fund has had something like 80 years experience in the area and by comparison, considering APS started on 10-10-10, APS is making strides despite the challenges that lie ahead.
Mr. Williams, Manager Pension Administration & Reporting APS, the topic was “Your Status and the Fund.” He gave an overview of the mutation forms that should be filled in if there is a change in your status (e.g. marriage, divorce, children, raise in salary, etc). He also gave an overview of documents that are sent out and how we should review them thoroughly looking for any discrepancies. He then showed an example of by not having correct information from members in the fund how this trickle downs into the calculations and what the effects are for the coverage ratio.
Then the reality check presentation was given so eloquently by Ms. Kendra Arnell, Project Manager APS, with the topic “Pension Reform for your Pension Retention.” From Ms. Arnell’s presentation, the members learned that the financial stability of the fund is at risk. More is being taken from the fund than what is being put in. This can be seen by comparing the pension capital with pension obligations over time and looking at the trend. Two key trends were shown that have an effect on the fund namely Age distribution and persons living longer. Low saving interest rates were also mentioned as a contributing factor. Ms. Arnell also brought good news in terms of the proposed pension reforms such as allowing persons to contribute from the age of 18 as oppose to the existing age of 25, possibilities to allow persons to contribute more towards their pension, allow the possibilities for other companies and institutions to join the fund, besides Government and Government affiliated institutions, making the fund more flexible by updating the existing law that governs the pension fund, etc.
Then Ms. Claire Edwards, Risk and Investment Analyst APS, touched on the topic “APS Investments for Your Future.” Ms. Edwards gave an overview of the internal investing procedure, what has been the average return on the investments (for 2016 this was 5.74%), how the investments overseas are handled, the asset classes, who all oversee and monitor this process, and an overview of the local investments.
During the question and answer round, a lot of persons posted some interesting questions. Because the return on the invested funds was below 6% (APS target is 5.5%), I wanted a better understanding how APS management go about looking for investments. Locally it appears that not much effort has to be done as proposals come to APS on a regular basis. Some are too small to be considered because a Naf 5 million threshold has been established. The international part, for simplicity of this article, is outsourced but is being monitored by the APS.
In my view, better returns on investment for the future will not come from investing in the stock market due to the increasing volatility and the likely pending financial crash due to a broken interconnected financial system that has yet to be reformed properly. Growth in particular in the U.S. market is artificial and has been based on speculation rather than on real productivity. Coupled with that, productivity will remain low as the income and wealth inequality continues to rise. Thus to get better opportunities, one needs to get on the ground floor in various countries to find the “roses among the weeds.” I also believe that prosperity starts at home. Many are so caught up by the fallacy that more means better that they sometimes fail to understand that this thinking is against natural law. Nothing can grow consistently forever particularly in a world so imbalanced in so many different ways. Also, in a world where money is losing value (purchasing power) faster than what the majority of persons’ earnings can keep pace with, reducing one's costs seems the way to go also. Investments that help reduce the cost of living in general means less money will be needed to be given out by the cost savings realized by such investments. Investments in: solar parks, bio-fuels, farms locally and abroad, block-chain technology (or funds), residential and commercial real estate, etc can help lower the costs which increase purchasing power. Except for developing countries like Africa, India, etc, growth in the developed world has stabilized. And because income and wealth is so heavily concentrated, I would not bet on seeing any growth trends in developed countries as seen in the past.
From my vantage point, demographics and increasing life expectancy are only a small part of the problem. Pushing up the pension age thus will try to solve a part of the problem while causing other problems which will further amplify the pension problem. Without going too much in detail for the sake of space, the truth of the matter is, we have a broken and outdated financial system which is not only subjected to manipulation, unethical and unjust practices that are rewarded, it is also based on scarcity values in a world where technology has eradicated scarcity. This means that money has become less relevant in a world where abundance can be created without the need for that much labor. That being said, if you take a helicopter view, you might conclude the following: the convergence of interconnected problems and dilemmas if left up to the status quo will lead to greater chaos and eventually destruction. But then again, the final prophecy must be fulfilled hence “let thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

By Emilio Kalmera, 23-May-17


UPP faction forfeits opportunity to represent the people

wycliffesmith11012017The Central Committee of Parliament made history last week when it scheduled ample time to discuss the 2016-2020 Governing Program “Solidarity for Prosperity”. As far as I can recall, this is the first time that Parliament planned so many meetings to handle a governing program. The only other topic for which so many meetings are scheduled by parliament is the country’s budget. I am a strong believer that these two go hand in hand and we should expect to see the priorities and projects listed in the governing program also reflected in all future budgets presented.

The United Democratic Alliance (UDA), comprised of the USP, DP and NA factions, also ought to be commended for their display of unity during the opening presentation. Unfortunately, the individual presentations by the various ministers sounded more like the wish list of excited children in a toy store who want everything in the store without taking their parents’ pocketbook into consideration. The Ministers should have presented a more realistic overview of their 2017 plans and how these corroborate with the 2017 budget of the country. In my opinion, the Minister of Education came the closest to doing just that.

Parliamentarians, who are part of the coalition, should realize that working on drafting the governing program does not exempt them from still being critical and asking pertinent questions concerning the program. They must remember that the general public did not get the opportunity to read the governing program for themselves and therefore, any question or comment raised by a parliamentarian would definitely help to further inform and enlighten the general public. In addition, I am of the opinion that the governing program must be synchronized with the budget. Just as parliamentarians raised many critical questions during the budget debate, they should also be just as critical about the governing program, particularly as it relates to financing the various plans and projects.

The President of Parliament, the Honorable Sarah Wescot-Williams, although being part of the UDA coalition, still raised several pertinent points regarding the governing program and even went as far as to caution the government to “keep their finger on the pulse of” issues such as waste management, the hospital and health care and the integrity chamber. The other members of parliament, especially our first-time parliamentarians, can learn a lot from the vast parliamentary experience of our President of Parliament.

The absence of the United People’s Party (UPP) at the meeting is regrettable and cause for great concern. The UPP faction missed out on a golden opportunity to truly represent the people of Sint Maarten. People call the UPP the opposition in Parliament. The better name, however, would be “the minority faction”, because the word “opposition” implies that their job is solely to oppose whatever government proposes or does, which is not the case. The role of the minority faction is to be very critical of government’s proposals in order to ensure that these benefit the people and are executed in a responsible manner. In fact, this should be the role of all parliamentarians, whether they are in the coalition or in the minority faction.

Unfortunately, the UPP parliamentarians chose to be missing in action and consequently did not live up to their responsibility to represent all of the people of Sint Maarten as stipulated in article 44 of the Constitution. This type of political tactics belongs to old school politics and do not contribute to raising the bar in parliament. If they were present, the UPP minority faction would have demonstrated political maturity. Are we to interpret this absence to mean that the governing program is worthless and does not deserve UPP’s time or energy? Does this absence signify that UPP does not care about the people’s business and does not have any interest in the plans that government has for this country? Is this absence an indication that the party is still upset and bitter about not being in government and that this is a way to boycott everything that the ADU government plans to do for the people? Does UPP’s absence mean that the minority faction in parliament is not taking its commitment to represent the people seriously? I am of the opinion that once politicians have been elected to parliament they should begin to act like statesmen and put the people’s business before politics. It is time we raise the bar in our parliament! I believe that the UPP faction owes all the people of Sint Maarten, whom they should have been representing during the meeting on the governing program, an explanation and/or an apology.

What example did the UPP faction set and what message have they sent by being absent and forfeiting their responsibility to represent the people? Are they telling our people that if they do not agree with the people on their jobs they can just stay away without giving a notice of absence or an apology? Being business people themselves, they very well know that in the corporate world this type of behavior would never be tolerated. There, it is expected that employees, who do not show up to work, give a valid reason for their absence otherwise they suffer the consequences. They can receive a warning, the time away from the job can be deducted from their salaries or they can eventually be fired. Unfortunately, in the case of our parliamentarians there is no immediate sanction. However, seeing that the UPP faction was absent without notice, I wonder ... would they do the honorable thing and instruct the President of Parliament to have the hours, that they did not attend the April 20th meeting, deducted from their salaries?

Wycliffe Smith
Leader of the Sint Maarten Christian Party

CAPT. DINO'S SIMPSONBAY CHICKEN SHACK.

Closed down, victim of a possibly outdated, easily circumvented Government policy on vending licenses. That policy states (and I am paraphrasing) that vending licenses can only be issued to unemployed persons who have no other means of income. Capt. Dino does have a day job. But I suggest we do not go down that road.... how many persons with a day job including Commissioners (when WE were The Government) and now Parliamentarians, Civil Servants and other holders of jobs in the Public as well as Private Sectors did and do not also hold taxi, bus and/or other permits that are SUPPOSED to only be issued to persons with no other means of income?
I know, two wrongs do not make a right.But Capt. Dino in his latest FB rant has a point. Why should he and his wife, two local St. Maarteners, have to jump through hoops to show their ambition, their good intentions, their entrepreneurial spirit here on their own soil? Dino and his wife ARE ambitious.
They are local as can be. They have been allowed to operate their shack for the past several years now. Their Chicken Shack has grown to be a favorite hangout for locals as well as tourists. They offer an excellent F&B product. Taking into consideration how difficult it is for locals to get financing from our local financial institutions, thanks to Capt. Dino's day job salary, he was able to start up and grow their now well known Simpson Bay parking lot Local/Tourist hang out, thereby contributing in a positive way to our economy in general and our Tourism in particular. Do I believe it could use some sprucing up and made to look more presentable for the area it is in? The answer is yes. Do I believe they should not turn the newly constructed public parking lot on the Simpson Bay strip into an uncontrolled growth, an open-air restaurant without running water and properly operating bathroom facilities? The answer is yes. Do I believe our present and subsequent governments could at times look at individual circumstances and ensure that well-intentioned local St. Maarteners, especially those with a positive personal track record, are not hurt by policies that with all due respect should have been put in place to PROTECT, rather than hinder and fight local citizens? The answer here again is YES! So, I implore the Powers that Are, to find a solution, if need be by thinking and acting "outside of the proverbial box" to allow Dino and his wife to re-open DINO'S CHICKEN SHACK on the Simpson Bay public parking lot. Their ribs are DA BOMB!!

Michael J. Ferrier.

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