Sun | Dec 11, 2016

EDITORIAL - NHT: now that there's a quorum

Published:Friday | November 28, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Now that Prime Minister Portia Simpson Miller has restored its operating quorum with the appointment of four new directors, the board of the National Housing Trust (NHT) should quickly say what are its plans for the Outameni property as well as declare the policies and strategies that will guide future investments by the Trust. Our suggestion is that they attempt to divest the property.

Hopefully, such an action, done in thoughtful and measured fashion, will provide a springboard for a rational debate on how the governors of taxpayer-owned institutions should exercise their powers and what ought to be the limits thereof, as well as how Jamaicans respond to risk-takers whose ventures fail - beyond an invidious retreat to the issue of race, or the supposed political affiliation of the entrepreneur. The Outameni controversy involves all these subtexts.

When the NHT confirmed its J$180-million purchase of the Trelawny live-museum attraction, the complaints, wrongly in our view, initially centred on the legality of such an investment by an agency, funded largely by payroll taxes, whose primary role is promoting shelter through mortgage loans.

Our unease then, as it is now, was not with the myopic preoccupation that the money was not being spent directly on housing, but rather that the NHT appeared to be investing in an operating enterprise which it did not have the skill to manage.

The matter has embraced some of those broader issues, but has unfortunately morphed into a supposed scandal about a cash-rich agency bailing out a perceived supporter of the governing party whose enterprise had foundered. The NHT board, under its chairman, Easton Douglas, added fuel to that narrative by attempting to spin its way out of pressure with claims that the Trust had merely bought land on which to build houses, which would have made this an extremely expensive acquisition. Lennie Little-White compounded an unfortunate situation with his silly remarks of there being no complaints when white and brown Jamaicans received government bailouts.

This newspaper celebrates all entrepreneurs, including Mr Little-White, for it is their risk-taking that gives impetus to economic activity that generates growth and creates jobs. But with risk, there is often failure, which, if ridiculed, deters entrepreneurship. Indeed, it is in part to confront such attitudes and to engender a culture of entrepreneurial risk-taking that Parliament recently approved a new law to provide people an easier path out of bankruptcy.

Taking risks

However, there is a difference between private risk-taking and the need for public agencies like the NHT to exercise sound fiduciary judgment when putting taxpayers' money into commercial or other ventures. These, unfortunately, are not the questions that have been asked of the NHT in the current debate; or if so, they have been drowned out by too many political and extraneous issues.

So the questions are: What did the NHT buy? To what end? How does it intend to manage the enterprise if it is an operational one? And what is the expected return on the investment?

Perhaps, such questions are moot, if the NHT board believes that, given the controversy, pressing ahead quickly is too difficult an option.

In the meantime, his stupid remark notwithstanding, we look forward to more Lennie Little-Whites - people who invest their money, take risks, sometimes fail, but lift themselves up and try again. They drive growth and create jobs.