Howai: The economy is my priority
Thursday, June 28 2012
LARRY Howai is under no illusions about the serious challenges he faces in his new job as Finance and Economy Minister in the People’s Partnership administration of Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar.
Howai was appointed to the newly created Finance and Economy portfolio by Persad-Bissessar when she announced the second Cabinet reshuffle of her administration last Friday. The first Cabinet reshuffle took place on June 27, 2011.
Howai was sworn in as government minister by President George Maxwell Richards at Knowsley on Monday around noon and later took his senatorial oath of office at Tower D of the Port-of-Spain International Waterfront Centre around 1.30 pm before the Senate sat.
While he is still to meet with the technocrats in his new ministry and outline his specific priorities, one thing is clear in Howai’s mind as he embarks upon this new phase in public life.
In an interview with Business Day outside the Parliament Chamber at Tower D while the Senate was in session, Howai said, “The economy is my priority.”
Howai also disclosed that he has been approached by several government ministers, all of whom have been seeking to discuss a wide range of issues with them.
“New and old ministers have approached me but I need to put all of their requests into context and then prioritise spending. I want to be careful that I don’t just respond to who asked the loudest but really, to where the priority is, so I need to be briefed properly before I can proceed,” Howai stated.
Indicating he would be consulting with his predecessor (now Foreign Affairs Minister) Winston Dookeran, Howai said, “I also need to get a good sense of the fiscal position of the country. Are we on target, are we slightly off or are we going to do better than expected.”
“Once I have an understanding of these things, then I can prioritise properly,” he added.
Economist and University of the West Indies (UWI) lecturer Indera Sagewan-Alli observed, “At the helm of First Citizens, the buck stopped with him but as a minister, Mr Howai will be subject to Cabinet override. How will his conscience square with current expenditure patterns, which are overtly non-productive and politically driven rather than by efficiency?” Will he seek to introduce output-based budgeting and will this be approved by Cabinet?
She said Howai had earned a reputation amongst his former banking colleagues, as well as former politicians and members of the general public, as someone who is not only competent but who has the ability to lead a company (First Citizens) to achievement upon achievement.
“His immaculate record as an astute CEO and banker, during which time he helped make First Citizens the strong and robust financial Institution it is now, has earned him the respect of various stakeholders, particularly within the private sector,” she said.
Sagewan-Alli also noted Howai “has served at the board level of many State boards and so has the requisite understanding and experience in sectors other than banking.” She said another plus for Howai is the fact he has served on a number of NGO’s “showing a commitment to selfless service to those less fortunate.”
Noting the economy aspect had been shifted from Planning Minister Dr Bhoe Tewarie to Howai, Sagewan-Alli asked how will this help Government to diversify the economy. “How does Minister Howai square one without the other and deliver effectively?” she asked. Sagewan-Alli suggested that only when finance, planning and economy are placed under one minister could that person truly be held accountable for delivering on a national budget.
Indeed, presentation of the 2013 Budget will arguably be the first major assignment for Howai. Business Day was informed that work on the upcoming budget, which must be passed in both Houses of Parliament before October 31, is well advanced and Howai may just need to tweak it where necessary as Dookeran would have already done most of the work for him.
Outside of the budget, Howai will have issues such as Clico, outstanding wage negotiations and Caribbean Airlines, which he now has responsibility for as Corporation Sole.
Former Minister in the Ministry of Finance Mariano Browne said he believed Howai was “well-suited” to be Finance Minister. Browne said given Howai’s skills in the banking sector, he should bring a level of confidence to the market which was sorely needed at this time. “The country needs technical skills and a sense of balance,” Browne stated. Browne noted that while Howai lacked the political skills of his new colleagues, he would “learn on the job.”
Howai attended the University of the West Indies where he obtained his BSc in Economics. He later qualified as a Certified Management Accountant and is a Fellow of the Institute of Banking of Trinidad and Tobago (TT).
Howai has over 30 years’ experience in the financial services industry. He has held the position of Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the First Citizens Bank (FCB) since September 1996. He was also CEO of the First Citizens Group which is regarded as one of this country’s leading financial institutions.
Prior to his selection as Finance and Economy Minister, Howai also served as chairman of the National Gas Company of Trinidad and Tobago (NGC) and the National Energy Corporation of Trinidad and Tobago (NEC). He sat on several other local and regional boards.
He was also chairman of the E Business Roundtable, a private/public sector partnership aimed at repositioning TT as a hub for Information Communication Technology (ICT) development in the Caribbean region.
In addition to his substantive position at the First Citizens Group, Howai was a director of the First Citizens Trust and Asset Management Limited, First Citizens Securities Trading Limited, First Citizens (St Lucia) Limited, Trinidad Publishing Company Limited and St. Lucia Electricity Services Limited.
He has also held directorships on the boards of several major companies in TT, including the TT Unit Trust Corporation, the Home Mortgage Bank, the Power Generation Company of TT Tobago and the Environmental Management Authority. He is also a director of the United Way of TT, Habitat for Humanity and serves on the Finance and General Purposes Committee of the University of the West Indies. Howai was named most admired CEO in TT in 2003 and is also a former President of the Bankers’ Association of TT.