Last week, the TT Chamber of Commerce called on government to divest itself of businesses and put those assets in the hands of the private sector. "It's not government business to do business," Chamber president Reyaz Ahamad said.
The arguments both pro and con have raged over the years since this position was first articulated. Some believe that there are certain mission-critical state assets that should remain under substantive government control to ensure the stability of the country's economy. The opposing view is that such control stifles entrepreneurship and the aggressive pursuit of business risk and reward in enterprises that should be more assertive in the marketplace.
Those conversations usually focus on the largest state enterprises, Petrotrin, NGC and TSTT among them. Petrotrin has now been liquidated as a state asset, passing to the control of the OWTU and its business partners. The troubled business now stands as a test case for what happens to a state-controlled asset that – except for state support – collapsed as a business enterprise years ago and now will do business under the management of private sector interests.
NGC was founded to build and manage a gas distribution network, but quickly became the marketing arm of the state's exploding natural gas assets, a profile that dramatically accelerated its rise to the top echelons of state enterprise earners. Despite shortfalls in the energy sector, NGC remains a high-profile contributor to the national economy and presents itself as a business quite convincingly.
TSTT might once have been considered a key utility, but there is enough competition in the telecommunications sector to cast serious doubt on the state's unwillingness to cut the enterprise loose as a private sector business. That reluctance has resulted the inability of TSTT or the state to find a buyer for the 49 per cent share that Cable and Wireless holds in the state telecommunications company.
Those shares are held by National Enterprises Ltd, another state agency created to manage the government's shares in NGC-LNG, NGL, Tringen and NFM. It offers investments in these shareholdings on the TT stock market occasionally, giving the public an opportunity to more directly participate in businesses built with their taxes.
There are state enterprises where such private sector share issues make sense and TTMA president Franka Costelloe supported the chamber's call, suggesting that the government divest its shares in First Citizens. No business will seek a non-controlling interest in a high-stakes business that demands business agility that's beyond state control as evidenced by TSTT's unattractiveness to business partners.
State control of business sectors is a political decision. That rarely aligns with the tough calls of business.