By Raffique Shah
July 05, 2021
One night recently, the latter part of the television news still being broadcast, I had half-an-ear tuned in to it as I multi-tasked, maybe checking out something on my tablet or the hard drive in my head. Opposition Leader Kamla Persad-Bissessar was on-screen, more than likely addressing her supporters, and I half-listened to what she was saying. ‘…and then there is the NIB…that is insolvent…’ I muttered audibly, ‘That’s a lie!’ ‘Why do you say that?’ my wife Rosina asked. I switched my focus to her, and explained in detail why I said Kamla was lying.
As I grow older and as Parkinson’s Disease chips away at one section of my brain, other components become super-active, compensating for diminishing returns on the vulnerable neurons that are targeted by PD.
In this instance, I knew Kamla was purposely lying. She will have known that actuaries review the NIB’s financial health regularly. They examine the demographics of the labour force, changes in wages and salaries, as well as adjustments to contributions and benefits, and just how the NIB manages its investment portfolios.
In fact, the NIB legislation that brought the social security net into being in 1971 was amended in 1999 (remember who was in power then?) to allow for increases in benefits and contributions. Warnings about the prospects of insolvency if nothing was done to boost contributions and control benefits came from the actuaries from as far back as in 2005. More retirees were reaching age 60 than young people joining the workforce to keep contributions ahead of benefits paid. The actuaries warned that if radical changes were not made to the NIB’s structure to reverse this trend, the organization could become insolvent.
They did not say it was insolvent then. It is not insolvent now. But it could be in another 20 years if significant changes were not made. Governments over the past 20 years—UNC and PNM, including the PP that was led by Kamla, knew of that threat. They ought to have taken steps to plug the leaks and stop the slide in what is effectively a compulsory insurance scheme that covers, or ought to cover, all employed persons in the country. None of them did—at least not thus far. Indeed, when the economy was turned upside-down and every-which-way other than up and running when Covid hit us broadside recently, Minister of Finance Colm Imbert announced, seemingly in shock, that ministry officials ‘discovered’ that large numbers of workers employed with reputable companies were not registered with the NIB as is the law.
The NIB boasts of having just over 600,000 citizens covered by its twenty-odd benefits. But many more remain outside the safety net that offer some minimum coverage during tough times—except they never bothered to validate their status until it’s too late. Worst of all are unscrupulous employers who make deductions from employees’ wages/salaries and never pay them to the NIB. That is a criminal offence for which they should be charged and maybe jailed.
Now, it makes no sense for Minister Imbert to walk around with actuarial reports that warn of impending doom down the road, if government does nothing to revive and restructure the NIS. Hell, if the roll of working adults is properly updated, we could be talking about close to one million citizens. Thus far, its assets and investment portfolios are valued at some staggering sum: I don’t know for sure, but I guess it’s more than TTD 30 billion.
I pause to remind readers that the managers of the USD 5.6 billion Heritage and Stabilisation Fund have done an excellent job. I know that they have more latitude than their counterparts at The NIB in terms of where they invest and how they manage to add 20%-+ annually to the HSF.
Still, with some creativity and much common sense, not to add strict policing of the compliance unit at The NIB, the insurance scheme can not only survive for the next fifty years or more, but can grow into the giant it was meant to be when it was founded in 1971.
These things said, sober citizens must question why Kamla would deliberately peddle a lie, saying that The NIB is ‘insolvent’ when she must know that is not true. The opposition leader is in trouble within her party and at the national level. Clearly she expects a badly-fractured Tobago and a financially-wounded PNM-in so far as the national economy goes-might offer a glimmer of hope to recover, and a remote chance of remaining a near-spent force on the national political landscape.
But to tell a blatant black lie that could negatively impact near 1 million NIB members is playing with fire. Be careful what you wish for, Kamla.