Summarized version of an opinion report from Toine Knipping, Chief Executive Officer and a Co-Founder of Amicorp Group and Amicorp Community Foundation. Toine has been promoting a balanced, ethical, and holistic approach to business ever since he started his first company and has authored many articles as well as a few books.
The Curaçao economy currently is in dire straits and needs urgent, drastic repair and restructuring to start growing again. This will require taking realistic, pragmatic solutions, and necessary bold steps by elected officials and their constituents, citizens, and the business community all holding themselves accountable to the highest ethical standards.
Below are some ideas collected from highly successful economies that all started with almost no infrastructure (and mostly with very limited resources). Think of Hong Kong, Singapore, and the oil rich nations of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Qatar. All have used their geo-political location exceptionally well, by focusing on niches and needs in their region, and made each country into global centers of excellence in ‘something’. Hong Kong became the gateway to China and is a thriving hub of trading and investment business. Singapore became the ‘Miami’ of South East Asia with world class medical facilities, tourism activities as well as trade, financial services, and trans-shipment. All get way more stay-over visitors than can be explained by their limited population size or the ‘beauty of their beaches’. All of them were much poorer than Curaçao not even 50 years ago, and all currently are in the top tier of countries with the highest per capita income.
As the following are just some selected ideas of many, the focus herein is mostly on the economic undertaking for the country, however it is important to discuss ‘nation building’ as it is a key ingredient for success.
NATION BUILDING / MENTALITY DEVELOPMENT
As a society, we show some widely shared weaknesses. We must educate ourselves and each other to strengthen our values as a community. For Curaçao to be successful, I believe the following is critical:
- End corruption and nepotism. It is demoralizing to those people (especially the poor) who see those ‘on top’ get away with anything while suffering both the costs and moral consequences of the misallocation of community funds and putting incompetent people in charge of projects that thus become doomed to fail. Any form of corruption and nepotism is not acceptable in a country that tries to be internationally competitive.
- Stop any form of discrimination, all lives matter equally. Treat people based on capabilities and motivation.
- Stop pollution, get everyone involved in cleaning up the island. A clean island will make tourists happier and ourselves much prouder of what we have.
- Stop tolerating drug trafficking.
- Stop tolerating drunk driving.
- Enforcing that we are all responsible for our own success and need to help each other so all get there. Not just the few that are hoarding ‘power’ and sources of ‘income’.
According to current reports, there is a need to create a minimum of 30,000 jobs, many of them relatively low-skilled. Close to full employment will almost ‘automatically’ have a positive effect on poverty and crime reduction. The government can help create the ideal circumstances for growth but should not itself hire the available people. It can start by greatly simplifying labor laws. It should also not keep artificially alive businesses that have no commercial basis of existence (like currently the refinery).
Financial services industry:
The Curaçao financial services industry is hopelessly outdated and suffers from a lack of ideas and innovation, as well as a lack of diversity and international contacts. The focus remains on a limited part of the world and on ‘tax savings’, most importantly savings on ‘withholding taxes’. Due to a race to the bottom (in withholding tax rates) over the past 20 years, low or no withholding taxes are no longer a main unique selling point and the ‘real’ historic attraction, providing confidentiality services to non-resident Ultimate Beneficiary Owners of offshore corporations, has come to an end due to Anti Money Laundering rules and the exchange of information under Common Reporting Standards and the Base Erosion Profit Shifting rules, among others.
If we want to create jobs in the financial services industry, we must:
- Actively attract talent from all over the world. Talent brings ideas.
- Simplify immigration procedures (to no more than a one-week process).
- Simplify tax rules.
- Maintain simple and easy to understand supervision rules, with immediate feedback and pushback on rules fully in line with the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and international standards. Stop looking for ‘loopholes’, focus on ‘mainstream’ business. We must stop thinking like financial ‘pirates’ looking for mazes in the net but focus on quality core services. The industry has moved from simple ‘tax savings’ to more complicated ‘substance’ and now on to value added quality ‘Business Process Outsourcing’.
- Have the Central Bank or relevant ministers proactively go out and invite international banks or business groups to establish quality financial institutions on the island. Banks are where the money is. Same applies to venture capital groups, private equity investors and family offices.
- Create more volume and substance for the Dutch Caribbean Securities Exchange, with recognition as a ‘real’ exchange. Invest in it, so it becomes a solid trading facility and not merely a listing facility.
- Modernize our Fund Administration legislation/business. Copy, if necessary, Cayman, Luxembourg, and Mauritius. Funds (especially Private Equity and Venture Capital) are a healthy and fast-growing market segment.
- Similar to Singapore, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi, link ‘financial licensing’ to the lease of real estate. This continuously increases the value of all real estate in the country and creates a steady, growing source of income for the nation.
International trading business:
Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai are all successful trading nations as doing business there is extremely fast, cheap, and transparent compared to anything else available in the regions they service. Rules are clear, deadlines are kept, no permits are ever held up for whatever reason. All processes are transparent and can be tracked online. We could be such a center for Latin America or at least the Greater Caribbean region by simplifying all steps of doing business, importing goods, trans-shipment of goods and the like.
Trans-shipment and logistics:
Hong Kong is one of the main entrance points to China. Singapore is the center of the South East Asian region. Both have huge airports and have attracted many airlines covering every relevant location in the area. Dubai and Abu Dhabi have a less populated hinterland and therefore a more global focus. All provide first class financial services. The airlines of Dubai (Emirates), Abu Dhabi (Etihad), Qatar (Qatar Airways) and Istanbul (Turkish) have rapidly become major distribution drivers from their global hubs and currently connect almost all parts of the world (with only Emirates flying to the Caribbean). The Caribbean is, for those airlines, the only remaining unexplored but inhabited spot on the map. Especially now, with the airline industry in the doldrums, is an excellent moment to try and entice at least one of those to set up shop in Curaçao and use the island as a regional (distribution) hub in their networks (with extensions to Mexico City, Bogota, Lima, and Sao Paulo). Ministers can travel there and actively invite both Government and Private sectors to come and look at the island as their regional hub.
The tourism business has developed quite well the past few years. Further improvements are needed, as this is the one sector that has the possibility to create a lot of jobs, especially for people with no advanced education. Define a long-term vision that will directly create jobs in hotels and restaurants, and indirectly offer the local entrepreneurs’ opportunities.
Where to get visitors from:
- Improve on current markets in the Netherlands, Latin America, and the US, by diversifying the product.
- Create large scale entertainment: rides/theme parks, high level spas, safari park following the success of the Sea Aquarium.
- Organize large events (the North Sea Jazz Festival is an excellent example) and provide first class facilities around it.
- Offer frequent direct flights to/from Sao Paulo, Bogota, Lima, Mexico City, and push for name recognition there not just as a beach destination and an entertainment center, but also as a business hub coupled with territorial taxation.
- Increase direct flights to/from: (1) Copenhagen, the elite hub of the Nordic countries, and offer Snowbird programs; (2) Hamburg, Berlin, and Frankfurt; and (3) Istanbul, Qatar, Abu Dhabi, Dubai, to connect to Asia where over 60% of the world’s population lives.
The Gulf region is very developed now. Most of the large developers and construction companies there are looking to expand to other places that can support large scale hotels, combined with large scale apartment complexes, big shopping centers and other facilities as integrated turn-key projects. The financing comes from the Gulf region, NRI (Indian expat) money and the significant Asian wealth that is looking for diversification as interest rates on government bonds look like they will remain below 2% for years to come. Invite those construction companies and investors. Once here, they will create the local employment and their money will roll. Go and see for yourself in Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Thirty years ago, there was only dust and heat.
The DIFC (Dubai International Financial Center), the government institution working on developing growth in Dubai, is looking to expand to other jurisdictions to create more trade relationships and help investors to create more economic activity. Curaçao and the wide region around it is complete ‘terra incognito’. Attract a DIFC information hub and establish a desk there to promote Curaçao as a Latin American investment hub. Once a few are ‘over the dam’, more will come. All need diversification.
It is time to face reality. The refinery is not contributing to our economy and it will be very hard to find a reliable operator who will put in the large investments needed whilst Venezuelan oil is subject to embargoes and decreasing production. Take the courageous decision to close it down and redevelop the area. Keep the salvageable trans-shipment and storage facilities and find Gulf Region oil traders to exploit them.
We need to promote our residency programs in different ways. All over Latin America (especially in Mexico and Brazil), there are lots of working families with top jobs and businesses who feel insecure and cannot live as freely as they would like to. When they move to the US, where they can find all relevant facilities, they become subject to US worldwide taxation, a huge deterrent. Create a very safe environment for them to live and work with direct, frequent, cheap flight connections to the hubs in Lima, Mexico and Sao Paulo, and people will consider having their families live and go to school in Curaçao while splitting time working in their home country and remotely from here. The Gulf States and Singapore have millions of families that operate that way. The cost of the travel is easily compensated by the benefits of the territorial tax regime and the peace of mind of living in a safe and clean environment.
Adjusting the model to our envisioned reality requires territorial taxation, world class schools with education in various languages, safe apartment buildings, and world class medical care. It is a chicken-egg situation, build it and they will come. Developers who have seen the model work before may be interested in financing it if the process is not made too complicated. The developers that invest in the facilities (shopping centers, entertainment, medical facilities, etc.) could be compensated with permission to build large scale housing developments.
The Curaçao economy is very small, partly because it has a small population (with a large diaspora) and as a result a limited variety of skills. Actively trying to grow the population would give a big boost to the island. A growing population can support a growing and improving infrastructure and will have a positive effect on property values (property values is what has fueled most of Singapore’s and Dubai’s growth over the years). It will add to cultural diversity, richness in choice of activities and services available, etc. The cost burden of one-off facilities like airport, government, healthcare, education, and security can be spread over more people.
Regarding immigration, grant every non-Netherlands citizen, after the appropriate checks and can prove they have a proper source of income to sustain themself, a work (and residency) permit within a week. This process can be outsourced e.g., to notaries. If the person on the work permit loses their source of income, they have a limited time (in Dubai 4 weeks) to find an alternative source of income and renew their work permit, and if not successful will be repatriated to their country of origin
Many current problems are partly the result of failing education levels. If we want to be successful as a society in 20 years, we need to invest in education now. With tourism going to be much more important, we need proper hospitality schools on the island providing the various levels of education with recognized practical skills for service. We need to create proper high-quality schooling in Spanish and Portuguese to attract more people and investments from Latin America. And make sure we pay educators well, so we can demand quality and judge them on their performance.
COST CUTTING / EFFICIENCY / FINANCING
The government should not be in the business to create jobs in the public sector to ‘compensate’ for lack of initiative or investments in the private sector. The government’s goal should be as lean, flexible, and simple as possible. Curaçao, even smaller than the Netherlands, yet copies most of the structure and institutions that exist in countries 100 times its current size. The government must do whatever it can to balance its budget and not to accumulate significant additional debts. Debt creates dependency, limits future growth and flexibility, and is costly in so many ways.
- Reduce the overall cost of the government by 25% by simplifying tasks, reducing the scope, and significantly reducing civil servants. Reduce the number of tasks and for each task ensure the objective is clear, time frames are strict, and results are measured.
- Outsource as many tasks to the private sector as possible.
- Simplify tasks that are people intensive and sensitive to corruption, like taxation, by making the tax system simple. Indirect taxes (import duties, excise duties, property taxes, transfer taxes, Omzet Belasting (OB)) are simpler to check, collect and create income streams more easily to control than profit taxes. Keep profit taxes and personal income taxes at reasonably low rates, so there is less misuse and focus on the indirect taxes.
- Immediately start collecting the taxes that are ‘on the street’. There is over NAF 4 billion uncollected of which potentially NAF 1 to 2 billion is still collectable. Outsource the effort to the private sector (audit firms) or get help from the Dutch receiver and collect the backlog, without making a distinction between ‘friends/family’ and ‘strangers’. It is an insult to those who pay their taxes in time and full, that there is extreme and biased leniency towards others.
- Change the relevant laws so all civil servants are paid well, are frequently evaluated on performance, and will be let go if not performing sufficiently. You get what you pay for works both ways. Good salaries attract talent.
- Overstaffing the public sector with ‘friends/family’ or with ‘surplus’ people in general has lots of negative effects and leads to increased bureaucracy, higher inefficiency, cost increases and blocks upward mobility for real talented people.
POVERTY / SOCIAL SECURITY
We are currently faced with high unemployment and as a result high poverty rate. We need to maintain minimum living standards for all and possibly create public work to give people temporary purpose in return for their pay. Cleaning up the island would fall in that category and would at least help in building more of a sense of community and creating personal satisfaction.
In the end, only good education and attracting lots of qualified talent and investments will generate the jobs that can replace social security payments. The government should not create government jobs to hide unemployment, and not subsidize investors who cannot make it on their own but create a flexible, safe, inexpensive, and transparent society in which businesses thrive.
The tax system needs to be hugely simplified. If the system is simpler: there is less opportunity for tax fraud; there will be less need for discussion and conflict; enforcement and withholding at source will make collection easier, cheaper and with much less room for delays and exceptions. Focus much more on the indirect taxes. Significantly increase import duties, excise taxes, property taxes, transfer taxes, as well as OB.
Standardize both personal income tax and corporate income tax rates at flat rates not exceeding 25%. No deductions, no additions. With the current low interest rates on mortgage loans, it would be possible to do without mortgage interest deductions. Mortgage loans must be possible at a <3% interest rate, by issuing them in USD, EURO or RMB. Abolish the discriminatory ‘30% expat rule’. Exempt small taxpayers by putting a 0% rate on the first NAF 24,000 of income.
The current OECD designed and enforced model is based on assuring that businesses are taxed where the real work is performed, that people are taxed where they earn their income and investment income is taxed based on investor’s residency. The old ‘form over substance approach’ no longer works and trying to fool the world with ‘gimmicks’ which worked so well in the past for Curaçao, will not work going forward. The world became fully transparent and we benefit if we quickly follow the trend instead of trying to ignore or delay it.
The public sector may not have enough resources to promote Curaçao as a place to invest. Therefore, a public/private cooperation should be set up to staff a tax treaty task force team, an investment attraction board and/or a high commissioner to do so.
TAKE ACTION NOW, BE VERY PRAGMATIC
Focus on the now and what we can do ourselves today. Do not wait for ‘others’ to help or ‘save us’. Nothing will happen for as long as we keep talking, especially if the focus of our discussion remains on who is to ‘blame’. Start by taking simple steps and keep increasing the pace. Do not waste money on expensive and time-consuming studies. Do not get a thousand people involved in each discussion. Do not hire lots of people on the government payroll or as consultants. Keep pushing for the role of government to reduce. Singapore, Abu Dhabi, and Dubai all make sure they attract the best available talent from different parts of the world. Carefully select the right people and thereafter trust those people to do the right thing.
Time is the most valuable resource of all, and we all have limited quantities of it. Take pragmatic decisions and take them fast. When a decision once taken turns out to be proven wrong, reverse it quickly. And let the successes run.
All easier said than done. But if it can be imagined, it can be done. For our children, it must be done!