Address at The 50th Anniversary of the Public Service Credit Union (PSCU)

His Excellency Anthony Thomas Aquinas Carmona ORTT, SC
President of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Address at The 50th Anniversary of the Public Service Credit Union (PSCU)
on April 16, 2016

Yes we are celebrating a legacy….Preserving a culture of service.

That the Public Service Credit Union was established just 4 years after Independence was not coincidental, but rather, timely and visionary within the burgeoning aspirations of a nation unshackled.  You helped pioneer an economic pathway in independent Trinidad and Tobago that would eventually pave the way for dreams to multiply, for scrap wood houses and houses made of macadam to transform into modern conveniences and for donkey carts to become motor vehicles of all types.  From that 100-member Thrift Club on 91 Pembroke Street to your present status, as a formidable financial institution, you must feel proud.  This is a champagne moment for the Board and membership of the PSCU. And yet with all you have done and achieved, your full potential is yet to be fully unleashed and realised.

The honour is mine, with great appreciation to the Board of Directors of the PSCU for affording me the opportunity to speak to your membership, which I have been told is some 23,000.  Having lived all my formative life in rural communities deep in the bowels of the Southland, I can attest to those in my community, both family members and friends, who swore by the accessibility, the community feel and service and that feeling of belonging engendered by the credit union.  This sense of economic empathy was experienced by all, whether you were a sugar worker, a rig-dog working in the dangerous bosoms of the oil field or a public servant.

Sometimes one needs to state the obvious for our collective memories are often convenient, selective and short. Indeed, the credit unions of Trinidad and Tobago have transformed lives and translated dreams – of home or car ownership, of school and tuition fees, of vacation goals- into reality, for those among us who seek a viable and sustainable alternative to what is sometimes perceived as the abusive system of traditional banking.

I can attest to the support many families were given by credit unions when confronted with their economic struggles, when there was no respite or access to the traditional and institutional moneylenders.  I have experienced your philosophy and promotion of thrift through your holistic forms of service.  You guide instead of leading the ignorant, down the proverbial garden path of no return through your regime of service. I believe in service.  I believe more so in a service leadership that transforms rather than stymies, that inspires rather than cajoles, that encourages hope without losing faith.  As a financial institution, you have been a good and faithful servant of economic service leadership.

I am here today because I believe I share a goal with each of you, whether in the general membership of the PSCU or at its management level – a goal, a mandate, to see every member of this home that we call Trinidad and Tobago prosper in education, in culture, in sport, in agriculture, in social and environmental consciousness and development, and yes, in finances as well.

I am here today to join you in your commitment to the philosophy that as a country, we can help each other, we can be our brother’s keeper- that we do not need to give more life to this concept of handouts and government dependency.  I do recall much to the chagrin of some, when I spoke the blunt truth, and when I stated in my Chamber of Commerce Feature Address 2014, that ‘dependency was the jockey riding the economy in all sectors of Trinidad and Tobago’.

What better way to help each other than to build and sustain a credit consumer market that works – a market that works not just for the poor and middle class working families of Trinidad and Tobago but for ALL families, of whatever social and economic strata; a credit consumer market that works with the financial services industry of Trinidad and Tobago – be it the Ministry of Finance, the Central Bank, traditional banks, co-op societies – to promote good saving and international benchmark commercial practices; a credit consumer market that works for the good of the economy, one that can and must contribute to the much needed diversification for which our citizens perennially plead.

PSCU, even in this defining achievement of 50 years going strong, there must always be an executable plan for higher sustainable growth and innovation.  Let this 50th anniversary celebration be a launching pad for new and innovative ideas that work for the financial growth and well-being of your membership, your organisation and our economy as a whole.  Much has been said about our lack of competitiveness and innovation. Innovation and competitiveness have become Siamese twins in the world of transformational economics and real national productivity.  Doing things the same way will not inevitably lead to the intended result and the credit union is given an opportunity to engage proactively both concepts of innovation and competitiveness in real terms.  It appears that the mind-set that we have is also regional and remains an anathema to sustainable productivity.  Dr Paul Ponder, in 2009, in an article “Creating a Culture for Innovation in Barbados” wrote, “Though countries can try to create processes to stimulate inventions, it is not the processes that create the innovation. It is the people and their mind-set. Creating a culture of innovation should be people-focused.”

Our celebration must morph into instruments of enhanced utility, launching pads of developmental goals and platforms of change, which move away from the traditional and institutional mind-set that a credit union must know its place and stay in a corner, like little Jack Horner and not engage in regional and international financial outreach or help formulate monetary and fiscal policy that forge national progress.

Your indomitable vision “dedicated to financial innovation and member satisfaction” must therefore be resolutely guarded because metaphorically the barbarians are at your gates and your impressive well managed asset base is being looked at with a jaundiced eye.  PSCU, with your group asset base in excess of $259M- you have the power and resources to raise the bar of your financial performance and intervention in this cyclic economic maelstrom in which we find ourselves.  You are strategically placed to reposition your status from being perceived as a subsidiary of the banking system, to being a main player of the financial system; to be an A+ financial institution rather than be perceived as a B- financial institution.  I do recognise the Holy Grail characteristic of the credit union that it is not a bank and does not operate as a bank.

Being an A+ financial institution requires you to actively participate and meaningfully contribute to national dialogue and decisions on matters affecting your clients and their financial positions, on legislation and policy decisions that can impact on the viability of your own structures and systems.  Being an A+ financial institution requires that you advance workable economic policies and proposals to the Ministry of Finance and the economic governance structures of this country and see them through to implementation.  You must not have any unholy alliance with silence.

Being an A+ financial institution means that in this latest economic crisis and recession, you weather the storm with your members and provide a safe harbour where they can all dock. It means that as a credit union, through innovation, you safeguard your assets and multiply your rewards. It means that in this period of austerity, you do not become mean as a credit union but demonstrate that the credit union is a true holistic exponent of service-oriented business.  You must therefore take an enlightening lead in giving a sense of pause and calm in this recessionary environment.

I am deeply concerned about how economic issues are being articulated in this Republic.  I am about the language of growth and hope, citizens of Trinidad and Tobago.  The language of austerity must not become the language of panic.  At present, the national dialogue is now steeped in panic and given our resources, diminishing as they are, there is no need to engage that language of panic because solutions, expressed and unexpressed, are available and implementable.

I implore you to look at new and inventive ways of making whatever little we have, work for us.  I truly believe in the growth and ascendency of the small man and small business in this Republic.  Remember, the corporate giants had very humble beginnings.  As it pertains to the small man and small business, what greater supporter there is than the credit union, which needs to rise and take its rightful place in our economic landscape. Credit unions and the PSCU, you are not powerless, you can be the catalyst to push economic policies for Trinidad and Tobago that are real, effective, considerate and holistic, policies which create economic growth.  As a credit union, you can regenerate the economy by helping to recalibrate the economy.  You can facilitate that recalibration through your streetwise economic policies and with your human and financial asset base.

What is happening in the commanding heights of our economy, if I may ask rhetorically?  Are we just buying and reselling?  Are we packaging rather than manufacturing?  Are we just breaking bulk and efficiently redistributing?  Are we engaged, as a society, in a semblance of production?  To address our economic fears and forex concerns, we must really start producing in real terms much more and not act as mere intermediaries in the economic chain.

We all recognise that we have done a relatively good job in creating oil and gas industrial estates, but we have always associated extraction with production and this tired philosophy of extraction has not included a philosophy of conservation. Indeed, it remains one of the failures of our oil industry – run the well dry even when market forces dictate otherwise.  The United States discovered vast reserves of oil and gas, and even with high oil prices, they did not extract but sat on it and they are now the better and wiser.  I have lived in the oil all my life so I am not without first-hand experience when I express genuine concern that after all these prosperous years of oil and gas, the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago has yet to engage itself in effective, renewable and sustainable energy policies.

I therefore challenge the Credit Union Movement, and by extension, the PSCU, to light up this dim period of austerity with workable economic action plans and policies and by so doing, signal an end to DWA – an acronym I have coined- that is, Diversification Without Action.  We need to nurture and inculcate in our mind-set a culture of urgency, not panic, in addressing our economic woes.  It is about being strategic and pragmatic, sensitive, visionary and realistic- because if not, we will remain stagnant while the rest of the world’s countries look into taking on new ways of diversifying their economies and upping their GDPs.

Permit me therefore, to share with you some of these implementable ideas that you can perhaps consider, as you plan for your sustainability and continued growth in these tough economic times.

First, PSCU, you have the money, so you have the power- why not buy or get a lease of  500 acres of arable land and plant thousands of cocoa trees and in 18-24 months you can reap ‘brown gold’ – and in four years’ time, a full harvest.  We all know the Trinitarian cocoa is the best in the world. PSCU, I speak with some authority on this matter, not only because some of my best boyhood days were spent running wild and free through the rich, cocoa fields of the countryside, but also because I have been a registered farmer for many years.

Consider also, and I have been crying out for this since I was a prosecutor for over 20 years- why not have NP gas stations, instead of the other foreign gas stations, throughout the Caribbean region?  Ladies and gentlemen, I am talking about hard foreign currency in the space of months.  As a credit union, you can put forward a case as a potential licensee to the relevant authority and see your money work for you and your membership.  You will further help the fledging Caribbean Integration Movement by this initiative in some measure.

We are burdened by a pharmaceutical industry of onerous and exorbitant prices. Investing in pharmaceutics and medicine is akin to investing in gas and food.  We all need it.  Why not examine the Brazilian and Indian modules of manufacturing generic drugs and determine whether it may be a worthy investment of your credit union dollars to manufacture such drugs right here in Trinidad and Tobago for the rest of the Caribbean region, Central America and South America?  You have the money to access the patent and rights to do same.  Ladies and gentlemen, I am speaking of serious foreign exchange earnings that can be put in place in a few months.  We should be learning from the high-tech industries of India and the Silicon Valley.

If we are as serious about Caribbean integration as we are about West Indies cricket-and rightfully so – why not explore the possibility of establishing more credit union branches throughout the English and Spanish-speaking Caribbean region, the very Grulac Region and as an appendage to this, seek a licence from the Central Bank to operate as a cambio?  Too often, as Caribbean people, we are frustrated when we desire to visit our neighbouring islands only to be told by the banks that they don’t have enough EC, Guyanese and Jamaican or Bajan currencies?  But you know what they tell us? – we have some US that you can get.  But we don’t want US – we simply want the local currency and we must stop being corralled into accepting US currency as the only currency when travelling throughout the Caribbean region.  This may well create some relief on the US foreign reserves of our country.

In 2014, I addressed the Chamber of Commerce and spoke of the need to collaborate with other stakeholders and let Piarco International Airport become the hub of international travel to South Africa and the rest of Africa, whose natural resources are plentiful and wide-ranging. I told them it was a win/win situation, rather than having to travel first to Europe or the United States.  I also indicated to them that entrepreneurial risk is the bedrock of successful businesses. Nothing has happened. I wish to put that suggestion to your Boardroom and you have the intellect and the experience to get it done and there is no need to pay these very heavy consultancy fees which have become the norm in our traditional governance structure.

Further, there is great economic potential in coming on board on the issue of climate change.  I will not engage in a treatise on climate change and the obvious benefits that will accrue to those financial institutions that get on board with alternative, sustainable, renewable forms of energy, which address proactively the whole issue of carbon emissions – and I am dealing with solar and wind energy, biofuel and even wave technology.  Barbados is a very good example of a visionary country pursuing the economic benefits of engaging solar energy as a response to this obsession of oil and gas on the world market.

It is pellucid to all recognise that our fish stocks are in decline.  Why not get into full blown hydro-phonics and aqua-phonics systems as a substitute as well as to arrest this concern?  That is why innovation is the key to real progressive transformation of the productive sectors of our society.

Finally, I refer to what Her Excellency Reema Carmona described and what she coined as ‘the economics of mas’ at the media launch of the Trinidad and Tobago Red Cross Carnival Committee’s 60th Anniversary and 2016 Carnival launch on the 6th of January 2016.  Her Excellency, an economist, stated, “We are experiencing a downturn in our economy and this must not lead to a downturn in the quality of our mas.  There is however a wider issue and we must engage more comprehensively in the economics of mas.  We need to start creating and manufacturing our own artificial feathers, headpieces, beads, glitter and costumes.  We have simply been talking about it too long. We need to, and can create a manufacturing industry that provides for mas in Trinidad and Tobago and worldwide.  It is a cop-out to resile to tired explanations and platitudes- that we always need foreign material and input to produce our costumes.  The artificial feathers, glitters and beads have been a constant staple in our mas culture yet we do not have factories producing these items for Trinidad and Tobago, the Caribbean region and the world.  Think of the foreign exchange this will generate and the consequent employment.”

This clearly demonstrates that we need to stop talking and can establish factories financed by the credit unions to get the job done.  It is another win/win situation to cure the DWA syndrome – Diversification Without Action.

PSCU, I urge you to invest in innovation and invention.  Don’t keep up with Change, Drive it. Don’t React, Respond.  Why not invest in and partner with our young people, whose innovative ideas and wide open minds in this digital age that consumes us, can be the difference between how we do things now and in the future.  Why not afford special interest rates to those inventors and others who are prepared to take that leap of fate?  There are many young inventors in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean region who are often marginalised by their peers, and as part of that almost institutionalised rejection of those who are prepared to do things differently and engage in critical thinking.  I am reminded of your Mission Statement, “[T]o facilitate the social and economic growth of [y]our members creatively through collective efforts while recognizing [y]our corporate social responsibility.”  To the Board of Governors of the PSCU, here is a wonderful opportunity to fulfil your CSR mission by lending a hand, or more aptly, a loan or two at reduced interest rates, to our young people and inventors?  We all know that when we invest in our young people, we invest in our country’s future.  As a financial institution, always operate within economic parameters that recognise innovation, invention, vision and foresight.

Indeed, credit unions must be ever vigilant to the reality that they often stand alone when in financial distress.  You do not get the institutional and governmental support as banks and other conventional financial institutions. In Trinidad and Tobago, there are replete examples of banks and financial institutions failing and being salvaged by state resources.  When credit unions fail, they simply fade away – like mere pebbles in an ocean of economic activity.  It is therefore important that you do not fight among yourselves in attempting to get your just due.  When you are faced with financial distress or meltdowns, look to other credit unions, you brothers and sisters for assistance and support.

The aforementioned factors are reasons to diversify your credit union’s portfolios, products and services.  You can consider the following initiatives that can lead to the financial advancement of the credit union and its members.

The first relates to a levelling of the playing field on which all financial institutions operate.  Given the fact that yours, like many other credit unions, deals with retirees and pensioners, the process by which monthly pensions are disbursed to retirees needs to become fully consumer-friendly.  At present, retirees must submit a bank account number through which the Treasury Department forwards their monthly remittances.  It will be progressive for the Credit Union Movement to commence negotiations, which would allow credit unions to be included as institutions through which such payments can be made.  The consequences of such a shift to the cash flow of the credit unions will be unprecedented and I am certain, most welcomed – we are talking about millions of dollars passing through the credit unions on a monthly basis.  Among the credit unions which will obviously benefit are the Police, Fire, Agricola, Works and of course, the PSCU. And please, take the initiative and provide washrooms for the pensioners.

Another initiative may well be deliberate strategy and tactical manoeuvre, that is, the offer by the credit union movement of its services through collaborative projects in housing throughout the length and breadth of this twin-island Republic. The State has the land but is now short on funding so there is a host of possibilities around which win-win negotiations can be sustained.  The Movement needs to act now to take the pressure off the Housing Development Corporation in its goal to meet the demand for low cost housing.  The Credit Unions will gain affordable access to land while relieving the State of the burden of sourcing the funds necessary to bridge the gap between demand and supply in the housing sector.

This next proposition speaks to the arrested structural development of the Credit Union Movement.  If you are to be an A+ financial institution, it is necessary that you operate with an A+ financial institution mentality that is fuelled by technological conveniences. If you haven’t yet joined the e-banking revolution, it will be in your best interest, and indeed in the best interest of your consumers, to get on that bandwagon.  In this digital age, it will be primitive to saddle your consumers with traditional banking inconveniences, when traditional banks are themselves realigning to meet the technology needs of their customers.  And if you do not yet have ABMs for your members to access cash on the go, perhaps now is a good time to look into this very convenient tool for customer satisfaction.

Think also of the many young people such enhanced facilities will attract to your credit unions.  Tap into the rich reservoir of young persons who may not have much money but who are interested in saving and investing for their future.  If you do not yet have a youth arm in your credit union, consider setting up one in order to mentor and encourage our young people in the economics of saving and other financial practices.

A close look at the current dynamics of the financial sector discloses some very grave concerns.  I refer to the plethora of charges and adjustments banks have been making that potentially reduces the close relationship between client and banker.  Is this not a golden opportunity for you, as credit unions, to tap into and offer greater financial services to the disaffected especially the “small man” who could hardly maintain a balance of $1,000.00 far less $15,000.00 in order to avoid high monthly charges?  The credit union remains an umbrella of hope for the ordinary man.

Some of your existing members may be facing tough times.  Therefore, the commitment of your members to repay debts must be given timely and realistic treatment in this season of recession.  Seek to develop a workable, holistic plan for repayment in consideration of current salary cuts and the many jobs that are weekly lost.  We live in a society where people are very good at identifying and stating the problems but neglect to offer workable solutions.  A current example is that the call to cut expenditure is not matched by the required specifics – where to cut, how to cut and how soon.  The devil is in the details, ladies and gentlemen.  And this is where, as a credit union, you can add to the national dialogue and offer workable solutions to persons who may be aggrieved by the consequences of this recession.

Amidst all these suggestions, do not resile from the credit union motto, “not for profit, not for charity, but for service.”  Yes, evolve you must with the changing financial landscape, but let these inherent, invaluable attributes remain in the bloodline, in the modus operandi of your credit unions.

PSCU, as you enter an era of another 50 strong years ahead, steer the ship with confidence and let the winds of innovation blow you to enhanced credit products, business practices and services.  To every farmer, teacher, doctor, nurse, clerk, mailman, engineer and public servant, without whose membership the PSCU will not exist, I salute your pride and efforts.  Your resilience over the years has helped to propel the PSCU to being a financial juggernaut to be reckoned with.

According to the World Council of Credit Unions’ 2014 Statistical Report, Trinidad and Tobago’s credit unions have a total asset base of over US$2 billion and have over US$1 billion in Loans on their books, with savings and shares of close to US$2 billion.  These are staggering and inspiring figures, ladies and gentlemen.  The Credit Union Movement in Trinidad and Tobago is alive and well, not least in part because of the contribution and participation of the PSCU over the last 50 years in this success story.

As I close, I implore the Board and Management of the PSCU to soar to even greater heights as you continue to provide high-quality and personalized services as a holistic alternative to traditional lenders.  Continue to facilitate fair and reasonable access to legitimate credit for your membership and for the new consumers you most certainly will attract with the dawn of critical thinking, innovative ideas and implementable structures, and with beaming pride for another 50 years.

Congratulations and best wishes to you all.

I thank you.