Banks urge authorities to focus on security, cleanliness

~ WIB loses NAf. 6 million as result of relief to loan clients ~

PHILIPSBURG–Representatives of the St. Maarten Bankers Association, on Tuesday, urged authorities to focus their attention on safety, security and the cleanliness of the country as the rebuilding process continues post Hurricane Irma.
The bankers were at the time speaking to Members of Parliament (MPs) during a meeting of Parliament’s Finance Committee.

In giving his personal assessment of the recovery process, Bankers Association representative Gary Yee Fong from Banco di Caribe said “there is no doubt” and no denying that the process to recovery for the country is slow and somewhat bleak given that the country’s mainstay industry tourism is “very fragile.”

Fong said that many businesses have indicated that while they would like to restart their operations and while finance is one part of the process, many are concerned about security. “We need to address this,” he noted, adding that efforts need to be made for merchants to feel more secure in their business going forward. “We can have a programme that provides financing, but when we get into businesses to operate and they don’t have that comfort, that’s another challenge.”

Fong said he personally wanted to urge government to look at the security aspect and see if ways and means can be found to alleviate this fear from amongst the businesses community.

Like Fong, Bankers Association President Derek Downes said security is “a very concerning issue” for a number of businesses and he encouraged authorities to address this issue. “We know that as unemployment increases, people need to eat and for those who do not want to look for gainful employment, they will turn to the wrong things,” the Windward Islands Bank (WIB) General Managing Director said.

He encouraged government to try to obtain the reconstruction funds offered by the Dutch Government as soon as possible. He also encouraged government to consider working in conjunction with banks on a loan guarantee scheme, possibly with some of the monies from the reconstruction funds so that banks can further assist in the country. “This will allow banks to take an additional risk because they are sharing this risk with government.”

Downes said he was encouraged to see that representatives of the World Bank were in the country, but noted that the reconstruction funds to rebuild the country’s infrastructure and to beautify the country is key to the experience that, amongst others, cruise ship passengers will have. Noting that Princess Juliana International Airport SXM will take some time to rebuild, he said the cruise ship industry will become more important in the short term because the recovery of this sector will be faster. Persons should ensure that the routes along whatever tours are conducted with cruise passengers are cleaned and secured. While Front Street still has damaged buildings from Irma, for example, the area is clean and this is encouraging for Downes. “I want to continue to encourage that we keep the place clean.”

He underscored the continued need for social relief to be provided and commended the St. Maarten Red Cross for extending its food relief programme for thousands of children in St. Maarten. “We will need to provide for social relief. We don’t want a decaying of the social situation.”

Kenneth Lei from OBNA Bank said he is happy to see the changes in the country from when the hurricane struck to now and is happy to see the debris gone. “This gives hope,” he said noting that tourists returning to the country cannot understand what happened during the hurricane because the country is now clean. “We know what happened and this gives hope.”

Association representative Emmanuel Lagrange from BECM Bank said one of the main things for the future of the country is for business persons to regain confidence in the economy and for Airport SXM and Port St. Maarten to be back up and running.
Earlier in the meeting representatives of the various banks spoke about what they had been doing to assist their clients and the community in the recovery process post Hurricane Irma. All the banks represented (WIB, Banco di Caribe, OBNA Bank, BECM Bank and Scotiabank) offered some form of relief programme for their personal and business loan clients for varying months. Some of these programmes are still running. All of the banks represented also either extended their relief programme or are willing to do so for clients who still need it on a case-by-case basis. All the banks were also continuously meeting with their clients to assess their needs to see how they can assist.

In the case of WIB, Downes said the bank lost NAf. 6 million by offering relief, but noted that the bank felt it necessary to provide this relief and saw it as an injection of NAf. 6 million into the economy by keeping monies in the pockets of clients, who can use these funds to replace items lost during the hurricane. WIB also offered a bridging finance so that businesses can remain open as they await their hurricane settlements. The Bank also offered a “hurricane loans relief programme,” where residents could have borrowed an unsecured loan of up to US $10,000 at a concessionary term rate of four per cent to fix and/or replace items damaged by the hurricane.

The institution worked with the Central Bank for Curaçao and St. Maarten (CBCS), which cooperated and increased the debt service ratio from 37 to 55 per cent so that the banks can assist those who needed it and persons who would not otherwise qualify for such a loan. WIB had set aside NAf. 5 million towards this hurricane relief loan programme and has already dispensed NAf. 1 million in loans under the programme.

Downes said the NAf. 5 million set aside for the hurricane relief loan programme coupled with the NAf. 6 million the bank injected into the economy via its post-Irma relief offered to loan clients, the bank earmarked a total of NAf. 11 million to assist residents and St. Maarten in the recovery process.

Also representing the Association at the meeting were Kenneth Lei from OBNA Bank, Emmanuel Lagrange from BECM Bank and Ignacio Williams-Bachelllor from Scotiabank.
A number of questions were posed by MPs present at the meeting, which were responded to by the Association representatives. The Association declined to respond to questions related to insurance and urged MPs to direct these questions to CBCS or insurance companies.

Source: The Daily Herald