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Chamber leads immigration call

Business confidence has plunged dramatically over the past two years, a survey found.

The results sparked calls from business leaders yesterday for the island to change its approach to immigration and attract more working-age people to the island, in the interests of economic sustainability.

The Bermuda Business Confidence Survey, based on nine factors considered by business decision-makers, fell nearly 20 points from 2016, declining to 86.4 from 105.5 in 2016.

The results were revealed yesterday to an audience at the Harbourview headquarters of survey sponsors HSBC Bermuda. Survey respondents identified immigration and an improvement in work permit processes as the number one change that could positively impact the economy.

It was the lowest confidence reading since the survey was launched in 2014 and it the first time that the number had dipped below the 100 benchmark.

Of the 138 business leaders from a broad range of local and international companies based here surveyed by Total Research Associates in association with Canadian partner Corporate Research Associates, only 49 per cent said they were confident in Bermuda's economic future, a 20-point drop from two years ago.

John Wight, president of the Bermuda Chamber of Commerce, said in a panel discussion that the survey's timing, in April and May this year, when concerns were growing about the impact of US tax reform, trade wars and Brexit, may have contributed to the pessimism.

The overhang of the public debt, which in combination with unfunded liabilities of pension and heathcare plans came to a burden of around $5 billion, concerned business leaders, he added.

“What puts this into perspective is that the interest on our debt is something like $400,000 to $500,000 per day,” Mr Wight said. “When you have that type of information, you can't help to be concerned about the future of local and international business in Bermuda.”

He added that the island's population had declined by thousands of people in recent years, with a massive impact on businesses, economy and the tax base.

With the additional strain on the system from an ageing population, he said attracting more people was critical to Bermuda's future.

“I'm a really strong believer that we have to have an open and frank discussion about how we get more people on this island, because with a $5 billion bill and the current tax base, it's difficult to see how the numbers will work out,” Mr Wight said.

“We need to have more people in Bermuda. End of story.”

Erica Smith, executive director of the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation, agreed that an increase in immigration would be positive for the budding small businesses she works with.

While immigration stirred strong emotions, she argued that the subject had to be approached more openly and realistically.

“All of our studies at BEDC have shown that to be innovative, creative and attractive and for entrepreneurs to be able to grow, you have a have an eclectic society made up of people with different perspectives,” Ms Smith said. “All innovative cities have a diverse population made up of natives and people they have allowed to come in and have attracted, to create this dynamic environment that forces innovation and growth. From my perspective, that's missing in Bermuda.”

Her comments were met with applause from many members of an audience packed with business leaders. Wayne Furbert, the junior finance minister, was also in attendance.

Mr Wight added that increasing the population was “our biggest challenge”.

“Our GDP [gross domestic product] is the function of productivity and the number of people in Bermuda,” Mr Wight said. “So if productivity isn't increasing, how do you expect the economy to move forward?

“Immigration is an emotive issue, but we have one of the oldest populations in the world. We simply don't have enough people to sustain our economy.

“We can just blindly say that we don't want to liberalise our immigration policy, or we can watch what's happening in other countries which are addressing the immigration issue.”

He cited the example of Canada, which brings in about 250,000 immigrants every year to counter the economic impact of its ageing population.

Mr Wight said the Government had done the right thing in its February budget by reducing payroll tax for lower earners, but questioned whether government revenue projections were realistic.

Read more on the survey in Monday's Business section

More people needed: Erica Smith, right, of the BEDC, speaks after the unveiling of the Bermuda Business Confidence Survey yesterday, watched by John Wight, centre, the Chamber of Commerce president, and moderator Neville Grant, head of corporate banking at HSBC Bermuda

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Published September 29, 2018 at 9:00 am (Updated September 29, 2018 at 8:30 am)

Chamber leads immigration call

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