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As Jamaican flag flies at NYSE, Street Forrest explains 'secret sauce' to Bloomberg

BY ALEXIS MONTEITH
Observer writer

Friday, November 08, 2019

In a week that has seen the Jamaican flag fly at the New York Stock Exchange building in the USA in recognition of the Jamaica Stock Exchange (JSE) being the best performing stock exchange in the world, Bloomberg sought to gain insight into that success through an interview with Marlene Street Forrest, managing director of the JSE.

“Let's celebrate it then with the stock exchange managing director Marlene Street Forrest,” said Bloomberg's Caroline Hyde as she welcomed Street Forrest to the ' What'd You Miss?' show. “Celebrate the fact that it is 50 years old, that you had these killer few years. What is, then, the secret sauce?”

Street Forrest correlated the performance of the stock exchange with the progress of the Jamaican economy in recent years.

“It is really to do with the economy, you know that we are stable and persons are optimistic about Jamaica,” she revealed. “The business people, the consumers, we are optimistic about what is going on in Jamaica and over those couple of years what we also have been doing is encouraging Jamaican companies to do better in terms of their corporate governance, training etc, so we have been putting in the hard work for the companies to perform well and it is paying dividends.”

The managing director was also asked if “more vehicles for international investors to more easily invest in your stock market” such as an exchange-traded fund (ETF) were being considered.

“So Sagicor has just launched an ETF,” Street Forrest informed. “So there was one just launched two or three months ago. It's not directly called an ETF but it does the same thing, and until the FSC [Financial Services Commission of Jamaica] does its total work in respect to the regulations. So we are moving in that direction. As a result of that, too, we have just really put in two new indices. So we have had in the last six months the financial index and also the manufacturing and distribution index, all of that in anticipation of really doing more ETFs.”

She went on to talk about the growing interest of foreigners in investing in Jamaica.

“It is growing very rapidly, which is why we are here, too, in New York and we were just in Canada because people are curious,” she said.

“People are seeing the results as they are shown by the index. But more so what is happening is that when we look on how the companies themselves are performing, we are performing well. There is the dividend pay-out, there is the stock price appreciation so overall we are doing pretty good and as you know the stock exchange is really a barometer of the economy.”

Street Forrest made special mention of the banking, finance and manufacturing sectors as the leading performers and noted the junior market's role in bringing in companies from all sectors to be listed on the exchange.

Bloomberg pushed the point of the diversified mix of companies on the exchange further and asked the managing director for more details on how this was achieved.

Street Forrest's answer alluded to an avoidance of discrimination and a very proactive approach in bringing companies to the stock exchange.

“So what we did in terms of companies, we did not cherry pick,” she explained. “So the stock exchange really went out and instead of being order takers — because most stock exchanges are order takers, people come in to them when they are ready — we actually went out to companies and we said 'you have a good company here. Why not look to equity capital as against debt?'

“Because a couple years ago the debt interest rate was very high and really what that did was stagnate many companies,” she continued. “So we really had an opportunity to say to companies 'look, look at equity as against debt.'”

The managing director noted that selling companies on that idea also involved helping them overcome their doubts and fears.

“Many companies were afraid of doing that because one of the things that they feel many times — because most of our companies are small or medium sized — they think that if they do that they immediately lose their company,” she said.

“Our message had to be on target to say no. There is a regulation that 20 per cent must be in the hands of a hundred shareholders. They still have 80 per cent of their company. So we went out and we spoke with companies. We also engaged the IDB [Inter-American Development Bank] in terms of putting on a programme that talks to access to equity capital and we went out and we looked for these companies and we actually worked with them to come to market.

“So it's more order-making as against order-taking,” Street Forrest emphasised.

Jamaica's prime minister, Andrew Holness, shared the Bloomberg interview on his social media, where it was met with a predominantly positive response.

“Wow! Got to put some money on Jamaica,” tweeted one Twitter user, while a Facebook user posted that this was a “proud moment for this little nation!”

Among the not-so-positive responses one person wrote, “Great to hear of the positive move of the JSE Mr Prime Minister. But are the workers of these companies benefitting? Or are they being paid slave wages? These companies should allow the blue collar workers to get some of the cream of the milk.”

“Rather than just celebrate this, those in the Diaspora need to make investments in the JSE part of their portfolios,” commented another. “That's the best way to truly celebrate this milestone.”