Missing the old Prices Commission, Mr Samuda? We know the feeling

Thursday, January 25, 2018

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The Prices Commission was one of those agencies which were discredited in the heady atmosphere of the 1970s ideological warfare.

The political left wielded it as a popular — some would say oppressive — tool against merchants. The political right dismissed it as a coercive instrument of socialism.

Ironically, the Prices Commission, whose main focus was on price control to protect the most vulnerable, was given birth by the Trade Act of July 1970, under the then Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) Government, and was defanged by another JLP Administration of the 1980s.

The Prices Commission became the Consumer Affairs Commission (CAC) as part of the changes to reflect the demands of the liberalised economy in the 1990s, and was refocused “to equip consumers to make informed decisions within a market-driven economy and to be their main advocate, if things went wrong”, according to the CAC's website.

“Today, the work of the commission is three pronged: engagement in market research, provision of complaint resolution services, and the execution of a vibrant consumer education programme,” the CAC asserts.

“The commission is dedicated to leading the change in the society towards a population of 21st century consumers who are knowledgeable, discriminating, vigilant and assertive,” CAC says further.

With all its nice-sounding words, the CAC can only watch — helpless for all intents and purposes — as today's merchants, most of them at any rate, stubbornly refuse to pass on the benefits of a revalued dollar to the beleaguered consumer.

Ms Dolsie Allen, the head of the CAC, complained Tuesday that business owners had expressed reluctance to lower the price of goods in line with the declining US currency because they feared the trend might not be sustainable.

But Commerce Minister Karl Samuda was more to the point: “Over the years… whenever the dollar appreciates there is little or no movement in the prices, but when the dollar depreciates, even the slightest, you will see an increase.”

Mr Samuda is right. And he was not beating up on the merchants. He acknowledged that it is reasonable to assume in some instances that importers have been hit by currency depreciation and tried to recoup losses upon appreciation of the currency.

Even then, Mr Samuda can only appeal to their best angels, urging businesses “to consider very seriously the question of giving the consumers the benefit” of revaluation.

“In the old days we had the Prices Commission, and we would examine all the factors carefully before awarding a price that it could be sold at. Today we depend on them to use good conscience, and the marketplace competition will determine the price,” said the despairing minister.

The one bit of light in that dark place is Wisynco Group, which on January 2, 2018 began implementing a three-per cent price reduction on most of its imported products, based on the revalued Jamaican dollar.

No one is going to go back to the old Prices Commission, but merchants should heed the warning that necessity is still the mother of invention.

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