Barrack Obama

Whither the Philippines in 2020?

As America “pivots” towards Asia where the future economic centre of gravity of the world will be, how big or small a role will the Philippines play in this the Pacific Century?

Source of image: taiwandocuments.org

Jim O’Neill the man from Goldman Sachs responsible for the acronym BRICs (which stands for Brazil, Russia, India and China) in a forthcoming book feels all the more convinced as ever of the accuracy of his predictions ten years ago when he first coined it to describe the growth potential of emerging markets. His sense of vindication for what he now characterises as his “conservative” estimates comes from the fact that in his words,

The world economy has doubled in size since 2001, and a third of that growth has come from the BRICs. Their combined GDP increase was more than twice that of the United States and it was equivalent to the creation of another new Japan plus one Germany, or five United Kingdoms, in the space of a single decade.

At this rate, China will be on track to surpass the United States as the world’s biggest economy by 2027, according to O’Neill, beating the earlier estimate of 2035. Predicting when this will happen has become an interesting past-time of analysts of late, which is why The Economist whose own projections for a 2019 year of reckoning made available the following interactive chart where you can play around with the assumptions and do-it-yourself  by entering them in the assigned fields (see below).

As Secretary Clinton has put it

The Asia-Pacific has become a key driver of global politics. Stretching from the Indian subcontinent to the western shores of the Americas, the region spans two oceans — the Pacific and the Indian — that are increasingly linked by shipping and strategy. It boasts almost half the world’s population. It includes many of the key engines of the global economy, as well as the largest emitters of greenhouse gases. It is home to several of our key allies and important emerging powers like China, India, and Indonesia.

In his address to the Australian parliament, President Obama welcomed the rise of a peaceful China stating that

Together, I believe we can address shared challenges, such as (nuclear) proliferation and maritime security, including cooperation in the South China Sea.
Meanwhile, the United States will continue our effort to build a cooperative relationship with China.
…We will do this, even as we continue to speak candidly to Beijing about the importance of upholding international norms and respecting the universal human rights of the Chinese people.
A secure and peaceful Asia is the foundation for the second area in which America is leading again – and that’s advancing our shared prosperity.

A constant theme in that speech which effectively marked the “pivot point” to the East was America’s adherence to the rule of law to govern international relations in security and economic terms, as well as its championing of open democracies and free markets in the region. In both cases, Obama was at his professorial best when he promoted the concept of rules based trading in commerce and politics.

His speech writers could be said to channel F.A. Hayek the founder of contemporary libertarianism who said that, “Only the existence of common rules makes the peaceful existence of individuals in society possible.

This is consistent with America’s constitutional belief in universal principles. Prof Obama was also acting like Dr King, in that he was delivering a sermon. He may have seemed in Australia to be “preaching to the choir” but his real intended audience was not in Canberra, but Beijing. In Bali, he got to exchange a few constructive words with his Chinese counterpart. Much to the Philippine delegation’s dismay, the US defence posture in the region is not meant to intimidate the rising power of China into submission over the South China Sea issue.

Back home, President Aquino had another axe of sorts to grind with the placing of his predecessor Gloria Arroyo under hospital detention following her indictment for election fraud. This followed a week of controversy involving her attempted departure from the country to seek medical treatment following a Supreme Court decision to temporarily lift the Department of Justice’s hold departure order on her, a decision that was not accepted by the said department.

All of this puts into context, the question of where will the Philippines be in 2020? Will the Philippines be a prosperous democratic country governed by the rule of law? Or will it still be struggling to achieve this ideal that the US president spoke of so eloquently?

Today, the hot topic in Manila among political commentators is whether the action taken by the Aquino government to prevent Mrs Arroyo from leaving was in accordance with the rule of law. On the side of those who say yes is Randy David who believes what we have now is a “rule of justices” not a bona fide rule of law thanks to the lady at the centre of the controversy. On the side of naysayers is Solita Monsod who believes the speed with which the investigation was conducted points once again to the politicisation of the process. Both make reasoned arguments in support of their views.

The president convinced of the justness of his actions and mindful of his constituents exhorted his countrymen to “not waver.” He said that

We are all working for a new Philippines, one where there is equality, where whoever does wrong, whatever his status in life may be, is punished, a country where justice rules.

Whatever the position either camp holds in this debate, all will agree that prosecuting the Arroyos has been quite a messy undertaking, much like the way President Joseph Estrada was deposed from office. The legality of it will be questioned and the merits of it will be argued for years to come in the court of public opinion.

Incidentally, 2011 is also the tenth year since Estrada’s ouster. Back in 2001, Mr Estrada will argue, the country’s elites conspired to bring a sitting and democratically elected president down by extra-constitutional means. Today, it has been argued that one faction of the elite has manipulated the legal system to jail the head of another.

In all this time, has the country progressed towards becoming a stable more prosperous country? To the analysts, the country’s growth rate over the last ten years has proven their rosy forecasts right. They will say that we are on track both demographically and economically to be a force to reckon with by 2020 and beyond.

To the “insiders” the same old problems of social inequity still prevails. One set of rules still seems to apply to one class of people, and another applies to the rest. To the administration and its followers, the Arroyos have become totemic of this system. To them successfully prosecuting and sending her swiftly to jail would prove once and for all that only one system of justice prevails in the country.

To the realists, the application of justice over the course of the next ten years will largely depend on who sits in power. By 2020, a certain boxer-legislator who happened to be one of GMA’s strongest endorsers believes he will be a strong contender for the Palace in 2022. By then he would have tucked a few billion pesos under his belt and followed a path set before by the populist Erap Estrada.

Should the reforms espoused by the current seat warmers of Malacañang not take route in the next five years the political pendulum could swing the other way and a revival of patronage-based populism with a new face could rise to replace the torch-bearers of our current elite democracy.

Similarly, China could match the US pound-for-pound in their rivalry for regional dominance. The Beijing Consensus might by then trump the Washington version. A different model for prosperity might be in play making the need for establishing common rules seem rather (how shall we put it?…) academic.

They’re Baaaaaaack!

The APEC summit in Hawaii (photo courtesy of UPI.com)

In uncharacteristically blunt language, US President Obama as host of the APEC summit in Hawaii called on China to act like a “grown up” saying “enough is enough” and that it was time for the People’s Republic to “operate by the same rules that everybody operates” threatening dire consequences unless the yuan appreciates by 20-25%.

The US has been pressing China to allow its currency the yuan to appreciate more quickly to make American products more affordable to Chinese residents and similarly make Chinese exports less attractive to US based consumers. President Hu’s pragmatic response–allow imports to rise without necessarily liberalizing the currency exchange regime–is typical of the Middle Kingdom.

Unlike America’s faith in free markets, China would rather deliberately get prices wrong if it would allow it to maintain a healthy trade surplus with the US. This after all was the same path to development that the US took when it was still in its “catch-up” phase with Western Europe.

Yet America, with its penchant for universal principles (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”) is now in the game of preaching free trade, open markets and property rights in the Far East just as it preached democracy in the Middle East. China is instinctually groping for a particularistic response. Although sounding undiplomatic, I like Pres Obama’s rhetoric because it gave away an important concession in the development debate.

“Gaming the system” or the notion of applying the tools of industrial policy to generate a competitive advantage for nascent industries in global trade as a legitimate means to catch-up with more advanced economies while a country is still relatively underdeveloped has been acknowledged. In the local vernacular, “saling pusa” which refers to little children allowed to participate in a game without having the same rules applied to them would be the way America views the Chinese.

For those who believe that lowering trade barriers helps promote growth, the following graph taken from Dani Rodrik’s paper to the UN should help dispel that notion. It shows a positive albeit insignificant correlation between tariff levels and economic growth. At best, no correlation can be inferred between lowering barriers to trade and growth, which is why the Philippines despite having very low tariffs relative to its ASEAN neighbors, has not been growing strongly. As I mentioned in my last piece, higher barriers to entry actually have been found to induce domestic innovation that in turn leads to new exports.

Source: Dani Rodrik (2001), The Global Governance of Trade--As If Development Really Mattered: A UNDP Background Paper

This should help comfort those distressed by that CNBC press release that the Philippines is the worst place for doing business in Asia. It should also be noted that in their top ten worst places, India and Indonesia were included. If these are the sorts of countries that we are in league with, then we really should not be too bothered.

Despite that dubious title, one should actually pay attention to the fact that the CNBC pronouncement was based on the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. Many of the measures in this report simply do not apply to businesses within the special economic zones which is more relevant to foreign investors. Furthermore, petty corruption actually allows many of the so-called barriers for entry to be removed.

The main roadblock to foreign direct investments is actually the desire of business to operate with the same protection of contracts and property rights wherever they are along with low costs to entry without the necessary tax burden and industrial labor costs that are needed to foster this. On the other hand, ordinary citizens that politicians seeking re-election (as in the case of Obama) try to please don’t want unfair competition for their labor from less developed countries which try to create a system of arbitrage to attract foreign investors.

It isn’t that investors want a level playing field. Consumers by and large don’t really mind whether a producer competes fairly for a slice of their hip pocket. That means for a country seeking to attract foreign investors increasingly ceding a lot of its national policy-making abilities to Western bodies and institutions to gain access to its markets. Hence the rhetoric of Obama who is trying to create a narrative that would pit the economies in the region against China.

Having ceded the scene for the better part of a decade to Beijing which has forged a free trade deal with ASEAN (CAFTA, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area), Washington is trying to regain the initiative with its Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that boasts the commitment of nine APEC countries and counting. China has objected to not being invited to join the agreement. This is clearly a bid by the US to isolate it and strengthen its economic clout in the region.

This week, as he travels en route to the East Asia summit in Bali, Indonesia, the US president is scheduled to make a stopover in Canberra to address the Australian parliament and sign a deal that would increase US troop presence in a base located near Darwin. The two nations have already beefed up the ANZUS mutual defense treaty by allowing allies to invoke it in the case of cyber attacks just as it was used in justifying Australian participation in the US war against terror.

This posturing is clearly aimed at containing Chinese ambitions in the region. America is trying to prevent Australia and its other allies (Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines) from following in the footsteps of Germany which has been compromised as a NATO ally due to its economy’s dependence on exports to China. Australia sees the need to boost its military capability to help counter the military build-up of China while relying on iron ore exports to China for sustaining health in its economy. Other countries in the region notably Vietnam and the Philippines will seek protection under the US security umbrella given tensions with China over the Spratlys.

PM Julia Gillard earlier this year commissioned her own white paper that would create a strategic road map for Australia in the “Asian century.” Upon her return to Australia, she announced a new position on uranium exports to India, the other emerging power in the region. This back-flip on her party’s existing position to maintain a ban until India signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty occurred after a meeting with President Obama .

Meanwhile State secretary Hilary Clinton is set to travel through Bangkok and Manila en route to Bali. She will no doubt seek to emphasize the theme that America is back in business in the region. P-Noy has been keen to float his own ideas about a solution to the Spratlys among allies, but membership in the TPP is very much in doubt as certain hurdles including constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership and weak protection of intellectual property rights prevent the Philippines from being admitted.

This means that the Philippines will engage in free trade with China via CAFTA, while having a military alliance with the US. This is probably the best possible outcome–a good way to counter-balance each competing force on either side of the Pacific. Australian PM Julia Gillard put it best when she said this week,

It is well and truly possible for us in this growing region of the world to have an ally in the US and to have deep friendships in our region including with China.

But for how long this formula will work only time will tell.

Where’s the beef? On the missing “spoils” from P-Noy’s second US trip

Does good governance mean good economics?

In an earlier piece last week meant more to mark the 39th anniversary of martial law in the Philippines, I tried to downplay expectations regarding the “spoils” that P-Noy’s US trip would bring describing the situation there as dire and nearly on the boil.

As P-Noy was to deliver a report to the World Bank, Mr Olivier Blanchard, Chief Economist of the IMF gave an uncharacteristically downbeat outlook for the world economy saying that the global recovery had stalled, revising forecasts of growth down to 4 from 5% (a more significant slowdown for advanced economies with growth prospects halved from 3 to 1.6% and less drastic cuts for emerging economies whose growth prospects decline slightly to 6.1 from 6.4%–the Philippines has seen its growth prospects slashed from 6-7% down to 4-5%).

Sure enough, on the day he arrived back from the US, the Dow Jones plunged nearly 400 basis points undoing the Federal Reserve’s measured response to prop up confidence. This was in reaction to what has been going on in Europe where Italy, the third largest economy received a credit downgrade from S&P and where a Greek default on sovereign debt looms. Meanwhile the Washington elite remained at odds over how to keep the government running with a measure to keep the lights on until November 18 passed literally at the eleventh hour.

With that as an unfitting backdrop, the president remained upbeat upon planting his feet back on home soil. Unlike his more recent trip to China which was expected to yield 2-7 billion dollars worth of investment of which 1.3 billion dollars was realized in firm commitments and cost the Filipino taxpayer 25 million pesos (a return of 52 dollars worth of investment for every peso spent), there were no numbers to be quoted this time around.

The president instead spoke of the keen interest and enthusiasm of US investors who were “lining-up” to come to the Philippines. Strange that the president did not even mention the figure of $15 million over the next four years the only firm commitment to come from Pepsi to be invested in developing a coconut juice processing facility.

That after all would be good news for the struggling farmers the intended beneficiaries of the Marcos era’s coco levy fund which was meant to provide them support in exporting their crop, but instead went to a bank which then lent to the fund’s manager, P-Noy’s once estranged uncle, who because of that now owns a controlling stake in San Miguel the food and beverage giant thanks to the high court’s ruling earlier this year.

So why the omission, which is so uncharacteristic of arrival statements; could it be because the spoils of this trip are so meager when compared to the nearly 25 million pesos spent on it? It would depict it as representing less value for money by producing a mere 6o cents for every peso spent.

This should not detract from the overall mission of the trip which according to the president was fulfilled by him reporting to the World Bank the advances of his administration this past year and greeting the Filipino community there. There was also the side trip to credit agencies to try and convince them to boost the ratings of the country. After all, the budget deficit no longer seems to be a problem with a surplus reported in August bringing the cumulative deficit for the year to be 85% below its ceiling, right?

This is what the president trumpeted as a success in his drive to stamp out corruption. In the spirit of transparency and openess, which were the themes of the Open Government Partnership that P-Noy inaugurated at the Waldorf Astoria (which incidentally means more foreign trips in the near future to Brazil, Chile, UK, Tanzania and Latvia), the Palace should have at least acknowledged that perhaps the Americans were in no position given the state of their economy to be exporting their capital and jobs to countries like the Philippines.

Never gonna happen

That transparent recognition of the state of affairs of course was never going to happen, for the simple fact that doing so would expose the president to accusations of junketing which given the nature of his presidency is something his entourage wants to avoid. For if the question were really to be asked, what would be the real urgency of making this trip to the US a second time in a row within the space of a year, what would be the answer?

His remarks at the World Bank was like that of a star pupil performing a didactic exercise of parroting his tutor. His visit to Fordham University was a sentimental journey mirroring his mother’s footsteps (similar to his visiting an ancestral hometown in China). His co-inaugural of the OGP lent legitimacy to an initiative sponsored by the World Bank which has struggled to make itself relevant.

Finally, his trip to the IMF was unnecessary given that the Philippines exited their program right before he entered office. The only point of this trip it seems was to highlight the advances of his young presidency in proving that “good governance is good economics”.

Unfortunately, the jury is still out on that. For one, the US haul was a pittance compared to the Chinese catch. And China has not really been deterred from investing because of perceived corruption or lack of openness. In fact, China’s development spending in emerging countries devoid of any concerns about corruption in the recipient nation is the main reason why western aid agencies have been struggling to maintain their relevance.

That and the fact that their anti-poverty programs have proven to be inconsequential. So much so that they have jumped on the bandwagon in supporting ideas developed independently by their clients. Programs such as Bolsa Familia which is now called “conditional cash transfers”. Yet as shown in an earlier post, the Philippines could have funded its own variant of this scheme without resorting to multilateral financing.

Second, the “interest” from US companies to invest was sparked not because of a greater sense of openness but from the relative advantages the Philippines has in a couple of areas. One is in the form of coconut plantation; and, two is in the form of a call center industry that has grown from strength to strength even during the period in which corruption supposedly reigned.

Now before you start arguing that the austerity exhibited by P-Noy in his travels is in stark contrast to the “impunity” demonstrated by his predecessor, let me say first of all that this habit of constantly bringing up ex-president Gloria Arroyo as the benchmark for this president’s conduct in office is not really very useful (although I am sure her supporters would be happy to have that conversation). I would prefer to think he should set the bar much higher.

The proper benchmark

Before questions of efficiency and effectiveness are raised, it is important to cross the threshold of appropriateness. How appropriate was it to make the trip at all? If as the president says it was important to send a message about the reforms undertaken by his country, then perhaps it would be pertinent to look at Indonesia’s example. The president of Indonesia the only other Asian country in the steering group of the OGP has trodden the path that P-Noy has just embarked on.

After the anti-corruption campaign started under Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono’s first administration, Indonesia has clearly effected a change in its image abroad. It is sometimes accorded “BRIC” status with  gross capital formation as a ratio of GDP about double and foreign direct investments several multiples of that in the Philippines in recent years. This was another successfully home grown program not driven by donors, the main reason it went from being seen as a basket case after the fall of Suharto to joining the Group of 20 nations.

Yet after accomplishing all this, its president felt no compelling reason to preach the virtues of his nearly decade long administration to other world leaders choosing instead to send a “trusted aid” to the event. Our president on the other hand felt so convinced that his administration after just over a year in office was performing sufficiently well that he saw the need to share his country’s “success story” with people abroad.

Unlike the case of Indonesia where the anti-corruption campaign supported growth, the Philippine government’s attempts to rein in corruption seem to have detracted from that growth as the latest four quarters of GDP reporting have shown (ironically it is in the area of growth where the Philippines over the last decade has not performed too badly against its southern neighbor–but never mind that, lest this statement of fact be interpreted as me giving “props” to the previous dispensation).

While it is understandable for the president acting as Salesperson-in-Chief to present a positive image abroad of our country and his administration, it is equally important for that image to be translated into tangible results over a sustained period of time. Only then will the image correspond to reality. Until then, we can only keep asking, “Mr, Presidentwhere’s the beef?*

*Fresh from his US trip, the president rushed off to Japan for four days. The contrast between the East Asian and North Atlantic nations could not be more stark with one billion dollars expected to be signed off with a taxpayer’s bill amounting to 20 million pesos.

Martial Law rumors

Pres Aquino’s trip to the US comes at a time of deep political and social turmoil for the land of the free.

Protest riots in Europe: a sign of things to come in America?

The opening salvo came from Mayor Mike Bloomberg of New York who said on Friday that a prolonged period of high unemployment is producing conditions similar to that found just prior to riots in London (and across Europe as a result of austerity measures). In response to Bloomberg’s comments, Rush Limbaugh an ultra-conservative radio commentator attacked the mayor for his bi-partisan leanings while at the same time agreed with him that chaos was coming and that it would be welcomed by Pres Obama.

Such conspiracy theories were backed by Texas Cong Ron Paul a contender in the ongoing Republican nomination process for president who said that it was in the interest of those espousing big government for a breakdown of law and order to ensue given that it would lead to a public outcry for government intervention to re-establish public order. On Twitterverse, there was some chatter about the introduction of martial law in response to riots and a postponement of elections in 2012.

It just so happens that these right-wing conspiracy theories have occurred on the 40th (update: actually, it’s the 39th) anniversary of Pres Marcos’s declaration of martial law in the Philippines. It now appears that the world has been stood on its head four decades later.

In the past, when Philippine heads of state visited America, they often went cap in hand in search of aid, investment and trade. As P-Noy gets set to pay his respects to the leader of the free world, there will be very little appetite on the latter’s part for taking out the checkbook.

At a time when the US economy struggles with its first credit downgrade in nearly a century, huge fiscal and trade deficits, persistent high unemployment, sluggish growth and rising poverty rates, it wouldn’t be the right time to ask for more help. This visit is all about maintaining and strengthening ties (after Wikileaks revealed some very unflattering remarks made by the former US ambassador to the Philippines regarding our president) rather than promoting trade and investment.

Still, I would look out for the gratuitous announcements of investment dollar commitments that inevitably will come at the end of this trip. Compared with the Chinese catch, it would be interesting to see the return on investment per overseas dollar spent.

A Dual Track

Two very disappointing sets of figures were released last week.

One: the anemic 3.4% GDP growth experienced by the Philippines in the second quarter of the year. That places growth in the first half at 4%. Economic managers have had to revise downwards their full-year projection to 4% from the targeted 7-8% (it would require growth of 10% in the second half of the year for the target to be reached, and not even the budget department’s assumption of 5% seems likely at this point).

Two: the abysmal jobs market in the US which saw no new net jobs created in August as many private firms became spooked by events in Europe and the US credit downgrade. The fact that high unemployment is expected to persist until 2015-16, perhaps even to 2016-17 (with many states coping with the end of stimulus by laying-off workers) has led many to conclude that the US is teetering on the brink of a double dip recession.

Bracing for the harsh winds from a US downturn, Sen Frank Drilon has called on the government to step up its infrastructure spending. Amando Doronila uses the findings of Credit Suisse which downgraded its growth prospects in the region which is expected to suffer “more than most” and cast doubts on the Philippines because it doubted whether

(T)he planned PPP (public-private partnership) infrastructure projects that many were bullish about were likely to get off the ground in a hurry.

In fact, the first couple of projects are scheduled to be bidded out at the end of the year, 18 months after the SONA in which it was announced. That means actual investments will not flow until well into the next year.

Economist Solita Monsod in her weekend column chastised our economic managers for not heeding the official early warning signs by accelerating public construction expenditure. She likened it to economic sabotage when she concluded

Public construction contracted by 23 percent in the third quarter of 2010 and 14 percent in the fourth quarter. Okay, that’s the price for trying to tighten procedures. But decreasing by 38 percent in the first quarter of 2011? And 51 percent in the second quarter?
Prevent plunder? Maybe. But there is economic sabotage in the process. What a choice Filipinos are faced with: between ill-intentioned plunderers and well-intentioned saboteurs.

Amando Doronila had more harsh words in today’s op-ed piece

The straight path to governance sainthood under the Aquino administration’s mantra, “without corruption there’s no poor,” is littered with the derelicts of pious slogans as well as the detritus of incompetent economic management. These derelicts cannot make up for the big deficit in economic performance.

Much like his American counterpart whose followers have become disenchanted with the meager results of his lofty campaign rhetoric, PNoy could soon find the public’s receptiveness to his slogans waning with each passing day.

After experimenting for a year with his idealistic Daang Matuwid will hard-nosed pragmatism be resurrected? A dual track is needed in which the administration pursues its good governance agenda in a way that does not hamper economic growth and development.

This is perhaps what the purists in his camp failed to consider, that the path to development is not a single lane, and that the two agendas can run side-by-side.

The Austerity of Hope

Has PNoy’s righteous path unintentionally led to more misery?

In 1973, a book co-authored by public policy guru Aaron Wildavsky was published. It had a very verbose title that read: Implementation: How Great Expectations in Washington are Dashed in Oakland; Or Why It’s Amazing that Federal Programs Work At All; This Being a Saga of the Economic Development Administration by Two Sympathetic Observers Who Seek to Build Morals on a Foundation of Ruined Hopes.

The book examined the EDA, an agency that still exists today and is located within the US Department of Commerce to show how policies conceived with the best of intentions at the top, get corrupted and bungled on the way to implementation. It is a cautionary tale on the limits of idealism and noble intentions, a vivid exposition of that oft repeated phrase that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

There can be no more apt way to depict the manner the PNoy presidency has conducted itself during its first year in office. The Filipino equivalent, which goes, maraming namamatay sa maling akala (or many perish because of false assumptions), also rings true. The president to be sure entered the Palace with nothing but the best of intentions propelled by the highest hopes of the people with a vision for

a re-awakened sense of right and wrong, through the living examples of our highest leaders…a collective belief that doing the right thing does not only make sense morally, but translates into economic value as well (from the Liberal Party’s Social Contract).

The movement that had pushed him to enter the derby wanted a person whose reputation would contrast with the existing field. The election was to be framed as a contest between Good and Evil, Light and Darkness, anchored on the moral superiority of their cause.

When he announced his candidacy, Benigno “Noynoy” Aquino used the words of an admirer to capture the moment, in that “we can finally dare to have hope once more.” He was declared the Philippine equivalent of Barrack Obama, whose book The Audacity of Hope inspired the 2008 presidential campaign slogan, Change We Can Believe In.

At his inaugural, the Benign One pledged that

(t)hrough good governance in the coming years, we will lessen our problems. The destiny of the Filipino will return to its rightful place, and as each year passes, the Filipino’s problems will continue to lessen with the assurance of progress in their lives.

During his first formal address to Congress, the president stated that the nation faced a fork in the road. On the one hand was the quick and easy path that led to destruction, while on the other was the long and arduous one that led to deliverance. He pledged to take the nation straight down the Righteous Path or Daang Matuwid.

In his first budget statement, he fulfilled a campaign pledge to institute a zero-based budgeting approach to weed out anomalous projects and programs. Only those considered necessary and above board would receive funding. On balance it was a frugal budget, less than 2% above the previous year’s before accounting for inflation, which meant that he had effectively shrank the government. This was meant to give himself a fighting chance to fulfill his “no new taxes” pledge to businessmen at the big end of town.

All of this was in keeping with the vision for a country with a new set of morals that would translate into economic value.

At the halfway mark of his first year in December last year, a number of positive trends seemed to indicate a very auspicious start to the president’s term. The growth momentum experienced in the first half of the year seemed to have carried through in the latter half.

Fast forward two quarters to today and all of the indicators seem to be pointing downwards. Not only has investor confidence been a bit more sanguine and consumer confidence turned sour, but poverty and hunger seem to be on the rise along with unemployment. Some of these headwinds are caused by external events like the uprisings in the Middle East and natural disasters in New Zealand and Japan, but could they also be self-inflicted handicaps?

What’s going on?

Well it seems that in their bid to control government waste and corruption, the administration has unintentionally created a situation where much of its programmed spending was held back (up to 20% in the first quarter alone). The massive withholding of spending amounting to close to 70 billion pesos in the first four months of the year (which when we factor in negative multiplier effects is really around 100-150 billion pesos or 1-1.5% of GDP) appears to have had an adverse impact as contractors stopped hiring and in fact layed off more workers.

This occurs at a time of rising cost of living presssures and as a fresh batch of new graduates are about to join the labor market. Despite spending more on conditional cash grants to alleviate the plight of the poor, the actions of the palace seems to have made life much worse for many of them. The government in effect seems to be giving with one hand while taking away with the other.

It seems that in seeking to treat the symptoms of moral degradation and heal the body politic, PNoy forgot the first maxim of the Hyppocratic Oath, which is to do no harm. Indeed as it nears the end of its first year in office, the government of the Benign One appears to have very little to show for its posturing on institution building and bringing about greater economic benefits of a cleaner, moral government: perhaps a case of great expectations dashed once more.

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