Benigno Aquino Jr

Establishing and Managing a Philippine Sovereign Wealth Fund

This is the second part of a series on this topic. In the first part, I discussed why we need a sovereign wealth fund or SWF in the first place. My main contention was that the Philippines is currently suffering from “Dutch disease” or the adverse effects of a sudden rise of income from its export of labour and from a rise of confidence in its domestic economy. In this second part, I will discuss how we could govern and operate our own SWF.

The Santiago Principles established by 26 countries with SWFs known as the International Working Group or IWG  in 2008 lays out a number of generally accepted principles and practices or GAPP to ensure that “the SWF arrangements are properly set up and investments are made on an economic and financial basis”. One of the main reasons for this is that as government-owned  entities, as SWFs continue to grow in importance to global capital markets and perform a bigger role in corporate governance, they need to demonstrate that their investment decisions are not politically motivated.

Traditionally, SWFs took the surplus foreign reserves accumulated within a resource exporting nation and invested them in long-term projects overseas. This allowed recipient countries that were often capital constrained and developing to benefit from such investment flows. The size and relative lack of transparency of some SWFs however caused many actors in the international community to cast a suspicious eye at these funds.

In the Philippine context, as discussed in the first part of this series, I propose that our SWF be confined to funding projects within the country given our chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and need to resuscitate our industrial sector. Given however our historically poor track record at ensuring that government owned and controlled companies manage their assets in a prudent manner, the main concern in establishing a SWF would be to ring-fence it from the influence of politics.

The Santiago Principles help to define a set of best practices for us in establishing our own SWF in the Philippines. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace talked about what the effect of signing up to these principles is by saying that

(b)y voluntarily submitting to the Santiago Principles, IWG members ceded their autonomy to establish governance arrangements in line with their individual needs and preferences. In a way, they made a conscious decision to limit the reach of their “sovereignty.”

You might be tempted after reading that to draw an analogy between the IWG to the World Trading Organisation or WTO which implements the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs or GATT. Unlike that body, the IWG and its successor the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds or IFSWF is purely voluntary and has no powers to sanction its members. The Carnegie Endowment does draw this distinction. What our Philippine authorities should do in drawing up the framework for its SWF would be to hard code “the Principles” in its charter.

As shown in the table below, the Principles may be divided into three distinct parts. These cover the legal and macroeconomic policy framework of the fund, its institutional and governance arrangements and structures, and finally its methods for managing investment decisions and handling risk. I am adapting the Carnegie Endowment’s description of these parts here.

Table 1: Santiago Principles*

Section What “the Principles” state there should be GAPP #
Legal framework, objectives, and coordination withmacroeconomic policies
  • disclosure of legal framework
  • definition and disclosure of policy purpose
  • public disclosure of funding and withdrawal arrangements
GAPP 1
GAPP 2
GAPP 4
Institutional framework and governance structures
  • clearly defined roles and responsibilities of the principal/owner (the government) and the agent (SWF’s governing body, officers and executives)
  • a limited role for the principal which is to set the broad  objectives, appointment of governing body or board, and oversight of operations
  • a clear mandate to the fund’s governing body to set strategy for achieving its objectives along with being accountable for its performance
  • delegated authority for independently implementing strategies and handling operations for officers and executives under clearly defined roles and responsibilities
GAPP 6 

 

GAPP 7

 

GAPP 8

 

GAPP 9

Investment and risk management frameworks
  • disclosure of investment policies
  • information about investment themes, investment objectives and horizons, and strategic asset allocation, including:
    1. disclosure of investments that are subject to non-economic and non-financial considerations
    2. whether they execute ownership rights to protect the financial value of investments
  • a framework that identifies, assesses, and manages the risks of its operations and measures to track investment performance employing relative and/or absolute benchmarks
GAPP 18 

 

 

GAPP 19.1

GAPP 21

 

GAPP 22

*adapted from Sven Behrendt (2010). Sovereign Wealth Funds and Santiago Principles: Where do they stand? Carnegie Papers No. 22, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The policy aims of setting a SWF in the Philippines are clear: to channel excess foreign reserves in a productive way and to cope with the developmental needs of the country. As I stated in the first part of this series, existing legislation tasks the Bangko Sentral with ensuring an adequate supply of currency to meet our international obligations. It does not contemplate our current predicament where the annual flows of remittances and portfolio investments have made our gross international reserves (GIR) rise rapidly.

This has caused the appreciation of the peso which has put a strain on our exporters. Even our burgeoning business process outsourcing industry is beginning to feel the pinch of the currency’s upward trajectory. As I previously stated, the GIR is now sufficient to cover twelve months of imports and to meet all our external obligations with a comfortable buffer left over.

And it will keep rising especially if our government earns an investment grade credit rating as is expected next year. Our GIR should only be allowed to rise in proportion to our external commitments. As our economy becomes less dependent on foreign borrowing these external debts won’t rise as rapidly as they have in the past.

Once a targeted level has been reached, the Bangko Sentral should be authorised to declare any additional funds in excess of its requirements. The existing Central Bank Act should be amended to explicitly state this. The monetary board should be given the task of setting the appropriate benchmarks for making such declarations and for transferring excess funds into a SWF.

The nature of such a transfer, as I have suggested, should be in the form of a sovereign loan issued to the national government, which will own the SWF. This would help ensure that the projects which the SWF invests in will have a sufficient return to cover its borrowings and operating costs. It would also ensure that the value of the Bangko Sentral’s assets is preserved.

As to the appointment of its board and officers, the SWF would be subject to the same rules covering government owned and controlled corporations or GOCCs. The reforms carried out by the new GOCC law which created a commission that regulates the appointments, compensation and accountabilities of such officers would apply as well. This would include the need to provide audited financial statements and management reports.

In terms of the type of projects it would fund, I have suggested four potential areas or themes. This includes public infrastructure (such as the ones eyed for Public-Private Partnerships) aimed at both social and economic development, joint minerals exploration in consortium with private mining firms, industry cluster development projects, and clean, renewable energy projects.

The allocation of resources across these themes could be based on national priorities. Let’s be clear: the main purpose of this SWF would be to support the development priorities of the nation, and that should be stated unapologetically. But for specific projects, a set of solid business cases needs to be presented. When entering into joint ventures or consortia with private players, the SWF should also be allowed to exercise ownership rights over the project to protect its investments.

Just as with government financial institutions or GFIs, the SWF should be guided by proper prudential management principles that would monitor its risk exposure. Unlike the conservative treasury management practices of government banks and pension funds, the risk-return equation is different for an equity investor like the SWF. The risk tolerance would be higher while its returns need not necessarily be as big given its lower cost of borrowing. Its risk adjusted return on capital would thus be lower compared to commercial banks.

Some PPP bidders have expressed concern over political interference in the Philippines affecting their ability to set fees independently of the government. This has limited the appetite for actually managing the operations of the utilities and transport oriented projects. They have therefore chosen to participate only in building contracts. Takashi Ishagami of Marubeni Corporation has been quoted as saying that “the Filipino PPP is far away from our standard”. It has partnered with a local firm to jointly bid for a $1 billion railway project in which it would be merely supplying equipment.

That’s fine. If the SWF were to finance such partnerships, our excess foreign reserves would leak out of the country (as intended) through the purchase of foreign equipment. This will help temper the peso’s rise since these projects will no longer be financed through overseas assistance or equity from abroad. What could leak in, however, is foreign technology and know-how because as an equity investor, with a long time frame, the SWF would also have greater leverage to request that suppliers provide technology transfer to local partners. This should unapologetically be part of its investment prioritisation framework.

An Alternative to Charter Change

Rather than relaxing the maximum capital requirements on foreign participation in certain industries contained in our constitution, the government should instead be looking to accelerate the flow of funds into productive activity with the SWF as one of its prime vehicles. Where private players are too small to generate sufficient scale to participate in large projects, the government should encourage them to form a cluster and fund them to be able to compete with multinationals.

This incidentally was the vision of the late-Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino for the Philippine economy which he explained in a speech delivered in Los Angeles back in 1981 while he was in exile. He sought to counter the Marcos regime’s formula of encouraging multinational firms to engage in extractive activities and to commercially fund projects like the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Juxtaposed to Marcos’ “crony capitalism”, Ninoy termed his philosophy “Christian socialism”.

Don’t be turned off by the name. As his remarks suggest, what he really meant was essentially a form of capitalism more akin to Northern Europe’s brand than to the English version as espoused by Adam Smith. The last time I checked, the German and Scandinavian economies seemed to be weathering the present crisis well, while maintaining one of the highest levels of income and social well-being compared to their Anglo-American counterparts.

Under President Benigno “Noynoy”Aquino’s rubric of good governance, the stage is now set to pursue that economic philosophy and vision for the country.  As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found, sound democratic institutions best explains a nation’s compliance with the Santiago Principles.

With the government now facing the prospect of receiving investment grade status in the coming year, it must prepare for any unintended adverse consequences this might have as more short-term investors flock to our shores, boosting the peso’s value and putting more of an already unbearable strain on our exporters of goods and services.

For good governance to yield economic benefits to the people, it needs to be used to address the developmental challenges facing the nation. If we act soon, we won’t have to face these same challenges in the future. The country is already in a gradual demographic transition that will lead us from an excess supply to an excess demand for labour over the next decade.

While we still send our surplus workers overseas, we need to channel the wealth they are creating for our nation into projects that would increase economic opportunities for our people back home. This presents our policy makers with a once in a generation opportunity to get things right. Given the discussion covered in this series, it would seem apparent that a SWF would be the way to go.

Risk and responsibility

While his assassination, questions about which remain open to this day, has transformed him into a martyr of democracy, Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino, Jr., the scion of a prominent clan in Tarlac, was by no means the passive or peaceable figure that the idea of martyrdom tends to conjure up—he was very much the opposite, in fact. As Cory, his own wife, once wryly remarked: “I know he’d die if we led a quiet life.” When he first entered public life as an assistant to President Ramon Magsaysay, he was, as he recounted to National Artist for Literature Nick Joaquin, a “siga-siga“: cocky and tough, believing that offense was the best defense.

Such an attitude would serve him well as he rode his vaulting ambition all the way to the Senate, where he occupied a seat that was initially perilous. On account of his youth—at the time that the 1967 elections were held, he was 17 days short of 35 years, the minimum required age for a Senator—a protest was lodged with the Senate Electoral Tribunal in order to remove him from office. The tribunal eventually decided that the proper reckoning of age ought to begin on the day that the “the expression of the popular will” was ascertained—that is, the day that the final poll results were announced—and allowed him to keep his post. Long before the ruling was handed down, however, Ninoy had already formulated a strategy: attack President Ferdinand Marcos. “If I kept hitting at Marcos, any effort to get me kicked out of the Senate would become political persecution, pure and simple,” he said.

If his fire and his capacity for calculation did not especially distinguish him from his foe—his similarity to Marcos has been remarked on more than once—Ninoy did tread a different path, fighting to make known to the world the excesses of the chief executive from the halls of the Senate, from behind bars, and from the United States, where he lived with his family for three years in self-exile. (Notwithstanding his flamboyance and bombast, he could be eerily prescient: his first speech as Senator, for instance, raised the alarm about the creeping development of a militarized state, five years before Marcos issued the infamous proclamation that placed the entire country under martial law and ushered in the so-called New Society.) And in spite of the very real risks that awaited him at home—no less than the First Lady had warned him against returning to the Philippines—he came back anyway, setting into motion the events that would topple a repressive regime and restore to his people the freedom to dictate their national destiny.

Nearly three decades after he was gunned down as he was being escorted by a contingent of soldiers from his airplane to a van that was supposed to take him to jail, what do we know or recall about Ninoy, whose death anniversary we commemorate on this day? Apart from his smiling visage printed on the 500-peso bill, the yellow-beribboned annual reprieve from the daily grind mandated in his honor since 2004, or the notoriously inefficient international airport that bears his name, what of this man have we managed to hold on to as we move through and make our history?

Very little, one suspects, but then, 29 years is about the span of a generation, and so the gap should probably not be surprising. It is unfortunate, though, that a good number of the people who are routinely credited in our history books with having played significant roles in the formation of the Philippines appear fated to serve no greater purpose than to allow teachers to burden their students with information that is only relevant and actionable within the configuration of space and time defined by the next bit of homework, pop quiz, or periodical exam.

This is not in any way to suggest, of course, that we should pay Ninoy obsequious homage and lavish upon him florid platitudes—however ubiquitous these gestures may become today, they are detrimental to sober and thoughtful reflection. It may be sufficient to remind ourselves on this day that we are the legatees of his sacrifice, and that we must prove ourselves equal to the responsibility of making sure that he was right: that the Filipino was, and is, worth dying for.

The joke is on us!

The Supreme Court ruling favoring former Marcos crony Eduardo “Danding” Cojuangco, Jr. demonstrates that kleptocracy is alive and well in the country.

As economist Cielito Habito will tell you, coconut farmers not rice farmers constitute the poorest of the poor in the Philippines. They also account for a larger bulk of the farming sector (whether you account for this on the basis of land area cultivated or number of individuals engaged in it). Improving their lot in life therefore should be on top of any poverty alleviation agenda.

Under Martial Law between 1972 and 1982, coconut farmers were burdened with a levy that was meant to be used for upgrading common facilities and infrastructure that would ultimately benefit the sector. The man in charge of what essentially could be regarded a monopoly was businessman Danding Cojuangco, an estranged cousin of the jailed opposition leader’s Benigno Aquino, Jr’s wife (mother of the current president who incidentally reconciled with his uncle prior to his election).

What did Mr Cojuangco do with the immense powers and resources entrusted to him? Well, he claims to have “borrowed” the funds from the United Coconut Planters Bank, an entity bought using the coco levy funds, to purchase a 20% stake in San Miguel Corporation, one of the biggest conglomerates in the country. So rather than going to the poorest of the poor, the funds were allocated to benefit the corporate and financial ambitions of the man whose responsibility it was to look out for their welfare.

Did he violate his duties not just as a public official in charge of the stewardship of their funds but as a corporate officer of the bank from where he had sourced his “loan”? The Supreme Court in a split decision seems to believe that he didn’t. This is despite the financial regulations that we have regarding banks lending a substantial amount of their funds to directors, officers, stakeholders and related interests.

Under normal circumstances, such an inequitable and imprudent decision by a public and corporate official would not have been condoned. Such a blatant disregard for the interests of those whose toil produced the resources would have only been possible under a dictatorship. It is that action that the Supreme Court has legitimized with its ruling.

Although the decision is still subject to a possible motion for reconsideration, if it were to stand, it would probably be one of the biggest transfers of wealth from the poorest and lowliest members of society to one of the wealthiest. It would be proof positive that kleptocracy is alive and well in a nation that has produced two among the top ten most corrupt leaders in modern history.

As Senior Associate Justice Conchita Carpio-Morales (who administered the oath of office to the current president) states in her dissenting opinion,

The argument that Cojuangco was not a subordinate or close associate of the Marcoses is the biggest joke to hit the century.

If that is so, then the joke is well and truly on us!

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