build operate transfer

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
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







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




*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.

The National Development Project, part 2: Re-defining Good Governance

This is a continuation of Part 1: The National Development Project.

Governance is the cornerstone of the Aquino presidency, and this point is brought out by his development plan. Since Public-Private Partnerships which is the Plan’s centerpiece has been around since the mid-80s under the name Build-Operate-Transfer, better governance of them will provide the only new impetus to growth.

The question now becomes what sort of governance model best suits this strategy?

Peter Evans in an essay entitled Transferrable Lessons? Re-examining Institutional Pre-requisites of East Asian Economic Policies states that there are three alternative models of good governance. He describes them as:

  • The ‘market-friendly model’, best exemplified by the World Bank’s [1993] East Asian Miracle report, which focuses on ‘getting the fundamentals right’. In this model, “government must preserve macroeconomic stability and provide ‘rules of the game’ that are transparent and predictable.”
  • The ‘industrial policy’ model, which is best epitomised by Chalmers Johnson’s classic [1982] study of MITI (Ministry of International Trade and Industry), more demands are placed on economic policy makers…Policies nurturing the general macroeconomic environment must be complemented by “industry-specific policies that push setors most worth pursuing and shift capital out of sectors with declining returns and weak growth prospects.”
  • The ‘profit-investment nexus’ model [Akyuz and Gore, 1996] which shares with the ‘industry policy model’ the idea that policy must do more than simply provide a facilitative macroeconomic environement, but is not as demanding of industry-specific policies. Policies must simply increase the overall level of investment and not necessarily foster certain “sunrise” industries.

The relevant part of the Plan that describes the administration’s governance model is Chapter 7: Good Governance and the Rule of Law. From the elements and the tone of the text, it sounds like that the Plan is using the ‘market-friendly’ model with its four-pronged strategy of eliminating red-tape, pursuing anti-corruption, increasing citizen participation and accountability.

Ensuring a minimum level of probity is consistent with all three models of governance. As Evans states “if developing countries…could achieve the levels of bureaucratic capacity entailed in the ‘market friendly’ model, the additional capacity implied by other models would be institutionally within reach.

That should not be taken to mean though that emulating East Asia requires incorruptible super bureaucrats able to “out-manage their private counterparts from a distance.” As Evans explains,

Minimal norms of probity and competence need to be applied on a general basis, but East Asian reformers did not attempt to transform every ministry. Radical changes were reserved for key economic agancies; routinized behavour and surprisingly high levels of clientelism were allowed to persist in those considered less crucial to the national development project.

If there is any positive thing the economic rationalist theory has contributed to our understanding of governance, it has been the couching of rent-seeking in non-pejorative (or moralistic) terms, according to Evans. Rent-seeking which can take the form of lobbying or corruption is merely a form of profit-maximization on the part of rational agents.

When Mrs Arroyo in an interview at the start of her administration said for instance, that as an economist, she understood that markets did not operate in a ‘frictionless’ environment, she was acknowledging the need for transactions costs. Clientelism is sometimes needed by reformists to ‘payoff’ or compensate those hurt by reforms.

The East Asian countries did not try to reform the entire bureaucracy or weed out rent-seeking in one swoop. They took a different approach:

  • In Japan, the Ministry of International Trade and Industry performed the reformist role, while the Ministry of Agriculture continued to operate along clientelistic lines.
  • In Korea, a bifurcated bureaucracy existed, with the Economic Planning Board taking the helm of development while Construction followed along paternalistic lines.
  • In Taiwan the ruling Kuomintang Party ensured meritocratic appointments to key economic agencies while allowing a “back door” entry for retired military and party members to other parts of the civil service.
  • The pervasiveness of the Confucian ‘super bureaucrats’ in East Asia is a myth save for Singapore where civil servants are paid more than their private sector counterparts.

The Plan seeks to renovate the entire bureaucracy all at the same time. A very noble and ambitious goal, but it is difficult to imagine how this will be achieved given its meager resources and the quality of the civil service pool. This strategy is fraught with risk. Perhaps the biggest risk involves spreading the reform effort too thinly.

Avoiding Capture

A coherent economic bureaucracy was deemed necessary for the state to engage with but avoid capture by increasingly more powerful and wealthy private interests.

Initial conditions fostered the formation of this sort of governance model, namely, an egalitarian society, which was the result of land reform sponsored by the Americans after the War and the external policy environment that allowed market distorting industry and currency policy which was made possible by the US Cold War strategy of propping up capitalist states in the region.

The unlikelihood of duplicating such initial conditions is what causes pessimism with regard to the national development project for late bloomers like the Philippines. Yet, Evans encourages us to resist the fatalism of this view by saying

(w)hat puts East Asian practices out of reach is less likely to be external compulsion than antiipatory acquiescence by developing country governments to perceived constraints.

The rapid growth of China most recently proves that despite its signing up to the World Trade Organization, it has managed to resist measures to prevent it from exercising some of the tools under the industry and profit-nexus models. Singapore demonstrates in fact how the tools have evolved to more sophisticated measures that no longer involve the strong arm tactics applied elsewhere.

The more difficult problem has to do with large inequalities. While concentration of wealth should not necessarily hinder but in fact aid the formation of capital in productive areas, large inequalities have a corrosive function in the policy process.

State capture is what prevented the Philippines in the 1950s and 60s from following a similar path as its neighbors in the region although Malaysia and Singapore managed to avoid this despite having similar disparities among social groups. Here again is what Evans has to say

Entrenched inequality undercuts legitimacy of state autonomy…makes it hard for governments to credibly claim that they represent a national development project. Populist clientelism seems to offer at least a temporary relief to the excluded and close government-business ties which look more like a conspiracy for redistribution upwards than a joint project of national development.

It sounds like he is describing what happened to the country when it opted for a populist clientelist president in the person of Joseph Estrada. The perception was that growth under the elites was only favoring the rich.

Charting a new path

This brings us back to the questions of nepotism and cronyism that have started to emerge even in PNoy’s first year. In a country where only a small group of ruling elites hold much sway over the economy, it becomes difficult to prevent such rumors from floating.

If sanitizing all state agencies from clientelist practices can be ruled out (at least on the ground, despite its being paid lip service), the need to ring fence private rent seeking interest groups from crucial economic policies and infrastructure projects needs to be guaranteed.

That means boosting the capacity of the economic bureaucracy. The Plan which is the first one under the post-IMF oversight period, fails to break out of ‘perceived constraints’ by not examining other more effective governance models.

It remains wedded to the old generic formula of macroeconomic stability, open markets and establishing rule of law which has failed to produce results in places where it has been attempted, namely in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa. The challenge now is convincing the policy elite to chart a different path.

To be concluded…go to Part 3: Renovating the Bureaucracy


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