California School of Economics

Challenging Conventional Wisdom about the Philippines

We could characterise our country as being stuck in a developmental trap where the only way to make it more competitive is to improve the productivity of its labour force. The primary way to do that is through capital deepening. But without capital, productivity declines relative to other countries where investments flow. The nation’s inability to raise productivity deters future investors, and on it goes.

It’s that time of the year, the month of Janus, when people take stock of what has gone before and produce an outlook for what lies ahead. Most balanced and fair commentators in the Philippines (and there are some) often highlight the things that year in, year out don’t change. It is funny because year after year, all they seem to offer are the same old platitudes, which our leaders do take to heart, but it all seems to lead to the same old results.

Let us start with the economy. Most analyses about the economy point to our strong macro-economic fundamentals. This year is no different. The growth registered in 2012 was 6.5 per cent. It is about the same as the average for the financial years 2000-01 to 2009-10 which was 6.1 per cent based on the national statistics board. The first two years of PNoy’s presidency have tracked closely to that long-run average. Nothing new there.

Aside from respectable growth, the country has experienced a relatively mild inflation rate of 3.2 per cent in 2012. Again, over the past half dozen years, apart from the blip in 2008 when the global financial crisis was in full swing and food prices soared, the country’s annual inflation rate has fluctuated within a narrow band of 3-5.5 per cent. There is nothing new or surprising here either.

The third item is employment. The latest data shows that from October 2011 to October 2012, the country suffered a net loss of 900,000 jobs. That would seem alarming. But considering that in the previous year, employment rose by 2.5 million, a truly anomalous situation, the recent decline (or correction in my view), means that over the two years, the nation created an average of 800,000 new jobs per year. Again, there is nothing new there. Net job creation has hovered around that mark for the past decade.

In order to prove that there has been some progress made, most analysts usually point to the intangibles. A change in the national mood due to renewed efforts to address intransigent issues is usually heralded as a precursor to better times ahead. Again, this year is no different. Without a doubt, there has been progress with the enactment of several laws, the impeachment of the chief justice, the improvement of budget rules for transparency, and the reaching of an agreement that might settle the conflict in the south.

Another way to argue that there has been renewed confidence in the Philippines is by pointing to the property market, buoyed by the business process outsourcing industry, the peso, buoyed by the country’s credit rating upgrades, and the stock market, buoyed by our sound macro fundamentals.

The only problem with all this is that it has yet to translate into what really counts —growth in fixed investments. Again, there seems to be no change here. In 2012, foreign direct investments have amounted to a mere $1.5 billion. That is about 3 per cent of the total that flowed into the ASEAN-5. This is a very dismal result, as usual.

The question here is why? The reasons given usually are a lack of competitiveness, restrictive investment policy, and poor governance and institutions. I would like to tackle these one by one, and offer my own insights into why I think the conventional wisdom surrounding them are misguided, and offer my own solutions.

Competitiveness

It is a bit farcical but after the National Competitiveness Council’s efforts over the past two years to improve the country’s score in the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business report by talking to foreign experts, understanding their methodology and working to satisfy their requirements, the result for 2013 was that the country slipped by two places down to 138th place in a league table of 185 nations. There had been a change in methodology, as there often is, which did not reflect the nation’s efforts, the NCC said, but needless to say, it is still a dismal record.

Disparities in administration across local government units as well as in- and outside of special economic zones and inefficient systems at national agencies are often cited as the causes for the abysmal performance, as is petty corruption among bureaucrats. While the Ease of Doing Business report indicates that government regulatory red tape has not improved, it would be wrong to say that the country’s overall competitiveness has not.

The Global Competitiveness Survey by the World Economic Forum takes a broader look at the issue –not just at how different a country’s rules, regulations and tax policies are from the leading economies of the world where most investments come from, but also at how well its labour force, infrastructure and innovation systems, to name a few, stack up in comparison. Here the country performed a bit better by advancing 22 places. It is now in the upper half of the league table. Whether this is enough to make investors change their minds is subject to speculation. We have to wait and see.

However, one of the main obstacles is the rising peso. It appreciated by 7 per cent last year. This makes the cost of producing things in the country for export relatively more expensive, particularly for the labour-intensive business process outsourcing industry. We could characterise our country as being stuck in a developmental trap where the only way to make it more competitive is to improve the productivity of its labour force. The primary way to do that is through capital deepening. But without capital, productivity declines relative to other countries where investments flow. The nation’s inability to raise productivity deters future investors, and on it goes.

Something has to break the cycle, and this won’t occur by simply relying on the Invisible Hand of the market, as private players suffer from the free rider problem—waiting for the first mover to take action before joining in. It will take some coordinated effort by government, and I will have more on this, shortly.

Investment Policy

Another oft-cited problem is the country’s overly restrictive policy on foreign ownership in selected industries. The 1987 Constitution is identified as the culprit. Actually, prior to adopting the present constitution, there were more industries in which foreigners could not invest or own a majority stake in. Under the present charter, foreigners are restricted from owning a major share in the mining, utilities and education sectors. They are also prohibited from owning land.

Removing these restrictions analysts say will unlock the investment potential of the country, creating jobs for millions of Filipinos, allowing them to escape poverty and the country to realise its true growth potential. The representatives of the foreign chambers, local economists and some foreign bankers claim this is what is needed. Are they right?

If we look at the size of the industries in question, mining accounts for about 0.9 per cent of our gross national income, utilities 2.7 per cent, and education is so small it does not even merit a separate line in our national accounts reporting. With respect to employment, the mining industry employs 250 thousand, utilities 153 thousand, and education 1.2 million. That is about 1.6 million out of a total work force of 37.7 million!

That means that to make a serious dent in the number of  unemployed which was at 2.7 million in October, 2012, we would have to at least double the size of these industries so that they could employ twice the number of people. I cannot really see this happening in the utilities sector or education. To double the size of those sectors would require a doubling in the demand for their services, which is close to impossible.

Mining, one might argue could double its size, but it only employs 250 thousand. Also, the problem here is in guaranteeing world-class labour and environmental regulations while ensuring that the nation derives a fair share of the profits from mining operations, since what is being dug up out of the ground belongs to the nation, and mining firms are only seeking ownership of the right to mine it on their behalf.

When it comes to the ownership of land, foreign investors do not really see that as a deterrent since they can obtain long-term leases and very favourable rates at the special economic zones in the CBDs of the nation and in the regions. Where it proves a deterrent is to small-time investors who want a piece of the property boom. Again, does the property sector look like it needs a boost? I would even argue that it needs to be slowed down because of possible overheating.

Governance, Institutions and Political Reform

The final missing ingredient that is currently the flavour of the month among our business and political elite is good governance and institutions. The improvement in this aspect is cited by the World Economic Forum as the reason why the country improved its business environment in 2012. Faith in institutions is grounded on the belief that this is why the Industrial Revolution took place in England in the 18th century and not in China, which was just as prosperous as Western Europe at the time.

To attain the foundations for rapid economic growth, the same set of of superior cultural norms, institutions and technology have to take over the ways of “traditional societies” or the “primitive mode of production” found in the the developing world today, so the theory goes. According to one author who has written a very short introduction to global economic history, however

The English constitution had many features that promoted economic growth, although they were not the ones stressed by modern economists, who emphasize restrictions on taxation and the security of property. Parliamentary supremacy actually resulted in the reverse…the English state collected about twice as much per person as the French state and spent a larger fraction of the national income.

…France suffered because property was too secure: profitable irrigation projects were not undertaken in Provence because France had no counterpart to the private acts of the British Parliament that overrode property owners opposed to the enclosure of their land or the construction of canals or turnpikes across it. What the Glorious Revolution meant in practice was that the ‘despotic power’ of the state that ‘was only available intermittently before 1688…was always available thereafter’. [emphasis mine]

Over the past decade, there has been a new school of thought emerging called the California School of Economic History which has challenged the paradigms of the New Institutional Economics school. Its general conclusion is that the Industrial Revolution took place in England because of the discovery of coal as a cheap substitute for wood as an energy source and the Americas as a source of metals and farmland. Coal led to steam power which in turn lowered transportation costs. The so-called Scientific Revolution of the 17th century had very little to do with such inventions.

What allowed England to compete with China and India which were then the leading centres of manufacturing in the world was their investment in labour-saving technology such as coal-powered steam engines to increase the efficiency of their cotton mills. A population boom in the hinterlands of China led to labour-intensive production which made the adoption of such mechanised production technology uneconomical, since capital was expensive and labour cheap.

Multifactor productivity is what led to competitiveness which led to higher wages for English workers, which led to further productivity improvements and so on. The entire 19th and 20th century was all about the de-industrialisation of Asia and the catching up to England by other Western states such as Germany and the US and later by East Asia which belatedly includes China. This was achieved through deliberate state policy which sought to channel limited capital into strategic sectors.

Failed Wisdom

The failure of conventional wisdom to explain why the nation’s competitiveness is in such a rut should force us to look elsewhere. Posing the problem in that manner is misguided to begin with. The first question we need to ask ourselves is, why do we even need foreign direct investments in the first place? The conventional answer to that question is that we need them because we don’t have the capital to finance development ourselves.

Again, I would challenge that view. From 2000-01 to 09-10, investments in the country have grown by 7.1 per cent per year on average. That is even with our low attraction rate of foreign investors. Since the the last decade, national savings has exceeded investments, meaning we are a net saving nation now. Many have said that was because private investors were wary of investing under the Arroyo regime. But the Aquino government does not seem to have convinced them to change their minds and invest their surplus capital. There is something amiss there.

More importantly, the inward flow of dollar remittances from overseas Filipinos has created a national treasure amounting to $85 billion worth of foreign reserves. That is about the size of the Czech Republic’s entire economy. It is also about 75 per cent larger than the total official reserve assets of the Reserve Bank of Australia, which was at US$49 billion in December 2012. Let me ask then, what is an economy the size of the Philippines which produces about $250 billion a year doing with reserves of that amount compared to the Australian economy which is about $ 1 trillion a year? Do we need to maintain such a high level of reserves relative to our economy?

Policy Implications

The reason why our policy makers have not realised that they are sitting on a pile of untapped wealth is because they have been used for so long to go cap in hand to the foreign community for loans. There is a saying in business that banks will only be willing to lend to you when you don’t need to borrow. The same holds true in our case. Yet our officials continue to trumpet the ease with which they are able to borrow, without realising that they don’t need to do so anymore.

The preceding discussion leads to the following policy implications

  • Continue to raise taxes in order to close the fiscal gap. Continue tax reforms such as the sin tax law that has just been signed. Expand the tax base by closing loopholes and consider other measures to raise revenue such as fiscal incentives rationalisation and a one per cent national land tax piggy backed on local property taxes. If we can reduce the gap to within 1-2 per cent of GDP, that would be fine. If we could completely close the gap, that would be even better.
  • Undertake coordinated investments in strategic sectors by leveraging sovereign wealth. Japan and South Korea did not rely on foreign direct investments to boost their economies during their periods of rapid growth because they directed their banking institutions to lend to heavy industries with their implicit sovereign guarantees. We can adopt a new approach by setting up a sovereign wealth fund, which would serve as the main vehicle for channelling our excess foreign reserves into infrastructure, minerals exploration joint ventures, agro-industry clusters and clean technology hubs. I have outlined how this could be done here and here. There are enough internal resources currently to increase our growth rate by 1-2 percentage points a year for the next four years. Once government acts as the catalyst, other players, including foreign investors will follow. This will incidentally temper the rise of the peso, which is currently hurting our export sector.
  • Continue to improve and enhance our educational system. Higher educational attainment among our populace is one of the best ways to resolve our economic and political problems. A highly literate and skilled workforce not only is what our industries need, it is also what will help shape political reform. Tinkering with our political system won’t really address the problem. An educated voter will not be satisfied with handouts from the government but will demand much more.

If we focused on these three policy areas: improving our tax revenues, coordinating investments and enhancing educational opportunities, then we will be on our way to unlocking the development trap that we find our country in. It is important for our leaders to challenge conventional wisdom regarding what is hampering our nation’s growth potential. Otherwise, we might find ourselves attempting to improve our situation using the same methods, year after year, decrying the same problems, but achieving the same dismal results.

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