China

Succeeding Aquino

Political succession is the key to long-term economic growth.

The Philippines has been hailed as a rising star among emerging markets in 2013, but sustaining this strong performance will require a good succession plan for the Aquino presidency. Political succession as it turns out has been a crucial driver of long-term economic growth among emerging economies over the past fifty years.

A study conducted by Tim Kelsall for the Overseas Development Institute of Britain comparing the growth experiences of countries in the rapidly growing regions of Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa has found that,

Contrary to currently fashionable ideas about ‘inclusive institutions’ and ‘golden threads’, (we find) that crucial to combining succession with growth is the embedding of policy-making in strong institutions of one of two types: 1) a dominant party with a tradition of consensual decision-making and leadership succession, or 2) a strong, organic bureaucracy, effectively insulated from changes in political leadership.

Sub-Saharan Africa, which today is the fastest growing region in the world, did experience respectable growth rates in the 1960s and 1970s. What prevented this region from sustaining its economic performance in the long-run was the failure of many countries to manage political succession well.

The same could be said of the Philippines. From the 1950s to the 1970s, the country experienced solid economic growth rates averaging between 4.9 to 6.4 per cent (see table below). Of course this was still well below the growth of Malaysia or Singapore, but it was respectable, nonetheless.

Source: NSCB

The 1980s spelled the end of this sustained growth as the Marcos regime, which had been in power since 1964 collapsed. The upheaval began with an international debt crisis and the assassination of Senator Beningo Aquino, Jr in 1983. “Ninoy” as he is popularly known was returning from exile in the United States where he was granted furlough by the regime to undergo heart surgery, after spending close to 8 years in prison. The then leader of the opposition was hoping to convince President Marcos to accept a power-sharing deal that would allow for a smoother transition to democracy.

Unfortunately, due to the ill-health of the former dictator (he was not totally in command of the situation), the conciliatory offer was not taken. Instead, the death of Senator Aquino led to massive street demonstrations and the eventual fall of the Marcos regime. They say that authoritarian governments offer a tradeoff: higher economic growth, in exchange for a higher risk of economic collapse when they fail to manage succession smoothly, and that is exactly what happened.

The 1980s saw a diminution of growth to 1.8 per cent. This was lower than the population growth rate, meaning per capita incomes retreated during this decade. The transition from Ferdinand Marcos to Corazon Aquino was marked by a series of coups, natural disasters and a power crisis. It is clear from the chart above that the Philippines never fully recovered from the trauma of this fall until the 2000s when growth averaged 4.8 per cent, roughly where it was in the 1960s.

Of course, the political transition was not the only factor that influenced economic growth during this period. The country was also making a transition away from protectionist industrial policy towards a more liberal economic position. The former had played into the hands of crony capitalists under the Marcos regime. Much of the debt that was accumulated during this time was illegally siphoned off. That was economically unsustainable.

Political economists Emmanuel De Dios of the UP School of Economics and Jeffrey Williamson of Harvard took a candid look at the possible factors that could have been responsible for us deviating from our upward path since the 1980s. They list the following as possible candidates:

  • political instability at a critical time in the 1980s
  • a subsequent failure to exploit the move of Japanese manufacturing FDI [foreign direct investments] into the region
  • an institutional weakness benign in the pre-1982 past but made more powerful since
  • some liberal policy package that penalized manufacturing when it was already on the ropes
  • emigration surge in the 1980s that stripped the work force of industrial skills
  • some massive Dutch Disease created by subsequent huge emigrant remittances.

They conclude that no single factor determined the outcome, but that all of them may have come together to create a ‘perfect de-industrializing storm’. I tend to agree with their findings although, the originating event is clearly the political instability that occurred as the dictatorship was in its death throes. The fact that Marcos or his party did not have a succession plan to manage a transition locked the country into a path of low growth in the subsequent decades.

Whatever the cause or causes of this, the authors acknowledge that the resulting pattern of growth has been less than ideal:

The path followed has led to a new stable equilibrium where a largely liberalized trade in goods coexists with a recurrent current account surplus built on remittances and strong (skill‐intensive) service‐sector exports. The peso is under steady pressure to rise in real terms, which leaves little room for (lower‐ skill) manufacturing to compete and expand. A considerable rise in the investment rate—still low by East Asian standards—would relieve the current account pressure for real appreciation and create more jobs. But the low investment rate may be part of an equilibrium where capital requirements are low simply because a significant share of the urban labor force is already abroad. [emphasis added]

In the first half of the current Aquino presidency, growth has averaged 5.8 per cent, close to where it was in the 1970s. Severe weather and economic conditions globally are not expected to knock it off its current path. As noted above, the trajectory is due to a combination of income flows from abroad and investments in the modern services sector. This has led to the criticism that it is not broad based.

A number of factors however seem to be lining up that could spell an end to this current “equilibrium”. The first is the slow but gradual demographic transition which could lead to an “economic sweet spot” where labour demand exceeds supply. A debate among technocrats is currently underway as to when exactly we will reach this tipping point. Central bank officials predict this could be as soon as 2016, while the more conservative economic development agency estimates for this to happen in the 2020s. I foreshadowed this debate in a post from two years ago.

The second factor is the gradual build-up of foreign reserves in excess of our external obligations, which is driving up the peso and convincing monetary and fiscal officials to consider setting up a sovereign wealth fund to address the investment gap that is hindering job creation. I have been advocating for this wealth fund as early as 2010.

The third factor is the “systemic vulnerability” from external threats to our national sovereignty and security, particularly from China, which could motivate the development of a national agenda towards building a better, stronger economy, to face these challenges from abroad. The same sense of vulnerability from both external and internal threats was what motivated Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Malaysia to forge a national developmental agenda.

The key to all of these factors in producing the desired outcome is the ability of our political system to fashion a solid policy making capability from one of two sources: either through stronger political parties or a professional economic bureaucracy insulated from political interference. The continuity of a sound, stable policy making capacity with the ability to set the national agenda allows for considered, adaptive economic policies despite a number of political successions. This is the crucial element that would ensure sustained, rapid growth in the long-run.

Some further reading:

  1. The new Philippine political architecture: a blueprint for strengthening political parties.
  2. The national development project: Renovating the bureaucracy

 

Big sticks, chopsticks, and a cake

In World War II Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Josef Stalin forged an alliance to defeat Adolf Hitler. It was a reality sandwich they had to eat – as distasteful to the capitalist leaders as it was to the communist leader – because there was nothing else on the table.

Defense Secretary Voltaire Gazmin served a similar sandwich last week. Thank God it was nowhere near as foul-tasting as the sandwich that those three WWII musketeers ate.

Gazmin said, “At this point in time, we can’t stand alone. We need an ally. If we do not do this, we will be belittled by bigger forces. That’s what’s happening now. China is already there, they are sitting on our territory. They are not leaving. What will we do? Will we just wait until they are already by our doorsteps? Right now, they are already at our garage…While we are filing cases and at the same time building up our capability to address our security concerns, it’s important that we collaborate with other countries friendly and sympathetic to us.”

That was a warning to China’s leadership, reminding them that although we may not carry a big stick, we have friends who do and are just dying for an excuse to bash Chinese heads. It’s about time, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, some Filipinos with a weakness for chopsticks believe that the administration’s policy of “speak softly but ride with friends who carry big sticks” is unpatriotic and should be opposed at every turn.

The Communist Party of the Philippines claimed we are “provoking China to be more aggressive in its defense of its territories and push beyond its sea borders”. So China’s behavior is our fault

Bayan Muna’s Renato Reyes tried to scare us, “Is the Philippines really prepared to face a confrontation of that scale? Or will be be dragged into a war between two competing superpowers?” We’re shaking in our boots, Sherlock.

Party-lister Neri Colmenares went jingo-ballistic, “While we should strongly assert our territory against China we should not allow a bully to replace another bully. It also serves the imperialist agenda of the US making its pivot to Asia to reinforce its hegemony and promote the US war industry. We denounce President Benigno Aquino III’s subservience, undermining of our sovereignty and the peaceful resolution of the dispute.The U.S. troops should be pulled out and we will file a resolution to junk the Visiting Forces Agreement.”

He also used Gazmin’s statement to distract us, “This is an insult to our veterans and comfort women who suffered under the Japanese during World War II.” As if scars deserved more attention than the thousand cuts China is inflicting on us even as he speaks.

Gabriela’s Luzviminda Ilagan, thinking she was among pre-schoolers, played show and tell, “What’s in a name? Access arrangements, military exercises or routine port calls – they all mean the same thing, translating into unhampered use of facilities and structures in Philippine territory for foreign military use.”

KMP’s Antonio Flores turned constitutionalist and warned, “The President is courting an impeachment complaint for culpable violation of the Constitution and betrayal of public trust for trampling our sovereignty and rabid puppetry to the US.” Seriously, dude, a puppet capable of betrayal and rabidity? I hate to be the guy to break the news to you but Pinnochio was not a real person.

However in fairness to the CPP-NDF there is some bite behind their bark. Yes, there are potential downsides for the weakest member in a partnership where each party has to mind its selfish national interest even in the face of a common threat. Yes, the partnership with Japan and the US could leave us with the short stick.

But we are not going into the partnership with our eyes closed. We know the greater risk is not to do anything, specially in the face of threats from a country that lives by Erap’s code, “A hungry stomach knows no law.”

China will eat us up if we remain defenseless and alone. We need backup for now. Backup that carries bigger sticks than our adversary. That is why Sec. Gazmin enunciated the policy of partnering with bigsticks who also see China as a threat to their national interest.

An alliance with Japan and the US against China may not be the ideal policy but it is the only one on the table. The CPP-NDF has not presented an alternate plan. All it has done so far is to tell us what we must not do and who we must not offend.

I suspect it is because a nationalistic CPP-NDF security plan will simply mirror the administration’s “subservient” plan. Once in power they will find that the Philippines is still the same defenseless little country at the mercy of big powers. It will still be unable to defend itself by itself.

Consequently, all that the CPP-NDF will be able to do is rearrange seating arrangements. Japan and the US will become the threat and the “friendly and sympathetic” country will be China. Sorry but musical chairs is a parlor game, it is not a solution to our national security deficiencies.

I favor a plan that addresses the cause rather than the symptoms of a problem. Let’s stop the flag-waving for a minute and look for the root cause of the territorial disputes. It’s money. There is a lot of money beneath that sea, enough for all of us to live comfortably.

So let’s walk away from the “over our dead bodies” mentality. That insanity only leads to a lot of dead bodies and no money. Let’s all sit-down and agree on an equal-sharing arrangement. Because a slice of the cake is better than nothing at all.

The path towards “inclusive growth” – some indicators

In his fourth State of the Nation Address before a joint sitting of Congress, President Noynoy Aquino made reference to inclusive growth, inclusive progress or broad-based growth about thrice in his hour-and-a-half-long speech, but he mentioned the words transformation 15 times, change 14 times and reform 11 times. At the midpoint of his term, PNoy sought to bring home the message that change in the culture of “wang-wang” which he coined in his inaugural state of the nation address has taken place under his watch and that as a result of the reforms he instituted, the path for providing opportunity to all has been opened up irrevocably.

Inclusive growth as he declared in his speech was about providing everyone the chance to have a go at life, what the Australians call “a fair go”, which constitutes a social contract that if you work hard at bettering yourself, you can move ahead in life. It is not about guaranteeing the same outcome, however, meaning it is up to the individual whether to take advantage of the opportunities presented, or not. Providing equal opportunity means building human capabilities to pursue “the good life”.

The Asian Development Bank has come up with a Framework for Inclusive Growth which provides a set of indicators for measuring whether governments and societies develop that basic level of capacity in its people. The framework is comprised of three pillars: the first one supports economic growth to expand opportunity, the second one supports social inclusion to provide equal access to economic opportunity, and the third supports social safety nets for those who slip through the cracks. There are a number of indicators for each pillar.

I have sampled a few and collated the results for the Philippines and six other emerging economies from our region to compare the different paths we have taken down the road of inclusive growth and development. Let me start with the most basic one: income or the lack of it. Having a decent level of income is one of the most basic measures of material well-being. Social disadvantage comes from not having income sufficient to live on. The following chart shows the proportion of people living on less than $2 a day for us and our Asian neighbours at the start of the 90s and the end of the noughties.

income

At the start of the 90s, Vietnam had the highest rate of poverty at 85.7%, followed by China and Indonesia which were each at 84.6%, India at 81.7%, the Philippines at 55.4%, Thailand at 37.1% and Malaysia at 11.2%. By the end of the noughties, India had the highest poverty rate at 68.7%, followed by Indonesia at 46.1%, Vietnam at 43.4%, the Philippines at 41.5%, China (29%.8%), Thailand (4.6%) and Malaysia (2.3%). In percentage terms the countries that had the largest decline of poverty was Thailand which saw a drop of 88%, followed by Malaysia (-79%), China (-65%), Vietnam (-49%) and Indonesia (-46%).

The Philippines and India saw the least amount of poverty reduction at -25% and -16% respectively from their initial states. Despite the periods of rapid growth that both these countries experienced during the past two decades, the relative insensitivity of their poverty rates to growth is a bit disconcerting.

The most important predictor of future income is of course the amount of schooling one receives. This is best measured by the years of schooling a person achieves by a certain age. The following chart shows the average total schooling for youth aged 15-24 at the start of the 90s and end of the noughties for the same set of countries.

school

At the start of the 90s, Malaysia and the Philippines recorded the highest totals with 10.2 years and 8.1 years for each of them respectively. China (7.6 years) and Thailand (7.2 years) came next, followed by Indonesia (6.5 years), India (4.6 years) and Vietnam (4.5 years). Two decades later and Malaysia retained the top spot with 12 years on average, but China with 10.9 years overtook Thailand (10.6 years) and the Philippines (9.7 years). Vietnam nearly doubled its number of years to 8.8 overtaking Indonesia (7.7 years) and India (7.1 years). Vietnam succeeded the most in this area lifting the average years of schooling by 4.3 years, followed by Thailand (3.4 years) and China (3.3 years). India lifted its average by 2.5 years, followed by Malaysia (1.8 years), the Philippines (1.6 years) and Indonesia (1.2 years).

The Philippines which started out as first runner up has been relegated to fourth in ranking among these seven countries with Vietnam closing in. The high tech industries of the Philippines and India demand college educated workers. This means that good employment opportunities in these two countries are available only to a few. To be able to perform well at school, children need adequate nutrition.

When people suffer starvation at a young age, it affects their future prospects in life. Malnourished children suffer learning difficulties as their mental development is set back. The prevalence of underweight children under five years becomes a significant predictor of future misery. The following chart depicts this for the same set of countries.

underweight

At the start of the 90s, the highest levels of malnourishment were found in India with 52.8% of children underweight, Vietnam with 36.9%, the Philippines with 29.9% and Indonesia with 29.8%. They were followed by Malaysia (22.1%), Thailand (16.3%) and China (12.6%). At the end of the noughties, India still had the worst result at 43.5% followed by the Philippines (20.7%), Vietnam (20.2%), Indonesia (17.9%), Malaysia (12.9%), Thailand (7%) and China (3.4%).

Both India and the Philippines saw their prevalence drop the least in percentage terms by 18% and 31% respectively, while China and Thailand saw it drop the most by 73% and 57%. The huge disparity of income in India and the Philippines is the main cause of their underperformance.

Finally, how can an individual seek human well-being if he or she does not even survive early childhood. The under-five mortality rate provides an indication of the quality of health care provided to mothers during pregnancy and children at the very start of their lives. The following chart shows the number of deaths per 1,000 live births across the same sample of countries.

child mortality

At the start of the 90s, India had the highest rate of child mortality at 115 deaths per 1,000 live births, followed by Indonesia with 85, the Philippines with 59, Vietnam with 51, China with 48, Thailand with 32 and Malaysia with 18. By the end of the noughties, the mortality rate in India dropped to 63, while in Indonesia it fell to 35, likewise in the Philippines to 29, Vietnam to 23, China to 18, Thailand to 13 and Malaysia to 6. In percentage terms Malaysia saw the largest drop at 67% followed by China at 63%. India saw the slowest reduction at 45% followed by the Philippines at 51%.

Baseline

These figures provide a good baseline for measuring inclusiveness within these countries. There are more indicators provided by the ADB, but these form the core set for anyone interested in studying inclusive growth. The Philippines seems to be in the same situation as India, in that they both experience the slowest reduction of social disadvantage among these countries–social disadvantage which is experienced at the very beginning of life. It is for this reason that the social reforms undertaken by the government are worth noting.

In his SONA, the president announced that he would be increasing the coverage of the conditional cash transfers to four million families and the period of eligibility up until children reach the age of 18. Patterned after successful programs in Brazil and Mexico that have been around for over a decade, the program screens participants based on a multi-dimensional test of social disadvantage. It provides cash straight to them through e-cards given to the mothers to avoid the usual bureaucratic double handling. They continue to receive a monthly cash transfer if they keep their children in school, make them undergo vaccinations and receive reproductive health counselling at health centres.

Their compliance and continuing eligibility is monitored regularly by the Department of Social Welfare and Development. A recent impact evaluation conducted by the World Bank shows that the intended program objectives are being met. School enrollment and attendance and better nutrition has been observed among children of CCT participating communities compared to non-participating ones. Although the poverty rate of the Philippines did not shift significantly between 2009 and 2012, it does not mean that this program was ineffective. The intergenerational nature of this reform implies that the Philippines will begin to reap the benefits of Pantawid Pamilya six to ten years after it was instituted. That means only by 2016 and beyond will this reform’s impact be noticeable through national family income and expenditure surveys when the children of Pantawid reach the working age of 15 years.

It will be PNoy’s successor who will reap the social dividend from the expansion of this program. It is true that this reform can now be considered irreversible in the sense that it will be hard for any successive administration to retract it. The only way to phase it out would be to make it obsolete by reducing the number of poor households. Although the president inherited the program from his predecessor, he can claim credit for rapidly expanding it. The other reforms which the administration instituted, such as closing the classroom gap, the sin tax law, expanding affordable healthcare, offering rent subsidies to informal settlers and the reproductive health act could also reap benefits for successive administrations.

What is disconcerting is how many Filipinos among the educated and upper socio-economic groups still oppose the reforms just mentioned, begrudging the opportunities given to the poor as mere dole outs. It is a sign of just how exclusive and inequality tolerant we have become as a society. Perhaps it isn’t any wonder why our growth has not been very inclusive so far, and why the path towards inclusive growth needs to be pursued even more vigorously by the current administration.

The Philippine Growth Spurt: will it last?

Image credit: NSCB.gov.ph

The latest release of GDP growth figures showed an upward growth spurt for the country. From a growth of 6.8 per cent for 2012 (revised up from initial estimates) to an unexpected year-on-year growth of 7.8 per cent in the first quarter of 2013, the numbers seem to provide both a strong signal to the world that the country now is back in business and a platform for the government to claim that its policy of pursuing clean, honest governance is paying off.

Having outpaced the growth of countries like China (7.7 per cent), Indonesia (6 per cent), Thailand (5.3 per cent) and Vietnam (4.9 per cent), and having done so on the back of an expansion of manufacturing and construction, has led some commentators to claim that the country has turned a corner or reached a “tipping point” from where it would now be on solid footing on a higher growth path.

There are only three things to point out here.

The first is the blindingly obvious: one quarter’s performance does not make up a trend. We cannot make any projections regarding future prospects based on this single observation. I would argue, not even the performance of the last 18 months proves anything. Remember 1997 when we thought we were about to take off? For those who were old enough to recall, remember what happened next? The same thing can be said of today’s situation.

Second is for us not to downplay the effect of the recently concluded elections. Malacañang has stated that this was an unusual GDP growth result for a non-presidential election year. You would expect them to say that, but the problem with their argument is the automation of elections, which makes campaigns more expensive by all accounts as cheating can no longer be achieved centrally at the provincial or municipal levels, as was the case prior to automation, but has to be done at the retail, grass roots level through vote buying.

We cannot discount the fact, particularly in this election which was dominated by entrenched political families, that money might have flowed massively unlike previous midterm elections. This would have meant that provincial and municipal incumbents hit the pork barrel pretty hard in the opening months of the year in a bid to prove to constituents that they were hard at work.

Government spending and construction growth were consistent with this view, along with financial intermediation, which again could have been linked to this. That does not necessarily mean that all this spending went to waste. It just means that a large component of the first quarter growth was seasonal in nature: determined as it was by the political-business cycle.

The third and final point I would make is that the Philippines becoming the fastest growing economy in the region is more about China decelerating than it catching up to China. The two are interlinked though. Let me explain.

During the last decade, China was the workshop of the world. It basically drained the swamp for ASEAN sucking in much of the foreign direct investments in manufacturing. During this time, the Philippines suffered a hollowing out of its industrial base, what little of it that it had.


At some point in this period, China’s income per capita overtook the Philippines’. Demographically, China also started to face the consequences of their one child policy as labour started becoming scarce as investments in China’s interior slowed the migration of workers out to the prosperous coastal regions.

The newly installed Chinese president has also indicated that the government would not sacrifice the environment in pursuing economic growth. Much social unrest now stems from pollution. They are seeking to transition the country away from its dependence on exports and investment. China has basically lost its cost competitiveness and will now have to grapple with the challenges of being a middle income economy.

Early this year, it was reported that inward foreign investments into ASEAN have for the first time equalled that of China. A structural realignment is now taking place. Bangladesh, Vietnam, Myanmar and Cambodia are now the new Chinas. The Philippines could perhaps be benefiting from this trend as well. It probably has less to do with what the government is doing, and more to do with external factors, as I have just mentioned.

All this now puts the onus on government, however, not to “muck things up”. Recall how it inadvertently pulled down growth back in 2011 when it pursued a de facto austerity policy? Let me take the opposing view now and say that this could be the start of a trend, a structural break in economic parlance. In that scenario the one thing that could potentially derail it is the “noise” that we create. Happily for the administration, it won a rare majority in the Senate and kept control of the house (assuming its alliances hold).

The mystery now is what it plans to do with that majority. The ball is in its court. If this sudden growth spurt is to be maintained, then for the next three years, the Aquino government will have to work hard to unclog the investment pipeline in infrastructure, skills and energy that are needed to power its economy through.

Will things like charter change, the proposed Bangsamoro autonomous region, territorial disputes with our neighbours or some completely unexpected Black Swan event throw us off course? That I suppose is the burning question of the day.

The Philippines in the Asian Century

This was President Benigno S. Aquino III’s remarks at the Asia Society in Sydney on the 25th of October 2012. He talked about the Philippines being a bright spot in the global economy and the reforms his government has enacted to gain investor confidence and improve social equity.

After delivering an eight minute speech, PNoy took questions from the audience.

What was missing from the discussion was an explanation as to why despite the country being one of only a handful in the region that has exhibited robust growth in the first semester of this year has foreign direct investment not returned even when as the president remarked so many attempts at good governance have been made. Instead, it is the stock market that has surged as “hot money” has flowed in helping to drive up the value of Philippine stocks and with it the peso. This in turn has driven down the competitiveness of our exports be they in manufacturing, mining, agriculture or services.

What is needed from the president at this point is a vision for the Philippines, a strategy that would position it well in this, the Asian century, with the rise of China, India and Indonesia. What role will the country play in this century? Will it join these other nations in lifting millions out of poverty? Will it see a rapidly growing middle class earning between $10 and $20 a day (these being the poverty threshold in Brazil and Italy, respectively)?

The president spoke of his mining policy recalibration, at a time when commodity prices globally are declining from their peak prior to the Global Financial Crisis, with the rebalancing of China’s economy driving demand for commodities down, and with global supply about to catch-up with global demand. In Australia the pipeline of investments amounting to around $350 billion has now been cast into doubt as evidenced by BHP Billiton’s suspension in August of projects worth $30 billion in Western and South Australia. In addition, the Mining Resource Rent Tax expected to generate billions for the Federal government raised nothing during the first quarter of its operation due to weaker mining profits.

Now they say, the next big boom will come in agriculture and services as the Asian middle class switches its diet from grains to meat, requiring more agricultural output to supply livestock feed, and as they seek better quality education and travel experiences abroad. As the West deals with its ageing population and demands skilled workers to fill the seats of retiring baby boomers in the next few years, how will the country cope with this race for talent?

Indeed, there are many important questions that need to be considered. The country needs a strategist-in-chief who will demonstrate leadership by tackling these broader long-range issues. Yes, we need honest government, but more than that, we need to know our strategic direction so that our government can navigate through the treacherous terrain our nation faces. There are many things going in our favour: proximity to the world’s fastest growing markets, a large, literate and highly skilled population, and now a government that wants to do things above board.

We need to now harness that latent potential and drive the country forward.

Learned Optimism

Reality checks are always needed by over-confident governments.

Martin Seligman the founder of positive psychology uncovered a pattern of behavior that he believes is responsible for greater resilience and happiness among born optimists. Whenever something good happens to the subject, that person will often attribute it to him- or herself, will tend to view the outcome as something that was within his or her control, and will regard the event as part of an ongoing streak of success.

The reverse happens when something bad happens. The subject will explain it as resulting from a specific, temporary event, and won’t regard it as part of an ongoing chain of similar defeats. This way of explaining things allows individuals to persist when others would have given up and allows them to remain confident in their abilities despite facing rejection or failure.

There are advantages to having such a positive mental attitude. CEO’s take their companies to new heights, salespeople persist despite facing rejection and eventually make their quota, and athletes remain motivated to train despite facing physical and mental challenges.

Filipinos seem to be a very optimistic lot. They tend to report higher levels of life satisfaction in surveys, higher than their income per capita warrants. Regardless of how terrible the past year might have been, they will often express hope and hold a view that things will be better in the coming one. The tagline, ‘It’s more fun in the Philippines’ seems to express this innate optimism.

Such a positive view becomes quite useful for the government which will often claim credit for successes that come as a result of good fortune and blame other factors outside its control whenever things turn sour. They say every cloud has a silver lining. Despite the economic storm clouds that engulf the nation, there are many positives that may be gleaned.

The business community remains quite bullish despite the slowdown in the pace of the economy last year. The flipside of weaker growth is lower inflation, which is providing the Bangko Sentral with enough elbow room to maneuver. The expected easing of interest rates is already fuelling a spike in the local bourse.

Expect the government to claim credit for engineering this by not spending the allotted budget last year. The contraction in fiscal spending allowing for policy space for monetary authorities will be spun as a stroke of genius on the part of this government despite the fact that it was unplanned.

Similarly as our exports decline owing to weaker demand from a troubled Europe and North America, as legislative proposals in the United States threaten our budding business process outsourcing industry, and as the Iran nuclear standoff dampens tourism because of higher fuel costs, expect the government to fall back on consumer-led growth propped up by overseas remittances.

Indeed as investors seek to put their money in developing countries with internally driven domestic economies, the Philippines has been deemed ‘the economy to watch in 2012’ having weaned itself off the need to propel itself through exports or direct foreign investments, unlike China which is still managing that transition.

You can see this when you visit places like Subic Bay Freeport as I have during a recent trip. In its efforts to stamp out illegal smuggling outside of the Freeport of liquor and automobiles entering the port duty free for repackaging or re-assembly and shipping to the rest of ASEAN, the government has resorted to taxing everything that has gone in and given rebates to products moving out of the port. As a result, bottling and car assembling activities have left.

The ACER laptop plant, the main operator in the Taiwan Industrial Estate, closed shop and moved to Mexico, while Federal Express relocated its logistics hub to Mainland China. It was the main user of the airport which is now open only to chartered flights as international and domestic flights have been re-routed to the Diosdado Macapagal International Airport due to low traffic volumes. Similarly the port is below its capacity owing to the fact that most shipments still go through Manila.

Only a few positive stories remain like the Japanese pinewood fabricating plant that I saw which ships in timber from New Zealand and re-exports them as processed wood to Japan (which has a ban on logging), the Korean shipbuilder Hanjin (shipbuilding being the only heavy industry left apart from oil refining which could I am told suffer a similar fate as the bottling and car assembling), and the dock where Brazilian ships split up their cargo of iron ore into smaller vessels that then deliver these to China. As a result of the thinning industrial base, the industrial estates barely break even.

The only thriving and growing sectors seem to be in hospitality, retail and healthcare. As a source of mine who now serves in a sensitive post in Subic Bay and I reflected on this situation, we pondered how much more output a worker in the shipbuilding industry makes and earns for the country as opposed to a staff member at an espresso bar where we had convened. This is why manufacturing is much preferred as an engine of growth compared to services.

But it seems the government is no longer in the habit of picking winners. It is more focused on bringing erring justices and former presidents to trial, which brings me back to the topic at hand, of learned optimism. Despite the biological advantages of being an optimist (it is related to longer life and happiness), there are still some evolutionary reasons why pessimism as a trait still remains.

It is often the role of pessimists to protect their tribe from irrational exuberance. CEOs without the restraints of prudent accountants and risk managers could run their companies into the ground with grand visions and plans. Rogue traders with unbridled confidence in their own abilities could bankrupt centuries’ old institutions. Governments run by wide-eyed idealists could implement unrealistic policies ill-suited for local conditions.

This is perhaps one of the dangers facing this young administration as it seeks to work out its priorities in the coming year.

The Tyrrany of Cousins

Altruism towards other people of the same blood-line is widely practiced and literally embedded in our DNA. The Hamilton Rule named after the British evolutionary biologist William Hamilton states that we are pre-disposed to behave altruistically to those with with whom we share a greater proportion of genes. This biological imperative to pass on our genetic code to the next generation is quite powerful.

Hunter gatherer societies tended to exhibit a high degree of inter-locking marriages based on kinship. Alliances between tribes were sealed through bridal exchange allowing genes to be distributed across a wider area. This had implications for early rulers and states. As agricultural societies gew within a defined space, its rulers found it more and more difficult to govern independently sufferering what is called the “tyranny of cousins” which puts the needs of the tribe above the rest.

China is credited with forming the first modern state to address this problem. The Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE-220 CE) instituted a civil service staffed based on a rigorous examinations process. It was tasked with raising taxes used to secure the populace against enemy invasion or domestic exploitation as distinct from local lords who extracted rents from their serfs. China’s political history from then on can be told on the basis of how this tension arose between the state and elite families. Following a few “bad emperors” it eventually succumbed to repatrimonialization.

Medieval Islamic rulers sought to counteract tribal rivalry by erecting a warrior caste made up of slaves. The Mamluk slave warriors and their Ottoman Janissary counterparts were responsible for the administration and protection of Islamic civilization because they acted as a coherent ruling class looking after the broader interests of society and not any one particular tribe. Just as in China, however, the integrity of this institution began to erode over time.

Altruism based on reciprocal relationships rather than kinship played an active role in the modernization of East Asia. The Japanese keiretsus were organized on the basis of inter-locking boards led by former bureaucrats who were parachuted into senior executive positions. Korean chaebols had a reciprocal relationship with state finance and grew into large corporate family-owned entities with high debt-equity ratios. The management style of these conglomerates was based on consensus between parties. Life-time employment was the norm.

In communist China, investors partnered with local Township and Village Enterprises to gain access and participation in China’s economy. Going to bed with local governments protected assets from expropriation for as long as they continued to reciprocate with profitable performance. There was no formal recognition of property rights or an independent judiciary to enforce contracts, just a tacit agreement based on reciprocity and credible commitment based on mutual interest.

Guanxi a term denoting close networks has been behind informal credit markets supplying start-up capital to Chinese entrepreneurs the world over. Again, no formal agreements eforceable through the courts operates here. Trade and credit has been made possible through closely linked networks built on family and kin relations or reciprocal relationships based on one’s honor and reputation.

From trust to contracts

The West took a very different more protracted route. After the conversion of Germanic tribes to Christianity in the sixth century, the church promoted changes to interlocking marriages based on kinship. This tended to weaken in the long-run political and economic ties based on kin selection. They moved away from trust to contracts through the centuries.

In the twelfth century the English common law administered by the king’s court to which subjects could appeal the decisions of local lords established a system known as “the rule of law” to which eventually even the monarch was made subject by the nobles who feared expropriation by the state. Contracts became enforceable and property rights made more secure without the need for personal connections or networks.

Across the English Channel, the Dutch established the first stock exchange in the early seventeenth century. This made corporate management distinct from its owners and spread risk through tradable certificates lowering their average exposure and leading firms (such as the Dutch East India Company) to be less conservative in business expansion. Capital-raising went through an impersonal market rather than through personal networks.

Management in the West tended to be more individualistic than consensual motivated by incentives rather than trust. Short-term, risk-taking behavior leading to rich rewards and bonuses became more prevalent. Maintaining reputation continued to be important, but only in terms of improving one’s value in the impersonal labor market rather than protecting one’s “word of honor” within a tightly knit community.

Where to begin?

The Philippines is obviously stuck in transition. Many formal institutions have been transplanted from the West, but they remain weak and porous to the tyranny of cousins. It has been difficult for a strong central state to emerge where one’s loyalty to the country ends where one’s loyalty to one’s family begins. The thick network of kumpadres, kamag-anak, and kaibigan (now augmented by kaklase, kabarkada and kabarilan) makes it difficulty to determine where to even begin the reform process.

Getting to Denmark” is the problem to be grappled with: how to emulate Scandinavia which has the highest levels of human development and cleanest governments in the world. It almost sounds tautological. In order to gain the living standards of the West, we need to adopt their political and economic institutions including a strong state, rule of law and democratic accountability. If our society had the means to create and maintain such institutions, it wouldn’t be poor to begin with.

Earlier in a separate post, I commented on the preponderance of avowed bachelors or males with no offspring holding sensitive posts in the current government, the president being one of them. This harks back to the time of Mamluks, Jannisaries and Imperial Chinese eunuchs. This is purely coincidental and fleeting in the broad scheme of things.

Prescribing Western-style political institutions again might have its pitfalls. Public finance of parties does not necessarily weaken the influence of campaign donors even in the US where it is practiced. It might dampen but not eliminate it. And, at any rate, the need for donors features more at the national level. At the local level, political and economic dynasties are one and the same.

A majority of seats in Congress is dominated by dynasties including within the president’s Liberal Party (albeit by a smaller majority). Rather than decoupling the political from the economic classes or dismantling dynasties, shouldn’t we like Japan, Korea and Taiwan find a way to make this coupling work for our country by directing it to more productive ventures?

Yes, we can

The problem is not reform incapacity by our leaders. I would argue that under Mrs Aquino, the state exhibited a considerable degree of efficacy in achieving substantial economic reforms under difficult situations. From tax reform to foreign investments deregulation, flexible currency exchange to trade liberalization, wage decentralization to monetary independence, privatization to democratization, the list is quite impressive from a Western perspective.

The problem was that the agenda was perhaps too comprehensive instead of building one reform on the proven success of another. We shouldn’t blame Mrs Aquino for this. Her government was put in an institutional strait jacket by the IMF which today is imposing a heavy burden on some weak European countries. What EDSA-I demonstrated is that the country can achieve a consensus over a broad set of reforms and pursue it diligently.

The difficulty of governing in the shadow of one so revered as Mrs Aquino is much like the dilemma faced by the successor to Apple’s visionary CEO Steve Jobs. His mission now is not to “stuff up” the legacy. The overly cautious approach this breeds could prevent the sort of imaginative thinking that led to success in the first place.

East Asia didn’t buy into the comprehensive reform package that international donors, aid agencies and multilateral organizations were foisting on them. It opted to target areas that were more appropriate for its needs and developed its own recipe based on local ingredients. It caught up with Western living standards and then reformed some of its earlier idiosyncratic institutions which had by then become less useful.

Rather than applying the “second generation” reforms of the augmented Washington Consensus, following the “first generation” reforms tackled by Aquino I, the policymakers in advising Aquino II need to escape the poverty of ideas this represents. They should develop imaginative arrangements that will immediately unlock the productive capacity of our country. Only then can the son escape another sort of tyranny that seems to be afflicting us…the tyranny of low expectations.

Guanxi diagram courtesy of: China Australia consult

Shall We Dance (Cha-cha-cha)?

As foreign ownership of land is talked up in the Philippines, other countries like Brazil and Australia are looking to limit it.

Brazil began last year when it decided to treat farmland as a strategic asset on par with oil when the government invoked an old law from 1971 limiting the amount of rural land that foreigners are able to buy. It is estimated that as a result of this about $15 billion of planned agriculture investments will be dropped.

Australia followed suit early this year when its Parliament passed a resolution that would see for the first time their bureau of statistics (the ABS) collate a list of direct foreign ownership of agricultural land, water rights and businesses. This is seen as a first step towards taking any necessary action to safeguard the food security of the nation.

What spooked the federal governments in both cases were growing reports of sovereign wealth funds and state owned or state-backed enterprises buying up vast tracts of prime agricultural land. With the world population set to rise from 7 billion to about 9 billion by mid-century, the quest for food security is forcing countries like Qatar, China and Singapore to look overseas for their food supply.

Unlike the Philippines which has a constitutional restriction against foreign ownership of any kind of land, Brazil and Australia are not seeking to resrtrict foreign ownership, but merely monitor and manage it, to ensure that it doesn’t pose a national security risk or lead to speculative bubbles.

I think these considerations should give our legislators reason to pause and consider their plans for liberalizing participation of foreigners in certain sectors like communications, education, professional services and land. Liberalizing services may be necessary for the Philippines to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership and gain market access to signatory countries in the Asia-Pacific. Opening up real property is another matter.

Opening up land to foreign acquisition would require us to have a few necessary safeguards in place. How would the country maintain food security for instance? Should there be a requirement to seek government approval once the scale of land purchase breeches a certain amount? If so, what should that amount be?

The case involving the lease of one million hectares to Chinese interests for grains and bio-fuel crops which was halted by a petition to the Supreme Court due to its constitutionality will almost certainly become mute once constitutional restrictions are removed.

If stronger states such as Australia and Brazil start to place increasing scrutiny towards the use and sale of their land to foreigners, will the affected foreign firms turn to weaker states like the Philippines in order to pursue their agenda? Once these assets are sold, it will be very hard to retrieve them.

It makes the question of lifting constitutional restrictions all the more poignant. While it is true that it might stimulate much needed investments and exports, what will happen to us as a nation once our ability to feed our people is traded away?