credit rating agencies

Remittance Driven Growth

Monthly remittances inflows (US$ millions)
Source: World Bank

If anyone needed an explanation for the robust growth of the Philippine economy for the last nine years (two of which under the present dispensation), then the chart above would go a long way towards providing it. It shows monthly foreign remittances flowing from January 2003 to February 2012 into the country compared to that of some Latin American, Caribbean and South Asian countries of similar size or income to the Philippines.

In terms of its foreign remittances, the country is an absolute stand-out rising from about $600 million a month in early 2003 to about $1,500 million in early 2012. In the twelve months leading up to February 2012, the total inflows to the country was about $20.2 billion. If we convert that to pesos using the average exchange rate in 2011, that is roughly equivalent to PhP875 billion. In an economy of roughly PhP9.5 Trillion, that is about 9.2% of GDP. Given the multiplier effect that this income has, it would be safe to say that remittances contribute about double or about a fifth of the economy.

Unlike, Mexico which is dependent on its Northern neighbour the United States for providing a market for their cheap labour, the Philippine work force has its eggs in many baskets, not only in different countries, but many occupations, both high- and low-skilled. This is reflected in the data which shows that as the Great Recession unfolded in the US from September 2008, the growth in remittances to Mexico hit a ceiling, while that of the Philippines maintained its upward trajectory catching up with its North American counterpart towards the end of 2011.

As of October 2012, the nation’s gross international reserves reached a record high of $82 billion, 8% higher than it was a year ago at $75 billion. This would be enough to pay for close to a year’s worth of imports or settle half a year’s worth of debt resettlements. One can clearly see that without these foreign remittances, the gross international reserve position would be shrinking, not expanding.  In fact, if you took away the growth in remittances which was 7.1% year-on-year from 2010 to 2011, then you probably wouldn’t have seen any growth in the Philippine economy during that time.

These dollar remittances inflows are roughly the size of the Philippine government’s tax and revenue intake for a year. They could finance the government’s annual deficit three times over. The recent upgrade to the country’s credit status to one notch below investment grade owes more to this phenomenon than to the government’s “fiscal consolidation” and “debt management program”.

In its recent report for the third quarter, the global investment monitor Thomas White has said

The Philippine economy is in a sweet spot mainly due to the high infrastructure spending the country has unleashed. Adding to this, strong remittance income from oversees Philippine workers, a fast-growing domestic services sector, and increasing confidence from foreign investors bolstered to the country’s buoyant economic outlook.

If you averaged out the growth for the last four quarters, you would find that it would be  4.85% , the same as its average growth for the last ten years. The confidence of foreign portfolio investors in the local stock market comes largely from the country’s ability to keep the economy chugging along as events from Europe have dampened the outlook for other countries. This was admitted to by a senior official of investment bank Goldman Sachs in a recent visit to Manila. The White report continues by saying

With the country’s government awarding $16 billion worth of contracts to build social infrastructure that included constructing thousands of classrooms, the outlook for the infrastructure industry has grown rosy. The construction sector posted a growth of 10% during the quarter up from the 7.6% registered during the first quarter. As public spending rose, employment outlook also improved during the quarter, boosting consumer demand. Household consumption jumped 1.4% during the quarter, up from the 0.9% during the first quarter.

Notice that they say it was the “outlook” on employment from the “infrastructure outlook” that boosted consumer demand. That is either a lot of faith placed on the outlook or it was a result of hard cash pouring in from Filipinos living and working overseas (UPDATE: note that the construction boom is happening because the property and realty sector is benefiting from remittances, and this has actually gotten some analysts worried about a possible housing bubble). The report concludes by saying

…Meanwhile, despite maintaining a record low interest rate of 3.75%, inflation in the country fell to a low of 3.6% in September from 3.8% in August. The central bank has targeted an inflation of 3% to 5% for 2013.

The BSP has in fact cut interest rates recently to temper the appreciation of the peso that has been hurting the competitiveness of our export industries. The situation has been described as reaching a breaking point by industry insiders. The power of the peso relative to the US dollar is what is behind the low inflation figures as imports become cheaper. The so-called “sweet spot” of high growth, better employment and low inflation can actually be explained by the continued growth of remittances rather than any privately-financed stimulus that has yet to be spent.

 

The world according to HSBC

In its latest release of The World by 2050 report this month, HSBC elevated the prospects for the Philippines projecting it would be the 16th largest economy by mid-century. This is in stark contrast to where the country was positioned last year, outside the top 40, a remarkable leap in the space of a year. What fundamental change occurred to merit such a fantastic rise of 27 places from 43rd to 16th place?

Actually, the upgrade in the country’s prospects began in 2005 with the publication by Goldman Sachs of a paper, which included the Philippines among the “Next 11” or N-11 countries whose GDP would rival some of the advanced G-7 nations by 2050. Earlier this year, Citibank published a paper extolling the virtues of the Philippine economy by including it among a group of “3G countries” that have the “global growth generators” or 3G’s.

From an interview with the ANC (since the bank has yet to publish its report online), the head of the Philippine country office pinned it down mostly to monetary and fiscal settings. The healthy balance of payments position, complemented by the conservative fiscal position alongside a vibrant domestic economy and positive demographics or population growth all combined to place the country on the map.

Regardless of how accurate these projections are (in the case of HSBC, the numbers look dubious, with seven percent growth on average expected from now until mid-century), there can be no doubt as to their effect on capital flows.

‘Tis the Season

As the Bangko Sentral adjusted interest rates downward as a signal to the local economy to start investing or consuming more, there was talk of yet another credit upgrade in the offing for the Philippines. We could be the next country following Indonesia to be given investment grade status by these agencies. The outlook for the country was recently upgraded from stable to positive signalling such an upgrade.

If this trend continues, it would mean a steady stream of “hot money” into our local stock market which is already soaring. It would also mean lower borrowing costs for both our government and corporations seeking to raise capital from international bond markets.

But as the ironic maxim goes in the financial community, it is when banks are willing to lend that you don’t need to borrow. As investment banks queue up to lend to the national government, it is time that they begin to assess whether they need to borrow from abroad at all, or whether it would help the local economy to utilize the excess foreign reserves of the Bangko Sentral to finance its fiscal deficit.

For one, it would enable the BSP to earn a higher rate of return compared to purchasing US treasury notes which are earning close to zero percent. Two, it would  help temper the peso’s strength and help the families of overseas Filipinos and exporters. Three, it would reduce the need for the BSP to purchase dollars in the spot market to dampen the peso’s appreciation, helping the bank maintain profitability.

Bragging or bargaining rights?

The government might take all these positive developments as a seal of good housekeeping on its part. The series of credit upgrades which occurred only after the 2010 elections might certainly be construed as the market’s faith in the capacity and competence of the administration to manage its affairs.

But apart from simply bragging about being mentioned in such publications, the government, particularly the finance department, must begin to heed the growing clamor among our central bankers, leading economists, exporters and ordinary Filipinos to plan a sustainable path of development as it seeks to balance its own books.

Regardless of how the world in 2050 might appear to its financiers, it needs to demonstrate the independence and autonomy required of it to plot a course in line with the nation’s interests. HSBC and other global investment banks might simply be positioning their products to our finance people. It takes courage and resolve on their part to either use our strong position as leverage or simply walk away from the table.

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

Does good governance mean good economics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Never gonna happen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The proper benchmark

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

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

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

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

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

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