foreign direct investments

Kurap at mahirap pa rin

Poverty does not seem to be abating, neither is good governance improving much.

This inconvenient truth is the conclusion derived by the National Statistical Coordination Board (NSCB) as of its latest data releases.

Back in April, it found that the change in poverty incidence in the country during the first semester of 2012 (27.9 per cent) was not statistically significant from what it was during the same period in 2009 (28.8 per cent) and 2006 (28.6 per cent).  This rather dismal outcome of the administration’s first two years in office was downplayed by the Palace. It came after the employment report for the April-2013 quarter showed signs that jobs generation was heading south despite the economy’s stellar growth posted in the same period.

Then last week, the NSCB released a set of indicators on Philippine development. When it came to our performance under the global scorecard for good governance, the report said,

The country’s percentile rank based on the World Governance Indicators (WGI) on control of corruption, rule of law, regulatory quality, and voice and accountability had low probabilities of attaining the 2016 targets.

It went on to say that the likelihood of us achieving a better score in terms of government effectiveness under the WGI by 2016 were high. Government effectiveness is different from control of corruption, rule of law, regulatory quality and voice and accountability, though. The former is probably what you would call, “good enough” governance as opposed to “good governance” which is what the latter implies. In the “light v darkness” narrative promoted by the ruling party, “good enough” governance is simply “not good enough”.

The most telling sign that the administration has failed to address the governance issue so far is that the country’s latest ranking in the Ease of Doing Business report slipped two places (from 134th to 136th) and that there was a drop in total investments in 2012. Reducing the cost of doing business is vital to attracting investments. Many say, that in order to open the floodgates to foreign direct investments, all we need to do is change the economic provisions in the charter that limit foreign participation in the local economy.

I personally have a different view, but even if, for argument’s sake that were to happen, if the cost of doing business remained high, it would still discourage investors from investing, as per the current situation in many sectors of the economy that already have been opened up to foreign investment.

It appears when it comes to fulfilling the administration party’s mantra of kung walang kurap, walang mahirap (there will be no poverty if there is no corruption) the government is making little headway, notwithstanding its herculean efforts to impeach the Ombudsman and the Supreme Court Chief Justice and jail the lady president that appointed them. By their own standards, the government seems to be failing in achieving its vision. As a result, income inequality, or the gap between the rich and the poor seems to be widening, as borne out by another NSCB paper released last week.

The government tried to put on a brave face by saying that income among all groups has risen. Unfortunately for the poor, their incomes have risen, but not enough to keep up with the higher cost of living to lift them out of poverty. The conditional cash transfers program which was given a significant boost by this administration was not sufficient. By the NSCB’s calculations, the cost of the government’s welfare program of about Php40 billion for the full year of 2012 was only half the amount required to deal with the problem in the first semester of that year.

The economic management of the nation does not seem to be progressing very well. The Philippine Development Plan talked about promoting inclusive and sustainable growth, but what we seem to be having is none of the sort. Despite all its efforts to improve the efficiency of tax collection and expenditure, to reduce debt and increase social spending and to promote the country as a destination for investment through good governance, these results show that we are just as far away from achieving that goal as we were before.

My advice to the government is not to seek to airbrush these blemishes from its record. It should acknowledge that its efforts thus far have fallen short. The president and his team need to then chart a different way forward. In other words, they need to attend to that “vision thing“, which is what I have been arguing it should have done from the start.

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.

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.