foreign investments


What’s better for economic growth?

In the debate over the economic provisions of the constitution, we often hear that it would be better for the Philippines to lift all restrictions on foreigners. These are what prevent investments from flooding into the country, its advocates say.

One way of arguing for full liberalisation is to point to our progressive regional neighbours and say that they are less restrictive towards foreign participation in their domestic markets. Since they are growing much faster through investments, what we ought to do is adopt their policies and completely liberalise all the sectors of our economy.

This notion is often repeated and reinforced by politicians, businessmen, think tanks and commentators in the media. They portray opposition to full investment liberalisation as either based on selfish interests or irrational xenophobia.

The problem with this stylised argument is that it may not necessarily be grounded on fact. It could be a situation where a lie repeated often enough can become true in the minds of the public.

To test the assumption that our regional neighbours are not restrictive towards foreign investments, I consulted the World Bank’s Invest Across Borders report which contains the most authoritative information on statutory rules and regulations that govern foreign investment in domestic economies around the world.

This allowed me to answer the question, which region in the world is the most open to foreign direct investments? Is it:

a. East Asia and the Pacific (EAP)

b. The Middle East and North Africa (MENA)

c. Latin America and the Caribbean (LATAM&C)

d. Eastern Europe and Central Asia (EECA)

e. South Asia (SA)

f. Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA)

g. High income OECD nations (OECD)

Most would rank the OECD nations as the least restrictive followed by East Asia and the Pacific. This is based on the notion that richer and more prosperous countries generally tend to be more open to investment from abroad. No other region in the world has bridged the gap between rich and poor like EAP with MENA coming in second.

So what does the data tell us? The rich OECD countries are definitely the most open to foreign investments. But among all these regions, the EAP region is astonishingly the most restrictive. The following table comes straight from the World Bank’s findings:

Ownership Limits for Foreign Investors by Sector

Region/Economy Mining, oil & gas Agriculture & forestry Light manufact-uring Telecom Electricity Banking Insurance Transport Media Construction, tourism & retail Health care & waste manage-ment
East Asia & Pacific 78.4 82.9 86.8 64.9 75.8 76.1 80.9 66 36.1 93.4 84.1
Middle East & North Africa 78.8 100 95 84 68.5 82 92 63.2 70 94.9 90
South Asia 88 90 96.3 94.8 94.3 87.2 75.4 79.8 68 96.7 100
Latin America & Caribbean 91 96.4 100 94.5 82.5 96.4 96.4 80.8 73.1 100 96.4
Sub-Saharan Africa 95.2 97.6 98.6 84.1 90.5 84.7 87.3 86.6 69.9 97.6 100
Eastern Europe & Central Asia 96.2 97.5 98.5 96.2 96.4 100 94.9 84 73.1 100 100
High-income OECD 100 100 93.8 89.9 88 97.1 100 69.2 73.3 100 91.7

Source: World Bank (2010), Invest Across Borders.

Note: The table shows the average levels of ownership caps placed on foreign investors across eleven of the most regulated sectors (with a score of 100 indicating complete openness or full foreign ownership permitted). There were 87 countries in the sample.

For all but two of the eleven sectors featured, EAP is the most restrictive—and even in the case of those two sectors, electricity and transport, EAP came second only to MENA. The IAB report acknowledges this by saying,

East Asia and the Pacific has more restrictions on foreign equity ownership in all sectors than any other region.

The caveat is that EAP also shows the greatest intraregional variance with less populated jurisdictions like Singapore and the Solomon Islands having fewer restrictions and highly populated ones like China and Indonesia imposing more in their service sectors.

When it comes to private ownership of land, the IAB report also shows EAP being the most restrictive to foreigners. The following is a screen grab. It shows that only 33 per cent of the EAP’s economies allow foreign ownership of land compared to 52 per cent for SSA, 80 per cent for MENA and SA, 95 per cent for EECE and 100 per cent for LATAM&C and OECD. Only three of the ten economies surveyed allow it. Most economies only lease land to foreigners and provide weak lease rights at that (the leases cannot be used as collateral for loans, subdivided or sublet).

land ownership

When it comes to ownership rights, EAP scored 83.3 out of 100 coming in fifth after the OECD (100), LATAM&C (98.2), EECE (97.6) and SA (93.8), ahead of SSA (77.3) and MENA (68.8). This again runs counter to the prevailing view that EAP provides greater security to foreign investors over their property rights, more than other regions.

The ease of doing business, particularly the cost of entering a country is the last thing we will look at. The ease of establishment is measured by the number of steps and length of time needed for setting up a foreign business. The following table also comes from the IAB website:

Starting a Foreign Business

Region/Economy Procedures (number) Time (days) Ease of establishment index (0-100)
Middle East & North Africa 9 19 58.6
High-income OECD 9 21 77.8
Eastern Europe & Central Asia 8 22 76.8
South Asia 9 39 62.5
Sub-Saharan Africa 10 48 51.5
East Asia & Pacific 11 64 57.4
Latin America & Caribbean 14 74 62.

Note: Ease of establishment index (0-100) evaluates the regulatory regime for business start-up.

MENA and the OECD are at the top of the league table with 19 and 21 days for each of them respectively to open a new business. LATAM&C and EAP are the worst performers in that order providing additional hurdles to them. It takes 64 days on average in EAP and 11 steps to open a new business. In China it takes 65 days on average and 18 steps, which is above the regional average. In the ease of establishment index which reflects the regulatory regime of regions, SSA and EAP are the worst performers in that order, meaning their regulatory regimes are the most difficult and least familiar to foreign firms.

Given its lack of openess, poor accessibility of industrial land, and larger regulatory burden, it is astonishing how the EAP experienced faster growth and pulled in larger investments compared to other emerging markets in the world as shown in the following charts.

These results will seem counterintuitive, especially for those who have been fed a steady staple of neoliberal ideology. It’s a case of empirical evidence contradicting normative beliefs: the most restrictive EAP region grew fastest and attracted the greatest value of foreign direct investments.

So why has the Philippines managed to lag behind its regional neighbours in terms of growth and development? What factors allowed them to take-off and overtake us? That is a subject for a much longer conversation and a later post. Suffice it to say that framing the problem around liberalisation in certain sectors, accessibility to land, ease of establishment or even property rights does not provide a convincing answer.

Let me conclude with what that this discussion demonstrates, and that is opening up our domestic market to foreign competitors is not a guaranteed way to bring about economic transformation. It is not a panacea. It does not necessarily follow that if you open up, you will attract more investments or grow much faster. There is a missing ingredient in all this, an “omitted variable”, as it were.

In part two of this series, I will discuss the various strategies employed by the East Asian tigers in their quest for economic prosperity and how the political and economic history of the region diverges from common public perceptions of what happened.

They’re Baaaaaaack!

The APEC summit in Hawaii (photo courtesy of

In uncharacteristically blunt language, US President Obama as host of the APEC summit in Hawaii called on China to act like a “grown up” saying “enough is enough” and that it was time for the People’s Republic to “operate by the same rules that everybody operates” threatening dire consequences unless the yuan appreciates by 20-25%.

The US has been pressing China to allow its currency the yuan to appreciate more quickly to make American products more affordable to Chinese residents and similarly make Chinese exports less attractive to US based consumers. President Hu’s pragmatic response–allow imports to rise without necessarily liberalizing the currency exchange regime–is typical of the Middle Kingdom.

Unlike America’s faith in free markets, China would rather deliberately get prices wrong if it would allow it to maintain a healthy trade surplus with the US. This after all was the same path to development that the US took when it was still in its “catch-up” phase with Western Europe.

Yet America, with its penchant for universal principles (“we hold these truths to be self-evident”) is now in the game of preaching free trade, open markets and property rights in the Far East just as it preached democracy in the Middle East. China is instinctually groping for a particularistic response. Although sounding undiplomatic, I like Pres Obama’s rhetoric because it gave away an important concession in the development debate.

“Gaming the system” or the notion of applying the tools of industrial policy to generate a competitive advantage for nascent industries in global trade as a legitimate means to catch-up with more advanced economies while a country is still relatively underdeveloped has been acknowledged. In the local vernacular, “saling pusa” which refers to little children allowed to participate in a game without having the same rules applied to them would be the way America views the Chinese.

For those who believe that lowering trade barriers helps promote growth, the following graph taken from Dani Rodrik’s paper to the UN should help dispel that notion. It shows a positive albeit insignificant correlation between tariff levels and economic growth. At best, no correlation can be inferred between lowering barriers to trade and growth, which is why the Philippines despite having very low tariffs relative to its ASEAN neighbors, has not been growing strongly. As I mentioned in my last piece, higher barriers to entry actually have been found to induce domestic innovation that in turn leads to new exports.

Source: Dani Rodrik (2001), The Global Governance of Trade--As If Development Really Mattered: A UNDP Background Paper

This should help comfort those distressed by that CNBC press release that the Philippines is the worst place for doing business in Asia. It should also be noted that in their top ten worst places, India and Indonesia were included. If these are the sorts of countries that we are in league with, then we really should not be too bothered.

Despite that dubious title, one should actually pay attention to the fact that the CNBC pronouncement was based on the World Bank’s Doing Business Report. Many of the measures in this report simply do not apply to businesses within the special economic zones which is more relevant to foreign investors. Furthermore, petty corruption actually allows many of the so-called barriers for entry to be removed.

The main roadblock to foreign direct investments is actually the desire of business to operate with the same protection of contracts and property rights wherever they are along with low costs to entry without the necessary tax burden and industrial labor costs that are needed to foster this. On the other hand, ordinary citizens that politicians seeking re-election (as in the case of Obama) try to please don’t want unfair competition for their labor from less developed countries which try to create a system of arbitrage to attract foreign investors.

It isn’t that investors want a level playing field. Consumers by and large don’t really mind whether a producer competes fairly for a slice of their hip pocket. That means for a country seeking to attract foreign investors increasingly ceding a lot of its national policy-making abilities to Western bodies and institutions to gain access to its markets. Hence the rhetoric of Obama who is trying to create a narrative that would pit the economies in the region against China.

Having ceded the scene for the better part of a decade to Beijing which has forged a free trade deal with ASEAN (CAFTA, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Area), Washington is trying to regain the initiative with its Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement that boasts the commitment of nine APEC countries and counting. China has objected to not being invited to join the agreement. This is clearly a bid by the US to isolate it and strengthen its economic clout in the region.

This week, as he travels en route to the East Asia summit in Bali, Indonesia, the US president is scheduled to make a stopover in Canberra to address the Australian parliament and sign a deal that would increase US troop presence in a base located near Darwin. The two nations have already beefed up the ANZUS mutual defense treaty by allowing allies to invoke it in the case of cyber attacks just as it was used in justifying Australian participation in the US war against terror.

This posturing is clearly aimed at containing Chinese ambitions in the region. America is trying to prevent Australia and its other allies (Japan, Korea, Thailand, and the Philippines) from following in the footsteps of Germany which has been compromised as a NATO ally due to its economy’s dependence on exports to China. Australia sees the need to boost its military capability to help counter the military build-up of China while relying on iron ore exports to China for sustaining health in its economy. Other countries in the region notably Vietnam and the Philippines will seek protection under the US security umbrella given tensions with China over the Spratlys.

PM Julia Gillard earlier this year commissioned her own white paper that would create a strategic road map for Australia in the “Asian century.” Upon her return to Australia, she announced a new position on uranium exports to India, the other emerging power in the region. This back-flip on her party’s existing position to maintain a ban until India signs the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty occurred after a meeting with President Obama .

Meanwhile State secretary Hilary Clinton is set to travel through Bangkok and Manila en route to Bali. She will no doubt seek to emphasize the theme that America is back in business in the region. P-Noy has been keen to float his own ideas about a solution to the Spratlys among allies, but membership in the TPP is very much in doubt as certain hurdles including constitutional restrictions on foreign ownership and weak protection of intellectual property rights prevent the Philippines from being admitted.

This means that the Philippines will engage in free trade with China via CAFTA, while having a military alliance with the US. This is probably the best possible outcome–a good way to counter-balance each competing force on either side of the Pacific. Australian PM Julia Gillard put it best when she said this week,

It is well and truly possible for us in this growing region of the world to have an ally in the US and to have deep friendships in our region including with China.

But for how long this formula will work only time will tell.