foreign remittances

Establishing and Managing a Philippine Sovereign Wealth Fund

This is the second part of a series on this topic. In the first part, I discussed why we need a sovereign wealth fund or SWF in the first place. My main contention was that the Philippines is currently suffering from “Dutch disease” or the adverse effects of a sudden rise of income from its export of labour and from a rise of confidence in its domestic economy. In this second part, I will discuss how we could govern and operate our own SWF.

The Santiago Principles established by 26 countries with SWFs known as the International Working Group or IWG  in 2008 lays out a number of generally accepted principles and practices or GAPP to ensure that “the SWF arrangements are properly set up and investments are made on an economic and financial basis”. One of the main reasons for this is that as government-owned  entities, as SWFs continue to grow in importance to global capital markets and perform a bigger role in corporate governance, they need to demonstrate that their investment decisions are not politically motivated.

Traditionally, SWFs took the surplus foreign reserves accumulated within a resource exporting nation and invested them in long-term projects overseas. This allowed recipient countries that were often capital constrained and developing to benefit from such investment flows. The size and relative lack of transparency of some SWFs however caused many actors in the international community to cast a suspicious eye at these funds.

In the Philippine context, as discussed in the first part of this series, I propose that our SWF be confined to funding projects within the country given our chronic underinvestment in infrastructure and need to resuscitate our industrial sector. Given however our historically poor track record at ensuring that government owned and controlled companies manage their assets in a prudent manner, the main concern in establishing a SWF would be to ring-fence it from the influence of politics.

The Santiago Principles help to define a set of best practices for us in establishing our own SWF in the Philippines. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace talked about what the effect of signing up to these principles is by saying that

(b)y voluntarily submitting to the Santiago Principles, IWG members ceded their autonomy to establish governance arrangements in line with their individual needs and preferences. In a way, they made a conscious decision to limit the reach of their “sovereignty.”

You might be tempted after reading that to draw an analogy between the IWG to the World Trading Organisation or WTO which implements the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs or GATT. Unlike that body, the IWG and its successor the International Forum of Sovereign Wealth Funds or IFSWF is purely voluntary and has no powers to sanction its members. The Carnegie Endowment does draw this distinction. What our Philippine authorities should do in drawing up the framework for its SWF would be to hard code “the Principles” in its charter.

As shown in the table below, the Principles may be divided into three distinct parts. These cover the legal and macroeconomic policy framework of the fund, its institutional and governance arrangements and structures, and finally its methods for managing investment decisions and handling risk. I am adapting the Carnegie Endowment’s description of these parts here.

Table 1: Santiago Principles*

Section What “the Principles” state there should be GAPP #
Legal framework, objectives, and coordination withmacroeconomic policies
  • disclosure of legal framework
  • definition and disclosure of policy purpose
  • public disclosure of funding and withdrawal arrangements
GAPP 1
GAPP 2
GAPP 4
Institutional framework and governance structures
  • clearly defined roles and responsibilities of the principal/owner (the government) and the agent (SWF’s governing body, officers and executives)
  • a limited role for the principal which is to set the broad  objectives, appointment of governing body or board, and oversight of operations
  • a clear mandate to the fund’s governing body to set strategy for achieving its objectives along with being accountable for its performance
  • delegated authority for independently implementing strategies and handling operations for officers and executives under clearly defined roles and responsibilities
GAPP 6 

 

GAPP 7

 

GAPP 8

 

GAPP 9

Investment and risk management frameworks
  • disclosure of investment policies
  • information about investment themes, investment objectives and horizons, and strategic asset allocation, including:
    1. disclosure of investments that are subject to non-economic and non-financial considerations
    2. whether they execute ownership rights to protect the financial value of investments
  • a framework that identifies, assesses, and manages the risks of its operations and measures to track investment performance employing relative and/or absolute benchmarks
GAPP 18 

 

 

GAPP 19.1

GAPP 21

 

GAPP 22

*adapted from Sven Behrendt (2010). Sovereign Wealth Funds and Santiago Principles: Where do they stand? Carnegie Papers No. 22, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The policy aims of setting a SWF in the Philippines are clear: to channel excess foreign reserves in a productive way and to cope with the developmental needs of the country. As I stated in the first part of this series, existing legislation tasks the Bangko Sentral with ensuring an adequate supply of currency to meet our international obligations. It does not contemplate our current predicament where the annual flows of remittances and portfolio investments have made our gross international reserves (GIR) rise rapidly.

This has caused the appreciation of the peso which has put a strain on our exporters. Even our burgeoning business process outsourcing industry is beginning to feel the pinch of the currency’s upward trajectory. As I previously stated, the GIR is now sufficient to cover twelve months of imports and to meet all our external obligations with a comfortable buffer left over.

And it will keep rising especially if our government earns an investment grade credit rating as is expected next year. Our GIR should only be allowed to rise in proportion to our external commitments. As our economy becomes less dependent on foreign borrowing these external debts won’t rise as rapidly as they have in the past.

Once a targeted level has been reached, the Bangko Sentral should be authorised to declare any additional funds in excess of its requirements. The existing Central Bank Act should be amended to explicitly state this. The monetary board should be given the task of setting the appropriate benchmarks for making such declarations and for transferring excess funds into a SWF.

The nature of such a transfer, as I have suggested, should be in the form of a sovereign loan issued to the national government, which will own the SWF. This would help ensure that the projects which the SWF invests in will have a sufficient return to cover its borrowings and operating costs. It would also ensure that the value of the Bangko Sentral’s assets is preserved.

As to the appointment of its board and officers, the SWF would be subject to the same rules covering government owned and controlled corporations or GOCCs. The reforms carried out by the new GOCC law which created a commission that regulates the appointments, compensation and accountabilities of such officers would apply as well. This would include the need to provide audited financial statements and management reports.

In terms of the type of projects it would fund, I have suggested four potential areas or themes. This includes public infrastructure (such as the ones eyed for Public-Private Partnerships) aimed at both social and economic development, joint minerals exploration in consortium with private mining firms, industry cluster development projects, and clean, renewable energy projects.

The allocation of resources across these themes could be based on national priorities. Let’s be clear: the main purpose of this SWF would be to support the development priorities of the nation, and that should be stated unapologetically. But for specific projects, a set of solid business cases needs to be presented. When entering into joint ventures or consortia with private players, the SWF should also be allowed to exercise ownership rights over the project to protect its investments.

Just as with government financial institutions or GFIs, the SWF should be guided by proper prudential management principles that would monitor its risk exposure. Unlike the conservative treasury management practices of government banks and pension funds, the risk-return equation is different for an equity investor like the SWF. The risk tolerance would be higher while its returns need not necessarily be as big given its lower cost of borrowing. Its risk adjusted return on capital would thus be lower compared to commercial banks.

Some PPP bidders have expressed concern over political interference in the Philippines affecting their ability to set fees independently of the government. This has limited the appetite for actually managing the operations of the utilities and transport oriented projects. They have therefore chosen to participate only in building contracts. Takashi Ishagami of Marubeni Corporation has been quoted as saying that “the Filipino PPP is far away from our standard”. It has partnered with a local firm to jointly bid for a $1 billion railway project in which it would be merely supplying equipment.

That’s fine. If the SWF were to finance such partnerships, our excess foreign reserves would leak out of the country (as intended) through the purchase of foreign equipment. This will help temper the peso’s rise since these projects will no longer be financed through overseas assistance or equity from abroad. What could leak in, however, is foreign technology and know-how because as an equity investor, with a long time frame, the SWF would also have greater leverage to request that suppliers provide technology transfer to local partners. This should unapologetically be part of its investment prioritisation framework.

An Alternative to Charter Change

Rather than relaxing the maximum capital requirements on foreign participation in certain industries contained in our constitution, the government should instead be looking to accelerate the flow of funds into productive activity with the SWF as one of its prime vehicles. Where private players are too small to generate sufficient scale to participate in large projects, the government should encourage them to form a cluster and fund them to be able to compete with multinationals.

This incidentally was the vision of the late-Senator Benigno “Ninoy” Aquino for the Philippine economy which he explained in a speech delivered in Los Angeles back in 1981 while he was in exile. He sought to counter the Marcos regime’s formula of encouraging multinational firms to engage in extractive activities and to commercially fund projects like the Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Juxtaposed to Marcos’ “crony capitalism”, Ninoy termed his philosophy “Christian socialism”.

Don’t be turned off by the name. As his remarks suggest, what he really meant was essentially a form of capitalism more akin to Northern Europe’s brand than to the English version as espoused by Adam Smith. The last time I checked, the German and Scandinavian economies seemed to be weathering the present crisis well, while maintaining one of the highest levels of income and social well-being compared to their Anglo-American counterparts.

Under President Benigno “Noynoy”Aquino’s rubric of good governance, the stage is now set to pursue that economic philosophy and vision for the country.  As the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found, sound democratic institutions best explains a nation’s compliance with the Santiago Principles.

With the government now facing the prospect of receiving investment grade status in the coming year, it must prepare for any unintended adverse consequences this might have as more short-term investors flock to our shores, boosting the peso’s value and putting more of an already unbearable strain on our exporters of goods and services.

For good governance to yield economic benefits to the people, it needs to be used to address the developmental challenges facing the nation. If we act soon, we won’t have to face these same challenges in the future. The country is already in a gradual demographic transition that will lead us from an excess supply to an excess demand for labour over the next decade.

While we still send our surplus workers overseas, we need to channel the wealth they are creating for our nation into projects that would increase economic opportunities for our people back home. This presents our policy makers with a once in a generation opportunity to get things right. Given the discussion covered in this series, it would seem apparent that a SWF would be the way to go.

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.