GDP growth

A Dual Track

Two very disappointing sets of figures were released last week.

One: the anemic 3.4% GDP growth experienced by the Philippines in the second quarter of the year. That places growth in the first half at 4%. Economic managers have had to revise downwards their full-year projection to 4% from the targeted 7-8% (it would require growth of 10% in the second half of the year for the target to be reached, and not even the budget department’s assumption of 5% seems likely at this point).

Two: the abysmal jobs market in the US which saw no new net jobs created in August as many private firms became spooked by events in Europe and the US credit downgrade. The fact that high unemployment is expected to persist until 2015-16, perhaps even to 2016-17 (with many states coping with the end of stimulus by laying-off workers) has led many to conclude that the US is teetering on the brink of a double dip recession.

Bracing for the harsh winds from a US downturn, Sen Frank Drilon has called on the government to step up its infrastructure spending. Amando Doronila uses the findings of Credit Suisse which downgraded its growth prospects in the region which is expected to suffer “more than most” and cast doubts on the Philippines because it doubted whether

(T)he planned PPP (public-private partnership) infrastructure projects that many were bullish about were likely to get off the ground in a hurry.

In fact, the first couple of projects are scheduled to be bidded out at the end of the year, 18 months after the SONA in which it was announced. That means actual investments will not flow until well into the next year.

Economist Solita Monsod in her weekend column chastised our economic managers for not heeding the official early warning signs by accelerating public construction expenditure. She likened it to economic sabotage when she concluded

Public construction contracted by 23 percent in the third quarter of 2010 and 14 percent in the fourth quarter. Okay, that’s the price for trying to tighten procedures. But decreasing by 38 percent in the first quarter of 2011? And 51 percent in the second quarter?
Prevent plunder? Maybe. But there is economic sabotage in the process. What a choice Filipinos are faced with: between ill-intentioned plunderers and well-intentioned saboteurs.

Amando Doronila had more harsh words in today’s op-ed piece

The straight path to governance sainthood under the Aquino administration’s mantra, “without corruption there’s no poor,” is littered with the derelicts of pious slogans as well as the detritus of incompetent economic management. These derelicts cannot make up for the big deficit in economic performance.

Much like his American counterpart whose followers have become disenchanted with the meager results of his lofty campaign rhetoric, PNoy could soon find the public’s receptiveness to his slogans waning with each passing day.

After experimenting for a year with his idealistic Daang Matuwid will hard-nosed pragmatism be resurrected? A dual track is needed in which the administration pursues its good governance agenda in a way that does not hamper economic growth and development.

This is perhaps what the purists in his camp failed to consider, that the path to development is not a single lane, and that the two agendas can run side-by-side.

The long-term view

 

With experts calling tepid and jobless growth the “new normal” for North Atlantic countries for years to come, it is important for governments to assess how this impacts them in the long-run.

The administration seems to have put two and two together and realized that with weaker growth prospects come weaker revenues and in an environment where any sort of fiscal deterioration could lead to speculative attacks on an economy, it is aiming to shore up its fiscal position through tax reform before the effects of the crisis start washing on our shores.

There certainly is nothing like a crisis to focus the mind on issues that would have slipped under the radar otherwise.

Fixing the areas in our tax system where leaks occur is just as important as trying to avoid wasteful spending. Paying full-market prices for second hand helicopters may create more of a buzz in the media, but the impact of improperly crafted policies on fiscal incentives or sin taxes create much bigger losses for the government on an annual basis.

The uncollected portion of those taxes could easily fill-up the public sector deficit eliminating the need for forced fiscal contraction that prevents us from building the necessary social and economic infrastructure needed for attracting job-producing investments and for improving governance.

The long-term view would allow our leaders to make the tough decisions to undertake necessary reforms that would lift the long-run productivity of the Philippines instead of merely catering to populist sentiment and short-term political payoffs.

Take a look at the following chart which shows various long-term forecasts for average annual incomes per person in the Philippines.

The high-growth scenario comes from the analysis of Dominic Wilson of Goldman Sachs on the Next-11 group of countries with strong growth potential. You can see why all those toxic sub-prime mortgage backed securities could be endorsed by them to Standard and Poor’s for triple A rating.

The rosy positive outlook has our citizens earning $20,000 on average by the year 2050. We should take our cue from those crafty people at GS who bet against the very investment vehicles they packaged and sold to investors, by hedging our bets a little. Let us consider other possibilities.

The low-growth scenario is taken from the Institute of Future Studies online data available via Google’s public data explorer. It shows the country achieving a per capita GDP level of just above $4,000 by 2050. This is quite a low level of growth given that the NEDA projects a $5,000 per capita income by 2020 (assuming we grow by 7% for the next ten years).

The high-growth scenario assumes growth of 6.4% per year on average in the next forty years (net of inflation). The low-growth scenario assumes that it grows by 2.9%. Note that with the population rising, the growth of the overall economy needs to be 7.6% under high-growth and 3.9% under low growth for average incomes to rise as they are forecast here.

I have projected a middle case in between the high and low growth scenarios. This trajectory produces an average growth rate of 4.9% per year. Under this scenario, average incomes are set to rise to close to $10,000 by the end of the forecast period ($9,497 to be exact).

This level of income is important because as the World Values Survey suggests, $10,000 is right around the level at which the minimum material needs of a country are met. Above this level, the reported level of subjective well-being is less dependent on income growth than on other factors.

Based on this survey, the Philippines is punching above its weight in the happiness index (far above its material wealth would imply). Imagine what would happen if Filipinos attained an even higher level of income.

Considerations for the long-term view

The question now becomes, what sort of policy shifts in the next five years would spell the difference between each scenario. Even though its framework produces an overly optimistic case for the Philippines, it is worth looking at the Growth Environment Score of Goldman Sachs to see what kind of policy response is required.

Under the 13 components of the GES, the Philippines was considered at par or above average in four aspects in 2006, namely: inflation, trade openess, education and life expectancy. It was considered below average in three economic indicators: fiscal deficits, external debt and investment; three governance indicators: political stability, rule of law and corruption; and, three infrastructure indicators: computers, phones, and internet penetration.

Tax reform would allow the government to correct the below par performance in debt and deficits. Investments could be addressed through competition policy and an opening up of restricted sectors. Political stability, rule of law and lower corruption results from better fiscal capacity to provide social safety nets and a more professional bureaucracy. Finally, better telecommunications governance results from both better regulatory quality and bureaucratic effectiveness which come about by opening up the economy and compensating public officials better.

The bottom-line is that better fiscal capacity along with sound and rational policy result in better growth prospects for our country. Let us hope that our leaders are able to take heed of this maxim and resist the urge to pander to populist patrimonialism in the short-run. By 2050, there will be between 135 and 145 million Filipinos. It is for the sake of this silent electorate, that I hope our leaders fix their vision on the long-run.

Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics: Or why De Quiros is a bit of a crank

In his two most recent op-ed pieces published successively in the Inquirer between Monday and Tuesday this week, Conrado De Quiros proves why his writing should be taken with a grain of salt.

Apologist

In Repetitions, Mr De Quiros talks of parallels between the two Aquino administrations and uses the argument that history may be repeating itself against those who despair at the current lackluster performance of PNoy in his freshman year. The implicit parallelism here is between the Marcos and Arroyo loyalists who claim that life deteriorated under their successors.

De Quiros uses a number of “lies, damned lies and statistics” in making his case. These fibs undermine his credibility. He states first of all that

(o)ne year after he came to power, the Gloria Macapagal Arroyo (GMA) loyalists are out saying how things have gotten worse from GMA’s time. Proof of it is that unemployment is rife, prices are higher and the hungry are getting hungrier. And they have the figures to show it.
What they forget to say is that Gloria borrowed more than Tabako (President Fidel V. Ramos) and Erap (President Joseph Estrada) combined in the course of her long, vicious and illegitimate rule from January 2001 to May 2010 which did not keep prices from soaring anyway, and which debt has added immeasurably to an already gigantic one the people are paying during P-Noy’s time and will continue to pay well past P-Noy’s time.

Ok, let us subject the first part of the argument to the Truth-o-meter. What was the level of external debt during the presidencies of Messrs Ramos and Estrada in contrast to Madame Arroyo? The chart below is taken from World Bank data which is hosted on Google Data Explorer.

It shows that the total external debt stock in 1991 prior to the election of Pres Ramos stood at 32.5 billion current US dollars. In 2000, the year before Mrs Arroyo succeeded Mr Estrada in office it rose to 58.3 billion dollars. That is a jump of about 25.8 billion. In 2009, the year before Mrs Arroyo handed power to Mr Aquino, the total external debt stock was 62.9 billion dollars or an increase of a mere 4.6 billion!

So on point one, Mr De Quiros’s claim that GMA had borrowed more than Messrs Ramos and Estrada combined is not only untrue, it misses the truth by a longshot. The growth of debt during the latter was 5.6 times more than under the former.

Let us examine the second part of the argument about price inflation under the Arroyo administration. The chart below shows inflation from the same data source. I am afraid that again in this case, the data conflicts with De Quiros’s claim. It shows that under GMA, inflation was tame. The country experienced some of the lowest price rises that it experienced since the 1970s, much of this is a result of the economic reforms instituted since the mid-80s of course.

So on point two, once again Mr De Quiros is caught fiddling with the truth.

Moving on to the rest of his argument, De Quiros states that

The economy Gloria left to P-Noy is not a rundown restaurant that has been sold to a new owner who with unlimited funds can renovate it and open with the sign, “Under new management.” It is a horse that has been starved and flogged to near-death and bequeathed to an impoverished nephew by a good-for-nothing aunt upon her death. You cannot make that horse spring back to life overnight, especially when it’s all you can do to keep body and soul together. It will take a great deal of nursing to make it so. Along with a great deal of cursing the departed.

You can’t blame everything that is wrong with the economy on Gloria. But you can, and ought to, blame her for a great deal. The people of this country did not start getting unemployed during P-Noy’s time, they started getting unemployed during Gloria’s time. Hell, they started getting hungry—yet another statistic a few months ago said people had gotten hungry of late—during Gloria’s time, as a result of abandoning the farmers completely and relying on importations of rice. And stealing billions of bukols along with the rice.
Gloria is the cause, this is the effect.

So, to verify these claims, let us look first of all at the level of income during Mrs Arroyo’s presidency. The chart here shows that per capita incomes grew quite rapidly and consistently for the most part during her term from $899 in 2001 to $1,752 in 2009, an increase of about 95%.

In a comparable period from 1991 to 2001, GDP per capita only rose from $710 to $899 or an increase of a mere 27%. Again, it seems that calling the economy a rundown hand-me-down does not seem appropriate.

Well, you might say, De Quiros is really talking about the hardships suffered by the most marginal sectors of society getting worse under Mrs Arroyo. So, let us examine the income share of the poorest quintile of the population in the following chart.

We find here that the lowest 20% of the population had a 6.5% share of total income in 1988 and this dropped down to 5.36% in 1997 and remained steady at 5.37% in 2000. From there it rose to 5.6% in 2006 where the time series stops. So it seems that for the greater part of GMA’s term, the decline was arrested. The time series unfortunately ends there, right before the surge of rice importation.

As a sidebar, it is worth noting that the economic liberalization instituted since the mid-80s as prodded by the Washington Consensus may have moderated inflation but failed to provide protection to the most vulnerable. Mrs Arroyo’s rice program was also aimed at limiting the effects of price rises, but may have impacted the farming sector adversely. In that case, it was simply extending the existing policies further.

Revisionist

In Visions and Revisions, the second thesis of De Quiros is a stab at economic revisionism. His very first line exposes him to this charge:

P-noy isn’t making things worse, economically or otherwise, but he’s missing a lot of chances to make things better.

Unfortunately, the first quarter results say otherwise. The latest 4.9% GDP growth figure reported by the National Statistical Coordination Board, while nothing to sneeze at, was at the lower end of the expected range that analysts had predicted of between 4.8% and 5.6%. It was almost half the 8.4% growth registered in the same period of the previous year under Mrs Arroyo and a far cry from the government’s own target of 7-8% for the year. Given the recent tweaking of the way GDP is computed, the growth rate of 4.9% is actually higher than it would have been under the previous method.

PNoy tried to remain upbeat and blame the less than targeted performance on economic headwinds coming from conflicts in the Middle East and North African region as well as natural disasters closer to home. He also sought to paint a favorable picture by comparing it to the milder growth experienced by our ASEAN neighbors.

What he conveniently failed to mention was that the growth could have been higher had his government not contracted spending by 17%. Today’s banner headline of the Businessworld says it all, Underspending Curbs Growth. What this means is that the higher unemployment, hunger and poverty reported during the period is partly the government’s doing.

None other than Budget Sec Buth Abad confirmed that the first quarter was “not regular” in that government spending slowed as a result of project costings being reviewed. While he claims they can play catch up during the remainder of the year, Prof Ben Diokno, a former budget secretary, and Gov Joey Salceda, a former analyst and political advisor to Mrs Arroyo think otherwise.

Unfortunately, not only is “PNoy missing a lot of chances to make things better”, he is also “making things worse, economically”. No amount of economic revisionism can change that fact.

In bolstering his claims, Mr De Quiros needs to steer away from using spurious statistics. He has failed the truth-o-meter on all counts. Such flagrant misrepresentations do not aid his cause one bit. They merely expose the hollowness of his arguments.