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PHILIPPINES


 

 

Key Economic Data 
 
  2003 2002 2001 Ranking(2003)
GDP
Millions of US $ 80,574 77,076 71,400 43
         
GNI per capita
 US $ 1,080 1,020 1,050 135
Ranking is given out of 208 nations - (data from the World Bank)

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Update No: 037 - (25/01/07)

The year has started reasonably well for Philippine President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo although there are a few spoilers on the horizon that could quickly dispel the present positive sentiment. Preliminary figures suggest that economic growth was a healthy 5.5 percent last year (final numbers should be released towards the end of January) and already the Administration is pumping up the growth expectations for the coming year.

The main spoiler of course is the May election for a new Congress (lower house and half the Senate plus local officials) and while everyone hopes for a clean and honest election, few believe it will be so. Most people believe that the vote has already been counted. All that remains is to announce the result. It is called the Filipino way!

The second spoiler is the issue of Charter change-Constitutional change to adopt a parliamentary rather than a presidential form of government and to allow elected officials to stay in office indefinitely. The government and political leaders claim there is a "clamour" for Charter change. Nobody else thinks so with most polls showing a 2:1 margin against any tinkering with the political system-especially in circumstances where those doing the tinkering are the same as those who would be the principal beneficiaries of any change. Thankfully, that issue is on the back-burner for a while but few think it has gone away. When it does resurface, expect further tensions to boil over once again.

But for the moment, things are mercifully quiet. 

One of Asia's best this year?
At least three financial institutions believe that the Philippines will be among the best economic performers in Asia this year. For one, Dutch financial giant ING listed the country as one of the top three investment sites in the Asia-Pacific region for 2007, aside from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

ING Bank has predicted that corporate profits in the country would surge by about 20 percent in 2007 and further lift the main-share Philippine Stock Exchange index (PSEi). The index, now trading at its highest level in 10 years is seen to climb further from the present 3,000 mark to a record level of 3,500 to 3,700 points by the fourth quarter of the year.

Credit rating firm Standard & Poor's (S&P) also expects Philippine economic growth to pick up this year and stay ahead of a forecast average for the Asia-Pacific region. In its report titled "The Best and the Rest: The Asia-Pacific Sovereign League," S&P forecast that the Philippines' gross domestic product will grow 5.8 percent in 2007, higher than the average growth of 5.3 percent for the region. 

New York-based investment firm Lehman Brothers, for its part, said the Philippine economy is expected to stay on a positive growth path given the declining public debt and strong trade growth expectations. "The main reforms have been where the need was greatest - in the area of fiscal policy. If anything, they are yielding the desired results faster than expected," Lehman Brothers senior economist for Asia Rob Subbaraman said. He added a warning that the challenge for the Philippines now lies in lessening political instability to maintain its strong economic showing, especially given the upcoming elections in May. "The Philippines must stay on the course of reform. Maintaining political stability is crucial, especially with legislative elections to be held in May 2007," he said.

Hong Kong-based financial magazine "The Asset" named the Philippines Asia's best borrower in 2006, for being a "disciplined" and "savvy issuer." 

"Indeed, the Philippines is now regarded as a savvy issuer, exhibiting a level of sophistication that was absent in the past. It is disciplined in not upsizing its deals and is very careful when re-opening outstanding bonds," The Asset said.

Government raises economic targets
All of that is positive indeed and not before time. The Administration, for all its faults, has been doing a lot that is right in terms of the macro picture and deserves a moment in the sun.

As if to further build on the present positive attitude of markets and on the strength of falling interest and inflation rates (plus of course the peso appreciation against the US dollar) government has raised its economic growth targets for 2007. The gross domestic product (GDP) growth target has now been raised to a range of 6.1 to 6.7 percent for the year from the original target of 5.7 to 6.5 percent. 

Other expectations for 2007 include an 11 percent export growth, which was revised from the earlier target of 10.5 percent and a peso exchange rate of 48 to 50 per US dollar, which is stronger than an earlier estimate of 51 to 53 against the greenback. (Market sentiment appears to believe that both these numbers may be overly optimistic.

Inflation is seen to average between 3.5 percent and 4 percent this year, also lower than the earlier estimate of 4.3 percent to 4.8 percent. Inflation averaged 6.2 percent in 2006, after slowing to a nearly three-year low of 4.3 percent in December. Lower oil prices will help contain inflation as the previous surge passes.

The estimate for the average yield on the 91-day Treasury bill (T-bill) yield has been lowered to a range of 4 percent to 4.5 percent after the benchmark used by banks to price loans fell to a record low recently. The previous estimate for the average benchmark rate was 5.5 percent to six percent. 

The country's gross international reserves are expected to hit a record level of US$24 billion in 2007, as overseas Filipino workers remittances are anticipated to climb to US$14 billion this coming year.

The Central Bank, however, expects the country's balance of payments (BoP) to hit US$1.6 billion at the end of 2007, down from the original target of US$2.8 billion. The more conservative BOP projection was made in light of the revision in foreign exchange, which is seen to reduce the BOP surplus. A stronger peso tends to encourage imports.

Despite revisiting these growth targets, government is sticking to its earlier announced fiscal goals this year. The government hopes to reduce the budget deficit to PhP63 billion or 0.9 percent of GDP in 2007 from the projected PhP80 billion or 1.3 percent of GDP.

What does it all mean?
We would agree that at the macro level, the Administration deserves praise for the manner in which it has turned the economy around. It was only two years ago that President Arroyo was declaring a fiscal crisis and commentators were talking about an Argentina-style meltdown. The country was not in crisis (although one was looming on the horizon at the time) and an Argentina reprise was never on the cards but, as we pointed out in last month's report, the benefits of the new growth have benefited only a few and have yet to be felt by the great majority of the people.

Growth in the Philippines remains far too dependent on externally driven trade and remittances (which now account for around 10 percent of the GDP growth figure) and little has been done to encourage domestic investment into factories and other ventures that would make a dent in the unemployment and underemployment problems that beset the Philippines. While foreign investment is on the rise, there is hardly the flood needed to change the paradigm and with elections looming, there will again be a wait-and-see attitude on the part of potential investors for the first half year at least.

Political outlook uncertain ahead of the election 
Indeed, along with giving credit where it is due, investment banks and business groups have warned that the excesses in politics because of the upcoming national elections could erode recent economic gains. The Makati Business Club and the European Chamber of Commerce both said these political excesses, coupled with policy inconsistencies, risk undermining recent successes in fixing the economic and fiscal front.
Makati Business Club chair Ramon del Rosario warned that many investors have been turned off by a series of policy "flip-flops" involving aviation policy, oil exploration and anti-corruption among others. He added that the last-minute attempt to tinker with the 1987 Constitution without the consent of the Senate had alarmed the business sector.
"The past two years have been particularly frustrating and discouraging in terms of our country's aspirations towards a regime of greater accountability and good governance," he said.

European Chamber of Commerce executive vice president Henry Schumacher also said intense politicking was driving investors away and sidetracking infrastructure programmes. "Be happy if you don't need government, like consumer-based industries. If you need government for your business in 2007, take an extended leave," he was quoted as saying.

Meanwhile the President thinks otherwise. "Filipinos have never had it so good" she said. Then added "the problem is that they don't know it yet." That statement left many gasping. More on this next time.

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