Monday, July 3, 2017

Europe matters -- a lot

(Published in the ECCP Business Review, 2011)

SEEING NO FURTHER than the end of their noses can’t be said of Filipino businessmen now pressing the government to expand business relations with Europe, the world’s wealthiest market that has quietly evolved into the Philippines’ most important business partner in the 21st century.

A growing call among Filipino businessmen for trade talks with Europe seems to be driving home the point that Europe matters to the Philippines in a big way. This welcome focus comes five years after the European Union (EU), the 27 nation common market that is essentially today's Europe, became the Philippines’ largest export destination, displacing the USA. 

Europe is unquestionably vital to the Philippines.

It’s this country’s largest export market (over 20 percent of total exports); its largest foreign investor; its third largest trading partner and its fifth largest import source. As world leader in the sustainable or “green” movement, Europe has both the experience and technologies such as “smart grids” that can assist the Philippines do more with what it has while protecting the environment.

The EU is the Philippines’ only major trading partner that has had a consistently negative balance of trade with the Philippines over the past few years, which is both heartening and surprising.

In 2009, Philippine exports to the EU came to $8.4 billion as against imports of $3.7 billion for a positive trade balance of $4.7 billion. Last year, Philippine exports to the EU amounted to $7.9 billion with imports at $5.4 billion.

Largest FDIs source
The EU was the largest source of FDIs into the Philippines from 1990 to 2001. In 2006, the EU became the Philippines’ largest single investor, and accounted for 28 percent of all FDIs compared to 18 percent from the USA and four percent from Japan.

The Philippines, however, retains an unwelcome tag as a not so favorable FDI destination due to perceptions about corruption, bureaucratic red tape, an unpredictable policy and legal climate, deficient physical infrastructure and inadequate human capital.

These drawbacks led to a further loss of FDI in 2010: net FDIs fell to $1.71 billion from $1.96 billion in 2009. Worse, the low FDI helped weaken Philippine competitiveness.

The International Finance Corporation (IFC), private sector arm of the World Bank, believes more infrastructure spending and not redundant tax perks should be prioritized if the Philippines is to secure more FDIs. It said the Philippines should focus on what investors really need: better infrastructure.

In 2008, the European Commission in the Philippines proffered ways by which the Philippines could take fuller advantage of trade and investment opportunities in the EU. This list, which appears appropriate to this day, includes:

  • Strengthen investments, especially domestic investments, in physical infrastructure (transport and energy, among others) and in human infrastructure (education and health).

  • Improve the business climate through actions that uphold the rule of law, are predictable and transparent.

  • Maintain and strengthen fiscal and monetary stability by setting a calm macroeconomic framework, improving government revenues and spending revenues wisely.

  • Address poverty, create jobs and provide for basic human needs such as health and education.

A track record of partnership and cooperation
Europe also matters because of its decades-long track record of providing Official Development Assistance (ODA) that has helped hasten Philippine development in many areas.

EU ODA to developing countries such as the Philippines reached a historical high of $79 billion in 2010, making the EU the largest donor in the world. From 2004 to 2010, the EU provided 57 percent of net ODA to developing countries.

Despite the global financial crisis, 18 EU Member States increased their aid volumes in 2010 while the EU has announced its determination to maintain its collective ODA commitments in the years ahead.

The Philippines has historically benefited from the EU’s largesse. The EU began providing cooperation funding totaling $89.5 million from 2007 to 2010 through the European Commission (EC) to strengthen health services, support the peace process in Mindanao and provide trade-related technical assistance. This brought the EU’s total cooperation funding for the Philippines since these programs began in 1976 to over $1.5 billion.

From 1976, EC cooperation funding has focused on combating poverty and raising standards of living of the poorest groups. Since 2005, this funding has been expanded to include social services and sustainable development.

EU funds coursed through the EC is, however only one part of total EU cooperation with the Philippines. From 1992 to 2004, the EC, the European Investment Bank and EU Member States together lent $1.9 billion in ODA. This made the EU the Philippines’ fourth largest ODA source.

As defined by the government, an ODA is a loan or a grant administered to promote sustainable social and economic development in the Philippines. An ODA must be contracted with a foreign government with whom the Philippines has diplomatic, trade relations or bilateral agreements, or which is a member of the United Nations, their agencies and international or multilateral lending institutions.

Time to Act
The government has recently shown a renewed interest in building increased trade with the EU. It is using a study conducted by the Universal Access to Competitiveness and Trade (U-Act), a think tank affiliated with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI), as a guide during a consultation process that is expected to lead to negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between the Philippines and the EU.

PCCI previously announced its support for talks leading to an FTA with the EU. PCCI treasurer and U-Act Chairman and CEO Donald Dee said the Philippines can ill afford to lose out to other Asian countries that are trying to cut FTAs with the EU. Dee feels the Philippines must act on an FTA now.

“EU might no longer be interested in engaging the Philippines if one country has already signed with them with the same market as ours,” he pointed out.

PCCI’s U-Act study advised the government to begin negotiations for a bilateral FTA with the EU instead of waiting for ASEAN to decide on whether it wants an FTA with the EU, which has been the Philippines’ position.

ASEAN-EU FTA talks, however, have been in limbo since May 2009. Consequently, some ASEAN countries such as Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam decided to begin bilateral talks with the EU on their own.

The study, entitled “Merits to Philippine Business of Having a Bilateral Philippines-EU Free Trade Agreement (FTA),” noted that pursuing a bilateral track with the EU would be beneficial to Philippine business.

It said the Philippine business “. . . cannot continue losing out on trade and investment opportunities with the EU, especially when projections indicate substantial Philippine gains from an FTA are forthcoming.”

PCCI’s U-Act study identifies the EU is the world’s largest economy responsible for 17 percent of world trade in goods; a fourth of services and half of Foreign Direct Investments (FDIs). EU investments accounted for 22 percent of world investments into Southeast Asia from 2006 to 2008.

More exports to Europe needed
An urgent priority for the Philippines, and one that increased trade can accomplish, is to arrest the disheartening annual drop in its exports to the EU. Philippine EU exports have fallen every year since 2003: from $11.6 billion to $7.9 billion in 2010. And this when exports to the EU by the Philippines’s ASEAN (Association of South East Asian Nations) competitors are growing some five percent annually.

Hubert d’Aboville, President of the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP), believes a renewed focus on Europe could help reverse the downward trend in Philippine exports.

“This would entail the tough task to expand the product range from the monoculture of electronics and semiconductors to more manufactured products, processed food and services . . . more decisive steps have to be made to increase the visibility of the Philippines in Europe,” d’Aboville noted.

Among the long list of products the government believes have a profitable future in the EU are seafood and marine products (especially Mindanao tuna); agricultural products such as fresh fruits, bananas and muscovado sugar; processed fruits such as mangoes, banana chips and pomelos; coffee products; coconut-based products such as virgin coconut oil; soap and perfume; handmade paper; natural rubber; oleochemicals; biofuels; jewelry and furniture.

Services the Philippines can provide include health and tourism and information and communications technology (ICT). Skilled labor for the services sector is also needed by Europe.

This list jibes with what the EU has said it needs. Among these are furnishings, processed foods, fruits, Business Process Outsourcing (BPO), medical services, tourism, retirement and healthcare.

The EU in 2008 decided to assist Philippine exporters sell more to it by setting aside a $9.5 million fund to help boost Philippine exports to the EU. The fund assistance, which will end in 2012, aims to increase Filipino compliance with the EU Technical Barriers to Trade and Sanitary and Phytosanitary control requirements.

Europe matters in BPO
Europe matters for many other reasons that are in the Philippines’ national interest. Europe is not only a market that absorbs over a fifth of Philippine export products annually; it’s also a huge but largely untapped market for Philippine service industries such as BPO and information and communication technology (ICT).

A study conducted by the European IT-Service Center Foundation (EITSC) discovered that only 1.2 percent of Europe’s share in the BPO industry went to the Philippines in 2007 and that only 10 percent of local BPO revenue came from European firm. These figures have not changed much over the past three years.

EITSC is an initiative of ECCP, the German Development Cooperation (GTZ) and the Asia-Europe Foundation of the Philippines to bridge the eSourcing needs of Europe with the IT/BPO capabilities in the Philippines.

Team Europe, which consists of various private and governmental organizations in the Philippines that promote the Philippines as the offshoring destination of choice in Europe, believes the country has a potential to secure a share of the $40 billion European outsourcing market.

To do this, however, means the Philippines must diversify its clientele, which are mostly U.S. firms. Over 65 percent of local BPOs service U.S.-based companies.

Team Europe says Europe recognizes the benefits of offshoring to the Philippines. It’s eying the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Scandinavia and German-speaking countries as potential markets for Philippine BPO firms.

These countries have a range of outsourcing needs that can be met by Philippine offshoring companies, while several European companies are looking to expand their offshore business here. Among the better known European multinationals that now outsource their operations to the Philippines are Siemens, Ericsson, Deutsche Bank, HSBC, Henkel, Shell and Nestlé.

The UK is expected to outsource $160 billion this year; Germany, $125 billion; France, $92 billion; Italy, $50 billion and the Nordic countries; $63 billion.

Team Europe informs European prospects about the Philippines' capabilities and how they benefit from offshoring to the Philippines. It leads an industry-wide effort to promote the Philippine outsourcing industry to Europe.

Focusing more on Europe could further strengthen the Philippines new-found position as the world’s call center capital. The Philippines reached this rank in 2010 by dislodging India in number of jobs and total revenues generated.

There were some 350,000 Filipino call center jobs in 2010 versus 330,000 in India. Philippines call center revenues came to $6.3 billion as against India’s $5.9 billion in this year.

India, however, still reigns as top honcho in BPO by a huge margin over the Philippines: $70 billion against $9 billion. This is partly due to India’s significant presence in the UK, its former colonial master, and the Philippines’ absence in this huge market.

In order to gain ground in call centers and BPO, Philippine companies will have to promote themselves as an outsourcing destination since European companies don’t know much about the Philippines’ BPO potential.

Henry Schumacher, ECCP Vice President for External Affairs, said Philippine BPOs should aim to penetrate Europe’s markets to gain a truly global reach.

“The Philippines has successfully invaded the U.S. but Europe is a huge market. India is everywhere; the Philippines isn’t. We have to go out and sell the Philippines as a good offshoring and outsourcing destination,” he noted.

Learning from a Green Europe
A new and green technology is now well on its way to making Europe almost totally independent of fossil fuels by 2050. “Smart grid technologies” will see dramatic reductions in Europe’s greenhouse gas (GhG) emissions and the almost complete elimination of fossil fuels from its energy portfolio.

This will be brought about by reducing losses in electricity distribution networks through automation, and by encouraging consumers to cut energy use by using “smart meters” that give more accurate and timely information about power use.

Technologies that will require smart grids include wind and solar power generation, electric vehicles and heat pumps. Smart grids will also require the upgrading of transmission systems, distribution automation and substation automation.

Smart metering systems are to be installed in 80 percent of EU homes by 2020. Smart metering will make possible time-based tariffs and give consumers information about their electricity use in real time so they can promptly save energy.

Over the next 40 years, smart grids will transform European energy networks, industry and society. In all, smart grids could save the EU $76 billion every year.

While the Philippines does not have anything similar on its drawing boards, smart grids are another example of European leadership in the “green movement” still sweeping the globe.

Among today’s buzzwords that have crept into our consciousness are sustainable development, sustainable energy, combating climate change, carbon abatement and green buildings and in these, the EU is the acknowledged world leader.

“Green” has found fertile ground in the EU and from here is propagating worldwide. The Philippines can learn from the experience of the EU in turning itself green.

Energy efficiency and the EU
Among the plethora of green solutions, the EU sees energy efficiency as the quickest, cheapest and most direct way to turn threats to the security of its energy supply into real opportunities. With existing technologies, the EU believes energy savings of up to 30 percent are now feasible. The improved application of energy efficiency could also cut some 20 percent of GhG emissions in the EU.

For Europe, this process began in 2006 when it launched its Energy Efficiency Watch Initiative. This calls for the promotion of energy efficiency and knowledge sharing of good policies within the EU. The overall objective is to promote energy efficiency across the EU by analyzing Member States’ national energy efficiency strategies, and highlighting good practice energy efficiency policies, instruments and activities.

Member States are to achieve a nine percent reduction target in end-use energy consumption by 2016. Their green targets: 20 percent energy saved; 20 percent energy from renewable energy and 20 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2020.

ECCP is taking the lead in assisting the Philippines in this green transformation. ECCP organized two major and well received “1st Philippine Energy Efficiency Forum” in July and “The New Energy forum: A Stakeholders’ Forum” in October.

It will hold another energy efficiency conference this year. ECCP also launched the nationwide Energy Smart Program during the energy efficiency forum.

The EU is also paying particular attention to the development of wind energy in the Philippines, which has the potential to become the leading wind energy producer in Asia. A Danish company built the Philippines’ first wind farm at Bangui, Ilocos Norte in 2005. The EU, by the way, is the world’s top producer of wind energy.

Wind energy is expected to contribute some 400MW to the country’s electricity grid within the next three years compared to 33MW today. This marked growth in wind energy use is being driven by Renewable Energy Law passed in 2007.

The law is drawing investments into the wind energy sector and is telling investors there is a good return on investment to be made in harnessing the wind to produce clean and renewable electricity.

The Renewable Energy Law promotes the development, utilization and commercialization of renewable sources of energy such as wind, solar and biomass. It establishes a framework for the grant of fiscal and non-fiscal incentives to all renewable energy activities and created the National Renewable Energy Board (NREB).

The law also establishes a Renewable Energy Trust Fund to finance research, development, demonstration and promotion of various renewable energy systems. It seeks to increase the Philippines' energy security and is a tool in reducing the dangerous impact of climate change.

The Renewable Energy Law is the product of 12 years of studies and research by Philippine, European and other foreign experts in renewable energy sources.

Helping the Philippines fight climate change
The climate conference at Copenhagen, Denmark in December 2009, while not too successful, did open the world’s eyes wider to the accelerated pace of climate change and its dangers.

Of particular importance to the Philippines was a report that the faster pace of global warming has caused the world’s oceans to rise about 1-1/2 inches in the past 12 years because 2.5 trillion tons of ice in Antarctica and Greenland had melted far quicker than expected.

Accelerated sea level rise is one of the most dangerous outcomes of global warming. With growing portions of flood-prone Manila’s 39 square kilometer area already below sea level, any sea level rise presents a clear threat to the city and its 1.7 million inhabitants. The extreme peril Manila faces from floods was painfully driven home in September 2009 when tropical storm “Ondoy” flooded 80 percent of the city in just a few hours.

Last year, the World Bank issued a study identifying Manila as one of a number of Asian cities in grave danger from natural calamities, including flooding, triggered by climate change. The environmental group Greenpeace, on the other hand, said a one meter rise in sea level resulting from melting polar ice caps could put 64 of the Philippines’ 81 provinces at risk of being submerged.

The EU continues to support the Philippines’ fight against climate change. In late 2010, the EU provided €69 million in development assistance over the next three years to help the country meet its Millennium Development Goals.
About $17.6 million will go to climate change projects and the Mindanao peace process. This grant brought to $1.5 billion total EU development aid to the Philippines during the past 30 years.
“Silver aristocrats” and “Best agers”
The Retirement and Healthcare Coalition, Inc. (RHC), an organization consisting of ECCP; the American Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines; the Korean Chamber of Commerce Philippines and the Japanese Chamber of Commerce and Industry of the Philippines this April organized the 1st Philippine Retirement and Healthcare Summit.

The summit sought to promote the Philippines as the preferred international retirement destination by undertaking a combination of measures among its stakeholders in government and the private sector.

Europe and its rapidly graying population have been identified as one of the key markets for the Philippines’ retirement and healthcare industry. RHC aims to promote and win recognition of the Philippines’ value as a retirement haven, and as a center of excellence for medical and managed care services for retirees worldwide.

RHC is promoting the “Long Stay Visitor Program” as a market entry strategy to gain credibility and trust in the Philippines. The program offers services along the line of community development, lifestyle and healthcare.

Caring for retirees, most of whom are seniors in their 60s, no longer consists of consigning retirees to the tender mercies of uncaring (and probably abusive) staffs at “nursing homes.” What the RHC wants are fully integrated retirement villages responsive to the unique needs and wants of retirees and staffed by carefully trained, English-speaking Filipinos.

There is as yet no existing fully integrated retirement village in the Philippines as envisioned by the RHC, whose long-term commitment is to take care of foreign seniors.

RHC has begun the process of creating consortia to build its fully integrated retirement village and has begun investment promotion for this groundbreaking project.

RHC is looking at five promising sites for its retirement village: Dumaguete; Clark/Subic; Cebu; Tagaytay/Nasugbu and Metro Manila. RHC said it carefully selected these locations with respect to proximity to medical care, wellness, sports and leisure facilities.

RHC is busily promoting the Philippines as a “long-stay destination” to Europeans, especially those it describes as “Old Kids” and “Best agers” (persons 50 years old and up).

Crowning RHC efforts will be establishing true retirement villages in partnership with private companies. These villages will reflect RHC’s unique view that retirement is a lifestyle and not real estate. The first of these European lifestyle retirement villages is expected to be completed in the next few years.

The Philippines has many of the key ingredients to successfully attract local and international retirees, which are taken to mean the “baby boomers” born from 1946 to 1964. Among these pluses are quality healthcare, good infrastructure, service culture and a low cost of living.

Crucial for the Philippines’ success as an international retirement destination, however, is developing a retirement and aged care model appropriate to its values and culture, while providing lifestyle attractions.

RHC believes that community, lifestyle and healthcare are the three crucial pull factors that, if addressed correctly, should succeed in drawing tourists, long stay visitors, second homeowners and retirees to the Philippines.

Growing agribusinesses with the EU
Nestlé, Inc., a leader in agribusiness and one of Europe’s leading local corporations, has an agronomy program that teaches Nestlé’s sustainable farming system to Mindanao coffee farmers. Most of the country’s coffee farms are located in Mindanao.

For the past 17 years, Nestlé’s Experimental & Demonstration Farm (NEDF) in Tagum, Davao del Sur provides technologically-advanced farming tools and methods to coffee farmers to ensure the quality of coffee beans goes into its coffee brand, Nescafe. Some 10,000 coffee farmers, technicians and agricultural students have undergone training at NEDF since it opened in 1994.

NEDF is the core of Nestlé’s agronomy program. Its goal is to reduce the gap between the supply and demand for coffee beans by spearheading research and training in coffee production.

By equipping coffee farmers with the proper knowledge, these farmers stand a better chance of being more self-sufficient and competitive. NEDF has distributed hundreds of thousands or coffee seeds and seedlings, which have, in turn, generated thousands of jobs across the country.

NEDF's close coordination with the Nestlé R&D Center in Tours, France ensures that Filipino farmers trained at NEDF have access to the latest farming technologies, from coffee harvesting to processing methods.

At NEDF, farmers are trained in the proper way of growing coffee, reinforcing the importance of good crop management, and are provided with quality and high-yielding Robusta coffee planting materials.

NEDF also demonstrates how to go about the post-harvest treatment of the beans and suggests what equipment to use. NEDF provides 80 percent of all Robusta cuttings in the Philippines.

In 2003, Nestlé initiated another program that continues to help farmers further increase their income by encouraging the planting of other crops alongside coffee.  Called the Coffee-Based Sustainable Farming System, this program encourages farmers to plant crops alongside coffee to gain additional income. 

Nestlé is also establishing satellite buying stations in areas with large concentrations of coffee farmers. The satellite buying stations give farmers the option to sell directly to Nestlé without going through a trader, ensuring farmers a fair market price for their produce.

ECCP and the FTA
Until the signing of the Partnership and Cooperation Agreement (PCA) last year, bilateral relations between the Philippines and the EU were guided by the 30-year old ASEAN-European Community Cooperation Agreement. The age of this vital document, created when Ferdinand Marcos was still President, was impetus enough for a new trade agreement.

Present developments, however, also make necessary an enhanced framework of relations between both sides. This new framework is the PCA, which provides the legal basis for enhancing bilateral cooperation with the EU in areas such as trade and investment and development cooperation.

The PCA will benefit the Philippines with the liberalization of trade in goods and a significant liberalization of services. The Filipino consumer benefits by having more product choices and can, therefore, derive more value from his peso.

The Philippines thus became the second ASEAN country after Indonesia to complete negotiations for a PCA, which lasted from February 2009 to June 2010.

The Philippines' interest in an FTA and its signing of the PCA are its clearest signals yet that Europe matters to it, not only in trade and business, but also in a range of other national concerns including improving the environment, renewable energy, healthcare and human rights

An FTA is a legally binding agreement between two or more countries that seeks to cut or remove obstacles to trade, and permit cross border movement of goods and services between signatory countries.

A PCA is a pre-requisite deal for the Philippines to qualify for the FTA. It is expected to enhance trade and investments cooperation, economic and development cooperation and political cooperation through policy dialogue and technical assistance. It also illustrates a shared commitment to democracy and human rights.

ECCP will have a role to play in the negotiations leading to the FTA.

During the business summit in Indonesia last May, ECCP and five other European chambers of Commerce in ASEAN jointly organized the “EU-ASEAN Business Council.”

The organization of the council is historic because it is the first regional platform among European chambers of commerce in South East Asia. More important, however, is that the council will also play a role in the establishment of EU FTAs with ASEAN countries including the Philippines.

D’Aboville said the EU believes an FTA represents a huge opportunity for every ASEAN member state and is engaging in a sustained effort to broker FTAs between the EU and ASEAN.

“The council is, therefore, a vital conduit for expanding trade between ASEAN and the EU,” he noted.

The council has been identified as one of the seven key results of the business summit, along with the proposed creation of an ASEAN Economic Community by 2015 that will be patterned after the EU.

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Kingfisher Park adventure

(Published in Enrich magazine, 2011)

THE MOST IMPORTANT decision you’ve got to make before your adventure at Kingfisher Park Resort in Malbato, Coron, Palawan is whether you want to (1) sweat in the sun or (2) soak-in the sun.

The former is tough but sweet; it’s physical punishment whose ultimate reward is proving you’re one tough dude (or dudette). Exercise sweat tastes good!

The latter is what your average tourist looks for in the average vacation: leisure time to soak-in the sun while taking a long hike; going on fun boat rides; gamboling on the beach and posing for digital jump shots with your mates. And, of course, gorging on the bountiful local cuisine.

Whichever option you choose is bound to create such intense memories that you’re immediately seized by the urge to share it with your gazillion friends on Facebook once you return to “civilization.” Hey, Facebook’s really about bragging rights, isn’t it?

And you’ll have a lot to brag about after vacationing at Kingfisher Park (KP). It’s almost as if you’d rocketed to another planet where clean air’s the rule and not the exception, or to a lush, arboreal moon unspoiled by humans (reminds you of a certain 3D movie, I imagine).

My intense memories of KP, however, are mostly about sweet sweat pouring down my face and soaking my body a scant three hours after my Zest Air turboprop touched down at the Francisco B. Reyes Airport after an hour’s flight from Pasay City.

Pastoral Perfection
The flight’s quickness was my first surprise. It was over so fast that I’d barely dozed-off when the flight attendant’s sweet voice over the intercom announced we were about to land at Busuanga Airport. I peered out the window as the plane went into a gentle left bank to see a ragged, unbroken greenscape flash below me, marred only by a solitary dirt trail that meant humans existed somewhere in this ocean of green.

This perception of immense greenness was reinforced during the 30-minute ride to Coron town, capital of Busuanga Island, where my adventure tour was to start. This 21 kilometer trip due southeast took me past picturesque and verdant fields; past rolling hills unscarred by fire and destructive logging and past brooks so clean local lasses were bathing in them!

It was the idyllic picture of pastoral perfection I’d read about in my grade school textbooks. And it was right here before me. I’d been to a lot of places in this country and had seen my share of stunning bucolic settings. But this was my first trip to Palawan, and my first encounter with this province in Busuanga seemed to confirm Palawan’s billing as the Philippines’ “Last Unspoiled Paradise.”

The roadsides of the all-weather National Highway as you neared Coron town are dotted with firms servicing tourism, which is the island’s main industry apart from fishing. Locals later on told me that many of the fishermen had given up their nets for the quick pesos to be made shuttling an endless stream of tourists from one island destination to another and to the island’s world famous dive sites.

Busuanga is one of the world’s top 10 dive sites and draws many divers from around the world. Wrecks of Japanese ships sunk in the shallow waters of Coron Bay during World War II are divers’ favorites. The peak tourist season lasts from October to May.

As a result of this migration to tourism, fishing is in the decline with only the hardiest continuing this money-losing trade. One tourist guide joked that fishing boats no longer reek of fish but are saturated by the scent of perfumed tourists.

If you want to travel quickly from one tourist destination to another in Busuanga, the best was to do so is by boat. Only the National Highway from Coron in the south to the town of Buluang in the northwest is the main land route in Busuanga.

Traveling elsewhere means you have to go by boat, more specifically by motorized outrigger canoes or bancas. The South China Sea is Busuanga’s E. de los Santos Avenue, as it is for Coron Island, Culion Island and Calauit Island, which are all part of the Calamianes Group of Islands in northern Palawan. The islands in the group remind one of Venice, except the canals in this case are wide salty sea lanes.

I was met at the Zest Air office along Real St. in Coron town by Godofredo “Mang Godie” Contado, KP’s tour guide, who’s been at this job since the resort opened in 1997. He was actually one of the carpenters who built the resort in 1995.

Torturous Trail
After a quick lunch, a ride on one of Coron’s “long-nose” tricycles saw me go back the way I came. A fork in the road, however, took me to the starting point of my adventure tour: a church on a knoll at Sitio Malbato.

Construction of the Santo Rosario church was begun two years ago by the Reyes family, owners of KP and one of the prominent political families in Busuanga. The Mayor and Vice-Mayor of Coron town are brothers, both Reyeses.

Made of limestone, tan colored stones (probably sandstone) and other rocks, the church is dominated by a minimalist wood sculpture of a crucified and wide-awake Christ wearing a crown of real thorns. The altar is another eye-catcher: it stands on the roots of a tree. A stained-glass circular window illustrated by two angels highlights the façade. The Church, however, remains unfinished.

Barely visible in the distance from the Church was our destination: Kubo sa Dagat (Huts on the Sea). It was a torturous, four kilometer trek under a fierce 3:00 pm sun. At the end of this exhausting march was a five-minute banca ride to Kubo sa Dagat, which stands on a sandbar in the middle of the Malbato Bay. Kubo would be my lodging for the next two days.

Although I lugged around just eight kilograms in my valise, the undulating dirt trail winding along the side of Mt. Lunes Santo (Mt. Holy Monday) and the fast pace set by Mang Godie so we’d reach Kubo before sunset made the trek punishing but manageable.

I’d expected to really sweat but my choosing a valise with a shoulder strap instead of an ergonomic backpack was a wrong decision. Constantly shifting the strap from shoulder to shoulder slowed me down and made me sweat much harder.

Since I used to run and still keep in shape by walking long distances, however, these exertions didn’t leave me flat out fatigued. And I loved the way I was breathing heavily. It felt magnificent to happily inhale as much fresh and unpolluted air as I wanted to. Doing this in Metro Manila would be the equivalent of slow suicide.

The unnamed mountain trail, Mang Godie told me, led straight to manganese mines on the other side of Mt. Lunes Santo that used to be active before World War II. By force of habit, I constantly scanned the trail ahead for any signs of fresh or dried cow or carabao dung. My previous excursions taught me there’s no such thing as dried dung: it still stinks if you step on it, no matter what state of decomposition it’s in.

The presence along the trail of masses of “napier grass” used as forage for cattle (and lately as a biofuel) also caused me to be on the lookout for dung, but Mang Godie told me cattle no longer inhabited this part of the island. As I think back on it, the only cows I saw on the island were in a herd grazing close by the airport.

After carefully crossing a rushing brook called Subang Mayor (or Big Brook) on a puny log the width of a grown man’s leg, we came across a hillside dotted with “ironwood” trees. As the name implies, the trees are as tough as iron. Locals cut down the trees using saws. Hacking at the ironwood trees with iron bolos only results in blunted bolo blades. The guard rails at Kubo are made from ironwood.

A surprise was discovering “pitcher plants” grew on the slopes of Mt. Lunes Santo. I knew these carnivorous insect eaters grew in other parts of the Philippines such as mainland Palawan and in Mindanao, but discovering them on the slopes of this mountain was a surprise.  

As we neared the seashore, Mang Godie pointed out another surprise to me. It was a queer tree whose entire bark was colored blood red. Called kulam (pronounced “kooh-lum”) by the locals, the tree only grows near the sea. There are no local superstitions associated with the tree, Mang Godie said.

As we boarded the banca that took us from the landing to Kubo, Mang Godie pointed at what appeared to be wooden tips rising from the shoreline. These, he said, were the roots of young mangrove trees that grow upwards instead of downwards. Much of the shoreline flanking the Kubo has been overrun by mangrove forests, and I’d see that for myself first hand on the morrow.

Kubo sa Dagat
But for now, it was time to get personally acquainted with the Kubo. My first impression of this hotel in the middle of the Malbato Bay—the only one of its kind in the area—was one of toughness: it had withstood time, tide and tourists, and that was an achievement. I’d be safe here and so would my valuables. That was a correct estimate.

The white paint on the beams supporting the roof had all but been brushed off by the wind. The sturdy natok floor planks, the ironwood guard rails and the acacia dining tables had that melancholy patina associated with ancestral homes. Since the resort opened back in 1997, its robust condition was remarkable despite it constantly being battered by wind, rain, sun and sea salt.

After checking into my “veranda suite” as the sole occupant of a room named “Dolphin” with seven empty beds, I checked out the facilities. Apart from my suite (the largest), there are five others, most of which have one double and one single bed.

There are separate shared bathrooms for men and women, both of which are clean and sanitary. The men’s bathroom has two bath stalls and four flush toilets, a pleasant surprise, since the resort has its own huge septic tank.

Water is delivered by an undersea pipe from Coron. The water pipe, installed only two years ago, also means you can do your own laundry or have the polite resort staff do it for you for a fee.

The main dining area also doubles as the resort’s pier. It seats some 50 guests and is the perfect spot for watching the sun set over Malbato Bay. Guests spend the evenings in conversation here or sleep here. Interacting with one another is about the only activity available every evening since there isn’t a TV, karaoke, DVD player or computer on the island.

That’s because electricity is scarce. The resort’s electricity is provided by roof-mounted solar panels, and this power is just enough for a few lights and to charge your celphone or small batteries such as those for digital cameras. You can’t plug your laptop or you’ll drain the system’s solar batteries. You also can’t iron your clothes for the same reason.

If you’ve got SmartBRO on your laptop, you’re in luck since it means you remain connected to the internet. Sorry for Globe subscribers: no signal. Smart celphones also receive a stronger signal than do Globe celphones because the former has more celsites on Busuanga. There’s no cel service for Sun Cellular on Kubo.

I took my first meal (dinner) along with a group of six accountants on a business/vacation trip. The cuisine was not unexpected: adobong alimango, calamares rings, tilapia, rice, adobo and sweet mangoes. Coffee and tea are bottomless and mineral water is always available for free. Aling Juaning Zabalo, the chef, has been preparing meals since joining the Kubo’s staff in 1997 and her knowledge of Filipino and international cuisine is immense.

Kubo is the nod to civilization in the otherwise all-natural Kingfisher Park. Spanning 400 acres, the park is a wildlife sanctuary consisting of mangrove forests, islets, tropical forests, hills, a mountain and numerous species of animals, fishes and birds. It’s owned and managed by the Reyeses who bought the land in the 1950s.

Immediately after dinner was a feast for the eyes called “Starry Starry Night.” And, no, we didn’t’ sing this 1970s hit song a capella. A night boat ride took us from Kubo to the opposite shore. As we neared the shoreline we could see trees lit by what appeared to be hundreds of LEDs bobbing around in mid-air.

These weren’t light bulbs, however. They were colonies of fireflies, or aninipot in the dialect, flitting around pagatpat trees, the leaves of which are their main food source. The sight is normally described by locals as “Living Christmas Trees.”

For city people who’ve never seen a firefly at night or a firefly swarm for that matter, the sight is fantastic. “Wow!” and “Picture! Picture!” are common exclamations of wonder at the sight. Sadly, however, you aren’t allowed to take photos using a flash (it would scare away the fireflies). You can only watch in awe at a spectacular sight city dwellers no longer behold.

And the stars look enormous and brighter than they do in the city. Venus was especially noticeable, huge and unblinking as she was against a clear sky festooned with winking stars. The only explanation for the stars seeming so close is because there isn’t a blanket of smog and pollution obscuring them. So this is what heaven without pollution really looks like.

Going to sleep, needless to say, was a delight. The only sound alien to my Manileño’s ears was that of waves constantly slapping against the concrete stanchions of the veranda. The night is so deathly quiet it’s scary—but only if you’re alone. With someone else, you could describe the evenings as really romantic.

Mangrove Kayaking
Dawn saw me take my first long look at Malbato Bay and the Kubo. Envision Malbato Bay in the shape of the capital letter “Q.” The diagonal stroke of the letter represents one of only two entrances to the bay. Kubo is located to the left of this stroke, and faces due north.

The other entrance to the bay is to the northwest and we took this passage enroute to the second stage of my adventure tour: mangrove kayaking and a visit to a newly discovered hot spring tucked deep in the mangrove forest.

The motorized banca ride to the mangrove forest (or bakawan) took about 30 minutes. Navigating the ruyukan or the narrow “streets” between mangrove islands was a slow process. At low tide you can actually wade in the mangrove, but kayaking is only possible during high tide.

With Mang Godie paddling and me taking photos, we wended our way through the mangrove maze. We landed and made our way through a tropical forest and past a bewildering array of trees and plants.

What made a lasting impression on me was walking through a forest of buho, or small bamboo plants that bent inwards to form a spectacular green arch over the forest trail. Buho is also the material used for the roof of both the Kubo and the Santo Rosario church.

After watching three workmen clear vegetation at the hot springs, we headed back to the kayak. The forest bordering this mangrove is home to host of animal species, some of which we think only exist in other countries: armadillos, skunks (pantot), anteaters, porcupines, wild boars, monkeys and monitor lizards (bayawak). I only saw a bayawak as it rushed past us and that for only an instant. But I did hear monkeys and woodpeckers screaming from somewhere in the forest.

Family Tours
The adventure package I went on is only one of many a tourist can choose from. You can find information about these packages at

Most of these packages are fit for families or for corporate types, and are definitely less exhausting than a four kilometer walk, Lunes Santo trekking and mountain biking through this mountain. The only reason I didn’t go mountain biking was that I ran out of time. A two days stay isn’t enough to explore most of at Kingfisher Park. That’s why you’ve got to choose your packages carefully.

The bird watching package has a charm of its own and one might even get to glimpse the bird for whom the park is named. A popular family package is a visit to D' Fisherman's Haven in Sabang on the northeastern part of Busuanga. D' Fisherman's Haven has a white sand beach and offers wind, surf and sun.

You’ve got to go back to experience Kingfisher Park to the fullest. I’m seriously considering it. 

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

2013 and beyond: Renaissance for growth. Can it continue?

(Published in the ECCP Business Review, 2012)

THE YEAR 2013 will be a happy new year. And this doesn’t refer to the traditional holiday greeting.

Most major metrics point to an improving economy in 2013 buoyed by multi-billion peso election spending and anchored on strong economic fundamentals that made the Philippines Southeast Asia's leading growth economy in 2012.

The long-term outlook until 2016 -- which, coincidentally marks the end of President Benigno Simeon Aquino's six-year term -- is again optimistic. Among the reasons: the long-sought dissipation of the Eurozone debt crisis, which is at last easing, and a Philippine upgrade to investment status by some or all three of the international ratings agencies.

The European Union is the Philippines largest single export destination. It currently accounts for 13% of total Philippine exports and 17% of overseas Filipino remittances. Exports constitute about two-fifths of the Philippines’ consumption-driven economy.

The investment upgrade, while more of a boost to government morale, is nonetheless seen as validating the success of President Aquino's economic platform founded on boosting transparency, leveling the business playing field and restoring trust in government.

It should somewhat help remedy the Philippines' nagging inability to secure more foreign direct investments (FDIs) because of poor infrastructure and inconsistent investment policies.

“We have to address policy inconsistencies. There are so many inconsistencies, especially in mining, utilities and infrastructure," said Victor Abola, senior economist at the University of Asia and the Pacific.

The Philippine share of FDIs going into ASEAN in the first-half of 2012 was among the smallest in the region, said the UN Conference on Trade and Development.

GDP growth uptrend
Both the government's economic managers and foreign experts, however, agree that Philippine gross domestic product (GDP) growth in 2013 will exceed 5%. This growth could expand to 8.5% by 2016. Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Arsenio Balisacan said the country will most likely grow from 6% to 7% in 2012.

"We are already at 6.5% (in the third quarter), and the fourth quarter is always good for us because of the holiday spending. We kept growth and fiscal targets for 2012 to 2014.

"For 2013 onwards, we want to stay conservative. We recognize that there are still uncertainties external to the country."

The government targets 6% to 7% growth in 2013; 6.5% to 7.5% in 2014; 7% to 8% in 2015 and 7.5% to 8.5% in 2016.

It also hopes to keep the fiscal deficit capped at 2.6% of GDP in 2012 and 2% in 2013 and 2014.

The Philippine economy grew 7.1% in the third quarter, the fastest pace since 2010. It was a result that surprised even the government since this quarter is historically always the slowest in output.

This “unprecedented growth,” said the government, was better than Vietnam’s 4.7%; Thailand’s 3%; Indonesia’s 6.2% and Malaysia’s 5.2%.

The domestic market driven growth was led by construction (up 24.3% year-on-year, mainly on the condominium boom) and manufacturing (up 5.7% year-on-year). The government claims the spike in these sectors led to more jobs.

The services sector, which includes the robust IT-BPO industry, will again be a leading growth driver from 2013 onwards. Economists, however, warn that the Philippines must develop its own industries for economic growth to reach 7% to 8%.

The Philippines must also create more than one million jobs to sustain growth at this high level, but this task might well prove a serious challenge considering current realities and the paucity of FDIs.

High unemployment continues to plague the Philippines despite rising growth. The official Philippine unemployment rate of 7% in the third quarter of 2012 was the highest in ASEAN. Only Myanmar and Indonesia had unemployment rates above 4%.

Underemployment in the Philippines remains stubbornly high, estimated at almost 25%. These numbers emphasize the need for job creation and highlight the reason why 10% of Filipinos are working abroad.

More muscle will be added to the economy by government plans to increase infrastructure spending to a record level. Government also plans to invest P640 billion in roads and airports to prod growth to a high 7% in 2013 and beyond.

Lower inflation but higher prices
Inflation did not put a brake on growth in 2012 and is expected to reprise this role in 2013. It slowed to 2.8% in November 2012 year-on-year on cheaper food and gasoline prices. Headline inflation in 2011 was 4.8%.

Full year 2012 headline inflation is placed at 3.2%. But this was before the P11.7 billion damage to agriculture in Mindanao inflicted by Typhoon Pablo in early December.

The November headline inflation, however, is below government expectations of 3% to 5% from 2012 to 2014. Core inflation in November fell to 3.4% from 3.6% in October and 4.5% year-on-year.

The government cut its inflation forecast for 2013 to 3.1% from an earlier 3.9% during the last meeting of for the year of the Monetary Board of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP). This lower inflation rate for 2013 took into account a rise in wages and salaries; an upcoming fare increase for the MRT and LRT intercity rail systems; higher jeepney fares and more expensive rice prices.

Record stock market in the making
The Philippine stock market is already reflecting investor exuberance at the Philippines’ strong fundamentals and the movement of “hot” short-term money moving to emerging markets. It closed at a new all-time high of 5,763.64 on December 6, mostly due to lower inflation, said analysts.

The main index of the Philippine Stock Exchange, Inc. and its sub-indices reported gains, especially those that were consumer driven like banks and property. PSEi or the Philippine Stock Exchange Composite Index ended a seven-day rally on December 5 after peaking at 5,706.28 on December 4 thereby breaching the 5,700 mark for the first time.

No new taxes in 2013
President Aquino’s pledge not to raise taxes in 2013 is another cause for business optimism. Instead of new taxes, the government will raise revenues through more efficient tax collections and two reform bills: the “sin tax” and the fiscal incentives bill.

The sin tax bill, which passed Congress on December 11, increases the excise or specific taxes on "sin" products such as tobacco and alcohol. It could add some P34 billion to government revenues in 2013 and P184 billion in total revenues until 2016.

The fiscal incentives bill seeks to rationalize and simplify the grant and administration of fiscal and non-fiscal incentives to promote foreign and domestic investments. The House of Representatives and the Senate each have their own version of the bill that has to be reconciled for the bill to pass into law. It is the aim of the Administration to create more transparency and accountability in granting incentives in future.

The Joint Foreign Chambers of the Philippines, of which the European Chamber of Commerce of the Philippines (ECCP) is a member, commented that removing the income tax holidays might negatively impact Philippine competitiveness as an investment destination within the Asia-Pacific.

Peso to stay muscular
The peso’s strength (about P41.00 to US$1.00 in mid-December) has again been both pleasant and alarming. The peso gained some 7% in 2012, the best performer after the Korean won among Asia’s 11 most-widely traded currencies. The peso’s exchange rate in December 2011 averaged P43.64 to a dollar.

Exporters are worried. To calm their fears, the government has promised to remain vigilant against the continuing rise of the peso. Further strengthening will threaten to erode Philippine export earnings and the purchasing power of OFW remittances, and lead to a surge in imports and hot money. The government shunned a further interest rate cut in December as a means of weakening the peso.

The consensus is for a strong peso in 2013 and 2014. The ING Group sees the peso staying strong against the dollar in the next two years, and to trade near the P40.00 to US$1.00 level. The main concern among policymakers is the peso falling below the critical P40.00 to US$1.00 barrier, an event that could conceivably occur in the next two years.

Interest rates to rise in 2013
A decision by the BSP on December 13 to keep its benchmark interest rate unchanged at 3.5% was a clear signal the Philippine economy is now racing along on a high gear that makes monetary intervention unnecessary at this point.

Deputy Governor Diwa Guinigundo said the Philippine economy demonstrated resiliency in the first three quarters.

“There’s very little need for assistance from monetary policy.”

The BSP decision meant the economy had withstood the global slowdown better than most and that inflation, which could have hammered growth, is being kept in check. BSP cut borrowing costs by a total 100 basis points this year.

Interest rates, however, are widely expected to rise in 2013 to head-off inflationary pressure. Analysts see the BSP raising interest rates by 25 basis points in the first quarter of 2013 and by another 25 basis points in the second quarter.

The BSP cut interest rates by a quarter percentage point in October  2012 to record lows. The rate paid by BSP to lenders for overnight deposits now stands at 3.5% while the rate borrowers pay for overnight credit from BSP fell to 5.5%.

It was the central bank's fourth rate cut in 2012 and was meant to encourage investment and consumption to guard against risks associated with weaker overseas demand.

Record remittances—again
Where will the economy be without the pick-me-up from overseas Filipino worker (OFW) remittances?  The answer becomes apparent when one considers remittances still account for 10% of GDP, driving the domestic market and GDP growth.

Remittances are expected to hit a record US$21.2 billion in 2012 and rise again to a new record of US$22.2 billion in 2013. The strong peso, however, is the greatest threat to these growth assumptions.

Close to 80% of remittances through banks come from the United States, Canada, Saudi Arabia, Japan, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore. The Philippines is the world’s third-largest recipient of remittances behind India and China.

The government, however, has noticed a decrease in the economy's dependence on remittances since 2011. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) observed that the country’s Net Primary Income from Abroad (NFIA) has been falling and that this can be seen in the Gross National Income (GNI). NFIA includes remittances and is a component of GNI.

NEDA said NFIA grew by only 1% in 2011 while GDP growth came to 3.9%. Government data showed GDP growing at 7.6% in 2010 while NFIA grew 10%.

Mobile remittances, the next big thing in remittances, has not gained traction as a cost-cutting tool since governments remain uncertain as to how to regulate remittances using mobile phones.

Exports: key growth engine to recover
Exports traditionally contribute two-fifths of GDP and undoubtedly remain key to attaining the envisaged high GDP growth.

Electronic products are the Philippines leading export while the inputs used to make these products are the largest import items. These commodity groups will dominate trade in 2013, and will be among the first to surge with a recovery in its main markets, the USA and Europe.

Conversely, weak exports have a profoundly negative effect on growth.  Weak exports were the major reason for the GDP growth plunge in 2011. The government estimates that the export plunge cut the Philippines’ potential GDP growth by 2.2 percentage points.

Sturdy investor confidence
Florencio Abad, Secretary of the Department of Budget and Management, said high growth will also create investor confidence in the economy.

“We are, in other words, creating an environment that’s ripe for both local and foreign investments and stable enough to keep our fiscal performance at a reasonable high,” he said.

“We are optimistic that our fourth-quarter growth will remain as energetic. Public consumption will most definitely stay robust, fueled by high consumption levels during the holidays, continuing investments in public and private infrastructure, and the kick-start of election-related spending this Christmas season.”

Moody’s Investors Service raised the Philippines’ credit rating to one step below investment grade in October leading to investment pledges from European and other multinational firms.

Strong business optimism
ECCP President Michael Raeuber noted the prevailing business optimism among European companies doing business in the Philippines.

"We have to credit President Aquino and his team for the reforms, especially the emphasis on ethical government and integrity that have helped restore business confidence and started the process towards  the level playing field," Raeuber said.

Raeuber noted that President Aquino is a staunch supporter of the “Integrity Initiative,” a two-year old campaign co-founded by ECCP that has become the business sector’s champion in the fight against corruption in government and the private sector.

President Aquino noted that the Integrity Initiative has played a role in the Philippines’ economic recovery by its untiring advocacy to create a level business playing field. He revealed the government is directing the gains from Integrity into projects and programs that will make the Philippines more competitive.

“We have been channeling the budget into investments in our people, education, health, poverty alleviation and infrastructure because we recognize that sustaining our momentum requires a citizenry that can compete in the world arena,” he said.

“At the bottom line of our strategy is ensuring a level playing field, one that is stable, rules-based and whose outcomes are predictable,” the President said.

Election spending boost
In a mid-year estimate, the government’s Development Budget Coordination Committee (DBCC) said the growth drivers for 2013 will be strong domestic demand; more government infrastructure spending that will likely add P180 billion to the deficit; a moderate peso depreciation that will continue to spur spending by OFWs; a 2.5% growth in agriculture and a 25 basis point policy rate cut by the BSP that will bring overnight lending and borrowing rates to record lows.

Hindsight apparently confirms the soundness of most of these premises. The growth estimate for agriculture has now become suspect in light of P11.7 billion damage inflicted on Mindanao’s agriculture by powerful Typhoon Pablo (Bopha) during the first week of December.

The Eurozone and the USA are the Philippines’ key export markets and major sources of FDIs. This is the reason the Eurozone crisis and the halting economic recovery of the USA could restrict the Philippines’ growth to the higher levels dreamt of by government.

In the short-term, however, the key critical factor for Philippine growth in 2013 will be the general elections scheduled for May 13.

Over 18,000 officials, mostly at the local level, will be elected in this mid-term election. The scale of these elections is massive. Up for election are 12 senators, 229 district members of the House of Representatives, 80 provincial governors, 138 city mayors and 1,496 municipal mayors.

It is these elected officials at the provincial, town and city levels that will, for good or ill, exert an excessive influence on who succeeds President Aquino in 2016.

The aphorism that all Philippine elections are local elections--including that for the presidency--will again be invariably proven during the presidential election in 2016. Hence, the importance to President Aquino that the local candidates of his Liberal Party and its allies do well or dominate the May 2013 local elections.

Stacking the deck is the name of this political game. The opposition realizes this full well, too.

And at this juncture, only President Aquino's chosen successor can be counted on to continue his far-reaching reforms that have been largely responsible for this renaissance in Philippine economic growth and integrity. Given this situation and the uncertainties regarding the succession in 2016, it is essential that the reforms of the Aquino administration be institutionalized before the team leaves office.

Massive election spending in the 2007 and 2010 elections (the latter a presidential one) contributed to the high economic growth rates in those years and a spike in consumer spending. Election spending in 2013 will almost certainly boost growth and will most probably drive it over 7%. The economy last peaked in 2010, an election year.

The Philippines’ three highest GDP growth rates in the past decade took place in 2004, 2007 and 2010, all of which were election years. And except for 2009, the next highest growth rates were the years before election years, or in 2003 and 2006.

Secretary Abad said there might be some election spending as early as the end of this year. This, plus consumer spending during the Christmas holiday, usually boosts GDP growth, he said. Total consumption traditionally accounts for some 70% of GDP.

"Christmas is the time where Christmas and campaigning mix . . . The rush for spending for Christmas and preparations for the elections will further boost the economy," he said.

Abad noted that the 7.3% GDP growth in 2010—an election year—was the highest in 34 years.

"I don't know to what extent (election spending will boost 2013 economy), but you saw 2010.”

International financial institutions were also positive about Philippine growth in 2012. The World Bank upgraded its growth forecast to 5% from 4.8% after the Asian Development Bank increased its growth estimate to 5.5% from 4.8%.

“The Philippine economy continues to show strength despite global and regional economic slowdown,” the ADB said.

ADB cited the rise in investments by local firms, robust household consumption, and increase in government spending as factors behind the latest growth forecast.

ADB said the sources of growth are investments by local firms, robust household consumption, and an increase in government spending. It expects the economy to grow by 5% in 2013.

Metropolitan Bank and Trust Company, the second largest Philippine bank, raised its GDP growth forecast to 6.6% from 5.5% due to the robust GDP expansion in the first nine months. It said household consumption, which accounts for two-thirds of GDP, will drive growth. More remittances, a rise in government spending and benign inflation will also contribute to this growth.

Jollibee Foods Corporation, the country's largest fastfood firm, expects record sales and profit in 2012 due, in part, to early election spending later in the year.

CEO Tony Tan Caktiong believes spending for the 2013 mid-term elections will boost local sales that constitute 80% of the company's system-wide sales.

"Because of the campaign there are a lot of funds going into the society so I think that's basically the reason that boosts consumption.”

High unemployment to persist
That Philippines’ rosy economic outlook, however, has apparently had no effect on reducing what is Southeast Asia’s highest unemployment rate. The 7.1% GDP growth, when set against the unemployment rate of 7% in the same third quarter, reveals that growth’s benefits are not “trickling down” to consumers, but are instead being reinvested in non-productive financial instruments that boost personal income.

By comparison, Vietnam’s unemployment rate stood at 2%; Thailand’s at 0.9%; Indonesia’s at 6.5% and Malaysia’s at 3%. These countries have also had much higher levels of foreign direct investments that create jobs.

To its credit, the government admitted that trickle down growth is more easily felt by those in the business sector. It said high growth has instead allowed the government to spend more for the people, enabling more citizens to “feel” the benefits of growth through its “social protection strategy.”

“We want to make sure that this improvement in the economy won’t benefit only those who invest in the stock exchange. That’s why we call it inclusive growth,” said Presidential spokesperson Edwin Lacierda.

The Asian Development Bank has praised the government’s social protection strategy, saying the latter’s “Conditional Cash Transfer Program” to uproot extreme poverty costs less than 0.5% of GDP but helps 15 million people in a population of 90 million.

Far too many will remain poor
Growth has also not made a notable dent in reducing the ranks of the poor, said the ADB. 

“Despite growth, poverty incidence in the Philippines rose from 2003 to 2009,” said Neeraj Jain, ADB country director for the Philippines. “That is a cause for concern.”

The Philippines defines poor as anyone earning less than P16,841 a year. This comes to about P46.00 or US$1.00 per day, which is the generally accepted definition of poverty worldwide. About 27% of Filipinos fit this bill.

Jain said the Philippines must implement policies that bring investments to sectors that can provide jobs for the poor, especially those without a college education.

There has to be more focus on ‘inclusive growth’; the private sector needs to get involved in education; the first steps will be made in the K+12 programs. ECCP would like to see more emphasis on dual education/apprenticeship programs.

In 2015, the government intends to reduce poverty incidence to 16.6% or half the 33.1% poverty rate in 1991. The high growth in 2012; the expected growth until 2016 and relatively benign inflation make the government confident of achieving this goal.