Debt and deficit as election issue

The state of public coffers as an electoral agenda in the coming May polls is not getting the national attention it rightfully deserves. Except for a recent statement by Liberal Party standard bearer Noynoy Aquino that he will not impose new taxes and raise existing ones if elected, presidentiables have not touched the crucial issues of the burgeoning budget deficit and mounting debt that government faces. Vows to curb graft and corruption, meanwhile, are statements too general to pass as a concrete platform in terms of protecting and raising public revenues.

But the reality is that whoever becomes the next President will have to run a government that is almost P5 trillion deep in debt and with a budget deficit of P300 billion or more. Thus, whatever promises about providing for the basic needs of the people especially the poor are empty rhetoric unless candidates disclose how they intend to address the worsening fiscal situation.

Debt accumulation

Every second, the country’s debt is growing by P8,394.54. That’s the average pace in the last nine years and it is still accelerating. Last year, it was expanding by P8,462.36 per second. The rate at which the debt stock is accumulating is indeed alarmingly high.

As of October last year, the total debt of the national government including its outstanding and contingent liabilities was about P4.99 trillion. Outstanding debt refers to unpaid obligations while contingent debt includes government guarantees to state-owned corporations and financial institutions.

At the end of 2000 before the current Arroyo administration took over, the total debt was P2.65 trillion. It means that under the incumbent regime, government’s debt increased by P2.34 trillion. Such huge amount of accumulated debt makes President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo the heaviest borrower among all post-EDSA presidents.

In addition, the domestic economy despite the aggressive hype about its growth by the Arroyo administration is not coping with the rapid accumulation of government debt. From 2001 to 2008, government’s annual outstanding debt as a portion of the yearly gross domestic product (GDP) was pegged at 67.8 percent. Comparing it with its immediate predecessor, the Estrada administration (1998 – 2000), the debt-to-GDP ratio was at 60.1 percent. Note that the GDP under Arroyo supposedly expanded by 4.8 percent per year and only 3.5 percent per year under deposed President Joseph Estrada.

For creditors, the higher the debt-to-GDP ratio, the higher the risk of default or inability to make future payments. But for the great majority of the people, it means that the economy, already hampered by structural issues of highly skewed distribution of wealth, would be further unable to provide opportunities for decent living.

Impact on the people

Current debt levels mean that each of the 92.23 million Filipinos is now practically in debt by around P54,093.46 to government’s creditors. And at the rate that government debt is growing since 2001, each Filipino would have a debt of about P56,965.97 by the end of 2010.

But the direct impact on the people of this huge debt can be measured by how much pressure it puts on public resources. The Arroyo administration has shelled out more than twice the amount it borrowed from creditors. From 2001 to 2009 (until November only), government has so far paid its creditors a total of P5.06 trillion for interest and principal payments.

It means that every second, the country is giving out P17,970.90 to pay for government debts. It also means that each Filipino has practically shelled out P54,832.39 to pay for such debts and yet still owes government’s creditors almost the same amount.

Every year since 2001, the amount of debt servicing has been equivalent to 42.7 percent of annual government expenditures and 67.4 percent of annual revenues. Stated more simply, it means that for every P10 that government spends more than P4 go to its creditors while out of every P10 it collects from the people’s taxes and other revenue measures, almost P7 are used to pay for its debt.

More money that go to debt servicing means less money that go to the people for social services. To compare, in 2008 (latest available data), debt servicing for interest and principal payments comprised 47.6 percent of total public expenditures. Education, culture, and manpower development accounted for only 14.5 percent; social security, welfare and employment, 5.5 percent; health, 1.2 percent; land distribution, 0.3 percent; housing and community development, 0.02 percent; and other social services, 0.1 percent. Even if we add the share of these social services together, they will still not comprise even half of public expenditures that went to debt servicing.

Note that the public expenditures for health, education, and housing cited above include spending for police and military schools, hospitals, and housing programs. Thus, actual spending that directly benefited the civilian poor are much smaller. Unfortunately, such data for the said period are not available.

Budget gap and debt trap

Government justifies its heavy borrowing by pointing to the budget deficit, or the gap between its revenues and expenditures. To bridge this gap, government is forced to borrow. And just how big is this gap? As of November 2009, the budget deficit is pegged at P272.52 billion – already an all-time high in absolute terms (and the December figures have not yet been accounted for). It is also P22.52 billion higher than what government anticipated for the whole 2009.

From January to November last year, total revenues was at P1.02 trillion but total expenditures was bigger at P1.29 trillion. To finance the deficit, government raised P541.02 billion through borrowing during the period, mostly through the foreign and domestic bond markets. But if government’s deficit is only P272.52 billion, why did it borrow almost twice the amount? Because portion of the borrowings will cover not only interest payments (which is 20.1 percent of the reported expenditures) but also for principal amortization, which reached P332.91 billion during the 11-month period. In other words, government borrows not only to bridge the deficit gap but to settle as well its old and existing debts.

This cycle goes on and on, worsening in every turn.

What must be done?

One way is to raise revenues. But it does not necessarily mean new (such as the text tax) and higher taxes as the Arroyo administration repeatedly claims. There are numerous ways to raise public resources without subjecting the people to additional burden – curb corruption and bureaucratic wastage, reverse trade and investment liberalization, improve tax collection efficiency, collect proper taxes from the biggest foreign and local corporations instead of giving over generous fiscal incentives, to name a few.

As pointed out in a previous article: “even without modifying our existing commitments with the World Trade Organization (WTO) and other free trade deals, the Philippines can hike tariffs across the board and raise billions of pesos in revenues. Note that due to continuing trade liberalization, total collections from tariffs on imported goods and services under Arroyo now only account for 2.8% of total revenues and gross domestic product (GDP), compared to around 4.5% for most of the 1990s. In the first half of 2009 alone, we are giving up almost P117 million in potential revenues per month due to lower duties.”

In fact, even onerous taxes such as the 12 percent value added tax (VAT) especially on oil, power, and other essential goods and services can be scrapped and still government can raise needed revenues.

But raising revenues in a pro-people way is just one aspect of the urgent fiscal reforms that we need today. Unless we plug the largest fiscal hole that is debt servicing, our resources will continue to be drained. Thus, all presidentiables must also outline how they intend to address the country’s debt crisis that has been raging on for almost three decades now.

More concretely, what do candidates intend to do with Executive Order (EO) 292 or the Administrative Code of 1987 that provides for automatic debt servicing at the expense of social services? What do they intend to do with odious debts or those debts incurred by past and present administrations that were tainted with corruption and anomalies ala-NBN-ZTE? Or those that only caused death and destruction of livelihood for marginalized communities such as the San Roque Dam?

These are some of the most pressing questions that those who want to steer government in the next six years (if Arroyo’s Charter change scheme will not push through) will have to answer now. ###


NG debt (in P billion)
Indicator 2000 2008 2009*
Outstanding 2,134.12 4,220.90 4,424.08
Contingent 514.69 545.58 564.96
Total 2,648.81 4,766.48 4,989.04
*As of October
Source: Bureau of the Treasury
NG debt servicing for interest & principal (in P million)
Year Total Interest Principal
2001 274,439 174,834 99,605
2002 357,959 185,861 172,098
2003 469,990 226,408 243,582
2004 601,672 260,901 340,771
2005 678,951 299,807 379,144
2006 854,374 310,108 544,266
2007 614,069 267,800 346,269
2008 612,682 272,218 340,464
2009* 593,055 260,147 332,908
Total 5,057,191 2,258,084 2,799,107
*Jan to Nov
Source: Bureau of the Treasury
Debt servicing vs social services expenditures (in P million), 2008
Indicator Amount % of total (w/ principal payments)
Total expenditure (social services + others) 1,015,597.59
Total expenditure with principal repayments 1,287,815.59 100%
Debt servicing (interest & principal) 612,682 47.6%
Education, culture, & manpower development 186,619.70 14.5%
Health 15,729.22 1.2%
Social security, welfare, & employment 70,307.56 5.5%
Housing & community development 274.42 0.02%
Land distribution 4,166.94 0.3%
Other social services 1,266.45 0.1%
Source: Bureau of the Treasury, BESF 2010

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