Martial Law legacy: debt servicing, top priority from Macoy to Noynoy

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Last September 21, the country marked the 40th anniversary of the imposition of Martial Law by the late strongman Ferdinand Marcos. Those dark years were notorious for the numerous cases of human rights atrocities committed by the military; for the unprecedented cronyism; and for the massive and flagrant ransacking of state coffers by Marcos, his relatives and friends.

Seldom pointed out is how the Marcos dictatorship also instituted national policies that further tied our pre-industrial economy to perpetual backwardness and bound a great majority of our people to acute poverty. Seldom pointed out is how the anti-Marcos faction of the ruling elite led by Cory Aquino who supposedly restored democracy, and her successors – including son, incumbent President Benigno Aquino – have upheld and continued these policies to the serious detriment of the country and the people.

One such policy was automatic debt servicing. Guaranteed payments of the national debt, even if they were incurred under questionable circumstances; went to the pockets of corrupt government officials; and/or used to fund programs and projects that harmed the economy and the people is a testament to the still dismal state of governance and democracy in the country 40 years after Martial Law was imposed.

That the Marcosian policy of automatic debt servicing continues to deprive the people of much needed social services contradicts assertions by the Aquino government of a pro-people national budget. It has hyped, for instance, its proposed 2013 ₱2.006-trillion national budget as “Empowerment Budget”, building on its previous packaging of “Reform Budget” (2011) and “Results-Focused Budget” (2012). Underlying all these budget proposals is the theme of “daang matuwid” (straight path) and “kung walang corrupt, walang mahirap” (without corruption, there’s no poverty).

But behind the pro-people packaging is the reality that the priorities and programs of government, as reflected in its national budget, remain unresponsive to the urgent social needs of the poor and development requirements of the country. From the late strongman Macoy to the son of supposed democracy icons Noynoy, keeping the creditors assured has always been the top priority in crafting the national budget.

Current debt data

Marcos’s borrowing spree – from less than $1 billion when he first became President in 1966, the foreign debt ballooned to $28 billion by the time he was kicked out of Malacañang twenty-years later – set off the crippling debt burden that the country has had to endure. To keep the foreign loans coming, which had become the dictatorship’s largest source of corruption (one estimate claimed that Marcos pocketed at least ⅓ of foreign loans), Marcos issued Presidential Decree (PD) 1177 or the Budget Reform Decree of 1977 that automatically appropriates for debt servicing regardless of how much is left of the country’s resources to fund basic social services. The late President Corazon Aquino affirmed this policy through Executive Order (EO) 292 or the Administrative Code of 1987.

As of July 2012, the outstanding debt of the national government, according to the Bureau of the Treasury (BTr) stood at ₱5.16 trillion, of which ₱3.12 trillion (61%) come from domestic creditors and the rest, ₱2.04 trillion (39%) from foreign lenders.  When President Aquino assumed office in June 2010, that debt was pegged at ₱4.58 trillion (₱2.59 trillion, domestic; ₱1.99 trillion, foreign). Since taking over, the Aquino administration has added more than ₱580 billion to the debt burden, or an average of more than ₱23 billion a month (July 2010 to July 2012). During the Arroyo administration, the outstanding debt of the national government was growing by a monthly average of ₱21 billion (January 2001 to June 2010).

Meanwhile, looking at the foreign debt data (which include public and private debt, with the former accounting for 77% of the $62.9-billion total as of March 2012) as monitored by the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), it appears that the country’s external loans have been accumulating most rapidly under the current Aquino administration with an average of $268.81 million per month. It is the largest monthly growth in foreign debt among all post-Marcos administrations. (See Chart)

A news report on the latest debt data noted that each Filipino now owes the national government’s creditors some ₱53,715 (based on the latest estimated population of 96 million by the National Statistical Coordination Board of NSCB). A minimum wage earner in the National Capital Region (NCR) will need to give his salary for 120 to 131 workdays if he will be forced to pay for his share of this debt; or 232 days if he is from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).

Meager allocation for social services

But the real impact of such heavy debt burden is felt by the poor in the meager allocation that important social services get from government because limited resources are being siphoned off by automatic debt servicing. And Aquino is proving to be worse than Arroyo in this respect. Under the Aquino administration, government has already shelled out ₱1.45 trillion for debt servicing from July 2010 to July 2012. It’s equivalent to ₱58.05 billion a month, almost ₱10 billion bigger than Arroyo’s ₱48.18 billion a month during her prolonged 9 ½-year term. (See Table 1)

Further, debt servicing relative to total expenditures (including principal repayments) is pegged at almost 59% under Aquino, compared to 42% under Arroyo; and relative to total revenues collected, it’s 76% under Aquino and 66% under Arroyo. These figures mean that that the absolute increase in debt servicing in the past two years is exerting more pressure on public resources which could not cope with the country’s growing expenses, including the need to pay for government’s mounting debts. To finance its expenses, including payments for past debts, the Aquino administration is borrowing more.

Debt servicing continues to eat up a huge portion of the national budget despite claims by the Aquino administration that social services are now being prioritized by government. The expenditure program from 2011 to the proposed 2013 national budget, for instance, shows that the budget for debt servicing (including principal amortization) is equivalent to an average of 2.5 times that of the budget for education; 6.4 times, health; and 11.2 times, housing. (See Table 2)

To be concluded

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