Economy, Fiscal issues

Aquino’s 2012 budget: Diretso sa tubo

Far from being Diretso sa Tao, the 2012 budget is in reality Diretso sa Tubo. Instead of the government’s meager resources going straight to the needs of the people, taxpayers’ money will actually go straight to the pockets of creditors while creating the most favorable environment and profit-making opportunities for private business. (Photo from The Philippine Star)

First published by The Philippine Online Chronicles

In the President’s 2012 Budget Message, President Benigno S. Aquino III boldly proclaimed: “Noong nakaraang taon, tinangkilik po ninyo ang aming pakay na tahakin ang landas Tungo sa Paggugol na Matuwid. Sa paparating na taon, hinihikayat ko po kayong patuloy na sumama at lumahok sa biyaheng ito: sa pagsiguro na ang benepisyo ng Paggugol na Matuwid ay nakatutok sa ating prayoridad at Diretso sa Tao.”

Aquino also called the P1.816-trillion budget a Results-Focused Budget, with sharp focus on the so-called A Social Contract with the Filipino People, which he used as campaign platform in last year’s elections. In sum, the Social Contract and thus the proposed budget supposedly have five priorities: (1) Transparent, accountable, and participatory governance; (2) Poverty reduction and empowerment of the poor and vulnerable; (3) Rapid, inclusive, and sustained economic growth; (4) Just and lasting peace and rule of law; and (5) Integrity of environment and climate change adaptation and mitigation. The spending and efforts of the administration will purportedly focus on these five priorities.

But far from being Diretso sa Tao, the 2012 budget is in reality Diretso sa Tubo. Instead of the government’s meager resources going straight to the ever growing and urgent needs of the people, taxpayers’ money will actually go straight to the pockets of creditors while creating the most favorable environment and profit-making opportunities for private business.

Debt servicing remains top priority

In hyping the budget, Aquino declared that a substantial portion of it – about 20.3% or P368.8 billion – will be spent directly on programs for poverty reduction and empowerment of the poor. Of this amount, the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program (4Ps) accounts for a considerable share with P39.5 billion. Another major portion comes from the P61.9 billion allocated for public education sector’s scholarship programs, financial assistance programs, training programs, hiring of additional teachers, construction and rehabilitation of facilities, procurement of textbooks, and support to State Universities and Colleges (SUCs). It also allotted P44.4 billion for undertakings meant to achieve the health targets under the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). There’s also the P5.6 billion intended for the resettlement of families residing along danger areas and families affected by calamities and so-called “slum upgrading.”

While Aquino and his budget officials try to paint these numbers as impressive, the truth is they still pale in comparison to the huge amount of public money that will again go to debt servicing in 2012. The P368.8 billion is just a little higher than the P333.1 billion in Interest Payments in the proposed budget. Including the Principal Amortization (P405.5 billion), Debt Service Expenditures for 2012 will reach P738.6 billion, or more than twice the P368.8 billion that Aquino said will directly go to the poor and marginalized sectors. To further illustrate how big the budget is for debt servicing, the total Debt Service Expenditures is also much larger than the combined P575.8-billion Social Services budget that includes Education (P308.9 billion); Social Security, Welfare, and Employment (P104.5 billion); Health (P49.9 billion); Housing and Community Development (P7.1 billion); Land Distribution (P2.5 billion); and Other Social Services and Subsidy to Local Government Units (P102.9 billion).

Aquino, in his first year in office, has already proven to creditors that his administration is a reliable and good borrower, even better than his immediate predecessor. From July 2010 to July 2011, Aquino has shelled out P735.6 billion for debt servicing. This translates to about P61.3 billion on a per month basis, or P13.1 billion bigger than the monthly debt servicing under the Arroyo administration (from January 2001 to June 2010). Furthermore, from July 2010 to May 2011 (latest available data), Aquino’s debt servicing is equivalent to 46.6% of government expenditures (including its principal payments), as compared to Arroyo’s 41.5 percent.

Facilitating more privatization of infrastructure and services

It is true that debt servicing will decline in the 2012 budget while increases will be made in Social Services and Economic Services. The P1.816-trillion budget is higher than the present budget of P1.645 trillion by P171 billion, with the budget for Social Services going up by P54.3 billion (from P521.5 billion to P575.8 billion) and Economic Services increasing by P77 billion (from P361.9 billion to P438.9 billion). The budget for Defense will also go up by P11.6 billion (from P101.5 billion to P113.1 billion), General Public Services, by P44 billion (from P288.1 billion to P332.1 billion), and Net Lending, P8 billion (from P15 billion to P23 billion). Interest Payments, on the other hand, will go down by P24 billion (from P357.1 billion to P333.1 billion). In terms of percentage share, Economic Services will improve by two points (22 to 24%) and Interest Payments will slide by the same amount (20 to 18%), while the expenditure program of the rest of the sectors will maintain their share – Social Services (32%), Defense (6%), General Public Services (18%), and Net Lending (1%).

As pointed out, however, debt servicing will continue to be the single biggest expenditure item in the 2012 budget despite its decline both in absolute terms and as a percentage of the total. Furthermore, aside from the increase in quantity, it is also important to examine the quality of the increases. The budget increase in Social Services and Economic Services are deceiving because they do not guarantee improved access and better quality of life for the people. In reality, the increases are meant to facilitate the privatization of infrastructure development and social services in the country in line with Aquino’s centerpiece program – the Public-Private Partnership (PPP). (Read more about the PPP here and here) As the President said in his budget message, after introducing PPP through the 2011 budget as an innovative way to address the perennial lack of funds for infrastructure, the government will not only sustain it but even expand to include social services.

For the 2012 budget, Aquino is proposing P22.1 billion as counterpart funding from the national government for various infrastructure and capital outlay support for the PPP initiatives of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), Department of Agriculture (DA), Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), Department of Health (DOH), and Department of Education (DepEd).

(To be continued) 

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Fiscal issues, SONA 2011

SONA 2011: Making sense of Aquino’s facts and figures (part 2)

Aquino missed in his SONA the facts and figures that matter to the people (Photo from pinoypower.net)

Continued from part 1

Aquino also claimed that in his first year as President, the Philippines got upgraded four times by credit rating agencies. Compare this, said Aquino, to the lone credit upgrade and six downgrades the country had in the nine and a half years of the Arroyo administration. A high credit rating means lower interest payments. According to Aquino, the country spent P23 billion less in interest payments from January to April 2011 compared to the same period last year. This amount can supposedly already cover the 2.3 million families in target beneficiaries of the CCT program until the end of the year.

Debt servicing

A credit rating is simply the measure of the credit worthiness of government. Credit worthiness, meanwhile, pertains to the ability of government to repay its debt obligations. A high or favorable credit rating indicates that there is less or no risk of defaulting on our loans. Thus, creditors are more willing to lend with lower interest rates and therefore “less” debt burden for the borrower.

But the credit rating upgrades came at a high cost for the people. To obtain the upgrades, the Aquino administration ensured that debt obligations are being paid dutifully and at the same time resorted to massive under-spending. The result is that an ever increasing portion of spending by the national government went to debt servicing. Since Aquino became President, total debt servicing has already reached P668.65 billion (from July 2010 to May 2011). Until April this year, 49.3 percent of what the Aquino administration has spent went to debt servicing.

Worse than Arroyo

Compare these figures to those under Arroyo, who has been criticized as a heavy borrower and payer. Monthly debt servicing during the Arroyo administration was P48.18 billion while in the first 11 months of the Aquino presidency, it went up to P60.79 billion.  As a percentage of total government spending (including principal payments), the average during the Arroyo administration was 41.5 percent while under Aquino, it has increased to 49.3 percent (until April 2011). (See Table)

Despite the bigger debt servicing, the total outstanding debt of government (including contingent debt) still rose from P5.19 trillion in June 2010 to P5.23 trillion as of April 2011. The P40-billion rise in government debt includes $400 million (about P18 billion) in loans from the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved last September 2010 to help bankroll the expanded CCT program. This means that the P23 billion mentioned by Aquino as savings from lower interest payments will just be used to pay for the rising debt obligations of government, including those incurred for the CCT.

Fiscal deficit

The credit rating upgrades were also achieved due to the improvement in the national budget deficit, another indicator closely watched to determine a country’s creditworthiness. From an all-time high (in absolute terms) of P314.5 billion in deficit in 2010, the Aquino administration has been able to substantially reduce the shortfall so far this year. From January to May 2011, the fiscal deficit was pegged at just P9.54 billion or 94.1 percent below the deficit during the same period in 2010. It is also way below the programmed deficit of P152.13 billion for the first half of the year.

This lower deficit was made possible by higher revenues and lower spending during the period. As compared to the first five months of 2010, revenues are higher by P81.5 billion while spending is down by P71.08 billion. Furthermore, monthly collections are more than P1.89 billion higher than expected while monthly expenditures are almost P21.55 billion lower than programmed.

At the people’s expense

But the improved fiscal situation was achieved at the expense of the people who are being deprived of social services as government under-spent and much of what it spent went to debt servicing. At the same time, the people are being squeezed dry with burdensome taxes to raise revenues.

To keep credit rating agencies and creditors impressed, Aquino rejected the growing public clamor to scrap or at least suspend the 12 percent value-added tax (VAT) on oil amid soaring pump prices. According to Aquino, “suspending the VAT might trigger a credit downgrade because credit rating agencies would likely deem such a move as ‘fiscally imprudent’.”

The oil VAT has become one of the most important sources of revenues for government since Arroyo introduced it in 2005. But it is also the most oppressive. Revenues from the oil VAT rise dramatically as prices of petroleum products increase. Due to higher oil prices this year, for instance, the Department of Finance (DOF) expects government to earn an additional P18 billion in revenues. From an original forecast of P52 billion in oil VAT earnings based on a global crude price of $80 per barrel, the DOF revised its projection to P70 billion based on $110 per barrel.

High pump prices made a significant contribution to higher tax collections this year. In the first two months of 2011, oil VAT revenues increased by P1.2 billion because of the oil price hikes. Aside from the 12 percent VAT, gasoline products are also charged with excise tax, which generated P4.03 billion for government from January to May this year – P389 million higher than during the same period in 2010.

Facts & figures that matter

Meanwhile, facts and figures that truly matter to the people have been ignored in Aquino’s SONA – P125 or the amount of legislated minimum wage hike workers have long been demanding to help them cope with ever rising cost of living; 6,453 hectares or the size of Hacienda Luisita lands that should have long been owned and controlled by farmers and farm workers; 556,526 or the number of families living in informal settlements in Metro Manila and face the threat of forced eviction; 27 or the number of times that diesel prices have gone up since Aquino became President; and 48 or the number of victims of extrajudicial killings in his first year as Chief Executive, among others.

By using numbers, the President hoped to be objective in presenting his administration’s supposed achievements during the SONA. But he ended up ignorant of the numbers that truly matter. (End)

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Fiscal issues, Photo slideshow

Photo slideshow: groups press for increased health budget anew

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Health advocates marched to the Senate Friday (November 26) to press anew for increased allocation for public health services in the proposed 2011 national budget. The Senate is currently reviewing the P1.645-trillion budget proposal of the Aquino administration, which critics like think tank IBON Foundation said shows a “diminishing priority for health”. The proposed budget reduced the allocation for 55 public hospitals nationwide by P363.7 million while funds for specialty hospitals like the Lung Center, Philippine Heart Center, and the Philippine Children’s Medical Center, among others, have been cut by P970.6 million. Meanwhile, debt servicing continues to eat up a major portion of the national budget with interest payments alone eating up 21.7 percent of the planned spending program. Including principal amortization, the debt burden actually represents 38.9 percent of what the Aquino administration is willing to spend in its proposed 2011 national budget (read more here).

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Fiscal issues

2011 national budget: reducing the debt burden

A COA report released in 2008 noted a number of serious issues in bridge projects funded by foreign debt (Photo from http://www.pia.gov.ph)

The House of Representatives today (September 1) started its review of the P1.645-trillion national budget submitted by Malacañang.  Rep. Emilio Abaya of Cavite, chair of the committee on appropriations, has earlier promised a thorough deliberation of the Aquino administration’s proposed budget.

Sec. Butch Abad of the Department of Budget and Management (DBM) called the proposed 2011 budget a “reform budget”. The first budget of the new government is supposedly anchored on the basic governance principles of, among others, fiscal responsibility to reduce debt and bias in allocating resources for the poor.

Increased debt burden

But the spending plan submitted by Pres. Noynoy Aquino to Congress even increased the debt burden and like his predecessors, effectively marginalized resources for the poor. In fact, almost 77.5 percent of the P104.4-billion increase in the 2011 budget came from the huge P80.88-billion rise in interest payments for government’s debt. While personal services grew by P47.24 billion, maintenance and other operating expenses (MOOE) fell by P10.92 billion and capital outlays and net lending, by P12.8 billion. The said declines reflect the avowed policy of the Aquino administration of turning over to the private sector vital functions of government, including the provision of services and undertaking infrastructure development. Public infrastructure, for instance, fell by P21.13 billion in the 2011 budget. This policy will ultimately take its toll on the poor and marginalized in the form of, among others, exorbitant user fees. (See Table)

The Aquino administration is proposing interest payments of P357.09 billion in the 2011 budget, or 21.7 percent of its planned spending program. But the total debt burden for 2011 could actually reach P823.27 billion if the principal amortization of P466.18 billion is added to interest payments. Thus, debt burden (interest payments plus principal amortization) represents 38.9 percent of what the Aquino administration is willing to spend in its 2011 budget. (See Table)

Such a heavy debt burden means that fewer resources are available to spend for social and economic services badly needed by the people. What makes it doubly unjust is that many of the projects and programs funded by these debts did not benefit the people, or worse, even made life more difficult for them while private contractors, corrupt government officials, and the creditors rake in billions of pesos in taxpayers’ money.

Anomalous projects

Many of these anomalous and questionable loans can be easily identified. Take the case of the notorious bridge projects undertaken by the previous administration. In June 2008, the Commission on Audit (COA) released its findings on selected bridge projects undertaken by the Arroyo administration from 2002 to 2006, which were funded by various loan agreements with foreign creditors.

The COA noted a number of “lapses in the process of implementation” of these bridge projects such as uninstalled and unaccounted construction materials, use of expensive materials despite the availability of a cheap alternative, project delays that resulted in commitment penalties, construction of bridges in inappropriate places, overlapping of bridge projects, poor quality of constructed bridges, projects overshooting the approved budget, etc.

Based on the COA findings, I tabulated below some of these foreign debt-funded bridge projects to give an idea how much in taxpayers’ money are being wasted on debt servicing. Five questionable projects alone already cost $62.93 million in principal amortization and interest payments for 2011. That’s around P2.83 billion (at an exchange rate of P45 per US dollar) in funds that could be used for more meaningful and beneficial purposes. If the policy of automatic appropriation for debt servicing is not repealed soon, these onerous and questionable loans will continue to drain our budget and resources for many more years to come. (See Table, click to enlarge)

To be sure, these foreign debt-funded bridge projects exposed by the COA are just a small sample of the many anomalous loans incurred by government and unjustly being passed on the people. Not included in the table above, for instance, is the First National Roads Improvement Project (NRIP) in which the Philippines borrowed $150 million from the World Bank. The loan closed in March 2007 and we have already been servicing our debt to the World Bank when the country learned that five Filipino and Chinese contractors that participated in the project were involved in bid-rigging. For 2011, we will pay the World Bank $14.74 million (about P663 million) in principal amortization and interest payments for the anomaly-ridden NRIP and the country will continue to service the loan until 2020.

Debt for neoliberal reforms

Aside from infrastructure projects, there are also programs bankrolled by foreign debt that introduced neoliberal structural reforms in the Philippines. One example is the ongoing power sector restructuring program that will supposedly address high electricity cost and power supply insecurity through privatization and deregulation. But after many years of restructuring, what we have are frequent brownouts and monthly increases in our electricity bills while the auction of state-owned power assets has been repeatedly marred by irregularities (the latest case is Angat Dam privatization) and industry participants again and again manipulate electricity rates. Worse, taxpayers have been paying for the debts used to implement these anti-people power reforms.

The power sector restructuring program, which included the bribery-ridden railroading of the Electric Power Industry Reform Act (EPIRA) in 2001, has been mainly funded by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). For 2011, the Aquino administration wants us to shell out $121.34 million to service the principal amortization and interest payments of four loan accounts with the ADB and JBIC for the implementation of power sector reforms. (See Table) The amount is on top of the debt servicing, worth $151.07 million in 2011, for the loans incurred by the National Power Corporation (NAPOCOR).

A more meticulous review of Philippine debts will certainly yield more anomalous transactions ranging from loans associated with the privatization of water utilities, loans for the mandatory importation of agricultural goods including rice from the US, loans used in infrastructure projects fraught with corruption, etc.

Challenge Congress, Noynoy

Our resources are indeed limited, constantly undermined by a fundamentally weak and backward economy and systemic corruption. Thus, lawmakers, as they review the 2011 budget proposal of the Aquino administration, must be pressured to take a serious look into these questionable and anomalous debts. We must compel them to at least suspend payments for these debts (and later work towards their complete repudiation). Congress can pass a 2011 budget stipulating that certain debts must not be serviced due to unresolved issues of corruption, program failure, etc. This move will also challenge President Aquino – will he veto such a budget and choose to honor his predecessors’, including Gloria Arroyo’s, illegitimate debts?

Servicing debts that did not benefit the people and the country amid chronic poverty and hunger and severe lack of social services is not only immoral and unjust. It is also inconsistent with genuine and sustainable development since it deprives government the capacity and the resources to invest in its people and spur the economy.

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Consumer issues, Fiscal issues

Toll hike, VAT, soaring utility rates in lieu of new taxes

SLEx toll will quadruple due to VAT and privatization of infrastructure development (Photo from ryucloud/photobucket.com)

President Noynoy Aquino has promised that his administration will try not to raise or impose new taxes to bridge the widening fiscal gap, which is expected to reach a record high P325 billion this year. But while not imposing new taxes (yet) to address its fiscal woes, the Aquino administration is still squeezing the people dry through unabated increases in prices and rates charged by privatized and deregulated utilities, and by getting the most out of the previous administration’s most onerous and anti-poor revenue-raising tool – the 12 percent value added tax (VAT).

By the way, did you know that the VAT, like privatization, was also a legacy of Noynoy’s late mother, President Cory Aquino? On July 25, 1987, Cory issued Executive Order (EO) No. 273, adopting the VAT. Cory issued the EO just before the 8th Congress opened, thus preempting the legislature’s constitutional power to impose taxes. The move was a ploy to swiftly implement the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) prescription to impose the VAT and ensure that the bankrupt Cory administration can raise revenues for continued debt servicing.

Controversial tax

Today, the ever controversial tax is again in the headlines following the insistence of Aquino’s Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) chief to impose the regressive VAT on toll. If Noynoy will not intervene and order the Department of Finance (DOF) and BIR to suspend its implementation, fees charged by toll operators around the country will go up starting Monday (August 16) as the cash-strapped Aquino administration collect from motorists the VAT on toll roads.

The table below summarizes the current rates and new rates to be charged (12 percent increase, representing the VAT) by major toll roads in Luzon, based on a notice released by the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB).

Meanwhile, those using the South Luzon Expressway (SLEx) will feel the double whammy of VAT and toll hike that will raise the toll charged by its private operator, the South Luzon Tollway Corp. (SLTC). Motorists using the SLEx will see their toll almost quadruple mainly because of the new rates approved by the TRB last May.

Ironically, the principal author of the 2005 VAT law Republic Act (RA) 9337, Senator Ralph Recto, is strongly opposing the move arguing that VAT should not be imposed on a government service. Recto, who belongs to Aquino’s Liberal Party (LP) and presently chairs the Senate ways and means committee, suffered the VAT backlash and lost his reelection bid in the 2007 midterm elections, which explains his stance on the VAT on toll. Aside from Recto, another LP member, Sen. Franklin Drilon is also questioning the BIR plan because it is supposedly imposing a tax on tax. Business groups, in particular those operating in Southern Tagalog’s industrial zones, on the other hand, have warned of commodity price hikes while transport groups plying the SLEx threatened to increase fares.

Aquino’s dilemma

While some prominent LP members are against it, the Aquino administration’s dilemma is that backing down on the BIR plan to collect the unpopular VAT on toll will further limit its already scant revenue sources, which have been perennially drained by trade liberalization, automatic debt servicing, promotion of foreign investment and export production, and onerous privatization contracts, on top of tax evasion, smuggling, and fat paychecks of high officials of the bureaucracy.

Given the persistent external pressure from the IMF for so-called fiscal consolidation and to hike the VAT rate to 15 percent, it is unlikely that Aquino’s economic team – led by ardent VAT champions and neoliberals DOF Secretary Cesar Purisima (who as Arroyo’s DOF chief helped design and lobbied for RA 9337) and Socioeconomic Planning Secretary Cayetano Paderanga (who was among the UP economists that pushed for VAT and VAT rate hike) – will advise Aquino to heed the public clamor and stop the VAT on toll. But if Aquino will push through with the VAT on toll, he risks suffering a major political blow very early in his term because of the measure’s unpopularity and severe impact on the people. Such setback can be further compounded in case the Supreme Court (SC) decides favorably on petitions filed against the VAT on toll amid growing public opposition.

Nonetheless, the pending toll hikes, whether implemented or not, further highlight the lack of real reforms that matter to the people under the Aquino administration. That Aquino is trying to widen the scope of the onerous and anti-poor VAT is proof that prospects of better and more decent living conditions for social sectors neglected by past regimes remain dim, if not dimmer.

VAT on privatized, deregulated utilities

And even if the VAT on toll is withdrawn, the continued implementation of neoliberal policies will still oppress the poor and impoverish more people. Note for instance, that in the case of SLEx, the VAT imposition is just a small portion of the enormous increase in toll that stems from infrastructure privatization, the same policy that Aquino highlighted in his State of the Nation Address (Sona). With Aquino’s promotion of so-called Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs), we expect more similar increases in the future as these are built-in mechanisms to make privatization attractive to potential investors. A case in point is the proposed MRT fare hike, which the Aquino administration is seeking in order to pay for the guaranteed debts and profits of private investors that took part in MRT’s development and ease government’s fiscal burden.

Indeed, indications show that privatization and deregulation will not only continue but will even expand under the new government. Just barely one and a half months into the much hyped Aquino administration, we have already seen oil prices and electricity rates go up. Players in the deregulated oil industry have recently raised the pump prices of diesel, kerosene and gasoline by 50 centavos to P1 per liter, with the Department of Energy (DOE), just like in the past, warning of more oil price hikes in the coming months. In addition, the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) has again increased its generation charge by 44 centavos per kilowatt-hour (kWh). More nationwide increases in the privatized and deregulated power industry, based on petitions pending before the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), should be expected by hapless households.

In the context of its fiscal woes, the Aquino administration welcomes these increases despite their harsh effect on consumers as they mean more VAT collections for the government. In fact, oil and electricity are the two largest sources of VAT revenues, increasing in direct proportion with rising pump prices and monthly electricity bills. From November 2005 (when RA 9337 was implemented) to December 2009, the VAT burden from oil and power has reached P239.94 billion, or more than 65.3 percent of the total revenues (P367.28 billion) generated by RA 9337.

Similarly, higher toll means higher VAT collection for the government. Under the old SLEx fees, for example, government’s VAT revenues will only range from P2.64 to P7.80 per vehicle per trip. But under the new rates approved by the TRB, the VAT burden of SLEx users will quadruple to P10.2 to P30.6. Overall, taxpayers will shoulder a tax burden of more than P12 billion annually from the VAT on toll.

No new taxes? It does not make a difference amid rising rates and prices due to deregulation and privatization, and continued imposition and expanded coverage of the 12 percent VAT. And lest we forget, Aquino’s promise of no new taxes is highly conditional on the results of its anti-smuggling and tax evasion drive which means the worst is yet to come.

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2010 elections, Fiscal issues

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. ###

Tables

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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Fiscal issues

Drowned by Ondoy, drowned by debt

A community in Pasig City remains flooded days after tropical storm Ondoy hit Metro Manila and nearby provinces (photo from Bayan - NCR)

A community in Pasig City remains flooded days after tropical storm Ondoy hit Metro Manila and nearby provinces (photo from Bayan - NCR)

Malacañang admitted Thursday (Oct 1) that government’s calamity fund of P1 billion is in danger of being depleted. Thus, members of the Senate and the House of Representatives held an emergency meeting with some Cabinet officials and agreed to pass a P10-billion supplemental budget in the wake of Ondoy’s onslaught in Metro Manila and adjacent provinces last weekend (Sep 26-27).

The problem is where to source the money. Not surprisingly, Department of Finance (DOF) Secretary Margarito Teves announced that they will tap the global bond market again in order to raise funds for relief and rehabilitation of “Ondoy” victims. This would be the third round of global bond issuance for the Philippine government this year, after the $1.5-billion bond sale in January and the $750-million sold in July, and would come ahead of the scheduled Samurai bond issuance later in the year.

But instead of borrowing more which will only aggravate the country’s debt problems, the more sensible step would be for government to cancel debt payments to free up billions of pesos in public funds that can be used for disaster relief and rehabilitation in the immediate, and provide much needed social services in the medium and long-term.

Debt servicing, since the time of the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, has been siphoning valuable public resources from the country, with the current Arroyo administration paying out the biggest amount of public funds for debt servicing. Debt servicing (interest payments and principal amortization) under Mrs. Arroyo has been, on the average, more than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP) – higher than Aquino’s 8.1%, Ramos’s 6.8% and Estrada’s 6.6 percent.

Under its proposed national budget for 2010, the Arroyo administration will shell out a huge P746.18 billion for debt servicing covering interest payments and principal amortization. In 2009 and 2008, government spent P702.6 billion and P612.68 billion for debt servicing, respectively. These are huge amounts of money, with interest payments in 2010, for instance, eating up 22.1% of the national budget compared with housing’s 0.4%, health’s 2.5%, and education’s 15.3% – all of which will surely require more funds now because of Ondoy and other stronger typhoons expected to hit the country.

Is debt cancellation possible? Ecuador just did it earlier this year, with its President calling the country’s foreign debt “immoral”.

Considering the still unfolding humanitarian crisis that Ondoy has caused and threats of more super typhoons, the

Youth groups under the Serve the People Brigade join relief efforts for Ondoy victims in Laguna (photo from Kabataan party-list - Southern Tagalog)

Youth groups under the Serve the People Brigade join relief efforts for Ondoy victims in Laguna (photo from Kabataan party-list - Southern Tagalog)

Philippines can justify its move to cancel debt servicing and attend to the more immediate needs of its people. On top of this is the long-standing issue that many of the country’s debts are considered odious and thus the people should not be burdened to pay for them.

Current debt-funded projects such as the multi-million dollar road projects being bankrolled by Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC), $100-million text book project of the World Bank, China’s $885.4-million South Luzon railways project, ADB’s $750-million power sector reform programs and projects, among others are tainted with irregularities and corruption and should be considered for debt cancellation.

While emergency grant assistance for disaster relief from foreign donors are welcome, debt cancellation should be a top option for the Philippines in terms of raising sufficient resources in a sustainable manner to deal with disasters and other immediate and basic needs of its people.

As an initial move, Congress must repeal the Marcosian automatic debt servicing rule as provided under the revised Administrative Code of 1987 and rechannel funds allocated to debt servicing in the 2010 national budget to social services and disaster relief and rehabilitation.

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Fiscal issues

Notes on the text tax

no to text tax (TXTpower.org)also published in Bulatlat.com

As expected, the revived proposal to impose a tax on text messaging is again controversial and widely opposed. What surprised some people perhaps are the strong statements from telecommunication companies (telcos). They called the plan “anti-poor”, “oppressive” and “one of the worst anti-consumer legislations ever made”.

Telcos, of course, are still reeling from the public relations beating they had from questionable charges, missing load and other abuses recently probed by the Senate. Thus some may think that telcos just hope to recover some publicity points by taking on an issue their customers strongly oppose. But Globe Telecom and Smart Communications are actually defending their business interests threatened by the proposal, which include their promotional bucket-priced short message service (SMS) plans that allow them to protect their market share and earn billions of pesos in profits.

Broad opposition

Nonetheless, the firm position of Globe and Smart against the text tax is a welcome development. They reinforced the broad opposition versus an onerous tax proposal repeatedly raised by Congress as well as Malacañang the last 7 or 8 years. Members of the Senate, led by self-styled consumer advocate Senate president Juan Ponce Enrile, have also spoken strongly against the text tax. Add the 2010 elections to the equation, some say, then it is almost certain that this plan will not materialize any time soon.

But proponents of the measure are adamant. The House ways and means committee led by Quezon Rep. Danilo Suarez and Ilocos Sur Rep. Eric Singson has promised to pass a law imposing a 5-centavo tax on SMS within the year. Some sort of an alternative bill is also being pushed by Sen. Richard Gordon reportedly supported by the DOF and NEDA. In Gordon’s version, the text tax is in the form of a 5-year levy on telcos’ profits on SMS. Malacañang has not asked its allies to drop the text tax though it set conditions for its support, namely no pass-on to users; telcos must pay; and revenues for education, health or computerization.

IMF pressure

The latest incarnation of the text tax (a consolidated version of Singson’s House Bill 6625 and Suarez’s House Resolution 282) comes in the context of an administration under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to widen its revenue base. In its latest consultation with Philippine officials concluded last January 2009, the IMF Executive Board “suggested” that government raise tax collection effort, broaden revenue base and rationalize fiscal incentives. The IMF noted the still high level of public debt amid continuing need for a measured fiscal stimulus, and thus raised said proposals to provide government “more scope for fiscal easing and well-targeted pro-poor cash transfers”.

While no longer in debt with the IMF, the Philippines remains hostaged to it because its assessment of a country’s fiscal situation is used as a signal by foreign creditors and investors. A favorable review by the IMF means high “creditworthiness” for the debt-dependent economy. The IMF has exercised control over the country’s fiscal policies through regular consultations between its Executive Board and Filipino officials such as the one they concluded in January.

Incidentally, it was the IMF that first openly pushed the text tax idea in 2002 to address government’s burgeoning budget deficit. But it was hugely unpopular and promptly rebuffed by some lawmakers. Even so, various text tax and related bills have been filed in Congress since then. Finance and Trade officials have also raised the proposal at various times and circumstances – at one point to pressure the bicameral committee to fast track the also infamous Reformed Value-Added Tax (RVAT) law in 2005 and in some instances as trial balloon on public opinion. The National Tax Research Center (NTRC) has conducted a study as well on the text tax in 2007 to weigh potential revenues and impact on consumers.

Lobby vs. sin taxes

Due to its unpopularity, the text tax could not be found in official policy pronouncements of Mrs. Arroyo. In her July State of the Nation Address (SONA), for instance, Mrs. Arroyo has categorically asked Congress, to further restructure so-called “sin taxes”, which unlike the text tax does not invite loud public outcry. During its January consultation with IMF officials, Arroyo officials promised to pass a law imposing separate uniform tax rates for alcoholic drinks and cigarette products.

But apparently, Malacañang and Congress have given in to the strong lobby of local manufacturers of sin products, who reportedly sought a meeting with Mrs. Arroyo in her Forbes Park (Makati) home to lobby against the proposal. The coming 2010 elections could have also played a role – with known huge election campaign contributors Lucio Tan (who owns Asia Brewery Inc and Fortune Tobacco) and Danding Cojuangco (who own San Miguel Corp) as among the stakeholders to be affected by sin taxes reform. There is also strong opposition from the so-called Northern Luzon bloc, or congressmen from the country’s tobacco-producing region.

While openly asking for sin taxes reform, Mrs. Arroyo has also been discreetly pushing for a text tax law, which in March she described as having a rate of between “5 to 10 centavos” and with collections earmarked for “education”. Note that these are the same salient provisions of current House proposal for a text tax. After Mrs. Arroyo’s SONA, sin taxes are no longer in the agenda of the Malacañang-controlled House ways and means committee. Its chairman Antique Rep. Exequiel Javier has already declared that the text tax is more doable than the sin taxes reform.

Do we need new taxes?

For the IMF, what is important is that government be able to widen its revenue base and manage the national budget deficit, which is expected to balloon to ₱250 billion this year. The IMF and government hope to reduce this to ₱233.4 billion in 2010 through new taxes. Whether the new taxes will come from our cellphones or our beer, the intention is to assure creditors that the Philippine government, which presently has a debt of ₱4.23 trillion, will continue to be a viable borrower.

But do we really need new taxes when government losses from anomalous contracts in infrastructure projects alone such as the botched NBN-ZTE broadband project reach at least ₱30 billion a year and nearly approximate the projected ₱36 billion in potential annual revenues from the text tax?

Consider also that 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 ₱117 million in potential revenues per month due to lower duties.

Government claims that revenues from the text tax will be used for education. In a policy regime of automatic debt servicing, this is lip service, to say the least. In the proposed 2010 national budget, for instance, the Arroyo administration is allocating a per capita education budget of ₱2,502, while each Filipino will have a debt servicing burden of ₱7,944. For health, Malacañang is allocating ₱402 for 2010 and ₱58 for housing. Thus, this administration which always uses social services to defend its oppressive taxes is allocating a combined budget for education, health and housing with an amount that is merely 37% of what it intends to pay its creditors.

And finally, how can a regime whose highest officials dined for $35,000 (ostensibly using taxpayers’ money) in two nights during a US junket justify another onerous tax on a people already battered by high prices, low wages and job scarcity?

By the way, text tax proponent Suarez claimed to have paid for one of those dinners.

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Fiscal issues

World Bank, bad bank: Gas tax hike proposal to hurt the poor

The World Bank, in its latest quarterly report on the Philippines, recently proposed that government increase the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter on imposed on gasoline products to ensure a quality implementation of Arroyo’s fiscal stimulus plan and address a ballooning budget gap.
According to the multilateral lending institution, its proposal would “improve the progressivity of the tax system as petroleum products are disproportionately consumed by the richer citizens”. In other words, it is acceptable to hike current taxes imposed on gasoline products because the poor will not be hurt.
The World Bank, a global institution controlled by the US and other rich countries, has become increasingly discredited and notorious through the years. For a brief discussion on how it works to intensify global poverty, as told by a former World Bank insider, watch the short video below.
With just a little over two weeks before Mrs. Gloria Arroyo deliver her supposedly farewell State of the Nation Address (SONA), I expected Malacañang to issue an outright rejection of the World Bank proposal. Severely wanting in favorable public opinion and amid persistent allegations of overpriced petroleum products, a categorical “no” from government would have been at least a positive public relations move.
But Finance secretary Margarito Teves, while acknowledging that the World Bank proposal is untimely, said that his department is seriously studying the suggestion and implied that if the World Bank can convince them, they might increase the gasoline excise tax, albeit in a proper time. Maybe after SONA?
There are two points I wish to raise here. One, petroleum products in the country are already artificially and unjustly high due to onerous taxes such as the 12% value added tax and overpricing especially by the Big Three (Petron, Shell, and Chevron) oil cartel. Further increasing gasoline prices through a higher excise tax will further aggravate the injustice and abuse that consumers already suffer.
Two, it is not true that the poor will not be hurt. It has been the recurring argument of Malacañang in its efforts to justify the continued imposition of the 12% VAT (which incidentally, Arroyo worked hard to increase from 10% to the current 12% starting in November 2005). But studies we made at Bayan point to the contrary. For instance, in the case of gasoline products, private car owners are not the only ones who will bear the impact of an excise tax hike. Tricycle drivers and small fishers using motorized bancas who also use gasoline products for their livelihood will be hurt more.
These people barely earn enough to meet the daily needs of their families and every centavo that will be added to their expenses will certainly make their daily existence much harder. At present, almost 600,000 tricycle drivers nationwide directly pay government P9.42 per liter in taxes on unleaded gasoline, representing the 12% VAT and the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter. Such taxes are already burdensome for them as they consume an average of 4 liters a day and thus pay government almost P38 daily in taxes.
Similarly, some 700,000 small fishers using motorized bancas directly pay government P9.10 per liter in taxes on regular gasoline, representing the VAT and excise tax. Per fishing trip, a fisher consumes as much as 10 liters and thus pay government almost P91 daily in taxes.
The World Bank, together with its twin the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has significantly shaped the country’s fiscal policies over the decades. It has strongly supported and pushed for more and higher taxes including the VAT to ensure that government would be able to service its debt obligations. At the same time, the World Bank has firmly opposed policy reforms to control the prices of basic goods and services such as the repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law. It has pushed for lower government spending on social services and promoted the privatization and commercialization of such services.
The people must oppose this latest policy dictate (cloaked as “proposal”) of the World Bank. The burden of addressing the budget gap and raising tax revenues should not fall on the shoulders of the poor. The 12% VAT on oil products must be scrapped and additional revenues should be generated through efficient tax collection, curbing corruption and smuggling, arresting the biggest tax evaders which are the corporations, and re-imposing the eliminated or reduced tariffs on imported goods.
World Bank logo

World Bank logo

The World Bank, in its latest quarterly report on the Philippines, recently proposed that government increase the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter imposed on gasoline products to ensure a quality implementation of Arroyo’s fiscal stimulus plan and address a ballooning budget gap.

According to the multilateral lending institution, its proposal would “improve the progressivity of the tax system as petroleum products are disproportionately consumed by the richer citizens”. In other words, it is acceptable to hike current taxes imposed on gasoline products because the poor will not be hurt.

The World Bank, a global institution controlled by the US and other rich countries, has become increasingly discredited and notorious through the years. For a brief discussion on how it works to intensify global poverty, as told by a former World Bank “insider” – its former Chief Economist Joseph Stiglitz – watch the short video below.

With just a little over two weeks before Mrs. Gloria Arroyo deliver her supposedly farewell State of the Nation Address (SONA), I expected Malacañang to issue an outright rejection of the World Bank proposal. Severely wanting in favorable public opinion and amid persistent allegations of overpriced petroleum products, a categorical “no” from government would have been at least a positive public relations move.

But Finance secretary Margarito Teves, while acknowledging that the World Bank proposal is untimely, said that his department is seriously studying the suggestion and implied that if the World Bank can convince them, they might increase the gasoline excise tax, albeit in a proper time. Maybe after SONA?

There are two points I wish to raise here. One, petroleum products in the country are already artificially and unjustly high due to onerous taxes such as the 12% value added tax and overpricing especially by the Big Three (Petron, Shell, and Chevron) oil cartel. Further increasing gasoline prices through a higher excise tax will further aggravate the injustice and abuse that consumers already suffer.

Two, it is not true that the poor will not be hurt. It has been the recurring argument of Malacañang in its efforts to justify the continued imposition of the 12% VAT (which incidentally, Arroyo worked hard to increase from 10% to the current 12% starting in November 2005). But studies we made at Bayan point to the contrary. For instance, in the case of gasoline products, private car owners are not the only ones who will bear the impact of an excise tax hike. Tricycle drivers and small fishers using motorized bancas who also use gasoline products for their livelihood will be hurt more.

These people barely earn enough to meet the daily needs of their families and every centavo that will be added to their expenses will certainly make their daily existence much harder. At present, almost 600,000 tricycle drivers nationwide directly pay government P9.42 per liter in taxes on unleaded gasoline, representing the 12% VAT and the current excise tax of P4.35 per liter. Such taxes are already burdensome for them as they consume an average of 4 liters a day and thus pay government almost P38 daily in taxes.

Similarly, some 700,000 small fishers using motorized bancas directly pay government P9.10 per liter in taxes on regular gasoline, representing the VAT and excise tax. Per fishing trip, a fisher consumes as much as 10 liters and thus pay government almost P91 daily in taxes.

The World Bank, together with its twin the International Monetary Fund (IMF), has significantly shaped the country’s fiscal policies over the decades. It has strongly supported and pushed for more and higher taxes including the VAT to ensure that government would be able to service its debt obligations. At the same time, the World Bank has firmly opposed policy reforms to control the prices of basic goods and services such as the repeal of the Oil Deregulation Law. It has pushed for lower government spending on social services and promoted the privatization and commercialization of such services.

The people must oppose this latest policy dictate (cloaked as “proposal”) of the World Bank. The burden of addressing the budget gap and raising tax revenues should not fall on the shoulders of the poor. The 12% VAT on oil products must be scrapped and additional revenues should be generated through efficient tax collection, curbing corruption and smuggling, arresting the biggest tax evaders which are the corporations, and re-imposing the eliminated or reduced tariffs on imported goods.

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Economy, Fiscal issues, Poverty

Why Gloria’s P330-B “Stimulus Package” Will Fail (Part 1)

A Critique of the Economic Resiliency Plan (ERP)
Part 1 of a two-part series, originally published in Bulatlat.com

gloria-pointing-up1The Economic Resiliency Plan (ERP) is a package of programs put together by the Arroyo administration in response to the global financial and economic crisis. Its stated objectives include the mitigation of the crisis’ impact and the invigoration of the domestic economy through a mix of accelerated government spending, tax cuts and public-private sector investments in infrastructure projects.

For the Filipino workers, the ERP aims to save and create as many jobs as possible and to protect the returning overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) and workers in export industries. The whole package costs P330 billion, of which almost half would be funded by the increase in the 2009 national budget. (See Table 1)

Funding issues

Publicized as a “stimulus package”, the ERP is criticized even by neoliberal economists as severely lacking in funds to stimulate economic activity amid the global downturn. According to them, a real stimulus package needs significant additional resources on top of what the government has already planned to spend. But it is estimated that of the P330 billion (US $6.92 billion based on current exchange rate of USD 1 = PhP47.672) allocated for the ERP, only P50 billion ($1.85 billion) can be considered as new funds. The said amount represents the sum realigned from the P252 billion allotted for servicing debt interest payments in the P1.41-trillion ($ 29.58 billion) national budget for 2009.

erp-table-13

The P50 billion ($1.85 billion) forms part of the P160 billion ($3.35 billion) allocated for the ERP from a total P188-billion ($3.94 billion) increase in the 2009 budget. Thus, P110 billion ($2.3 billion) of the said amount could not be considered a stimulus fund because it was already a planned increase without accounting the global crunch. If we compute the P50 billion as a portion of the gross domestic product (GDP), it is equivalent to only 0.67 percent, said economist Winnie Monsod. Compare it with, say China’s stimulus package, which is about 18 percent of its GDP. In a briefing paper, think tank IBON Foundation pointed out that the 2009 national budget is equal to only 16 percent of the GDP – the lowest since 1986! It confirmed that the current budget was not designed to respond to the global crisis.

Meanwhile, the P100 billion ($2.09 billion) of which a portion would be bankrolled by government financial institutions and social security institutions is facing serious uncertainty. A counterpart fund is supposed to come from private investors to raise the amount needed to fund large infrastructure projects. But as of this writing, administration officials have yet to clinch a definite commitment from private business. They have been negotiating with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industries (PCCI) but the said group threatened to back out in February if they will not get guarantees from government and if the projects will not start in the first half of the year. A portion of the P100 billion ($2.09 billion) will be also sourced from the Social Security System (SSS), which proposed to shell out P12.5 billion ($26 million) for the ERP. However, it is facing uncertainty as well due to strong resistance from SSS members and some lawmakers.

The P40 billion ($839 million) in tax cuts under the ERP are of course not fresh funds provided by government. They represent the estimated additional savings for low- and middle-income earners and corporations accruing from the Reformed Value Added Tax (RVAT) Law enacted in 2005. Finally, the P30 billion ($629 million) in additional benefits to members of social security institutions like the SSS and Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) are also unsure. They will depend on the viability of the said institutions’ investments. Arroyo’s own economic adviser, Albay Governor Joey Salceda, doubted such viability and pointed to the “paper losses” of the SSS and GSIS in their stock market investments, a consequence of the global economic turmoil.

More debts, more onerous taxes

Aggravating these funding problems is the perennial shortfall in government revenues to support its expenditures. The budget deficit this year is expected to jump to P177.2 billion ($3.71 billion) up to as much as P257 billion ($5.39 billion), which some analysts predicted as not even the worst case scenario. Such high budget deficit is not entirely due to government’s pump priming efforts, which as already discussed, could not even be considered real pump priming. Revenues will surely fall this year as corporate incomes drop and the number of wage earners decline because of the global crisis, adding to the already significant number of businesses that have been folding up and displacing workers even before the recession of the world economy. Already, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and the Bureau of Customs (BOC) have both lowered their collection targets for this year by P44.4 billion ($923 million) and P39.8 billion ($834 million), respectively.

The Arroyo administration then will have to further increase its borrowing. This year, it plans to increase its foreign debt by $500 million and its domestic debt by P55.45 billion ($1.16 billion). But borrowing from domestic banks will further worsen the situation for local businesses scrambling for much needed capital as they will need to compete with government for loans and raise interest rates in the process. Government thus would have to turn more to foreign creditors. But the question is will the foreign loans be available? According to the Institute of International Finance (IIF), net bank lending to emerging economies this year will see a negative swing of $227 billion (i.e. more outflows than inflows) as investors become more risk averse amid the deepening global crisis. With a tight supply of credit from foreign sources, government would be forced to accept even more onerous terms, including more burdensome conditionalities such as liberalization, deregulation and privatization, tied to these foreign loans.

To fund these debts, government is pushing for more onerous taxes on consumers already heavily burdened by the regressive VAT. Proposals to impose a tax on text messaging have been revived in Congress aside from plans to enforce new taxes on so-called sin products, soft drinks, and other consumer items. These additional taxes on ordinary consumers amid massive displacements become more outrageous considering that at the same time, proposals to provide new tax perks for big business are also being pushed in Congress while fresh liberalization commitments – reducing or eliminating tariffs on imports – through free trade deals are in the offing.

They include House Bill (HB) 6073 of Speaker Prospero Nograles which intends to attract more agribusiness firms in the country by giving them a host of tax incentives, implementation of new liberalization commitments under the ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) and the Japan-Philippines Economic Partnership Agreement (JPEPA), as well as negotiations for new deals such as the Partnership Cooperation Agreement (PCA) with the European Union (EU). All these will deprive the country of billions of pesos in potential revenues, which the Arroyo administration plans to compensate as usual by burdening consumers and ordinary income earners with more taxes.

Social (in) security

Aside from paying for the additional debt that government will surely incur to fund the ERP, ordinary income earners and taxpayers will also directly shoulder a significant amount of the Arroyo administration’s stimulus package. The supposed added benefits to members of social security institutions apparently would come from their extra contributions, and not from government funds. NEDA, for instance, is proposing to extend P10, 000 ($209) in so-called “unemployment benefits” to SSS members affected by the global economic turmoil. The said agency did not specify where it intends to source the money for this, but SSS raised the option of increasing the contributions from its members to bankroll the unemployment benefits.

As part of expanding the benefits of members of social security institutions, the SSS has already approved a P500-million ($10.48 million) fund to allow its members hit by the global crunch to avail of a maximum P15, 000 ($314) in emergency loans. But because the scheme involves loans instead of grants, it only threatens to bury in deeper debts the jobless SSS members who face a worsening uncertainty of finding a job soon, if at all. The said social security institution has also set strict and highly restrictive guidelines for those who can avail of the emergency loan. To illustrate, only SSS members who were retrenched from work starting January 1 are eligible, must have updated contributions and updated loan amortization. In other words, the SSS is further milking the workers dry instead of making available to them funds, which come from the workers themselves through their contributions, to help them cope with the raging crisis.

The ERP also intends to supposedly expand government’s social protection programs including the so-called Conditional Cash Transfers (CCTs). But this program is also criticized for being extremely limited both in funding and scope. For instance, out of some 4.5 million poor households nationwide, CCTs target only 321,000, mostly in Metro Manila. (See Table)

erp-table-2

The CCTs is an old program of the Arroyo administration that is being funded mainly through the so-called “Katas ng VAT”. But since a huge portion of government’s VAT collections comes from the poor and ordinary income earners through their VAT payments for petroleum products, electricity, water and other essential goods and services, the ordinary people themselves are the ones funding the CCTs. Furthermore, CCTs are also meaningless amid skyrocketing cost of living, deteriorating jobs crisis and worsening poverty in the country that remain unaddressed and are even aggravated by wrong economic policies of government.

Meanwhile, the education and health components of the ERP will not have an impact on the social protection needs of the people as long as the overall policy direction of government is to privatize and commercialize the country’s public hospitals and schools such as HB 3287 of Rep. Roque Ablan Jr., which intends to corporatize 68 public hospitals nationwide. ERP’s health and education programs are also lip service in the context of meager and declining national budget for social services. In fact, compared to the Aquino, Ramos and Estrada administrations, the Arroyo administration posts the lowest annual budget allocation for health (1.7 percent of the national budget), education (15.2 percent, second lowest behind Aquino’s 12.3 percent) and housing (0.4 percent). (To be continued)

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