Privatization

UN report reaffirms water privatization amid MWSS rate hike controversy

Image from www.unwater.org

Image from www.unwater.org

First published as IBON Features

The World Water Day quietly passed by last March 22. It’s a United Nations (UN) event that has been observed since 1993 to highlight the issues facing global water resources. For this year, the World Water Day had as its focus the water-energy nexus and how the world’s poorest survive without access to safe drinking water, adequate sanitation, sufficient food and energy services. Alas, it was also an occasion used by the UN to push for the further privatization and commodification of water and energy resources.

Seriously challenged

In the Philippines, the UN’s renewed support for the corporate takeover of water and energy sectors came at a time when these policies are seriously being challenged as consumers grasp a better understanding of how oligarchic firms are squeezing them dry with impunity under privatization.

The controversial pass-on charges that private water operators Manila Water Company and Maynilad Water Services Inc. that include their corporate income tax, among others, have forced the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) Regulatory Office (RO) to reject the bid for higher water rates of the said companies. Meanwhile, the obvious price rigging at the power spot market compelled the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC) to order the recalculation of the electricity rate hike that the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) is seeking.

In both cases, it was the vigilant public – through people’s organizations, consumer groups and progressive political parties – that challenged the onerous rate increases. Thus, for proponents of privatization who are grappling with legitimacy issues, the UN report could not have come at a better time.

Water report

In its 2014 World Water Development Report released on the eve of World Water Day, the UN said that 768 million people do not have access to an improved source of water, 2.5 billion do not have access to improved sanitation, while 1.3 billion are not connected to an electric power grid and 2.6 billion use solid fuel – mainly biomass – to cook. It noted energy production accounts for close to 15% of water withdrawal but could increase to 20% by 2035 due to population growth, urbanization and changing consumption patterns. The UN warned that the challenge of meeting the demand for energy might well come at the expense of water resources and thus called for coordinated water and energy management policies. (You may download the full report here.)

Such coordinated policies, according to the UN, include revising pricing practices to ensure that water and energy are sold at rates that reflect their real cost and environmental impact more accurately. Furthermore, noting that the scope of investments required to developing durable alternative infrastructures, the UN underscored that the private sector should play a major role in supplementing public expenditure.

Private participation, full cost recovery

International financial institutions (IFIs) notably the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) are long propagating this idea of private participation in infrastructure, or also called Public-Private Partnership (PPP), and the associated principle of full cost recovery. They in fact played a central role in bankrolling neoliberal structural reforms in the water and energy sectors in many countries, mostly in the poor, debt-ridden Third World.

Available data show that World Bank lending to the water sector from 2004 to 2011 is pegged at $34.79 billion, of which $22.14 or almost 64% are in the water supply and sanitation (WSS) subsector. Almost a quarter of WSS lending, meanwhile, went to Asia and the Pacific region. (See Chart below, click on image to enlarge)

World Bank lending to water

Reflecting the real cost of water and energy is of course a euphemism for more expensive water and electricity bills which often result from privatization and deregulation. Proponents of these neoliberal policies peddle the distorted notion that when the true economic cost of water and power is reflected through full cost recovery, its wasteful use will be addressed or even reversed, and would promote the efficient and equitable use of resources.

The Dublin Principle – a product of the 1992 International Conference on Water and Environment held in Dublin, Ireland – for instance, voiced the neoliberal assertion that “water has an economic value in all its competing uses and should be recognized as an economic good” and that “managing water as an economic good is an important way of achieving efficient and equitable, and of encouraging conservation”.

Full-cost recovery means that user fees paid for by consumers reflect the entire cost of investment and the guaranteed profits of private operators including differentials in factors that could affect profits such as foreign exchange, fuel prices, inflation, and in some cases even so-called regulatory risks, among others. The real intention, however, is to attract and ensure the participation in these sectors of private business, which naturally seeks profit assurances and risks protection.

PPP trends

Already, private investors have had substantial participation in developing and operating water and sanitation and energy infrastructures. Data collated by the World Bank’s Private Participation in Infrastructure (PPI) online database show that from 1990 to 2012, 111 countries reported private investments in the energy sector with a total of 2,653 projects reaching financial closure worth about $715.13 billion. Meanwhile, PPI indicators in the water sector during the same period are as follows: 63 countries; 814 projects; and $69.25 billion.

Private participation in the energy sector continues to expand both in the number of projects and cost per project. Again using the PPI database of the World Bank, the annual average of PPI investment in the energy sector has grown almost four-fold between the 1990s and the 2010s while the annual number of projects has increased almost three-fold. The average cost per energy project also grew by almost 44% during the same period.

Meanwhile, private participation in the water and sewerage sector has slowed down between the 1990s and 2010s – the annual average of PPI investment dropped by 10%; the annual average number of projects fell by 51%; and the average cost per project declined by more than 40 percent.

This may be explained by the fact that several of the biggest urban water utilities were privatized in the 1990s, particularly in the Third World, most notable of which were in Buenos Aires (Argentina) in 1993; Cancun (Mexico) and Gdansk (Poland) in 1994; Kelantan state (Malaysia) and Santa Fe province (Argentina) in 1995; Senegal, Cartagena (Colombia), and Aguascalientes (Mexico) in 1996; and Gabon, Cordoba (Argentina), La Paz–El Alto (Bolivia), Budapest (Hungary), Barranquilla (Colombia), Manila (the Philippines) and Casablanca (Morocco) in 1997.

Another reason is the widespread public opposition to water privatization sharpened by the contradiction between water as a human right and public good versus the neoliberal claim of water as an economic commodity that private firms can profit from. In recent years, there is an observable trend towards what some call remunicipalisation or the reversal of water utilities privatization such as in Paris, France; Dar es Salaam, Tanzania; Buenos Aires, Argentina; Hamilton, Canada; and in various municipalities in Malaysia.

However, it must be noted that water privatization has started to pick up again after the 2008 global financial and economic crises. From 2009 to 2012, private participation in water and sewerage has been growing by 28% per year in terms of investment cost. In 2012 alone, PPI investment in water and sewerage jumped by almost 54% although bulk of it was accounted for by Brazil’s three large projects worth nearly $2.5 billion – or almost 62% of the reported $4.04 billion. (See Chart, click on image to enlarge)

PPI in water and sewerage

Trumpeting “success”

Neoliberal apologists trumpet privatization as the solution to the lack of access to safe drinking water in the world, especially in poor countries, since state-run water utilities are supposedly too inefficient, bankrupt and oftentimes corrupt to perform its task. One major indicator that privatization champions point to is the Millennium Development Goal (MDG) on water where the world has supposedly achieved the target of halving the proportion of population without access to improved sources of water five years ahead of schedule. But this obscures the reality on the ground that many poor communities are still without access to reliable potable water as “improved sources” in the MDGs could refer not only to individual household connection but also to public taps or standpipes, tube well or boreholes as well as dug wells.

Take the case of the privatization of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) in Metro Manila, for example. Private concessionaires Manila Water and Maynilad claim almost universal coverage of water supply in their service areas. But parts of their claim are the bulk water connections – mostly in poor communities – where the safety and quality of water and of services are often compromised. Such bulk connections include setting up a single meter for several households, reaching a hundred in some cases. The responsibility of individually connecting to the so-called “mother meter” is up to the community (through its local association or cooperative). In some instances, rubber hoses are used to connect the households to the water supply system. In other cases, a common faucet is built from where the people fetch their water.

Challenged by people’s experience, opposition

Clearly, claims of universal coverage and continuous supply of safe drinking water are bloated to give the false impression of improved services. But what is undeniable is how water rates in Metro Manila and adjacent areas have skyrocketed under privatization effectively further marginalizing those who do not have the capacity to pay. Since MWSS was privatized in 1997, the average basic tariff has already ballooned by 585% (Maynilad) to 1,120% (Manila Water).

This as the concessionaires passed on to the consumers billions of pesos in questionable charges including their corporate income tax; cost of unimplemented projects; and cost of advertising, promotion and donations on top of passed-on charges due to inflation and foreign currency fluctuations – all while collecting profits at guaranteed rates. The process of arbitration over the rejected water rate hikes between the concessionaires and regulators being conducted by design away from public scrutiny and without consumer participation is a further reason that makes privatization oppressive and unacceptable.

The policy regime perpetrated by privatization that allowed private, profit-oriented companies to take over economically strategic and socially sensitive sectors with negligible state intervention explains why water and power rates in the country are very high – in fact, among the highest in Asia. Endorsements from institutions such as the UN to continue such policies are constantly and increasingly being challenged by the people’s experience and opposition on the ground. ###

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Consumer issues, Privatization

Water arbitration: issues and implications

It's not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. The long-term solution is to reverse MWSS privatization. (Photo from the Water for the People Network)

Arbitration shows that it’s not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. The long-term solution is to reverse MWSS privatization. (Photo from the Water for the People Network)

Updated, first published as IBON Features

Last 24 September, Manila Water Co. Inc. officially filed a dispute notice before the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) questioning the decision of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) – Regulatory Office (RO) to reduce water rates. Maynilad Water Services Inc., meanwhile, will also file soon its own dispute notice that shall set off arbitration proceedings.

(Download a PowerPoint presentation on the arbitration process here)

What does this mean and what are the implications?

One is that aside from paying the costs of arbitration, consumers may have to wait as much as three months (90 days) or possibly even longer to enjoy the lower water rates ordered by regulators. That, of course, optimistically assumes that the lower rates will be implemented at all. There is the possibility that the lower rates could even be reversed after arbitration.

Another is that even when the lower rates are finally upheld, there is no guarantee that the money amassed by the water firms during the delay in its implementation and charging more than what they should have will still be returned to the consumers. The new rates are supposed to have taken effect beginning January 1, 2013 but there is still no mechanism for how to treat the overcharging at current higher rates by water firms since the start of the year.

Consider further that arbitration of a Rate Rebasing dispute should be decided by not later than September 30 of the year in which the dispute is referred to the panel per the Concession Agreements (CA) between the private concessionaires and the MWSS. A decision in so short a time is unlikely to happen though.

(Download a copy of the Concession Agreement and related documents here)

Already greatly exposed as being contrary to public interest, the privatization of Metro Manila’s water system is further being bared as exceedingly anti-people with the concessionaires’ push for arbitration.

It also belies claims that privatization can benefit the public if only strict regulation is applied. In contrast, the current controversy shows that there can be no effective regulation under privatization. In the case of MWSS, the privatization contract or CA was designed to undermine government regulation as decisions are ultimately made by an Appeals Panel where the concessionaire and a representative of foreign business interests have a say.

Appeals Panel

Arbitration is a dispute resolution mechanism provided under Section 12.2 of the CA. It is the last resort for concessionaires and the MWSS to settle disagreements, which could no longer be resolved through negotiation, on the interpretation and implementation of the CA. Arbitration proceedings under the CA are in accordance with the United Nations (UN) Commission on International Trade Law.

An Appeals Panel handles the arbitration proceedings. According to Section 12.3 of the CA, its members include one representative each designated by the concessionaire and the MWSS-RO. A third member acts as the Chairman of the Appeals Panel and his or her appointment depends on the nature of the dispute.

For major disputes such as the ongoing controversy arising from the Rate Rebasing exercise, the President of the ICC will appoint the Chairman. For minor disputes, the representative of the concessionaire and the RO in the Appeals Panel will designate the Chairman. Foreigners can be appointed as members of the Appeals Panel, including as Chairman.

Among those being eyed to represent the RO in the Appeals Panel are former Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice Reynato Puno, former SC Associate Justice Jose Vitug, and University of the Philippines (UP) College of Law Dean Danilo Concepcion.

But the RO representative is easily outnumbered by the two representatives from the private sector, i.e. the concessionaire and the Chairman appointed by the ICC. Being from the business sector, the ICC representative could be presumed to be more partial to the interest of the concessionaires than of the public. Decisions by the Appeals Panel need not be through consensus but by a simple majority vote.

Moreover, consumers are not represented in the Appeals Panel. They also do not have access to the proceedings which are done behind closed doors.

Also, under Section 12.5 of the CA, government regulators and the concessionaires agreed to waive their right to appeal the decision of the Appeals Panel through any court, judicial or regulatory body. This illustrates how, under MWSS privatization, government has abdicated its sovereign power to regulate and set policies to protect the public interest.

RO resolution

To recall, the RO denied the rate hike applications of Maynilad (Php8.58 per cubic meter) and Manila Water (Php5.83 per cu. m.). Instead, the regulators ordered the concessionaires to reduce their basic charge by Php0.29 (Maynilad) to Php1.45 (Manila Water) per cu. m. every year until 2017.

(Download a copy of the RO resolutions: Maynilad, Manila Water)

The concessionaires’ rate hike proposals and the subsequent RO decision form part of Rate Rebasing. It is an exercise to determine water rates that will allow the concessionaires to recover their expenses and assures them of a profit rate. Rate Rebasing is done every five years throughout the 40-year lifespan of the CA.

While still falling short of correcting and reversing the 16 years of abuse and oppression of consumers under MWSS privatization, the RO’s decision is still a welcome development and would not have been possible without strong public pressure. It affirmed many of the issues long being raised by anti-MWSS privatization advocates. Aside from the highly controversial income taxes (additional data and discussion here), the RO resolution also covered other questionable items being charged to consumers such as the cost of unimplemented projects, donations and advertising, and bloated costs of projects, among others.

On top of these disallowed items, the RO also ordered the concessionaires to stop charging the Php1 per cu. m. Currency Exchange Rate Adjustment (CERA). Thus, the immediate impact of the RO resolution on water bills by October should be a reduction of Php1.29 per cu. m. for Maynilad customers and Php2.45 for Manila Water’s.

Derailing the rate cuts

But such rate cuts will only become effective if the RO resolutions are not derailed by the arbitration proceedings. The concessionaires argue that arbitration means that the lower rates will not be implemented yet. And worse, it may even be reversed in case the Appeals Panel decides in favor of Maynilad and Manila Water.

In a paid ad (see image below), Maynilad cited Section 7.1 of the CA. This section pertains to MWSS’s obligation to “cooperate with the concessionaire” on, among others, the implementation of changes to standard rates as instructed by the RO or by the Appeals Panel. According to Maynilad, the said provision means that the Appeals Panel will have the final say on the new rate in case the RO-determined rate is brought to arbitration. Thus, current rates will continue to apply until the Appeals Panel has made a decision.

maynilad paid ad - 16 sep

Regulators are questioning such interpretation of the CA. But if the concessionaires were right, consumers will continue to pay water bills bloated by the income taxes of and other onerous charges imposed by the water firms. Section 12.4 (vi) of the CA says that unless stated otherwise the Appeals Panel has 90 days to make a decision from receipt of a dispute notice. But it can also opt to extend the proceedings if mutually agreed by the disputing parties although a decision should be made not later than September 30 of the year in which the rebasing dispute is referred to.

On top of all these is the issue of arbitration costs which under Section 12.6 of the CA shall be all shouldered by the public sector – i.e. government through the MWSS and the consumers through the pass-on charges that can be imposed by the concessionaires. Arbitration costs include the fees and expenses of panel members and legal, economic or technical consultants retained by the Appeals Panel. In its 16-year history, arbitration proceedings have been conducted thrice with the total cost reaching P140.04 million.

Clearly, it is not enough that there are well-meaning regulators who will monitor the water companies. By design, MWSS privatization was meant to protect the interests of the private investors, making effective regulation practically impossible. As water advocacy groups like the Water for the People Network (WPN) assert, lower water rates can only be realized through effective state control. IBON Features

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Consumer issues, Privatization, SONA 2013

Sona 2013: Silent on water tax, all-out on LRT/MRT fare hike

Two things stood out in the State of the Nation Address (Sona) that reaffirmed the big business and neoliberal bias of President Benigno Aquino III. First, which stood out because of its conspicuous absence in the Sona, is the issue of passed on income taxes and other expenses by Manila Water and Maynilad. Second is the all-out push by Aquino to hike the fares in LRT and MRT, which is tied to the regime’s public-private partnership (PPP) or privatization program.

Incidentally, both involve two influential business interests that are widely seen to have close ties with the Aquino administration – the Ayala family and the group of Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP). The Ayalas control Manila Water while the MVP group controls Maynilad. These big business interests have also set up the Light Rail Manila Consortium, one of the bidders in the scheduled privatization of LRT 1 this month.

Double standards

Aquino’s evasion of the water income tax issue underscores the double standards of his daang matuwid and anti-corruption rhetoric, which as usual was again prominent in his speech. In his Sona, the President praised the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) for instituting reforms in the agency. It will be recalled that in his first Sona, Aquino hit the water agency for hefty bonuses enjoyed by its officials. Such anomaly has already been addressed, said Aquino, citing the almost P2-billion income of MWSS last year from a P34-million deficit in 2010. He also praised Sec. Rogelio Singson, who used to be president and CEO of Maynilad, for addressing corruption in the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH).

But while extolling the MWSS and Singson for the supposed good governance reforms in their agencies, Aquino did not mention the onerous Concession Agreement that involved MWSS and Singson and made consumers pay for the income taxes, corporate donations, advertisements and other expenses of Maynilad and Manila Water. More importantly, the President said nothing on what he intends to do with the said anomalous PPP contract. Did Sec. Rene Almendras, who as former Manila Water president was also involved in implementing the controversial Concession Agreement had a hand in determining the content of the Sona in his capacity as Secretary to the Cabinet?

The presence of former top executives of the Ayalas and MVP in key Cabinet positions and the PPP as centerpiece economic program of the Aquino administration explain the deliberate silence of the President on the controversy hounding Manila Water and Maynilad. While the MWSS-Regulatory Office is disputing the private water concessionaires on the issue of income taxes and other pass-on charges, it is still Malacañang that will be decisive ultimately.

Through their paid ads weeks before the Sona, Manila Water and Maynilad have warned not only the regulators but Malacañang itself on the supposed sanctity of privatization contracts. They know that the privatization of MWSS is regarded as the barometer of PPP in the Philippines and a decision detrimental to the water concessionaires (and favorable to the consumers) will seriously undermine the PPP initiatives of Aquino. Aquino’s refusal to issue a categorical statement backing the widespread public clamor against the questionable charges of Manila Water and Maynilad in his Sona speaks volumes about where the President’s loyalty lies. Malacañang apparently does not want to upset the Ayalas and the MVP group which have been among the most aggressive in securing PPP contracts from government.

Fare hike and privatization

While Aquino was silent on the abusive pricing of Manila Water and Maynilad and the oppressiveness of the Concession Agreement, the President was clear in his relentless push to increase the fares in LRT and MRT. Like the MWSS, the LRT and MRT fare hike was also among the controversial issues raised by Aquino in his first Sona.

Reiterating his position in 2010, Aquino claimed that increasing the LRT and MRT fares to approximate air conditioned bus fares is justified. He raised the argument repeatedly pointed out by Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC) officials – that government is supposedly subsidizing P25 (LRT) to P45 (MRT). Freeing up such subsidies means more funds for social services that will benefit the entire country and not only the Metro Manila commuters, argued the President. The DOTC has earlier announced that it will implement a P10-fare hike to be implemented in two tranches.

But it has been pointed out that the supposed subsidies, in the case of MRT, actually go to service debts arising from the guaranteed profits and sovereign guarantees given by government to the train system’s former private operators. LRT lines, on the other hand, are generating enough revenues to cover its maintenance and operation, although debts also bloat the total costs. Debts, however, should not be passed on to commuters as mass transportation is a public investment that generates economic and social gains.

Aquino and his transportation officials are not saying it, but the real reason behind the persistent drive to raise LRT and MRT fares is the government’s grand PPP program for Metro Manila’s light rail system. It will start with the P60.63-billion LRT 1 extension and privatization, the biggest PPP project so far of the administration. Increasing the fares would demonstrate government’s resolve and ability to regularly adjust fares, despite its unpopularity, to make the system profitable as planned in the draft 35-year Concession Agreement for LRT 1.

The said LRT 1 Concession Agreement is as onerous as the MWSS Concession Agreement. Its latest draft (as of June 27) still contains the so-called regulatory risk guarantee. Section 20.4.a of the draft agreement allows the private LRT 1 operator to secure “deficit payment” from government (i.e., taxpayers) when the approved fare is lower than the “notional fare”. The notional fare is a pre-determined fare level set out in the Concession Agreement that will ensure the commercial viability of LRT 1 and the profits of its private operator. This effectively deregulates the setting of fares and renders meaningless any intervention from Congress, the courts and other regulatory agencies.

Aside from the Ayala-MVP group, other LRT 1 bidders are presidential Uncle Danding Cojuangco’s SMC Infra Resources Inc.; the Consunjis’ DMCI Holdings Inc., which also lists Japanese giant Marubeni Corp. as one of its partners; and the MTD Samsung Consortium of Malaysia and South Korea.

Aquino packaged his Sona as the Sona of the people. He claimed that inclusive growth is behind every initiative of his administration. The past three years say otherwise. His silence on the Manila Water and Maynilad controversy, his all-out push for LRT and MRT fare hike, his rabid promotion of neoliberal privatization, all say otherwise. (END)

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Consumer issues, Privatization

Maynilad, Manila Water ads further expose anti-consumer MWSS privatization

water protest 3

With their full-page ads (see images below) published in various newspapers defending the unscrupulous practice of passing on their income taxes to consumers, Maynilad and Manila Water unwittingly affirmed what anti-privatization advocates have been saying all along.

From the onset, groups like the Water for the People Network (WPN) have been arguing that the crux of the issue on exorbitant water rates is the Concession Agreement, or the privatization contract, between the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) and the concessionaires. This contract, a form of public-private partnership (PPP), introduced a pricing mechanism that allowed full-cost recovery and guaranteed profits for Maynilad and Manila Water, all at the expense of consumers.

maynilad paid ad - pdi jul 9

manila water paid ad - philstar jul 9

(Download a copy of the Concession Agreement and related documents here)

Unjust and anti-consumer

The concessionaires got it all wrong when they argued that the inclusion of income taxes in the determination of water rates is legitimate because it is sanctioned by the Concession Agreement. They are banking on the so-called sanctity of contracts and blatantly ignore the larger and more fundamental issue of public interest. Such posture only underscores how unjust and anti-consumer the privatization of MWSS is, and exposes the lack of public accountability of profit-driven water service providers.

To recall, the WPN disclosed that the concessionaires passed on some P15.31 billion (Manila Water, P7.36 billion; Maynilad, P7.95 billion) worth of income taxes to their consumers from 2008 to 2012. The cost of future income taxes, estimated at P152.87 billion (Manila Water, P76.96 billion; Maynilad, P75.92 billion) from 2013 to 2037 (the end of the Concession Agreement) has been included as well in the monthly water bills.

Maynilad and Manila Water thought that the Concession Agreement is their best defense against all the flak they have been getting. In reality, however, they just inadvertently bolstered the position of anti-privatization advocates that the long-term solution to our problem of exorbitant water rates is the termination of the Concession Agreement and the reversal of MWSS privatization.

The MWSS-Regulatory Office (MWSS-RO), to which the paid ads are apparently addressed, will likely counter that, like Maynilad and Manila Water, they do respect the Concession Agreement. For the regulators, the issue is simply the proper interpretation of the privatization contract. The concessionaires, for instance, interpret Philippine business taxes referred to in the Concession Agreement as including income taxes while the MWSS-RO says otherwise.

Such dispute may be resolved “legally” through arbitration proceedings (an internal dispute settlement mechanism under the Concession Agreement) or the regular courts. But even when the result of these legal processes favors the regulators, the basic issue remains unresolved – why, in the first place, are the business taxes of the private water monopolies being shouldered by the consumers?

Other onerous provisions

And lest we forget, while the income tax is the most controversial, it is just one of the many questionable provisions of the Concession Agreement. The rate rebasing model, for example, is onerous because it allows the concessionaires to charge the cost of future expenses to consumers. Maynilad and Manila Water pass on to consumers not only the cost of projected income tax but also the cost of future projects. Some of these projects never materialized but were paid for anyway by the consumers. Two such unimplemented projects that have charged to consumers are the P48-billion Laiban Dam and the 15 CMS Water Source Replacement projects.

The Concession Agreement was designed in such a way that tariffs are regularly adjusted to ensure the financial viability of MWSS privatization. Aside from the rate rebasing every five years, the basic charge is also adjusted at the start of every year (January 1) to account for inflation, as measured by the consumer price index (CPI) for the month of July of the preceding year. It represents a double-whammy for consumers as they bear the brunt of both the inflation (rise in prices of basic goods and services, including water) and the rise in water rates due to inflation.

Under the contract, the basic charge is adjusted as well every quarter to reflect fluctuations in the foreign exchange (forex) rate, which is listed in the water bill as FCDA (foreign currency differential adjustment). The FCDA is being charged to protect Maynilad and Manila Water from losses in case of sharp declines in the value of the peso against foreign currencies that could bloat the concessionaires’ foreign loans as well as the concession fees.

While the FCDA could be negative, e.g. a reduction in the basic charge when the peso is stronger than other currencies (such as the announced rate reductions by the concessionaires last month), this is offset by another currency-related charge – the fixed P1 currency exchange rate adjustment (CERA). Burdening the consumers with the cost of forex fluctuations is already oppressive by itself but worse, consumers are even being double-charged for currency fluctuations with the collection of the FCDA and the fixed CERA. It is estimated that CERA collections have already reached P7.2 billion of which P3.4 billion went to Maynilad and P3.8 billion went to Manila Water.

Furthermore, the private concessionaires are also allowed to collect additional fees resulting from so-called extraordinary price adjustment (EPA). The EPA protects the profits of the concessionaires by charging additional fees to the consumers to cover for the financial consequences of “unforeseen events” such as changes in national laws or regulations and force majeure events (calamities, conflict, etc.), among others.

On top of these regular and guaranteed adjustments, the concessionaires collect as well the environmental charge which is equivalent to 20% of the basic charge. Maynilad is currently collecting an environmental charge of P6.93 per cu. m. while Manila Water is imposing P5.64. With the rate rebasing, the environmental charge could go up to P6.80 per cu. m. (Manila Water) to P8.63 (Maynilad). The concessionaires explain that the environmental charge pertains to additional service charges collected from consumers for the mitigation of environmental impacts in the course of water treatment and distribution and wastewater operations.

Again, imposing additional burden on consumers for the cost of something that is inherently a part of operating a water system is unreasonable. Worse, it appears that Maynilad and Manila Water are still negligent of their environmental obligations even as they impose the environmental charge. In August 2012, the Court of Appeals (CA) affirmed the P29.4-million fine imposed by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR) on MWSS, Maynilad and Manila Water for violating the Clean Water Act.

Foreign creditors

To better understand why the Concession Agreement was designed in a way that assures the commercial viability and profitability of Metro Manila’s water distribution system, we need to review the rationale behind the MWSS privatization. The main impetus for the privatization of MWSS in 1997 was the agency’s huge debts incurred from the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC). MWSS debts from the three international financial institutions (IFIs) reached around $800 million prior to privatization. Privatization was used a conditionality by these foreign lenders for new loans.

Thus, the overarching goal of privatization was not to make water services more accessible and address the corruption and inefficiencies of MWSS but to ensure that the agency will not default on its debts. But Maynilad and Manila Water did not assume the responsibility of paying the debts of MWSS but will simply act as collectors from the consumers who will shoulder these debts. From these collections, the concessionaires will pay concession fees to MWSS which it will use to service its loans. Aside from raising the concession fees, Maynilad and Manila Water are also allowed to collect their profits from the consumers.

The IFIs played a key role in the privatization process. The World Bank, through its investment arm International Finance Corp. (IFC), acted as government’s consultant in the project. The IFC designed the Concession Agreement that the MWSS eventually signed with Maynilad and Manila Water.

Challenging Aquino’s PPP

Maynilad and Manila Water, by putting on the table the Concession Agreement, have upped the ante in this raging controversy on the income tax and other onerous charges. They have, in effect, challenged Malacañang to take a position on the matter of government’s contractual obligations with private investors. Indeed, the paid ads are addressed not only to the MWSS-RO but ultimately to President Aquino.

The concessionaires know that what is at stake for the Aquino administration is its centerpiece PPP program where government’s commitment to fulfill its contractual obligations is key to enticing and reassuring big investors. MWSS privatization, in fact, has been showcased by government to promote PPP. Also, the billionaires behind Maynilad and Manila Water, namely the group of Manny Pangilinan, the Consunjis and the Ayalas are among the huge business groups that are most active in participating in Aquino’s PPP initiative.

The controversy surrounding MWSS privatization is discrediting and undermining the entire privatization program of government and further exposing the anti-people character of PPP. This is bad news for Aquino, the economic elite and foreign creditors but certainly a welcome development for the people.

By the way, advertising costs are also being passed on by Maynilad and Manila Water to consumers. So we will also foot the bill of the expensive advertisements and media campaign of the concessionaires that intend to justify their abuses. Truly enraging!

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Consumer issues, Privatization

Manila Water, Maynilad’s multi-million “pa-pogi” also charged to consumers

Maynilad donates to Pablo victims

Photo from Maynilad website

Last year, Maynilad donated P2 million and potable water to victims of typhoon Pablo in Mindanao. The West zone concessionaire of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) also donated P1.82 million to help construct 1,500 houses for informal settlers in Parañaque. Meanwhile, Manila Water has been funding the Manila Water Foundation which had a budget of P14.82 million in 2012. The East zone concessionaire’s foundation implements livelihood programs, community disaster relief operations and even researches.

There is no issue with profitable companies like Manila Water and Maynilad being “charitable” and donating funds for mass housing and disaster relief. I can even forgive them for staging such acts of supposed kindness to boost their corporate image and reap brownie points in the process. But what is unforgiveable is when these pa-pogi campaigns worth hundreds of millions of pesos by the billionaire-owners of the concessionaires are still being charged to us, poor consumers. What is even more revolting is that they even profit financially from their purported acts of altruism.

These highly questionable expenses have been included in the calculations of Manila Water and Maynilad’s current basic rate hike proposals of P5.83 per cubic meter (cu. m.) and P8.58, respectively.

P279-M in donations, advertising

The various donations made by the MWSS concessionaires do not come from the pockets of Manny Pangilinan, the Consunjis and the Ayalas. They collect it from us through our monthly water bills. We don’t just pay for their income tax; we also pay for their charity work. Also part of their pa-pogi campaigns is advertising and promotion, the costs of which are also passed on to consumers. All in all, Manila Water and Maynilad passed on not less than P279 million of their advertising and promotion expenses and donations from 2008 to 2012.

Like the estimated P15.31 billion in passed-on income tax during the same period, the costs of advertising, promotion and donations have been inserted in the basic charge being imposed by Manila Water and Maynilad as recoverable costs under their operational expenses (Opex). While the amount pales in comparison with the huge sum of income taxes passed on to consumers, it is nonetheless as unconscionable and unjust. And again, like the income tax, the MWSS concessionaires did not simply pass on these expenses but even gained profits through a guaranteed rate of return on their recoverable expenses.

Out of the P279 million, advertising and promotion expenses of Manila Water represent P97 million, and for Maynilad, P140 million, based on documents from the MWSS – Regulatory Office (MWSS-RO). Maynilad also listed P42 million in donations that they included in their Opex while there’s no available data for Manila Water and probably tucked the said item under “Other expenses”. The regulators should conduct a further audit on this; they can begin with the annual budget of the Manila Water Foundation.

(See images below)

Mla Water advertising costs 2

Maynilad advertising costs 2

What exactly are advertising and promotion expenses? Maynilad described the said item, thus: “This pertains to the cost of enhancing and promoting the image of Maynilad, developing harmonious relations with different local government units, establishing rapport with tri-media, advertisement and publication of notices in newspapers and magazines of general circulation, TV/Radio broadcasts, website, public consultations on ground and cost of sponsorships. It also includes athletic, recreational and annual cultural celebrations.” Clearly, such expenses do not have anything to do with the provision of water services and passing the costs to us is blatantly anomalous and unreasonable.

Arbitration costs, too

The MWSS-RO has already declared that they will disallow the income taxes and donations as Opex items that Manila Water and Maynilad can recover from consumers. This is welcome news. Sadly, under the Concession Agreements entered into by MWSS with the concessionaires, the MWSS-RO has no real power to impose its decisions like real regulators. Manila Water and Maynilad can question the decisions of the MWSS-RO through the process of arbitration.

(Download a copy of the Concession Agreement and related documents here)

Under Article 12.2 of the Concession Agreement, all disagreements, disputes, controversies or claims that cannot be resolved through consultation and negotiation shall be settled through arbitration proceedings. The arbitration will be presided by a three-member panel composed of one representative each from the MWSS-RO, the concerned concessionaire and a chairman who shall be jointly appointed by the regulators and the concessionaire.

Meanwhile, Article 12.6 of the Concession Agreement states that the “Costs incurred by the Appeals Panel in connection with any proceeding (including the fees and expenses of panel members and legal, economic or technical consultants retained by the Appeals Panel), shall be apportioned between the parties as the Appeals Panel shall direct and the Concessionaire’s share of such costs shall be treated as an Expenditure”. (Emphasis added)

In other words, Manila Water and Maynilad can recover their expenses in the arbitration proceedings by passing on the costs to consumers as part of their expenditure. Since 1997, there have been three arbitration proceedings with the total expenses reaching more than P140 million. (See Table)

arbitration costs

It is important to emphasize that the MWSS-RO is just merely a creation of the Concession Agreement and is in fact being funded by Manila Water and Maynilad. The Concession Agreement’s Article 11.2 mandated the MWSS to allocate a portion of the concession fees paid by the concessionaires to fund the operation of the RO.

PPP contract

The Concession Agreement is a form of a public-private partnership (PPP) or privatization contracts that the MWSS entered into with the concessionaires in 1997 and will expire in 2037. The framework and model of setting water rates that allowed Maynilad and Manila Water to pass on highly questionable charges to consumers including their past and future expenses covering income tax, projects (many of which have never been implemented), as well as advertising, promotion and donations, among others.

Shall the 14.2 million consumers of Manila Water and Maynilad suffer 24 more years before our policy makers or Malacañang rescind this patently onerous and anomalous PPP contract? (End)

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Consumer issues, Privatization, Water crisis

Water rate hikes: Maynilad, Manila Water want P153 B in future income tax passed on to consumers

water protest 1

Income tax is not a form of investment and is in fact an obligation of Manila Water and Maynilad. Yet, they charge it on consumers and even profit from it.

Manila Water and Maynilad are not only charging consumers the costs of unimplemented and future projects. They are also passing on the costs of their income tax to us, including those that they will have to pay for in the future. Worse, the water firms are even profiting from such practice because they are allowed to apply a certain rate of return on their operating expenses (Opex), which include income tax.

This unconscionable practice of Manila Water and Maynilad was disclosed by the Water for the People Network (WPN). According to the group, from 2008 to 2012, the amount of income tax being passed on to us by the concessionaires of the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) could reach P3.1 billion a year. We paid for it through our monthly water bills. Out of the P3.1 billion, Manila Water customers shouldered P1.5 billion; and Maynilad customers, P1.6 billion.

(Read the WPN statement here.)

Incidentally, Maynilad enjoyed an income tax holiday during the period. Thus, its collected income tax from consumers had been retained by the company as extra profits. Add to this the approved rate of return, called appropriate discount rate (ADR), of 9.3% enjoyed by Maynilad and Manila Water, which they can apply on their income tax (as part of Opex) and other expenses.

In the ongoing rate rebasing (an exercise that adjusts water tariffs based on past and future expenses and a guaranteed ADR), Manila Water wants to pass on an estimated P76.96 billion in income tax from 2013 until the end of its Concession Agreement (CA) with the MWSS in 2037. Maynilad, meanwhile, wants to pass on an estimated P75.92 billion during the same period of its own CA.

That’s a total of P152.87 billion worth of future income tax – or about P6.11 billion a year until 2037 – that they want us to shoulder starting today. They also want an ADR of 8.9% applied on these expenses. These amounts are included in their proposed rate hikes – P5.83 per cubic meter (cu. m.) for Manila Water and P8.58 for Maynilad.

The WPN called this practice “parasitic”. Imagine, income tax is not even a form of investment and is in fact an obligation of the concessionaires. Yet, they charge it on us and even profit from it. Parasitic indeed!

From 2008 to 2012, Manila Water has accumulated a net income of almost P20 billion and Maynilad, around P22 billion, due to rising water rates. Manila Water’s profits have been growing by about 18% annually and Maynilad, more than 40%, in the last five years. And they did not shell out a single centavo to pay for their income tax obligations. We, the consumers, paid it for them. And again, we will shoulder the tax on their future corporate income if their proposed hikes will be approved by the MWSS-Regulatory Office.

While they amass billions of profits, the water concessionaires invest very little and assume practically no risk. Consumers pay for the impact of inflation on their operation. Consumers pay for the impact of foreign exchange losses on their foreign-denominated loans. Consumers pay for any event that will affect their income, from calamities to changes in our laws. Consumers pay for the cost of protecting the environment from possible hazards of the concessionaires’ operations. Consumers pay for their past (including unimplemented) and future capital expenditures (Capex). Consumers pay for their past and future Opex, including income tax.

The concessionaires justify their action of passing on their income tax by arguing that they are not public utilities and that the Meralco ruling does not apply on them. In April 2003, the Supreme Court (SC) issued a ruling that prohibited the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) from including income tax as a recoverable operating expense.

(Read the SC decision here.)

Following is the pertinent portion of the SC decision:

“Income tax, it should be stressed, is imposed on an individual or entity as a form of excise tax or a tax on the privilege of earning income. In exchange for the protection extended by the State to the taxpayer, the government collects taxes as a source of revenue to finance its activities. Clearly, by its nature, income tax payments of a public utility are not expenses which contribute to or are incurred in connection with the production of profit of a public utility. Income tax should be borne by the taxpayer alone as they are payments made in exchange for benefits received by the taxpayer from the State. No benefit is derived by the customers of a public utility for the taxes paid by such entity and no direct contribution is made by the payment of income tax to the operation of a public utility for purposes of generating revenue or profit. Accordingly, the burden of paying income tax should be Meralco’s alone and should not be shifted to the consumers by including the same in the computation of its operating expenses.”

But for Manila Water and Maynilad, they are not public utilities and are merely “agents” of the MWSS, which in the concessionaires’ distorted logic remains the public utility. It’s pretty obvious that such argument is garbage. When the MWSS was privatized in 1997, it turned over all its functions as a public utility to Manila Water and Maynilad – from operating and improving the water service system to charging and collecting tariffs from consumers.

For the sake of argument, however, let us accept that MWSS is the public utility and Manila Water and Maynilad are just its agents. It therefore follows that as mere agents, the concessionaires derive their authority and functions from the MWSS. But by insisting that they are not covered by the SC ruling on income tax, which only supposedly covers the MWSS as the public utility, Manila Water and Maynilad have put themselves in a more privileged position than their supposed principal.

A similar case can be raised on the issue of 12% limit on the return on rate base (RORB) for public utilities. The rate base is computed by adding up the value of all the assets used in the operation of the public utility and from it, the allowed rate of return is calculated. A cap is imposed to prevent user fees from soaring too much because a public utility provides an essential service. The concessionaires claim that they are not covered by the cap, again because supposedly they are not public utilities. So, the 12% RORB applies to MWSS only as the public utility but not to its agents, again making the concessionaires more privileged than MWSS.

And there’s more. If you look further at their Opex, you’ll find items such as Advertising, Promotions and Recreation. This is how Maynilad described the said item: “This pertains to the cost of enhancing and promoting the image of Maynilad, developing harmonious relations with different local government units, establishing rapport with tri-media, advertisement and publication of notices in newspapers and magazines of general circulation, TV/Radio broadcasts, website, public consultations on ground and cost of sponsorships. It also includes athletic, recreational and annual cultural celebrations.”

As part of the Opex, it’s passed on to us. So we’re paying to enhance and promote the image of Maynilad? We’re paying so that they can have harmonious relations with LGUs and media? We’re paying for public consultations stage-managed by the concessionaires to justify their onerous rate hikes and where critical consumers are not allowed to participate? And what exactly are sponsorships, athletic, recreational and cultural celebrations and what do they have to do with the provision of water services?

All of these highlight the fundamental problems of MWSS privatization and the concept of public-private partnership (PPP), especially on key infrastructure and services like water. Big business will squeeze every centavo from consumers, pitilessly bloating our water bill and draining our pockets. Private profits don’t have a concept of public interest and public accountability. This oppression and injustice must stop. (End)

More on MWSS privatization:

PNoy and the Big Water monopolies

PH water rates among Asia’s highest

Water shortage in Metro is beyond El Nino

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Consumer issues, Cronyism & patronage, Privatization, SONA 2013

PNoy and the Big Water monopolies

big water and pnoy

Daang matuwid pa ba when big business is practically running the government and profiting immensely at the expense of the people?

By July, the 14.2 million consumers of Maynilad Water Services Inc. and Manila Water Co. Inc. will have to shell out more for their water bill. If your household is consuming 30 cubic meters (cu. m.) a month, be ready to pay an additional P234 (if your service provider is Manila Water) to P342 (Maynilad). That’s how huge the looming rate hikes are. Apparently, the 42% annual increase in the profits of Maynilad and 18% for Manila Water in the past five years are not enough for the Big Water monopolies. They want more, at our expense, of course.

The increases are due to the so-called “rate rebasing”. It’s a rate adjustment process mandated by the 1997 privatization contract or the Concession Agreement between the MWSS and its private concessionaires – Maynilad and Manila Water. Under the Concession Agreement, the concessionaires are entitled to adjust their basic rates every five years throughout the 40-year contract to achieve a guaranteed rate of return. During the rate rebasing exercise, the concessionaires submit their previous five-year performance, their new five-year business plans and their proposed tariffs to implement it, which the MWSS-Regulatory Office (MWSS-RO) reviews and approves. Since the last rate rebasing exercise in 2007, Maynilad has been posting annual profits of P3.92 billion and Manila Water, P3.68 billion. During the public consultations, Manila Water said they expect to earn P5 billion annually in the next five years after the rate rebasing; Maynilad refused to disclose its anticipated profits.

Planned increases

According to regulators, Manila Water wants a rate hike of P5.83 per cu. m. and Maynilad, P8.58 (revised from the P10.30 reported earlier). But these refer to the basic charge only. If you look at your water bill, there are other items in it that will also increase when the basic charge is raised. The environmental charge, for example, is 20% of the basic charge. Then, there’s the foreign currency differential adjustment (FCDA), which accounts for the quarterly fluctuations in the foreign exchange (forex). The FCDA is negative when the peso gains against the dollar and is positive when the peso weakens. The FCDA is currently at negative 0.37% of the basic charge for Manila Water and negative 0.98% for Maynilad. The FCDA is expected to be positive as the dollar is gaining strength in recent months. Then, there’s also the value-added tax (VAT), which is 12% of the basic charge plus the environmental charge. Factoring in these other charges, the rate hike of Manila Water could reach P7.81 per cu. m. and Maynilad, P11.41 per cu. m. Thus, the estimated P234 to P342 increase for households consuming 30 cu. m.

The table below compares our estimated monthly bills today and after the rate hikes are implemented. (Note: The table has been revised to adjust the estimated monthly water bill for Maynilad customers using 10 cu. m.)

water rates current vs hiked revised

Unreasonable rate hikes

The rate increases being sought by Maynilad and Manila Water are unreasonable for two major reasons. First, the rate hikes cover not just the cost of past projects (which consumers also finance through water tariffs) but also include future expansion and improvement plans. This means that the private concessionaires want to charge consumers the cost of projects that are yet to be implemented. This is clearly anti-consumer and allows the abuses of Maynilad and Manila Water. In their previous rate rebasing exercises, the private concessionaires charged the costs of unimplemented projects to their consumers such as the Laiban Dam Project and the 15 CMS Water Source Replacement Project, among others. According to the MWSS-RO, the costs of unimplemented projects are recovered through succeeding rate rebasing exercises. If that is the case, then water rates should have been reduced during the 2007 rate rebasing. But this did not happen because the cost of new future projects as well as new assumptions in the business plans (population growth, demand, etc.) of the concessionaires negate the supposed cost recovery of unimplemented projects in favor of the consumers. The same scenario is expected in the ongoing rate rebasing exercise.

Second, the private concessionaires are earning profits at unreasonably rapid pace. Using the return on rate base (RORB), for instance, it appears that Maynilad and Manila Water are earning beyond the 12% limit imposed on public utilities. Estimates peg the RORB of the concessionaires at more than 14 percent. The rate base is computed by adding up the value of all the assets used in the operation of the public utility and from it, the allowed rate of return is calculated. Thus, the RORB of Maynilad and Manila Water could further go up beyond the estimated 14% if the total value of the old MWSS assets already built prior to privatization is excluded. Meanwhile, using the return on equity (ROE) as standard, it also appears that Maynilad and Manila Water are profiting tremendously from their operations. It is estimated, for instance, that Manila Water has an ROE of around 19% while Maynilad has about 45 percent. These are way higher than the ROE of those in other public utilities such as telecommunications (16%) and electricity (15%). The ROE is a measure of profitability wherein the net income is computed as a proportion of the equity or the investments poured in by the investors. Maynilad and Manila Water has a very high ROE because of the very high tariffs they set while a very large chunk of the cost of MWSS privatization is financed by loans (which are fully passed on to consumers) and not by their actual investments.

Big Water running the government

Alas, despite this really onerous burden awaiting us, we should not expect the Aquino government to step in and restrain the greed of Big Water. Maynilad and Manila Water managed to put their top officials in strategic Cabinet positions, advising the President on key government policies. Secretary Rogelio Singson used to be the president and chief executive officer (CEO) of Maynilad. He now heads the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH), where the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS) is an attached agency. Secretary Rene Almendras used to be the president of Manila Water. He is now the so-called “Little President” of the Philippines, after a stint as chief of the Department of Energy (DOE). Almendras is reportedly one of the closest to Aquino, being in the innermost of the inner circle of the President.

Singson has the notoriety of generating the first political controversy faced by the Aquino administration. Just a week after taking over as DPWH Secretary, Singson appointed himself as ex-officio chairman of the Board of Trustees of the MWSS. While the move was obviously sanctioned by Malacañang through Executive Secretary Paquito Ochoa, Singson was forced to backtrack after his self-appointment as MWSS head was widely criticized due to conflict of interest. Prior to his appointment as DPWH Secretary, Singson, as Maynilad CEO, tried to seal a midnight deal with Efraim Genuino, Gloria Arroyo’s appointed chairman of the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. (PAGCOR). It involved a water concession deal for the Bagong Nayong Pilipino Entertainment City in Parañaque City that would have reportedly deprived government of an estimated P3.6 billion in water fees. Days before Aquino’s inauguration, Genuino and Singson allegedly teamed up to lobby the MWSS Board to approve the deal because Maynilad was concerned that the new PAGCOR leadership under Aquino might not be as accommodating as Genuino. President Aquino, however, defended Singson, saying that he was satisfied with the Cabinet official’s, as well as PAGCOR’s, explanation that there was no contract yet.

Almendras, meanwhile, enjoys a close friendship with Aquino, which dates back to their Ateneo days. His current office, Cabinet Secretary, was created by the President to accommodate Almendras, whom Aquino had to remove from the DOE after a dismal performance underlined by the Mindanao power crisis. The office of the Cabinet Secretary used to be the office of the Cabinet Secretariat which simply facilitates information in Malacañang, according to a Philippine Daily Inquirer report. But Aquino transformed the office through Executive Order (EO) No. 99 and gave Almendras the mandate to among others, determine priorities in the Philippine Development Plan (PDP) and sit in the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) board executive committee and subcommittees on infrastructure, social development and investment. NEDA approves public-private partnership (PPP) projects such as MWSS’s Concession Agreements with Manila Water and Maynilad. Changes in the contract between the MWSS and the private concessionaires, including those that concern water rates, also require NEDA sanction.

Aquino indeed has deep ties with the Big Water monopolies. The Ayala family, which controls Manila Water, has a long history of close association with the Aquino family, dating back to the time of Aquino’s late mother Cory as Philippine President. Manny V. Pangilinan, who controls Maynilad, has done a number of mega business deals with presidential cousin and officially declared top Aquino funder in the 2010 polls, Tonyboy Cojuangco such as the PLDT and TV5 deals. MVP and the Ayalas are seen as among the major backers of Aquino in his presidential bid. So don’t be surprised that the chief executives of their business interests landed strategic Cabinet positions.

Don’t be surprised as well that Aquino made PPP or privatization his centerpiece economic program. PPP creates more opportunities for MVP and the Ayalas to further expand their business empires. In fact, Pangilinan’s group and the Ayala family are among the most aggressive in cornering PPP contracts being offered by administration. The Ayalas, for instance, clinched the very first PPP project of Aquino – the P1.96-billion Daang Hari-SLEX Link Road Project. Meanwhile, MVP and the Ayalas have teamed up to bid for the P60-billion extension and privatization of LRT 1, the largest PPP project of the Aquino administration. Incidentally, Malacañang is even using the privatization of MWSS as a showcase in promoting PPP. MWSS privatization is truly a showcase of how PPP can be so profitable for big business. But it’s also a showcase of how privatization can be so oppressive and onerous.

MVP’s Metro Pacific Investments Corp. (MPIC) holds 43% of Maynilad. The Consunji family, which also has close ties with Aquino, controls 25% through DMCI Holdings. Big foreign companies have a substantial share in Maynilad as well with MCNK JV Corp., a unit of Japanese giant Marubeni Corp., and Lyonnaise Asia Water Limited, a unit of French firm Suez, one of the world’s largest water companies, each holding a 16% stake. The Ayala Corporation, on the other hand, has a direct 43%-stake aside from the share being held by Philwater Holdings Co. Inc., which is 60% owned by Ayala and 40% by UK-based United Utilities. Other investors in Manila Water include another Japanese giant, Mitsubishi Corp. (8%) and the World Bank’s IFC (6%) as well as First State Investments of the UK (10%), Singapore-based global fund manager Aberdeen Asset Management plc (5%) and US-based equity mutual fund Smallcap World Fund Inc. (5%).

Daang matuwid pa ba when big business is practically running the government and profiting immensely at the expense of the people? Water rates today are about 585% to 1,119% higher than the initial rates when MWSS was privatized. Our water bill is now among the most expensive in Asia. Still, we face more increases that the Aquino administration will allow despite the harsh impact on the people and despite rising poverty and joblessness.

The Aquino administration, Maynilad and Manila Water must be held accountable for exploiting and oppressing the consumers. We have to end the greed of the Big Water monopolies of Ayala and Pangilinan and their foreign partners, and reverse the anti-people policy of MWSS privatization. (END)

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2013 elections, Privatization

Privatized, foreign-controlled elections: the original sin

Comelec privatized our elections and allowed foreign firms to control it through their patented software and technology (Photo from  The Philippine Star)

“Comelec privatized our elections and allowed foreign firms to control it” (Representatives of US-based Dominion hand over a CD containing the PCOS source code to poll chief Sixto Brillantes; Photo from The Philippine Star)

The ever controversial source code is now finally available, so says poll chief Sixto Brillantes. The catch, however, is that the review can be finished only well after the elections on Monday (May 13). The review could last for as long as six months, meaning the results will be known by as late as November. This also means that we will indeed be forced to entrust our votes to an un-scrutinized computer program. If it had serious problems, we will know after the damage has been already done. Imagine the chaos it will create if the post-election review of the source code found loopholes a high-tech Garci can easily exploit to operate an electronic dagdag-bawas.

Beyond Brillantes and Comelec

Common opinion says that such predicament could have been avoided had the Commission on Elections (Comelec) simply followed what is required under the law. Republic Act (RA) 9369 or the amended Automated Election System (AES) Law mandates the review of the source code by political parties and interest groups. Poll officials failed to implement this. The primary author of the AES Law, senatorial bet Richard Gordon, has argued before the Supreme Court (SC) that such review is imperative. The elections could not proceed without it, he said.

Is it because of plain neglect of Brillantes and the Comelec that the pre-election review was not conducted? Maybe to a certain extent. But what really hostaged the availability of the source code is the fact that it is a private technology marketed for profits by a foreign company. And that’s the original sin, so to speak.  The Comelec privatized our elections and allowed foreign firms to control it through their patented software and technology. That’s where Comelec’s bigger accountability lies.

The basic issue of private and foreign control was not corrected when Comelec bought the precinct count optical scan (PCOS) machines from London (UK)-based Smarmatic International Corp. in March last year. In the first place, the decision to buy the machines was more about budget constraints. Leasing brand new units entails P6.2 billion. On the other hand, Comelec reportedly spent just P1.8 billion to purchase the 81,280 PCOS machines it leased from Smartmatic in 2010. However, the know-how and technology remained with the foreign vendors.

Indeed, the AES has made Philippine elections a multi-billion peso industry dominated by foreign companies. Aside from supplying the PCOS machines for P1.8 billion, Smartmatic also cornered five other contracts with the Comelec for the 2013 polls. One is the provision through a call center of operations and technical support services to field personnel of the Comelec who will man the PCOS machines. This contract is worth P111.6 million. The others are the P405.4-million election results (ER) transmission services; the P154.5-million transmission modems; the P46.5-million compact flash (CF) cards main; and the P46.5-million CF cards worm. All in all, these Smartmatic-Comelec deals are worth almost P2.6 billion.

Corporate dispute

But Smartmatic’s monopoly of Philippine elections (and in other countries as well) is being challenged by a fellow foreign vendor. As we discovered, Smartmatic only owns the PCOS machines but not the software to run them. The software is owned by Denver (US)-based Dominion Voting Systems which unilaterally terminated in May 2012 its license agreement with Smartmatic for the Philippine elections. It led to a legal dispute in a Delaware (US) court in September 2012. Corporate legal disputes between the two election vendors are also ongoing in Mongolia and Puerto Rico.

Thus, Brillantes and the Comelec could not release the PCOS source code owned by Dominion for public review because of possible legal issues. The situation was truly odd – the entire nation was held hostage by the conflicting private interests of multinational companies. It highlighted how under the current AES, elections as a supposed exercise of national sovereignty can be so easily undermined by foreign firms that are unaccountable to anyone except their profit-seeking investors.

Prior to the agreement between Smartmatic and Dominion to allow a public review of the PCOS source code, Brillantes has repeatedly assured AES critics that SLI Global Solutions has already certified the PCOS source code so we need not worry about its trustworthiness. SLI is the third party reviewer contracted by Comelec to scrutinize the PCOS source code. Like Dominion, SLI is also based in Denver and provides “software testing, quality assurance, and independent verification and validation”. IT firms from the same US state – and with presumably many business deals forged between them in the past (like this one) – are not exactly reassuring.

Note also that because of the dispute between Smartmatic and Dominion, the additional eight enhancements to the PCOS source code that Comelec asked have not been implemented. It is unclear what exactly these enhancements are, but we know for a fact that the PCOS machines showed insufficient accuracy in properly counting the votes, among other errors, as shown in the mock elections and in the final testing and sealing (FTS). Brillantes, however, kept telling us to just give our full trust to these unaccountable, profit-driven foreign companies. It does not help that in agreeing to give the PCOS source code for public review, Smartmatic and Dominion forged a deal riddled with confidential provisions. Brillantes was quoted as saying said that these terms are covered by a non-disclosure clause and are “personal” to the disputing companies; never mind if what is at stake is the national interest.

Canvassing source code

The PCOS software or source code is just one aspect. Seldom talked about is the source code of the Canvassing and Consolidation System (CCS), which Comelec also purchased from Smartmatic for P36.6 million. Unlike the PCOS source code, the CCS source code supposedly underwent review by the United Nationalist Alliance (UNA) and the Parish Pastoral Council for Responsible Voting (PPCRV). However, we have not tested the reliability of the CCS because the FTS of the Comelec did not include the transmission, canvassing and consolidation of votes. Furthermore, the enhancements to the CCS source code were apparently not implemented, again due to Dominion’s termination of its agreement with Smartmatic. Note that in 2010, grave concerns were raised on the security and reliability of the CCS that could have resulted in wholesale cheating.

One well-documented case of possible electronic fraud using the transmission server is Biliran. The Philippine Computer Society (PCS) identified the following instances as probable proofs of electronic fraud in the province during the 2010 automated polls: (1) The Municipal Board of Canvassers (MBOC) computer received transmission of two different elections results from two different internet addresses; (2) The MBOC received a successful transmission of results from a precinct where the PCOS machine was reported to have shut down without transmitting anything; and (3) The MBOC received transmission of results 29 hours after the polling place had already closed.

The PCS explained that the first instance shows that the MBOC computers could receive results for the same precinct from several PCOS machines. The second instance, meanwhile, shows that MBOC computers could receive results independent of the PCOS machine assigned to the precinct. These two instances demonstrate that a poll cheat with access to an unauthorized PCOS machine can transmit doctored results to the MBOC.  Finally, receiving results beyond what the PCS called as “common sense range of time for transmission delay” provides cheats a very wide window to alter the authentic elections results.

Comelec accountability

While privatization and foreign control are the underlying reasons for the numerous problems facing our elections, Comelec is accountable as well along with Smartmatic and Dominion. The poll body colluded with these foreign vendors of election technology in undermining our right to vote and our right to credible, democratic and transparent elections by instituting the type of flawed AES in 2010 and again this year. Because it entered into multi-billion peso contracts with foreign companies, it is hell-bent in defending the expensive AES despite the obvious and serious defects of the system.

Elections in the Philippines are structurally flawed; winners are determined by how much guns, goons and gold they have. It marginalizes the poor and powerless while legitimizing the domination of the political and economic elite and creating the illusion of democracy. Poll automation was seen as a step forward to address some of these issues. But with the type of AES we have, it appears that we have even taken a step backward. Modernizing our electoral process through the use of technology is not necessarily wrong. However, modernization should promote transparency, credibility, accountability and people empowerment, all of which are seriously being subverted by the privatized and foreign-controlled AES of the Comelec. (End)

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Fiscal issues, Privatization

LRT 1 privatization: public to bear costs of guaranteed private profits

Photo from Bulatlat.com

Photo from Bulatlat.com

It’s the same old story. We have seen it before in the privatization of the National Power Corp. (Napocor) where consumers are now being forced to pay more to shoulder stranded costs arising from sweetheart deals with private power generators. We have seen it in the privatization of the MRT where government has been insisting to hike fares to pay for financial obligations arising from guaranteed profits and debt payments. Both punish the public with exorbitant fees and drain the already scant resources of government.

The same fate awaits the Filipino people if the P60-billion privatization and line extension of LRT 1, the largest public-private partnership (PPP) project of President Benigno Aquino III to date, will not be stopped.

Those who are interested to look into the details of the LRT 1 privatization may download a copy of the draft 32-year concession agreement here. Scrutinizing the draft contract, we will see that despite the repeated denial by its officials, the Aquino administration will continue the usual practice of providing state guarantees to peddle its privatization program. And as you might expect, such guarantees will come at the great expense of the public.

Top-up provision

If the private operators of the MRT were granted with a guaranteed 15% return on investment (ROI) annually, the winning bidder for the LRT 1 privatization will enjoy a so-called top-up subsidy. The Department of Transportation and Communications (DOTC), the agency in charge of LRT 1 privatization, explained that the top-up provision will entail the government to shoulder the difference between the pre-approved fares contained in the concession deal and the actual fares that authorities will be able to actually implement.

This is essentially a profit guarantee for the private operator and can be found in Section 20 (on Concessionaire Revenues) of the draft concession agreement for LRT 1 privatization. Under the draft contract, the concessionaire will be entitled to a notional fare (Section 20.3.a) that shall be agreed upon by the government and the winning bidder to ensure the commercial profitability of the system. The notional fare would be periodically adjusted (read: increased) during the entire 32-year concession period. Section 20.4.a of the draft contract, meanwhile, states that: “In any period, where the Approved Fare is lower than the Notional Fare, the Grantors shall pay to the Concessionaire a Deficit Payment (“DP”), to reflect the difference between the Notional Fare (NF) and the Approved Fare (AF).” The Grantors refer to the DOTC and the Light Rail Transit Authority (LRTA).

Concretely, this means that if the DOTC or LRTA could not implement a certain fare level for LRT 1 as committed in the concession agreement due to strong public opposition and/or regulatory, legislative or judicial intervention, government is obliged to pay the private operator its expected revenues from such fare level. Government, of course, will be using public money. In other words, the public will not escape the greed of the private operator – whether as LRT 1 commuters (who will shoulder the fare hike) or as taxpayers (who will bear the top-up subsidy). Needless to say, prospective LRT 1 operators that include San Miguel Corp. Infra Resources, Inc.; Light Rail Manila Consortium of Manny V. Pangilinan and the Ayala group; DMCI Holdings, Inc. of the Consunji group; and the foreign consortium MTD-Samsung of Malaysia and South Korea are pleased with the deal that they will be competing to secure from the Aquino administration.

Regulatory risk guarantee

The top-up subsidy in LRT 1 privatization is a form of regulatory risk guarantee that the administration’s economic managers first disclosed in September 2010. The announcement was made ahead of the President’s working visit to the US where he promoted his PPP program to American investors. Two months later, Aquino officially declared the scheme as policy during the PPP Summit, which the government organized to jumpstart its privatization initiatives. In his speech, the Chief Executive said:

“The government will provide investors with protection against regulatory risk. Infrastructure can only be paid for from user fees or taxes. When government commits to allow investors to earn their return from user fees, it is important that that commitment be reliable and enforceable. And if private investors are impeded from collecting contractually agreed fees – by regulators, courts, or the legislature – then our government will use its own resources to ensure that they are kept whole.”

While providing profit guarantees is standard practice in privatization, the regulatory risk guarantee is unique to the Aquino administration. His economic managers designed the scheme so as to avoid criticisms that he is repeating the same disadvantageous perks given to PPP investors in the past that caused the financial bleeding of government such as in the case of Napocor and MRT. But the top-up subsidy or regulatory risk guarantee is essentially the same as the take-or-pay provisions in previous PPP deals. Government and the end-users will still assume all the risks associated with operating the infrastructure while the profits of the private operator are secured.

More public debts

Where will government get the funds for the LRT 1’s top-up subsidy? To be sure, it will not come from disposable funds or public savings as the national budget deficit is still huge at P127.3 billion while the national government remains heavily indebted with more than P5.38 trillion in outstanding debt as of November 2012.

Like his predecessors, Aquino will borrow more to finance his PPP program including the profit guarantee for participating private corporations.  The National Economic and Development Authority (Neda) had earlier announced that government will tap multilateral institutions to provide for the guarantees so that when PPP investors face risk, they can still “be paid fast and immediately”. One of the multilateral lenders that made a pledge to fund the government guarantees on PPP projects was the World Bank which issued the commitment during the 2010 PPP Summit. Incidentally, the World Bank through its investment arm International Finance Corp. (IFC) is the transaction advisor of the DOTC and LRTA in the LRT 1 privatization.

Undermining check and balance

Aside from the direct financial burden that will hit the people, the regulatory risk guarantee will also further undermine the already weak system of supposed check and balance through the use of regulatory authorities, courts or Congress as a venue to protect public interest. For example, to prevent the implementation of an LRT fare hike, the people may seek relief from the Supreme Court (SC) through a temporary restraining order (TRO). The DOTC and LRTA would then be prevented from implementing the fare increase. However, the private LRT 1 operator could still collect the revenues from the fare hike through government-guaranteed Deficit Payments thus effectively negating the intervention of the High Court.

The regulatory risk guarantee was designed precisely to protect the commercial interests of the private business undertaking PPP projects from such outside intervention. Economic managers behind the regulatory risk guarantee have cited the case of the South Luzon Tollway Corp. (SLTC), the private operator of the South Luzon Expressway (Slex), which the SC stopped in August 2010 from implementing a more than 250% toll hike already approved by the Toll Regulatory Board (TRB).  Bayan Muna party-list congressman Teddy Casiño also filed a House resolution seeking for a suspension of the toll increase pending a legislative inquiry.

In reality, while DOTC officials try to differentiate the LRT 1 privatization’s top-up subsidy from the controversial guaranteed ROI present in earlier PPP projects, it appears that the former is even more favorable to the private concessionaire (and therefore more disadvantageous to the public) than the latter. The 250% Slex toll hike, for instance, arose from the guaranteed 17% ROI for SLTC contained in its 2006 Supplemental Toll Operation Agreement (STOA) with the TRB. But such guaranteed ROI became meaningless when the SC issued its TRO (although eventually lifted after more than two months). With the top-up subsidy, such risk of fewer profits due to an SC TRO or any outside intervention is eliminated.

More profits through commercial development

On top of its revenues and profits from fares and guaranteed periodic fare hikes, the winning LRT 1 bidder will also enjoy additional cash flows from project land and commercial development as contained in the draft agreement’s Section 11.4. In Section 20.7.a on Commercial Revenue, the deal further stipulates that “The Concessionaire shall be entitled to make arrangements for and charge for and collect the Commercial Revenue generated from the Project subject to Relevant Rules and Procedures.”

The development and lease of commercial spaces on LRT 1 stations and depot as well as revenues from advertising could be a potential source of income for government that could be maximized instead of resorting to steep fare hikes and/or privatization. The country’s LRT and MRT system has very low non-rail revenues which include earnings from commercial development and advertising. According to a 2007 study by the Japan Bank for International Cooperation (JBIC) cited by Senator Francis Escudero, the non-rail revenues of the LRT is equivalent to a paltry 2.6% of total revenues while neighboring countries get more than 20% from advertising and commercial leases. Clearly, there is much room to generate more revenues from commercial development for government if it will retain the LRT 1. Unfortunately, such potential source of income will also be transferred to a private business under privatization.

No need for privatization

The Philippines is among the first Third World countries to implement massive privatization of infrastructure development and operation. Early efforts were set off by conditionalities attached to loans from the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in the 1980s and 1990s. Among the big-ticket items already privatized are the Napocor assets, the Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System (MWSS), the MRT, super highways like Slex, etc. Through the years, the people have been subjected to soaring and exorbitant user fees charged by the private concessionaires. Meanwhile government debt and deficit continued to balloon ironically due to, among others, privatization deals that were pursued supposedly to ease the fiscal pressure on public coffers.

Unfortunately, the Aquino administration’s PPP program will continue the long discredited and proven flawed policy of privatization such as its ongoing efforts to privatize LRT 1. Government could not even find a compelling justification to push for LRT 1 privatization. Unlike the heavily indebted Napocor and MWSS, for example, the LRTA – government operator of the LRT system – is at least generating enough revenues to finance its operation and maintenance (O&M) requirements. In 2012, the LRT 1’s gross revenues even increased by almost 10% while its farebox ratio – the proportion of fare revenues to total O&M expenses – improved from 1.10 in 2011 to 1.31 last year.  A farebox ratio of 1.0 means that fare revenues can cover 100% of O&M costs. Certainly, improving, modernizing and extending the system to Bacoor, Cavite would require additional investments and this is where the national government should step in by generating the needed funds.

Aquino could not argue that the government does not have the finances to make such investment thus the need for privatization. But if government is willing to incur more debts and guarantee the profits of whoever will win the LRT 1 project, why can’t it make the necessary investments such as through bilateral loans under concessional terms? When Malacañang was insisting on increasing the fares for LRT and MRT, its core argument was that government could no longer supposedly subsidize the system. Yet it is willing to subsidize the profits of the LRT 1 operator?

LRT 1 as a mode of mass transportation is a public investment imbued with public interest. It was never designed and intended to squeeze profits from commuters but to provide a reliable, efficient and affordable system of transportation for workers and employees, students, the self-employed, etc. Its true measure of viability is the social gains it creates for the people and the economy and not the private profits for the Ayalas and the Pangilinans, the Angs and the Cojuangcos, and their foreign partners. There’s no need to privatize it. (End)

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Economy, Privatization

“Growth” for big business, at the people’s expense

growth under aquino - ayala-pangilinan-ppp.gov.ph

The Ayala and Pangilinan groups team up in a bid to bag the ₱60-billion LRT 1 privatization project, so far the biggest PPP initiative of the Aquino administration. San Miguel Corp. of presidential uncle Danding Cojuangco is also bidding for the contract. These groups, which enjoy close ties with Aquino, have made a fortune by cornering privatization deals that burden the people with high user fees. (Photo from www.ppp.gov.ph)

Read first part

Structural issues

With the rapid and steady decline of the domestic labor market, labor export has further intensified under Aquino who deploys an average of 1.58 million OFWs a year, a significant jump from the 1 million during Arroyo’s term. If you stretch the comparison to the 1980s, the country is exporting about 3-4 times more OFWs today. In addition, OFW deployment relative to the number of domestically employed workers has steadily increased through the years – from just 2.9% in 2001 to 4.5% in 2011 – indicating the deepening reliance on labor export of the Philippines.

Their remittances (which for the first time breached the $20-billion mark in 2011 and as of September 2012 is reported at $15.57 billion but expected by the World Bank to reach a new record high of $24 billion for the full year) have been keeping the economy afloat in the past three decades by providing means for domestic consumption and payments for our import-dependent production (trade deficit stood at $6.8 billion as of October) and massive foreign debt (pegged at $61.72 billion as of September, which is also the quick and straight answer to one of the favorite 2012 highlights of the administration – the Philippines supposedly being a creditor nation).

In fact, while exports and FDI inflows have increased this year, OFW remittances, the third largest in the world behind remittances from Chinese and Mexican migrant workers, remained the single largest source of dollars for the economy. In the past 10 years, annual OFW remittances are almost 90 times the size of net FDI while the trade balance, as in previous decades, remained perennially in the red, meaning that the neocolonial import-export sector continues to take out invaluable resources from the country, while others in the region like Indonesia, Malaysia, South Korea and Singapore are posting trade surplus of between $25 to $43 billion. Like neocolonial trade, labor export actually takes away more from the economy than the remittances it brings as highly-skilled and trained Filipino workers render their productivity to foreign economies instead of ours. The social costs of labor export such as disintegrating families, issues left unmeasured by statistics, should not be ignored as well.

While actually symptomatic of the permanent and structural crisis that forever besets the Philippines, labor export and remittances drive “growth” as measured by the GDP. This is perhaps one of the biggest anomalies of our maldevelopment. The surprising third quarter expansion, for instance, was mainly driven among others by the 24.3% growth in construction gross value-added (GVA) and 24.8% growth in construction expenditure as record-breaking inflows of remittances fuel demand for residential property. The so-called real estate boom is also being pushed by the BPO sector that according to industry insiders has been driving up demand for new office space which is expected to hit a record 400,000 to half a million square meters this year, or an increase of as much as 25% from 2011.

Like labor export, growth stimulated by BPO is an aberration because its predominance in economic production is actually indicative of the country’s continuing failure to develop and industrialize. Both are the results of the domestic economy’s longstanding structural inability to generate sustainable and productive jobs from vibrant local industries including the manufacture of consumer and industrial goods and modernized agriculture. Without a national industrialization plan, we are forced to rely on what the US and other rich countries require us to do for their advanced economies, whether as production workers in their global assembly lines and factories or as call center agents to service the various needs of their clients. Certainly, they do create some (low-paying, insecure) jobs but just enough to meet their needs while the jobs generated are totally detached from our own development needs.

Furthermore, the so-called resilience amid the global crisis is not because the economy is internally-driven by sustainable, job-generating domestic industries but because our main drivers of growth – BPO and labor export – are precisely useful cost-cutting schemes for the crisis-hit economies of the First World to cope with the economic crunch. In other words, we may continue to “grow” amid the global crisis, but at the great expense of our workers who will be forced to accept further exploitative arrangements in the form of more depressed wages and lack of social protection whether as an irregular call center agent here or an undocumented migrant worker in the US.

At our expense

“Growth” indeed has been at our expense. Not only is the supposed growth not creating enough jobs, it is also being pushed by skyrocketing costs of basic needs and vital economic services. At current prices, electricity, gas and water grew the second fastest in the third quarter among all major industries, just behind construction as the year as usual saw the regular rate increases in privatized electricity and water. While this meant additional burden for the public, it meant more profits for the private corporations that control them.

The nine-month profits of the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco), for instance, increased by 7.9% to ₱12.89 billion, which the company expects to hit ₱16 billion for the full-year. Similarly, In the first nine months of 2012, Maynilad Water Services Inc. has amassed more than ₱5 billion in profits (13% higher than last year) while Manila Water Co. has raked in ₱3.9 billion in profits (26% higher than last year). Due to the never-ending surges in user fees, Manila already has the most expensive electricity rates and the fifth most expensive water rates among major Asian cities.

These utilities are controlled by the country’s richest clans and individuals who are closely associated with Aquino such as presidential uncle Danding Cojuangco and political supporters Manny Pangilinan and the Ayala family. Aside from electricity and water utilities, they also control other key infrastructure such as toll roads, telecoms and power generation. Together with other close Aquino allies like the Lopezes, Aboitizes and Consunjis, among others, these groups have positioned themselves to further expand their business empire through Aquino’s PPP scheme.

growth under aquino - table

The Ayalas have already bagged the ₱1.96-billion Daang Hari – Slex Link Road project earlier this year; Pangilinan/Ayalas, Cojuangco’s San Miguel Corp. and the Consunjis are all vying for the ₱60-billion LRT 1 extension and privatization project, which is also tied to government’s adamant plan to raise LRT/MRT fares by next year; even hospitals are not spared such as the ₱5.6-billion privatization of the Philippine Orthopedic Center which Pangilinan is eyeing to add to his growing list of hospitals.

The much ballyhooed credit rating upgrades are also being achieved at the people’s expense. Credit rating agencies cite the fiscal reforms being undertaken by Aquino that tame the national budget deficit. This includes, among others, raising government fees and imposing new charges through Administrative Order (AO) No. 31 and imposing more taxes like the newly-signed Sin Tax Law to generate additional revenues. Most of these revenues, however, will go to debt servicing as Aquino needs to gain favorable reviews from creditors and credit rating agencies.

Since Aquino took over up to September this year, government has already shelled out ₱1.59 trillion for debt servicing, equivalent to 70.2% of total revenues and 53.3% of total expenditures plus principal amortization. For comparison, debt servicing under Arroyo was equivalent to 65.8% of revenues and 41.5% of expenditures. These belie claims that the national budget under the Aquino administration is now being redirected towards social services to empower and benefit the poor. The expenditure program from 2011 to the recently signed ₱2-trillion 2013 national budget 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.

For elite interests

While the Aquino administration is harping on good governance as being behind the supposed drastic economic turnaround, much of the so-called reforms it is undertaking – with substantial backing from the US government and multilateral institutions like the World Bank – have been more about protecting elite and big business interests and less about curbing big-time systemic corruption or democratizing government. The reforms are all about creating a more conducive atmosphere for investors, i.e. stable and predictable policy environment, less business risks and reduced costs, etc. to reinforce liberalization, deregulation and privatization. The false assumption is that when business is thriving, the people will ultimately benefit through more jobs and income opportunities and improved living conditions. But clearly, this is not happening as the gains from a supposedly expanding economy have remained monopolized by a handful of big local businessmen and their foreign partners and funders.

On top of promoting the interests of big business, the good governance rhetoric is also being used to advance the agenda of the Aquino clique of the political elite. The successful ouster of Renato Corona as Supreme Court (SC) Chief Justice and the appointment of Ma. Lourdes Sereneo, for instance, were more about the consolidation of the political power of the ruling Liberal Party (LP) than making Mrs. Arroyo accountable. Executive hegemony over government branches that formulate policies (Congress) and review the legality of such policies (Judiciary) makes an even more ideal political setting to push for retrogressive economic programs that promote certain big business interests.

In the run-up to the 2013 midterm polls, the LP further heightened their political consolidation under the guise of daang matuwid. Aquino appointed Grace Padaca to the Commission on Elections (Comelec) while LP President and 2016 presidential wannabe Mar Roxas is leading the campaign to unseat non-LP governors in the vote-rich provinces of Cebu and Pangasinan through his powerful post as Secretary of the Department of Interior and Local Government (DILG). The LP is obviously laying the groundwork for their prolonged rule and continued imposition of their brand of elite governance and economics beyond the 2016 term of Aquino.

However, contradictions will surely heighten as the crisis gripping the great majority of Filipinos intensifies. The deception of good governance is good economics and the popularity of Aquino will certainly reach their threshold if joblessness, poverty and hunger continued to deteriorate. The significant 12-point drop in Aquino’s latest satisfaction rating despite the scorching speed of GDP growth could be a portent of things to come. ###

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