Economy

Economy continues slowdown under Duterte

The gross domestic product (GDP) grew by just 5.6% in the first quarter of 2019. That’s the slowest quarterly growth in four years.

Duterte’s economic managers are pinning the blame on the delayed passage of the 2019 national budget. What they do not say is that the slowdown this quarter is just a continuation of the overall trend of slowing economic growth since the Duterte administration took over in 2016. (See chart below)

Annual GDP growth rate averaged 6.9% in 2016, then slowed down to 6.7% in 2017, and further to 6.2% last year.

Not that the economy was in a better shape under Aquino and the previous regimes.

But the slowdown under Duterte shows that absent fundamental economic reforms to boost agricultural production and encourage manufacturing expansion that will create long-term, productive jobs; promote domestic consumption as growth driver (e.g., through substantial wage hikes and removal of onerous taxes); etc., the relatively rapid growth in the first half of 2010s is not sustainable.

What we have seen under Duterte so far is the further destruction of agriculture and rural livelihoods such as through the Rice Tariffication Law; continuation of the low wage policy to attract foreign investors; additional tax burden under the TRAIN Law, etc.

Duterte’s economic managers think that infrastructure spending (i.e., “Build, Build, Build”) will impact GDP figures positively. But this may be true only in the short term. As the program relies heavily on public debt, not to mention that most of the infrastructure will be privatized anyway, it will actually create more problems for the economy and the people in the long term. ###

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Human rights

Who is afraid of IBON?

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(Photo: Politiko)

The only reason that Malacañang is going after groups like IBON Foundation is that because they have been very effective in exposing the lies of the Duterte government.

IBON has been effective in refuting the false claims of Duterte’s economic managers about the TRAIN Law, inflation, improving employment situation, benefits of Chinese loans, etc.

Instead of squarely and convincingly proving as false the fact-based criticisms of IBON or look at its concrete proposals to address the country’s economic woes, the Duterte administration resorts to malicious accusations.

For the past 40 years, IBON has established itself as a reliable source of progressive research and analysis on national socioeconomic issues. From Marcos to Duterte – IBON has been consistent in its position that economics should be about the people, their rights and interests.

But the Duterte administration obviously has zero tolerance for views and alternatives that contradict its policies and programs, including on the economy. Thus, it uses public resources not only to question the legitimacy of IBON but to apparently try to shut it down.

What Malacañang is doing is blatant repression. And while it targets the sources of funding support of IBON, the irresponsible act of the Duterte government also puts the officials and staff of IBON at risk of physical harm.

That is criminal and reprehensible. ###

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Consumer issues, Economy, Free trade

PH rice import dependence rising amid weakening global production

Annual growth in rice production global

In the past two decades, imported rice has been accounting for an increasing portion of our domestic consumption. Prior to the 1995 birth of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the country’s rice import dependency ratio (i.e., the extent of dependency on importation in relation to domestic consumption) only averaged 2.45% (1990 to 1994 average). In the latest available 10-year average (2006 to 2016), the ratio has risen by 4.5 times to 11.06 percent. In the immediate 10 years since the WTO (1995 to 2005), the average ratio was 11.24 percent.

Despite increasing dependence on cheaper imported rice, the retail price of rice has continued to rise. The average annual inflation rate for rice accelerated from 4% in 1996-2006 to 5.7% in 2006-2016. Apparently, more rice imports do not necessarily translate to lower retail prices. Yet, to tame rising rice prices and ease faster overall inflation, the Duterte administration’s answer is further liberalization of rice imports through the Rice Tariffication Bill(RTB). Already passed by the Houselast month, a Senate RTB counterpart is expected before the year ends.

The RTB will liberalize rice trade by removing the quantitative restriction (QR) on imported rice. This entails scrapping the current minimum access volume (MAV) which caps rice imports at 805,200 metric tons (MT) with a 35% in-quota (e.g. within MAV) tariff. Rice imports outside the MAV are slapped with a 40% tariff. In lieu of a QR, a general tariff will be imposed.

Rice tariffication and liberalization is a Philippine commitment to the WTO but repeatedly postponed in the past due to the socially sensitive nature of rice as an agricultural commodity. The Duterte administration used the soaring price of riceto justify finally replacing the rice QR with tariff, selling the idea that the entry of more imports will bring down local prices. As of the third week of August, well-milled rice retails at Php46.35 per kilo (10% higher than a year ago) and regular milled rice at Php42.85 (13% higher).

According to government’s economic managers, tariffication could reduce the priceof rice by as much as Php4.31 per kilo and lessen inflation by at least one percentage point. Rice production in Thailand and Vietnam, the country’s main sources of rice imports, is pegged at Php6 per kilo. In the Philippines, production cost is said to be double that amount.

While not a guarantee to lower prices in the long run, opening up the rice sector to unbridled imports leaves the country’s rice security at the mercy of an unpredictable and increasingly unreliable world market. This as 95% of Philippine rice imports come from just two countries whose own domestic production is either slowing down or declining. Globally, rice production has been steadily decelerating in the past four decades.

At the same time, the already precarious livelihoodof up to 20 million Filipinos who rely on the rice sector, including some 2.5 million rice farmers, gets more insecure than ever.

Rice production in Vietnam, which accounts for almost 69% of Philippine rice imports (2010 to 2016 average), and in Thailand, which comprises 26%, has been weakening in the past four decades. In Vietnam, rice (paddy) production decelerated from an annual growth of more than 5% in the 1980s and 1990s to 2.2% in the 2000s, and 1.6% this decade. Thailand’s rice production slowed down from a yearly growth of 3% in the 1980s to 2.1% in the 1990s, before recovering to 3.1% in the 2000s. But this decade, Thai rice production is actually contracting by 3.1% every year.

Other Southeast Asian countries that are also among the world’s major rice exporters (and potential Philippine suppliers) are experiencing production declines as well. Myanmar’s rice (paddy) production went down from an annual growth of 4.9% in the 2000s to a yearly contraction of 3.1% this decade. Cambodia is still posting a 3.8 growth since 2010, but it’s twice slower than its annual expansion of 7.4% last decade.

Our own rice (paddy) production has decelerated to 1.2% this decade from a more than 3%-annual expansion in the 1990s and 2000s and about 4-5% in the 1960s and 1970s. Worldwide, rice production has been continuously slowing since the 1980s when annual growth was pegged at 3.2 percent. This declined to 1.8% in the 1990s; 1.2% in the 2000s; and 1.1% in the 2010s.

It is estimated that lifting the QR on rice will double the volume of the country’s rice imports in five years. For the already impoverished Filipino rice farmers, this means a sharp drop in income (some projections say by around 29%) as rice that are 100% cheaper to produce in Thailand and Vietnam due to heavy subsidies flood the domestic market.

Government allays fears of more bankruptcy among rice farmers through the proposed six-year Rice Competitiveness Enhancement Fund (Rice Fund) where all the duties collected from rice imports would be supposedly used to support small rice farmers. The central bank estimates an additional Php28 billion in annual revenues from rice tariffs that could be used to help prepare rice farmers for competition from imports through the Rice Fund.

But this was the same promise made to vegetable farmers and fisher folk most affected by WTO tariffication in 1995 with the Agricultural Competitiveness Enhance Fund (ACEF). Marred by corruption and mismanagement issues, the fund only ended up favoring agribusiness corporations as small farmers and fisher folk were further impoverished by massive agricultural imports.

In fact, since its introduction more than two decades ago, ACEF’s initial six-year life has been extended and reformed several times – the most recent in 2016, with implementation starting this year– because it has failed to achieve its stated objectives of protecting and preparing the farmers and fisher folk.

As mentioned, the influx of cheaper imported rice has not resulted to cheaper retail prices for consumers. The monopoly control that big private traders have over imported rice and those procured from local farmers allows them to keep retail prices high even as farmgate prices are depressed. Privatization and deregulation of its functions on palay procurement, rice importation, marketing and price control have made the National Food Authority (NFA) inutile in affecting prices. Inefficiency and corruption made the situation even worse.

Even as the price of rice continued to increase, the farmer’s share to retail prices is actually lower today. Prior to the WTO, farmer’s share to consumer peso (i.e. how much of the price paid by the consumers goes back to the rice farmers) decreased from 30.5% (1990 to 1994 average) to 28.3% in 1995 to 2005 and just slightly climbing up to 28.6% in 2006 to 2016. Note that the actual amount that goes to the rice farmers is much lower due to usury and landlessness that eat into their share in prices.

Liberalization harms both the consumers and rice farmers, and only the foreign and domestic private traders reap the benefits. Tariffication and the promotion of more imports give these private traders even greater control over the rice industry. ###

Sources of data: Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA); Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO)

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Governance, Human rights, Military & war

Militarizing development work: Army chief Rolando Bautista as DSWD head

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(Photo: The Philippine Star)

By appointing Army chief Rolando Bautista as the next DSWD Secretary, Pres. Duterte is transforming government’s social welfare and development work into one big Civilian Military Operations (CMO) for counterinsurgency.

This has serious implications, among others –

  1. It will undermine genuine development work. Already limited public resources intended for development will be further and more systematically diverted for military purposes. Gains will be measured not in development terms but whether target rebel groups have been weakened.
  2. Poor communities that require assistance will be held hostage by the military agenda as government assistance would be contingent not on their actual and urgent needs but on their support and cooperation with the military’s counterinsurgency campaign.
  3. It will make the job of civilian development workers more difficult and could even put them at risk as they will be seen as agents of the military, who many communities distrust because of their atrocities.

Thus, instead of development and peace, militarizing development work with Bautista’s appointment as DSWD chief will actually bring greater poverty and conflict. ###

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Economy, Oil deregulation

Another “record” for Duterte: Oil prices highest in 10 years

Today’s oil price hikes (OPH) bring the nominal prices of diesel and gasoline to their highest levels in a decade. Oil firms announced that they will increase the price of diesel by Php1.35 per liter today and gasoline by Php1.00.

With these upward adjustments, the common price of diesel in Metro Manila is now pegged at Php48.30 per liter. The last time the prevailing pump price of diesel was higher was on Oct 1, 2008 when diesel in Metro Manila was retailing at a range of Php46.95 to Php49.09 per liter.

On the other hand, the common price of gasoline (RON 95) in Metro Manila is now at Php60.50 per liter. The last time that the prevailing pump price of gasoline in the capital region breached the Php60-mark was on Jul 21, 2008 when unleaded gasoline was retailing at a range of Php59.20 to Php61.07 per liter.

The announced OPH today is the eighth straight in as many weeks and the 28th overall. Total price increases for the year is Php13.50 per liter for diesel and Php13.37 for gasoline. The increases include the impact of Pres. Duterte’s TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) Law that added Php2.80 per liter in the pump price of diesel and Php2.97 for gasoline.

Overall, since Pres. Duterte took over, the common price of diesel in Metro Manila has already ballooned by Php20.35 per liter and gasoline by Php19.35.

Taking advantage of automatic weekly price adjustments under the Oil Deregulation Law, oil firms also appear to be implementing much higher price changes than what global price movement and forex fluctuations supposedly warrant. This simple profiteering has allowed oil firms to pocket about Php1.41 per liter in additional profits from diesel, and around Php2.53 per liter from gasoline.

Meanwhile, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), according to the Energy department, is also now retailing in Metro Manila at Php705 to Php866 per 11-kilogram (kg) cylinder tank after oil firms increased LPG prices again yesterday (the eighth time this year). Before Pres. Duterte took over, the price range was only Php400 to Php650. Put another way, the most expensive LPG before Duterte became President in 2016 is still much cheaper than the “cheapest” LPG under him today. ###

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Economy, Oil deregulation, Privatization

“Red October” Day 1: What’s destabilizing the Duterte regime?

(Photo from AP/Bullit Marquez/The Philippine Star)

It’s “Red October” Day 1. Who or what is destabilizing the Duterte government today?

The oil companies. Oil firms announced that they will be implementing another round of oil price hikes starting Oct 1. Pilipinas Shell is hiking its LPG (liquefied petroleum gas) price by about Php2.36 per kilogram (kg) while Petron Corp. will also increase by Php2.35. These translate to an increase of almost Php26 for an 11-kg cylinder tank usually used by households. Including the previous increases since Pres. Duterte took over, LPG prices have already ballooned by an estimated Php216 to Php246. Further, starting Oct 2, oil firms will also implement a big-time price hike for diesel, gasoline and kerosene. Oil companies already announced that they will hike the price of diesel by Php1.35 per liter; gasoline, Php1.00; and kerosene, Php1.10. This will be the eighth straight week of unabated oil price hikes and would be the 28th overall for the year. Since Duterte became President, the price of diesel has already soared by more than Php20 per liter (Php13.50 this year alone) and gasoline by more than Php19 per liter (Php13.37 this year). (Read more on the latest oil price hikes here.)

The private water concessionaires of the MWSS (Metropolitan Waterworks and Sewerage System). Starting Oct 1, Maynilad Water Services Inc. will be billing its customers an additional Php0.90 per cubic meter for its basic charge under its rebased rates approved by the MWSS-Regulatory Office. This is on top of the Php0.11 per cubic meter increase due to the quarterly foreign currency differential adjustment (FCDA). Manila Water Corp.’s basic rates will likewise increase by Php1.46 per cubic meter due to rate rebasing while it will charge an extra Php0.02 per cubic meter due to the FCDA. Both rate rebasing and FCDA are mechanisms created under the privatization of MWSS that allow the private water concessionaires to adjust rates in order to pass on to the consumers all the costs of running the water services system and at the same time guarantee their profits. The rate hikes this “Red October” under the rate rebasing are just the first in four installments of increases with the three others to be implemented in Jan 2020, Jan 2021 and Jan 2022 – the second half of the Duterte presidency (that is if he is still in power).

Earlier, the Department of Economic Research of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) has estimated that inflation for September could reach 6.8%, with a range of 6.3% and as high as 7.1 percent. If the central bank’s forecast happens, this would be the ninth straight month of accelerated inflation and will be the highest in nine years. Pres. Duterte’s economic managers have repeatedly assured the public that inflation will ease in the latter part of 2018. But with the continued climb in oil prices, water rates, food prices (made worse by the impact of typhoon Ompong that destroyed almost Php27 billion worth of crops) and other basic goods and services, this appears to be a very optimistic forecast.

Rising prices and the inability or outright refusal of the Duterte administration to reverse current policies that allow unabated price hikes such as oil deregulation and water privatization, as well as its continued insistence on additional taxes under the TRAIN (Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion) that further bloat prices are fueling social unrest and instability. The latest Pulse Asia survey showed that rising prices are the most urgent concern of Filipinos along with other economic concerns such as increasing workers’ pay, reducing poverty and creating more jobs.

As it hunts for “Red October”, the Duterte administration should look at itself instead, and not at the communists and their supposed co-plotters. Apparently, its own economic policies – together with its repressive schemes – are the ones destabilizing and isolating the regime. ###

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Labor & employment

Richest Filipinos and ‘Endo’ kings are Duterte’s friends

(First published by Bulatlat.com) — The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) has recently released a list of 20 firms that it said are engaged or suspected to be engaged in labor-only contracting. Some of the country’s largest companies topped the list, including Jollibee (14,960 workers); Dole Philippines (10,521); and PLDT (8,310).

Conspicuously absent in the list are known supporters of the Duterte administration.

One is SM, which is known for its chain of malls that hires thousands of contractual workers. According to Labor Secretary Silvestre Bello III, SM was not included in the list because it promised to regularize a total of 10,000 workers. He said that they are “satisfied” already with the retail giant’s commitment. But still, such promise does not justify the absence in the DOLE list of perhaps the most notorious and known biggest employer of contractual workers in the Philippines.

By its own account, the SM Group has more than 94,500 employees which include various companies under the conglomerate engaged in banking, financing, property, retail, malls, hotel, resorts and entertainment. According to one estimate, nine out of 10 SM employees are contractual workers.

Another is San Miguel Corporation (SMC). The diversified conglomerate (with operations in food and beverages, packaging, fuel and oil, power, and infrastructure) is said to employ around 20,000 workers, of whom only about 1,000 are regular workers.

What could possibly explain the exclusion of these giant conglomerates – two of the biggest not only in the Philippines but also in the Asian region?
The obvious answer is their close ties with President Duterte.

Among the country’s major business groups, SM has been one of the most supportive to the current regime. Its top officials are among the select tycoons that share an intimate dinner or travel abroad with the President to look for business opportunities, and invited to government events to show support to centerpiece Duterte programs like the “Build, Build, Build”. Along with state-run banks, SM Group’s BDO Unibank is financing Duterte’s contentious modernization program for jeepneys.

Its officials have publicly defended the controversial war on drugs and also offered the free showing of government’s anti-drug ads in SM cinemas nationwide. They supported the administration’s warming up of ties with China even as the latter has occupied and militarized Philippine-claimed territories in the South China Sea.

SM was founded by the country’s only trillionaire Henry Sy Sr. who has been the richest Filipino for over a decade now. Sy’s already massive wealth has been rising astronomically under Duterte – from just below US$14 billion in 2016 to US$18 billion in 2017 and further to US$20 billion in 2018. That’s almost a 54 percent increase in just three years.

SM aims to cash in on closer Philippine-China ties under Duterte. China is the world’s largest consumer market and the second biggest economy that could soon topple the US as number one. For Filipino oligarchs, the potential for profits is vast.

On top of the already seven malls it has in China, SM is building a “supermall” in the major port city of Tianjin (said to rival the size of the US’s Pentagon building) as well as residential projects in various key Chinese cities. With closer bilateral ties, Chinese tourists are also flocking the country, benefitting SM’s interests in resorts and entertainment.

An even more vocal apologist of the Duterte administration is SMC, especially its head honcho Ramon S. Ang. The SMC president was among Duterte’s campaign contributors in 2016 giving an undisclosed amount and perhaps other forms of support as Ang wasn’t even listed in the official Statement of Contributions and Expenditures (SOCE). Ang also offered to buy Duterte a private jet (worth as much as US$65 million) that he could use as President while donating Php1 billion to the Chief Executive’s pet campaign, the war on drugs.

Like Sy, Ang’s fortune has also vastly grown in the past three years. From a reported net worth of US$1.21 billion in 2016, his wealth has more than doubled to US$2.5 billion in 2018. Duterte’s infrastructure push apparently also pushed up Ang’s riches, which also include interests in construction.

Like SM, SMC has been capitalizing on Duterte’s programs. SMC is among those most aggressive in expanding in Mindanao particularly in establishing vast plantations and constructing infrastructure. In partnership with Malaysia’s Kuok Group, the conglomerate is developing about 18,495 hectares of forestlands covering four Davao del Norte municipalities for oil palm production. Just last August 2016, SMC also opened a 2,000-hectare industrial estate in Malita, Davao Occidental that also has a 20-meter deep seaport that can accommodate container vessels.

SM and especially SMC are among the leading proponents in Duterte’s “Build, Build, Build” infrastructure development program, including through the controversial unsolicited route. SMC alone accounts for 53 percent (P1.59 trillion) of the cost of all unsolicited proposals (P3 trillion) that have pitched to the Duterte administration. These include the P700-billion New Manila International Airport; the P338.8-billion Manila Bay Integrated Flood Control, Coastal Defense and Expressway Project; and P554-billion expansion of the Metro Manila Skyway and the South Luzon Expressway (SLEX).

SM (together with the Ayala group), on the other hand, has submitted an unsolicited proposal to build a P25-billion 8.6-kilometer elevated toll road that will supposedly help decongest traffic along EDSA. But as SM itself admitted, the main objective of the toll road is to increase access to its Mall of Asia complex. Through its BDO Unibank, SM also aims to profit from the “Build, Build, Build” by lending to project proponents or operators.

One of the major campaign promises that Duterte made was ending “endo” (end of contract scheme or contractualization). But two years into his presidency, that promise has remained largely unfulfilled.

With the biggest employers of contractual workers like SM and SMC as Duterte’s biggest backers, that should not come as a surprise.

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