‘Dutertenomics’: golden age of oligarchic and foreign interests in infrastructure?

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Duterte’s economic managers present “Dutertenomics” – a grand plan that they said will usher in a “golden age of infrastructure” (Photo by Marianne Bermudez/Inquirer.net)

Build, build, build” is said to be the foundation of the Duterte administration’s development plan, which his economic managers are packaging as “Dutertenomics”. The plan is supposed to usher in a “golden age of infrastructure”.

But despite the attempt at branding, Dutertenomics is neither new nor unique. Its cornerstone of massive infrastructure development is still built on the neoliberal agenda of opening up additional profit-making prospects for big local and foreign business, including through “development” lending, building and operating the infrastructure themselves and/or constructing facilities that would benefit their commercial interests.

Worse, the ambitious plan may not usher in a golden age of infrastructure but instead a golden age of oligarchic and foreign interests in infrastructure while the public bears more onerous financial burden arising from greater debts and taxes.

AmBisyon Natin

There is no denying of the urgent and huge infrastructure needs of the country, especially transport. The Philippines has the worst overall infrastructure and worst transport infrastructure (roads, railroads, port and air transport) among major countries in Southeast Asia, according to the 2015-2016 Global Competitiveness Report of the World Economic Forum (WEF). The intolerable traffic in Metro Manila and the state of disrepair of the public transport system illustrate the dismal shape of transport infrastructure in the country.

Thus, infrastructure, specifically the transport sector, has been made the cornerstone of Dutertenomics. It is a key component of AmBisyon Natin 2040, a vision to make the Philippines a “prosperous, predominantly middle-class society” that President Rodrigo Duterte has adopted as guide for long-term national development planning.

AmBisyon Natin listed priority sectors that include the development of infrastructure such as roads, ports, airports, bridges and communication (“Connectivity”) as well as housing and urban development. It also identified “investment in high-quality infrastructure to make the cost of moving people, goods and services competitive” as one of the policy instruments to make the aspirations of AmBisyon Natin a reality.

The Philippine Development Plan (PDP) 2017-2022 is the first medium-term plan anchored on AmBisyon Natin. Under this PDP, the Duterte administration aims to make its six-year term the so-called “golden age of infrastructure” with spending on infrastructure increasing substantially (i.e. 5.1% of gross domestic product or GDP in 2016 to 7.4% in 2022). Concrete and measurable indicators have been set for transport infrastructure (road, rail, air and water transport); water and power resources; and social infrastructure (classrooms, health centers, housing units).

(Download the PDP’s Chapter 1 – Introduction and Chapter 19 – Accelerating Infrastructure Development)

The “golden age of infrastructure” includes an initial list of 64 big-ticket projects for implementation or in the pipeline that are mostly transport infrastructure such as major road networks, railway systems, bus rapid transit systems, and airport and seaport modernization. These are on top of 15 ongoing infrastructure projects, which are either locally funded, with official development assistance (ODA), or through public-private partnership (PPP).

Hybrid and unsolicited PPP

PPP, which is essentially the neoliberal privatization of infrastructure development and commercialization of services, will continue to be the main program to meet the country’s infrastructure needs. The PDP will promote PPP by addressing “bottlenecks in PPP planning and implementation” and pursuing “reforms to enhance the business environment” to encourage investors. To do these, among the legislative agenda under the PDP is the amendment of the BOT Law and its implementing rules and regulations (IRR).

In the previous Aquino administration, such policy reform has taken the form of the PPP Act that will among others institutionalize state guarantees on financial and regulatory risks of PPP projects. (Read “Aquino’s PPP legacy”) In the current 17th Congress, bills to introduce the PPP Act and BOT Law amendment have already been filed in both chambers. At the Senate, Sen. Sonny Angara filed Senate Bill (SB) No. 951 (“PPP Act”) while at the House of Representatives Rep. Vilma Santos-Recto filed a counterpart proposal (House Bill or HB No. 1944). HB 2727 of Magdalo party-list Rep. Gary Alejano, meanwhile, aims to amend the BOT Law. There are also moves to introduce foreign investment liberalization through the PPP Act.

As of March 28, there are 15 awarded PPP projects worth Php310.51 billion, based on the latest status report of the PPP Center. Of these, four are completed and operational (Php31.77 billion); seven are under construction (Php150.01 billion); and four are under pre-construction (Php128.73).

The country’s richest and most influential oligarchs control these PPP projects. The San Miguel Corp. (SMC) group accounts for 45.9% of the total cost of ongoing and/or completed PPP projects as of March 2017. The Manny V. Pangilinan (MVP) and Ayala tandem, meanwhile, comprises 21.5% on top of MVP’s own projects comprising 18.9 percent. All in all, the SMC, MVP, and Ayala groups collectively control 10 of the 15 ongoing and/or completed PPP projects worth Php275.15 billion or equivalent to 88.6% of the total cost. (See Chart)

Blog 05 Dutertenomics infrastructure Chart

These same oligarchs are positioning themselves to corner more infrastructure projects as the Duterte administration promotes unsolicited projects and the so-called hybrid PPPs to push its grand infrastructure plan.

Unsolicited projects proposed by the big oligarchs now total Php2.6 trillion, mostly in the transport sector as they see opportunity in the traffic crisis. These big oligarchs take advantage of unsolicited projects to build infrastructure that they will not only profit from but would also benefit their other business interests (e.g. SM’s unsolicited proposal to build a Php25-billion toll road that will link its malls in Pasay and Makati). This further weakens the central role that government should be playing in rationally planning and deciding which key infrastructure projects are needed, where to put them, and how they serve the overall development plan.

Hybrid PPP, on the other hand, is a worse form of PPP because it puts even heavier load on the public sector than the already onerous burden it shoulders under a regular PPP. In a regular PPP, the private sector will raise funds to build the infrastructure, and then operate and maintain (O&M) it in a fixed period to recover investments and earn profits. In a hybrid PPP, the public sector will finance the construction of the infrastructure through official development assistance (ODA) loans and then give the O&M to the private sector. The public will thus be burdened with direct debt servicing for the ODA loans (in a regular PPP, debt is often a contingent liability), profit guarantees and other perks for the private operator, and high user fees.

With preference for unsolicited projects and hybrid PPP, and the pending Traffic Emergency Bill – supposedly meant to address the traffic crisis – the stage to favor certain big oligarchs is set. With emergency or special powers, the Executive could fast track the implementation of transport infrastructure projects through negotiated contracts in the pretext of solving the urgent traffic crisis.

Increased foreign role

Meanwhile, as bilateral relations with China warm up under Duterte, the administration is actively seeking Chinese financing for big-ticket infrastructure projects through bilateral ODA loans, as well as multilaterally through the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), to fulfill the so-called “golden age of infrastructure”.

Reports say that China is set to finance Php172.4-billion worth of infrastructure projects this year. This is part of the 15 projects identified for Chinese financing under the Duterte administration estimated at a total of $6.96 billion (Php349.92 billion). Earlier reports indicated that one of the projects that China will finance is the South Line of the North-South Railway Project (NSRP) for $3.01 billion (Php151.33 billion). China also expressed initial interest in bankrolling “Duterte’s dream” of Php218-billion, 830-kilometer Mindanao railway system.

Aside from China, other imperialist financial institutions are also lining up to fund Duterte’s “golden age of infrastructure”, also mostly in the transport sector. The Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA) has committed to finance three mega-transport projects with a combined cost of $8.8 billion (Php442.42 billion). Eleven other projects are being pitched as well to Japan for possible funding including irrigation and flood control projects. These projects are: $4.3-billion initial phase of the Mega Metro Manila subway system connecting FTI in Taguig City to the SM North EDSA and Trinoma malls in Quezon City; the $2.7-billion commuter line extending to Los Baños, Laguna, the south line of the North-South railway project, and the $1.9-billion high-speed rail extending to the soon-to-rise Clark Green City of the North-South Commuter Railway connecting Tutuban in Manila and Malolos, Bulacan.

The US-controlled World Bank, on the other hand, is providing $64.6 million (Php3.25 billion) for the first line of the Metro Manila bus rapid transit (BRT) system.

With increased ODA borrowing to fund infrastructure development, Duterte’s economic team has been pushing for a package of tax reforms that would be shouldered more heavily by the poor and ordinary income earners. The tax reform package entails additional burden that includes higher value-added tax (VAT), expanded and higher excise tax on all petroleum products, as well as the sugar excise tax. While the poor bear the brunt of these reforms, the rich get tax benefits such as lower corporate income tax as well as tax cuts in real estate and property-related transactions. And these rich include the oligarchs that corner the infrastructure projects (including those to be funded by ODA) the costs of which the taxpaying public will shoulder.

In addition to financing PPP projects, increased role for foreign interests is expected as the push to further liberalize infrastructure development continues. The US, for instance, has renewed calls to lift constitutional restrictions on foreign investments to allow and encourage American firms to participate in the Duterte administration’s PPP program. Another route being promoted by the US for American involvement in PPP is through the relaxation of limits set under the Foreign Investment Negative List (FINL). Meanwhile, Duterte himself has said that he is supportive of lifting constitutional limits on foreign investments through Charter change (Cha-cha).

Already, the PPP Center under the current administration has launched a UK-funded (Php4.35 million) Development of Foreign Investment Framework Project that “will facilitate the legal and institutional push to further build a favorable PPP business environment for foreign investors”. The output of this project will be translated into inputs to the PPP Act and its IRR.

Another pending legislative proposal to allow full foreign participation in key infrastructure sectors is HB 446 that seeks to amend the Public Service Act and redefine public utility. When passed, it will open telecommunications, transport and power industries to 100% foreign ownership.

Policy issue of profit-driven infrastructure

Ongoing PPP/infrastructure/transport projects continue to burden the people. The Php62.7-billion MRT-7 project (SMC) – the second largest among active PPP projects – for instance, is fraught with onerous contractual terms that are disadvantageous to taxpayers (state guarantees on private debt, amortization payments, etc.) and end-users (guaranteed fare adjustments) while causing massive displacement among urban poor and farmer communities. The same thing is true with the LRT-1 (MVP-Ayala) PPP project. (Read “How MVP-Ayala will squeeze LRT 1 commuters dry”)

Ultimately, it all goes back to the policy issue of private sector and profit-driven infrastructure development that the so-called Dutertenomics promote. The country needs to urgently address its infrastructure crisis but as IBON has repeatedly raised in the past, infrastructure development for transport as well other key sectors carried out with profit-driven agenda contradicts and undermines the role of infrastructure in improving the living condition of the people and serving the overall economic development and general public interests of the country. ###

This article was first published as IBON Features

(Exchange rate used: Php50.2752 per US dollar, March 2017 average, BSP – http://www.bsp.gov.ph/statistics/spei_new/tab12_pus.htm)

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Meralco rate hikes, prepaid electricity and neoliberal “users pay”

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Photo from GMA News Online

First published as IBON Features

The February rate hike of Php0.92 per kilowatt-hour (kWh) that the Manila Electric Co. (Meralco) announced is actually just the initial strike. In March, the unfortunate public should expect an even stronger blow from the utility giant as another rate hike of as much as Php1.44 per kWh looms.

Meralco has a simple solution for consumers who find it hard to cope with their ever-increasing monthly electricity bills. Go prepaid and supposedly save up to 20% in consumption. About 40,000 customers are already using Meralco’s prepaid system called Kuryente Load (KLoad). By yearend, Meralco expects to add 100,000 more.

But the basic question is – how can customers save amid the staggering rate increases? The answer is – they can’t. But with prepaid electricity, as the Energy Department once said, consumers will “not unnecessarily spend for what they cannot afford”. Put another way – If you can’t afford electricity, then don’t use it.

Indeed, looking past Meralco’s dodgy claim, KLoad is nothing more than the worst form of the neoliberal tenet “users pay”. It merely passes on the burden of high power rates further to the consumers. It also deepens the exclusion of the poor from access to electricity as a basic service and their right to decent living.

How it works

KLoad was pilot tested in 2013 and commercially rolled out in 2015. To use it, a customer must have Meralco’s “intelligent” meter installed first and register a mobile number for the account. Through SMS (‘text’) using the registered mobile number, the user can load KLoad cards worth as low as Php100 and as high as Php1,000.

The user will receive a text message confirming that the amount has been loaded successfully to his or her account. KLoad also lets users receive text notifications on the account’s remaining balance, low load reminder, and rate adjustments. Like prepaid cards for mobile, KLoad cards can be bought even at retail stores.

For Filipinos who have long been accustomed to prepaid mobile service, KLoad is pretty easy to grasp. In fact, it is this familiarity with and preference for prepaid mobile that Meralco banks on for its KLoad. Saddled with tight budget, most Filipinos use prepaid mobile to control spending.

Lack of a steady income, in fact, forces many to buy in tingi not just mobile credits but most of their daily needs – from shampoo to 3-in-1 coffee. The same concept supposedly applies to prepaid electricity.

The problem is it’s not quite the case.

Rising power rates

Under the KLoad system, retail rates will be the same as the effective postpaid rate at the particular month the load was consumed. Unconsumed credits in a given month will be charged with prevailing rates in the following month.

Unlike in prepaid mobile and other consumer goods where charges are more or less predictable, electricity rates vary monthly (often upwards). The reason is deregulation under the Electric Power Industry Reform Act of 2001 (Epira), which allows automatic adjustments in the generation charge and other periodic adjustments.

The fluctuating rates make it difficult for a household to effectively monitor and regulate their consumption, and accordingly plan their use of electricity based on prepaid credits.

But far more crucially, the ever-increasing power rates will offset efforts by a household to cut their electricity bill even when they shift to KLoad. No matter how much kilowatt-hour that a household tries to reduce in their consumption, the end result is still an exorbitant electricity bill.

Meralco’s own commissioned survey in 2016 shows that its rates are the third highest in Asia. An average Meralco customer is also paying 4.5% of their disposable income for electricity, higher than the global average of 3.9 percent.

Aside from deregulating rates, Epira also privatized the country’s power plants. In Luzon where Meralco operates, just three groups (i.e., San Miguel, Lopez, and Aboitiz) control 70% of power generation. Such tremendous control makes alleged collusion and price rigging easier like during power plant shutdowns that lead to rate spikes.

The whopping rate hike of up to Php1.44 per kWh that Meralco advised its customers to expect in March, for instance, is due to Malampaya maintenance shutdown from 28 January to 16 February. Other power plants will also be on maintenance shutdown on 13-17 February, placing more pressure on power supply and rates.

Anti-consumer, anti-poor

Instead of addressing these policy issues, the onus of coping with rising electricity costs is further passed on to hapless consumers under the prepaid system. With KLoad, no prepaid credits, no electricity. Disconnection is automatic, done remotely by Meralco. It’s that straightforward and heartless.

Through remote and automatic disconnection when credits run out, KLoad violates the rights of Meralco customers as outlined in the Magna Carta for Residential Electricity Consumers. These rights include the right to due process and notice prior to disconnection and suspension of disconnection.

Prepaid customers are supposed to be notified via text three days before the remaining load is estimated to run out. The warning shall be based on the average consumption of the household. But what if the household used more electricity than their average consumption and depleted the load in two days instead of three?

KLoad primarily targets poor communities where collection of monthly bill is problematic and illegal connection is prevalent. A prepaid system for these households ensures that bills are paid to and collected by Meralco. As explained by the Energy Regulatory Commission (ERC), prepaid electricity reduces pilferage and improves collection efficiency and cash flow for distribution utilities.

Meralco has an existing partnership with the National Housing Authority (NHA) to provide KLoad service to urban poor families resettled from waterways and danger areas in Metro Manila. Recently, in a Tondo slum, Meralco installed KLoad for former Smokey Mountain residents.

Notably, prepaid system is among the supposed best approaches to slum electrification that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) endorsed in its 2004 study that also included Meralco as one of the cases.

Affront to decent living

KLoad is part of the long-term plan of Meralco to install the so-called Advanced Metering Infrastructure (AMI) – an integrated system of intelligent meters – in its franchise area. The AMI will allow Meralco to, among others, remotely switch on and off the supply of electricity not only to prepaid customers but also those with regular connection.

Access to electricity is needed to achieve the minimum standard of decent living. Thus, it should not be contingent upon the ability of people to pay and must be a basic right guaranteed by the state. KLoad and Meralco’s remote and automatic disconnection system is a blatant affront to this right.

KLoad will set a worrisome precedent if not questioned and opposed. It is prepaid electricity today. Prepaid water soon? ###

Also read “Prepaid electricity, anyone?” and other articles on the Philippine power industry