Hope or despair?

Should we despair that the candidates for President fall below the gold standard? Candidate number one is a greenhorn yet ambitious. Candidate number two has a kamay na bakal, an iron fist, and he whips up crypto-fascist sentiments. Candidate number three is the perfect image of the corrupt patron. Candidate number four is incompetent, represents the oligarchy, and protects vested interests. Candidate number five is seriously ill; some say even mentally sick.

Helpless? Hopeless? Fortuitously, I found the answer to my despair from Gigo Alampay. I admire this guy more for being the mover of the independently organized TEDxDiliman (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design) and being the head of The Center for Art, New Ventures & Sustainable Development than for being a lawyer and a consultant.

This is what Gigo posted on Facebook: “I will say this though, none of the candidates for President will be worse for the Philippines than Donald Trump will be for the US.”

And no matter how repulsive the candidates are, I agree with Gigo that the outcome of the presidential elections will not lead the Philippines to apocalypse. Whatever the outcome of the elections in May 2016, our beloved Philippines will not sink into a deep pit, so long as the elections reflect the true vote, so long as the result is credible.

We can draw a lesson from the accession of Benigno S. C. Aquino III. His convincing win in 2010, even though he obtained a plurality vote and not an absolute majority, fired up investors’ sentiments. That year, the economy had a spectacular 7.6% growth rate, which has not been approximated for the rest of Aquino’s term.

The dramatic growth in 2010 will not be replicated in 2016, because whoever the winning candidate, his or her victory will not be overwhelming. Nevertheless, so long as the winner is legitimate, the normal course of economic and business life will continue.

From an economic perspective, the worst scenario, the exception being unforeseen shocks like a killer quake or a deep worldwide recession, is that growth under a mediocre president will be lower than the full potential. But lower-equilibrium growth will happen, thanks to the robust foreign exchange remittances and consumer spending, a low inflation rate, the sustained incremental revenues reaped from the sin tax, and the independent Bangko Sentral’s successful albeit costly way of tempering the real appreciation of the peso (overvaluation is harmful to the economy’s competitiveness ).

But I have one important qualification. A Binay presidency is troubling. And the troubling consequences are not because of corruption per se (investors and the people have tolerated corruption so long as it is predictable and tempered) but because of the effect of the criminal charges filed against him and family. In the event that he becomes the president (unlikely, based on his poor survey rating), Mr. Binay will use his office to fight the Ombudsman and bribe the institutions for self-preservation. All this creates political uncertainty and instability, perhaps leading to another EDSA uprising. A political crisis spooks investments.

Of course, low-equilibrium growth is bad for the country. But that is still better than the doomsday scenario that different partisans warn of when this or that candidate wins.

The economic growth under the Aquino administration has averaged 6.17% since 2010, and that’s pretty good. (That the reduction of poverty incidence has not been as impressive is another story). Yet, I contend that the current growth rate still falls below its potential. And it is worrisome that the growth has slowed down in the past two years.

In fact, the pattern of growth is erratic.

In 2010, growth was spectacular at 7.6%, but what explained it was not policy but the big win of Aquino in the May 2010 presidential elections. Such convincing victory united the nation and revived the confidence of investors and consumers.

In 2011, the growth rate fell to 3.7%, arising from government under-spending. To weed out corruption, the administration undertook a lengthy and overzealous review of contracts, in some cases even scrapping them.

The economy bounced back in 2012 and 2013, growing at 6.7% and 7.1%, respectively. Two factors account for this. First, the reforms initiated by Budget Secretary Butch Abad that accelerated public spending and made it more transparent and accountable. Second, the passage of the sin tax reform in end-2012, which dramatically increased government revenue, provided the fiscal space for government to provide the essential services, and boosted the country’s credit rating.

But here’s the rub. The Supreme Court struck down an important budget reform — the Disbursement Acceleration Program. This led to over-cautious and inefficient public spending. The lesson is: Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Further, the administration did not follow up the sin tax victory with other important tax reform measures. The division in the Cabinet and the non-cooperation of the leadership in Congress killed the bill on rationalizing fiscal incentives. President Aquino rejected the personal income tax reform (not good politics, not good economics, either). At the same time, he did not approve of increasing tax rates for, say, petroleum (a good tax that brings many dividends), which would have compensated for the revenue drop arising from the income tax reform.

Hence, the administration will not achieve its goal of a tax effort of 15.6% (amount of tax collected as a percentage of total economic output). At present, the tax effort stands at 13.7%.

Also unsettling for investors is the rescinding of big contracts like those on water utilities. This led to international arbitration in two venues, which unsurprisingly produced contradicting decisions.

Worse, the infrastructure bottleneck — heavy land traffic, breakdown of the rail transit system, maritime port congestion, the deterioration of airport facilities and services — has reared its ugly head.

The result of all this: the growth rate declining to 6.1% in 2014 (from 7.1% in 2013) and 5.8% in 2015.

The point is, we should moderate the triumphalist view of those in the administration and their followers. The erratic pattern of growth could have been avoided, and the economic performance could still have been optimized.

And after the elections, don’t despair. Don’t expect a crisis just because one’s favorite candidate loses. But we should not be satisfied with less-optimal growth or low-equilibrium growth, either.

The most suitable candidate, from the point of view of the economy, at this juncture, regardless of puso, kamay na bakal, or daang matuwid, is the one who can solve the binding constraints. In particular, that’s the candidate who will remove the infrastructure chokepoints, who will ensure the credible enforcement of contracts, and who will make fiscal reforms comprehensive.

Filomeno S. Sta. Ana III coordinates the Action for Economic Reforms.

www.aer.ph

CORRECTION: Upon the columnist’s request, the 15th paragraph of this piece was changed to indicate “Disbursement Acceleration Program.” The piece, which was published in BusinessWorld’s March 29, 2016 print edition, previously referred to the Priority Development Assistance Fund (PDAF).

This article was first posted on BusinessWorld last March 28, 2016.
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