The first 100 days: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

PHILIPPINE STAR/ KRIZ JOHN ROSALES

I am pleased to share with readers a post that Christine Tang and I wrote on Oct. 10 for subscribers of Globalsource Partners (globalsourcepartners.com), a New York based network of independent analysts.

One hundred days have passed since Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., the late dictator’s son and namesake, was sworn in as the 17th President of the Philippines. So far, he has behaved as we expected, i.e., not like his father. Although we had said that this is both good and bad, the overall net sentiment of businesses seems to lean towards the former. That his main concern is the redemption of the family name is perhaps the key takeaway during these early days. Below is our assessment of the positives and negatives of his government so far.

THE GOOD1. The President’s appointments for the economic cluster deserve the first mention. We count here not just the core oversight functions — finance, planning, budget and industry, central bank — but several key agencies (the “++” for lack of a better term) — foreign affairs, public works, transportation, energy, trade and industry, labor and migrant workers. The naming of a five-person private sector advisory council directly in touch with the President seemed to have bolstered confidence that this will be a business-friendly administration.

2. A medium-term fiscal consolidation program containing concrete macro targets that seemed to have convinced markets of the new government’s commitment to fiscal sustainability. The sovereign has continued to maintain its investment grade credit rating and despite current volatile global financial conditions, was able to raise $2 billion worth of global bonds from the international capital markets at relatively tight spreads.

3. Fast-tracking the revision of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) of the Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) Law which will help rekindle private sector interest in investing in infrastructure. Keeping public infrastructure investments at 5% of GDP is an important plank of the new administration and the hope is that public-private partnerships will help government overcome its tight budget constraint post-COVID. As it is, the 2023 budget does not explicitly provide budget cover for donor-supported, mass transport projects that are expected to begin construction.

4. Decisiveness in acting on major pending issues that threatened the country’s energy security, including approval of Prime Infrastructure Capital’s acquisition of Shell Philippines Exploration BV’s (SPEX) 45% stake in the Malampaya gas field, as well as determination by the Department of Justice that renewable energy is not covered by 60-40 restriction on foreign equity. Both moves would pave the way for much needed investments in oil exploration and electricity generating capacity to improve energy security. Additionally, there was broad support for the Energy Regulatory Commission’s decision denying the joint petition of Metro Manila’s electricity distributor and one of its power suppliers for fuel pass-through price adjustments that would have contravened the basic terms of the power supply agreement that the two parties entered into voluntarily.

5. Reverting to a more centrist approach to foreign policy after the two previous administrations’ polar positions, i.e., Aquino’s overly pro-US then Duterte’s overly pro-China stances. Unlike his predecessor, the President appears inclined to follow the lead of his foreign affairs secretary, a career diplomat, as gleaned from his well-received speech at the UN General Assembly last month and a constructive meeting with the US President at the sidelines. Observers take this to mean that the balance will likely tilt more towards the US although the President’s personal ties with the neighborhood Goliath will likely mean continuing friendly relations with China.

THE BADThe President boasted of having put in place a “functional government” in his first 100 days, an achievement that seems to us par for the course. Yet even this we find hard to agree with given his inability to name the key person, i.e., a health secretary, to manage COVID-19’s transition to an endemic disease. When asked, he explained that consultants are still working on a “new structure” of the health department to make it responsive to all aspects of public health. Although the more sympathetic could appreciate the care being taken to choose the health chief, many observers have taken to crossing their fingers in hopes that despite a stalled vaccination program happening alongside the education department’s back-to-school mandate, the immunity wall built up thus far would be strong enough to avert another wave of infections. The critical problem of lack of leadership extends to the scandal-ridden health insurance agency that has an estimated actuarial life of only about five years.

The other disappointment is that the President has yet to convene the Legislative-Executive Development Advisory Council (LEDAC). The body, which is composed of the leaderships of the executive and legislative branches as well as representatives from public and private sectors, is crucial to ensure that the two branches work in sync and priority reforms are not delayed in congress. As it is, we worry that the gathering global gloom leaves the economic team much less time to deliver on promises and with more and more analysts expecting domestic economic growth to markedly underperform government’s target next year, congress needs to focus soonest on the President’s most urgent tax and expenditure reforms.

THE UGLYWe have written about the leadership vacuum in the Department of Agriculture when the President appointed himself secretary and its early fall out, the sugar crisis, how it was a test of the President’s leadership mettle, and how the mismanaged crisis may have sent the wrong signals to well-meaning technocrats in government. The belated resignation of his executive secretary gives hope that in time, the President would develop better instincts to course correct sooner.

At this time however, his flip-flopping on the issue of importing sugar, a move backed by his point person in the agriculture department and by his economic managers based on data showing production shortfalls, raises the question of how he intends to address the food crisis that he himself brought to the fore. There are several upcoming issues, most important of which are estimated shortfalls in rice outputs and the end-year expiry of Executive Order 171 issued by the previous administration allowing freer importation of major food items and coal.

Year-to-date, food inflation accounted for about a third of the headline inflation rate. Per the latest Pulse Asia survey, controlling inflation which is “the only majority urgent national concern, the plurality opinion among Filipino adults (42%) is one of disapproval for the national administration’s performance.” Given the predominantly supply-driven nature of domestic inflation, the BSP has repeatedly stressed the “importance of urgent non-monetary government interventions to ease domestic supply constraints.” n

Postscript. All told, so far, much more good than bad. The LEDAC was convened the day after we released our GSP report. We hope LEDAC will meet regularly, at least once a month, as it did during President Fidel Ramos’ administration.

Romeo L. Bernardo was finance undersecretary from 1990-96. He is a trustee/director of the Foundation for Economic Freedom, the Management Association of the Philippines, and the FINEX Foundation. He also serves as a board director in leading companies in banking and financial services, telecommunication, energy, food and beverage, education, real estate, and others.

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romeo.lopez.bernard@gmail.com