The Inter-Agency Task Force on the Management of Emerging Infectious Diseases (IATF), presided by Pres. Rodrigo Duterte, addressed the country on Tuesday. Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez III was a moment of lucidity especially compared to his principal’s rambling incoherence. Unfortunately, being lucid doesn’t necessarily mean being correct.
Resilient and the best?
Sec. Dominguez opened by rejoicing about the Philippines being ranked number six out of 66 countries in the world for “economic resiliency” and supposedly “the best in Southeast Asia for financial strength”. The compulsion to welcome any sort of accolade is understandable especially coming from The Economist, a well-regarded business newspaper. We’re so starved of good news that ranking highly on any international scale – like in boxing or beauty pageants – always gives an endorphin rush.
But then again, it’s probably useful to be a little more circumspect about the metrics used to say that the country is supposedly doing well. The four measures of ‘financial strength’ in the magazine’s report are of course fine as they are and include the most important usual measures of financial strength – public debt, foreign debt, cost of borrowing, and foreign exchange reserves. Hence Sec. Dominguez’s elation over our so-called financial strength and the country’s credit ratings.
But we should presumably see things from a real development perspective and beyond the shallow endorphin rush. In which case, the main problem is the confusion between means and ends. This is actually a recurring problem with our neoliberal economic managers in particular, and free market-biased economists, policy folks, and business minds in general.
The four metrics and credit ratings aren’t valuable in themselves but for how useful they are for the presumably real development ends of policymaking – enough jobs and livelihoods so that there are no poor Filipinos, and an equitable, stable, self-reliant and sustainable economy. It’s always been odd that whenever policymakers see a conflict between financial strength and social development, the latter always loses.
Which is also to highlight that while those measures are of course better favorable than unfavorable, supposedly favorable performance can actually be undesirable depending on the price paid to get them.
Financially strong for whom?
So, some thoughts on Sec. Dominguez’s self-congratulatory echoing of an assessment that the Philippines “continues to enjoy the confidence of the international community” – meaning all the foreign creditors and investors whose main interest in the country is that we keep borrowing and stay profitable for them, to put it bluntly.
First, “financial strength” is a misnomer if this is in any way taken to refer to the level of development of the Philippine economy or even of the government. The only underlying so-called strength these metrics refer to is the country’s perceived ability to pay its foreign debt obligations. There’s no direct correlation between such so-called financial strength and a country’s level of development – a quick scan of the ranking with countries like Botswana, the Philippines, Nigeria, Indonesia and India ranking high should make that easily clear.
Finance secretaries, central bankers, and other economic managers around the world are regularly feted as the World’s Best this or that by global finance magazines and organizations. Their countries, economies and governments correspondingly benefit from the halo effect and are projected as developing – even if, as is often the case, they’re not.
Second, it matters how “good performance” along these indicators was achieved. Put another way, what may be good for financial strength may be bad for development. As is often the case.
For instance, the Philippines has had comfortable foreign exchange reserves since the 1990s mainly because of remittances from the unprecedented export of cheap labor and overseas Filipino workers. We’re so used to it, but it’s worth keeping in mind that this enormous reliance on overseas work is at huge social costs for families and exposes the inability of the domestic economy to create enough jobs for its population. It also actually distorts the economy with a huge imbalance between domestic production and incomes and final household demand. Mammoth overseas remittances – not brilliant economic managers – are arguably the biggest factor in the country avoiding foreign debt payments crisis such as in the 1980s.
Public debt, including public foreign debt, has moderated and credit ratings also improved. However, this was done on the back of an increasingly regressive tax system that relies more and more on consumption taxes rather than on direct taxes. The regressive trajectory of the country’s tax system started in earnest with the introduction of value-added tax (VAT) in the 1980s then worsened with VAT expansion in the 2000s and 2010s, and with cuts in personal income, estate and donor taxes particularly through the regressive Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) reforms since 2018.
All this increases so-called financial strength by unduly burdening poor and low-income groups who make up the majority of the population, while making it easier for the narrow sliver of the richest in the country. Sec. Dominguez is unrepentant and noticeably still pushing for the Corporate Income Tax and Incentives Rationalization Act (CITIRA) bill which, among others, lowers corporate income taxes – most of all to gain further favor from the international community.
Lastly, what is prevented by insisting on these measures as if they were ends in themselves also matters. The onset of COVID-19 and the national and global measures to control the pandemic have a tremendous impact on the economy. The Philippines and the world are in recession, and some are saying that the world is in its worst economic crisis since the Great Depression almost a hundred years ago.
Our current pandemic panic will eventually settle in the coming months, but the economy will still be stumbling. Worse, poverty and unemployment will be soaring. In such circumstances, it doesn’t make sense to be so insistent on narrow indicators of so-called financial strength to the point that urgent development measures are prevented.
Today, it’s incredibly important to put more money in people’s pockets both to help them maintain their welfare as well as to boost effective demand. It’s also important to support rural producers and small enterprises to ensure that the goods and services needed are still available. It’s also important to rapidly expand the public health system to deal with the pandemic and to meet the country’s vast COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 health problems.
Attending to all this means the government having to spend more as well as building up its capacity to intervene. Giving unwarranted emphasis on measures of ‘financial strength’ unfortunately sets artificial limits to the government meeting its human rights obligations to intervene on a massive scale.
To force an analogy, it’s like being in the hinterlands of the Philippines with an emergency case in the back of the car and the nearest hospital hours away. In this kind of situation, you don’t obsess about fuel-efficient driving or not red-lining the tachometer or limiting the car’s mileage – you step on the gas. Glorifying ‘financial strength’ is stepping on the brakes.