The clearest signs of economic failure under the Arroyo administration are in the poor conditions of millions of Filipinos.

By Sonny Africa
IBON research head

IBON Features–
The administration has made much noise of its economic performance in 2007. Most of all it crows about rapid growth in gross domestic product (GDP), the peso’s appreciation against the dollar, and reining in the national government deficit. Unfortunately these are not the whole story. There is a barrage of hype but the reality is of a weak economy and, absent fundamental economic reforms, millions of Filipinos consigned to joblessness and poverty.

A more complete descent into economic turmoil was averted last year by record overseas remittances, debt-driven spending, an upsurge in “hot money”, the fortuitous weakening of the United States (US) dollar, and a US economy that had yet to fall into recession. There was also an unmatched privatization spree with the P91 billion worth of public assets sold equivalent to nearly as much as had been sold in the previous 15 years spanning three administrations. These conditions are unlikely to recur in 2008– and the downward pull of accumulated economic problems is unavoidable.

Crisis times

The clearest signs of economic failure are in the poor conditions of millions of Filipinos. The 11.3 percent average annual unemployment rate over the period 2001-2007 is the worst 7-year period recorded in the country’s history. There were 4.1 million jobless Filipinos and 6.8 million underemployed last year, or almost 11 million Filipinos looking for work.

The government uses statistical sleight of hand to give the illusion of an improved jobs situation. Its definition of unemployment since April 2005 cuts the number of jobless not by giving them jobs but by classifying long-discouraged jobseekers and those not available/willing to immediately take up work as “not in the labor force”. This had the effect of reducing the “official” unemployment by around 3.5% and the number of jobless by 1.4 million in 2007.

Yet job creation is far short of the targeted million jobs a year and also of poor quality. Despite supposedly record growth the 861,000 net additional jobs created in 2007 is only a 2.6% increase in employment from the year before and is the fourth slowest rate of job creation in the last seven years.

The sources of jobs also betray economic backwardness. The leading sector in job creation is domestic household help with an additional 142, 000 jobs, followed by 116,000 jobs in transport, storage and communication, and 111,000 jobs in wholesale and retail trade. These are among the lowest-paying, most temporary and insecure jobs in the country. In stark contrast only 72,000 agriculture jobs and 4,000 manufacturing jobs were added yet these sectors constitute the internal productive base of the national economy.

The latest Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) noted average family income dropping between 2000 and 2006 with nominal incomes not keeping up with inflation. The incomes of the poorest four-fifths of Filipino families – or some 13.9 million families – fell between five and almost 13 percent. These 70 million or so Filipinos each struggle to survive on P110 or even much less a day.

Critical times

Things can only get worse in 2008 with the US recession and a generalized slowdown in the world economy. The domestic situation is made worse than it should be by internal weaknesses resulting from “globalization”, the erosion of domestic productive sectors and over-dependence on trade, foreign loans and capital.

As it is, manufacturing sector growth slowed to 3.3% in 2006 and its 23.1 percent share in GDP is as low as in the late 1950s. Agriculture grew at a faster 5.1% clip but then wide year-to-year variances are the norm for the sector and the its 18.4% share in GDP is the smallest in the country’s history. This internal domestic weakness makes the country unduly vulnerable.

The country has significant links to the US economy which remains our top investment and exports partner (accounting for 20 percent of the country’s respective totals). Drops in US consumption and investments will be deeply felt. This effect is magnified by “globalization” where much of Philippine exports to East Asian countries like China, South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia are actually intra-firm trade with the US still the ultimate destination. Slower growth in third party countries that depend on US and which Philippines deals with will also cause problems.

Even the vaunted local information technology (IT)-enabled industry will likely be hit hard because of its considerable dependence on the US market, further aggravated by the continued peso appreciation. The US is an overwhelming presence in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector and accounted for nearly nine-tenths of total BPO exports revenue and over two-thirds of foreign equity in 2005. Nearly nine-tenths of BPO service exports were to the US market. The impact will be most felt in the National Capital Region (NCR) where an estimated 80% of BPO employees are located.

There are also other sources of problems. Slow global growth could restrain OFW deployments and slow down remittances which will reduce domestic consumption. The administration’s inability to even let revenues keep up with nominal GDP growth, compounded by the dearth of remaining assets to sell, could lead to an uncontrolled intensification of its fiscal crisis in 2008.

The rumbling political instability stemming from unresolved issues of legitimacy, graft, corruption and political violence are also taking their toll. If these are amplified by a drop in local business sentiment then this year or the next might even see the beginning of a steep downward economic spiral.

All this highlights the folly of government economic strategies which unduly rely on external factors instead of creating jobs and producing goods by building domestic agriculture and industry. The country’s economic prospects are unfortunately made even worse by the crying need for credible leadership underpinned by a broad-based democracy.