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Suspending TRAIN oil taxes will lower oil prices and ease inflation—IBON

Supporting calls to suspend oil excise taxes, research group IBON said that this will go far in immediately easing the burden of rising prices on ordinary Filipinos. The group added that revenue losses can be compensated by similarly suspending recent corporate tax cuts.

IBON said that these measures can be the start not just of a more progressive tax system but also a prelude to better regulation and control over the country’s oil industry.

Amid tight supplies and later increasing demand, global oil prices have been generally rising since the pandemic started including for eight straight weeks now.

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) has cut production, the US is not releasing oil from its Strategic Reserve, and China instructed its energy companies to secure supplies for the coming winter.

From August 23 to October 15, the price per barrel of Dubai crude increased by US$15.95, Mean of Platts Singapore (MOPS) gasoline by US$19.05, and MOPS diesel by US$22.65.

Gasoline prices in this Pasig City fuel station has gone past P70/liter after last week’s oil price hike. (Photo by Pom Villanueva/Kodao)

The country is heavily reliant on oil imports so the global oil price hikes are causing domestic oil prices to follow suit. In just the past eight weeks, the price per liter of diesel hiked by Php8.70, gasoline by Php7.25, and kerosene by Php8.10.

This disproportionately burdens poor oil consumers and Filipino households, IBON said.

Just from the eight weeks of hikes, for instance, jeepney drivers have to pay Php95.70 more for 11 liters of diesel per day. Farmers have to pay Php1,653 more for 190 liters of diesel per hectare per cropping season.

Rising oil prices increases the prices of basic goods and services, IBON stressed, and fuels inflation. This is worst for the poorest 30% of the population for whom inflation is higher than the national average.

Inflation across many commodity groups is already much higher now than last year. Food inflation increased from 1.8% in the whole of 2020 to 5.4% in September 2021. Over that same period, inflation in housing, water, electricity, gas and other fuels increased from 2% to 3.4%, and in clothing and footwear from 2.5% to 2.7 percent. Inflation in health, transport and education have fortunately moderated.

IBON said that suspending the oil excise taxes under Tax Reform for Acceleration and Inclusion (TRAIN) will provide immediate relief. This will lower the price per liter of diesel by Php6.72 and of gasoline by Php6.33.

It will also remove Php3 from the price per kilo of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), lowering the price of an 11-kilo tank by Php33 not including VAT.

The price per liter of diesel can go down from some Php46.33 to Php39.61, gasoline from some Php55.51 to Php49.18, and LPG from some Php968.90 to Php935.90.

IBON also said that oil revenue losses can be offset by also suspending corporate income tax (CIT) cuts under the Corporate Recovery and Tax Incentives for Enterprises Act or CREATE.

The group noted that the government projects revenue losses of Php115.8 billion in 2021 and Php101.8 billion in 2022 from CREATE’s CIT cuts.

Reducing indirect consumption taxes such as on oil and increasing direct taxes on income makes the tax system more progressive, said IBON.

The group stressed that these immediate measures are doable and will help lower domestic oil prices and ease inflationary pressures, substantially mitigating the burden of global oil price hikes on the poorest.

Longer-term solutions should also start to be seriously considered, said IBON.

IBON stressed that more effective regulation and control of the oil industry is the only way to sustainably lower oil prices.

This can start by ensuring transparency in oil firms’ price-setting and active state intervention to prevent overpricing.

IBON pointed out that oil firms have had too much freedom to raise domestic oil prices opaquely and at will since the Oil Deregulation Law or Republic Act 8479, often changing pump prices by more than warranted by global oil price increases.

IBON also said that renationalization of oil firms such as Petron will increase the government’s capacity to intervene in the industry, with the strategic view of eventually nationalizing the majority of the oil industry. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content sharing agreement.

Reds urge people to brace for worse COVID crisis; rallies forces to lead fight vs. ‘tyrant Duterte’

The Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) urged the people to brace for an even worse crisis because of the government’s ineffectual response to the coronavirus (COVID) pandemic.

In a statement, the CPP said that due to President Rodrigo Duterte’s “unbridled neglect and failure of governance,” there appears to be an imminent break out of an even worse crisis in the coming months.”

The underground Party said there is a possibility that the COVID pandemic would lead to the downfall of the economy and people’s lives due to Duterte’s reliance on lockdowns and other onerous and burdensome policies.

If it happens, the Duterte regime would falter with the wearing down of the people’s patience, the group said.

Last August 6, the day the government imposed its strictest quarantine for the third time since the pandemic began last year, the Philippines has overtaken Indonesia with the most number of active COVID cases at close to 120,000 cases as compared to its neighbor’s more than 118,000 cases.

Since Saturday, August 14, the country registered upwards of 14,000 new cases daily, nearly matching the all-time high of more than 15,000 registered last April.

“[T]he continuing worsening of the pandemic is a result of Duterte’s pigheaded refusal to prioritize health measures,” the CPP said, noting that the government has no new solution to the emergent Delta variant of the virus but repeated lockdowns.

The group warned there is a strong possibility that COVID will spread more rapidly beyond the capacity of hospitals and facilities in the coming months due to the government’s lack of testing and contact-tracing capacity, in addition to its “turtle-paced vaccination” activities.

No recovery in the horizon

The CPP also said government’s assurances of an economic recovery appear empty due to the lack of investments to kick-start production and consumption.

“Based on experiences in 2020, there is the threat of unemployment shooting up within a few months and rapid rise of businesses losses and bankruptcies,” it said.

The Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE) announced last August 6 that 5,322 workers have lost their jobs on the first day of the current lockdown as at least 178 establishments said they were closing down or cutting their workforce.

Last March 30, DOLE said 4.2 million remained unemployed while 7.9 million workers took pay cuts from shorter working hours.

The CPP said the situation will cause the intensification of workers exploitation and further deterioration of the lives of millions in both cities and the countryside.

“People are forced to desperate straits by the rotten, failed and oppressive Duterte government. Millions of Filipinos daily suffer in long queues for food, aid and vaccines,” the group said.

All the while, government officials abuse power, politicize aid and vaccine distribution, pocket public funds, squander on counterproductive wars, or repay the ever rising government debt which did not benefit the people, the group alleged.

Human rights activists accuse Duterte of instigating mass killings of civilians. (Kodao file photo)

Resistance vs. tyranny

The CPP urged the people to act and express outrage against the Duterte government’s failed policies and response to the crisis.

 “They cannot remain silent and dispersed. They cannot forever wait for aid or rely on the good-heartedness of others to avoid extreme hunger,” it said.

“The people must resist being silenced by Duterte’s shock and terror. Their silence will all the more embolden Duterte and his vassals and minions to trample on the their rights and welfare, plunder public funds, impose heavier taxes, betray and conspire with foreign powers, monopolize political power, sow terror and perpetuate themselves in Malacañang,” it added.

It also challenged its forces as well as progressive, patriotic and democratic activists to bear “the responsibility of guiding and leading the Filipino people in their fight against Duterte’s ruling tyranny.”

“The Filipino masses have been deprived of everything. They have nothing else to lose,” the CPP said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

What Build Build Build has delivered

by Rosario Guzman

The Duterte presidency is nearing the end of its term, yet we don’t seem to be anywhere near the fulfilment of the big infrastructure dream of the administration. Build Build Build is supposed to be the centerpiece of what could be a Duterte legacy, but the program’s performance is far from defining a grand exit for the administration.

The number has changed

Only 11 of the more than 100 infrastructure flagship projects or IFPs have been completed as of May 2021. The National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA) lists another 12 IFPs that may be done by the end of 2021 and another 17 by the end of 2022. If these were even feasible, there would be a total of 40 finished projects under Pres. Duterte’s watch.   

The government started with a list of 75 IFPs in 2017. In 2020, NEDA revised the list twice – increasing this to 104 and then to 112 (no longer including the 7 of the 11 finished projects). It retained only 42 of the original 75 and added new ones that are more doable, or that are not even defined as public works such as the national ID system, or projects that are merely continued from previous administrations. The list was obviously revised to increase the chances of completing a respectable number of projects.

Of the 11 projects completed so far, six were not included in the original 2017 IFP list. Two of these six – the LRT 2 East Extension and the Metro Manila Skyway Stage 3, were even started under the previous administration. Of the 12 IFPs expected to be finished by the end of this year, 11 are new additions to the list including two previously identified projects that had also been started long before Pres. Duterte’s term – the Unified Grand Central Station (a previous commitment by the Arroyo administration but was stalled due to disputes) and the Malitubog-Maridagao Irrigation Project (started in 2011). Of the 17 IFPs for completion by end of 2022, only the Chico River Pump Irrigation Project was in the 2017 list, while the rest were only added last year.

Even if we do see the completion of these 29 IFPs by the end of 2021 and 2022, all the finished projects will still just amount to Php365.24 billion which is only 7.8% of the total project cost of Php4.7 trillion for all targeted IFPs. Much remains to be done actually, with 51 projects going beyond 2023 while 28 others are still in the pipeline.

Driven by debt and private capital

Nevertheless, the Duterte administration has already crowed about its unmatched performance in infrastructure, citing as an indication of its seriousness the almost 100% increase in government spending for this, from Php590.5 billion in 2016 to Php1,019 billion in 2021. It has increased infra spending as percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) from 3.9% in 2016 to 5.1% in 2021. The annual average of 5% infra spending as percent of GDP in 2017-2021 even surpasses the annual average of 3.4% under the Marcos dictatorship. This is even despite the 21.4% decline in disbursements last year due to the pandemic.

In the Sulong Pilipinas forum of the administration in April this year, the economic managers took turns highlighting how the administration has boldly financed infrastructure for economic development in contrast to the Aquino administration’s lackluster performance.

However, more than half (56%) of the indicative amount for the IFPs is from official development assistance (ODA), mostly as loans, while only 3.9% comes purely from the General Appropriations Act (GAA) or the national budget. Conspicuously, there are now 20 unsolicited public-private partnerships (PPPs) where there was none before, comprising 32% of total cost.

There are seven other PPPs worth Php244.2 billion or another 5.2% of the total cost. Five of these PPPs, all expressways, are components of the Supplemental Toll Operation Agreement (STOA) entered into by the government’s Toll Regulatory Board (TRB), Ramon Ang’s Citra Central Expressway Corp., and the Philippine National Construction Corporation (PNCC). STOA ensures the identification, adjustments and collection of toll rates upon the completion of the projects.

The government has also mixed PPP with ODA in the case of LRT-1 Cavite Extension Project to be accomplished beyond 2023, and with GAA in the case of Metro Cebu Expressway Project which is still in the pipeline. There is also ODA mixed with GAA in the case of Davao City Coastal Road Project to be done after 2023.

PPP was the preferred funding scheme of the Aquino presidency, which was criticized not only for its slowness but more importantly for benefiting the real estate and infrastructure tycoons. The then incoming Duterte presidency declared that the state would proactively make an investment, raising hopes that infrastructure would finally be cheaper and more relevant to public needs. But in reality, the government simply shifted to ODA loans especially from Japan and China; in particular, the share of China ODA to total ODA to the Philippines increased from a negligible 0.01% in 2016 to 2.73% as of 2019. The Duterte presidency also ended up still relying on private capital, unsolicited proposals at that, to expedite projects. Overall, it appears that the promised change of having a genuinely state-led infrastructure development and presumably for maximum public benefit has not come at all.

Instead, the administration doubled its gross borrowings from Php507 billion in 2016 to Php902 billion the following year, breaching the unprecedented Php1 trillion mark in 2019 and nearly tripling this in 2020. The national government outstanding debt as of May 2021 is Php11.1 trillion – it was only Php6 trillion when Pres. Duterte took over.

Building up foreign investors and oligarchs

Unsolicited proposals for PPPs from the private sector are allowed under the 1990 Build-Operate-Transfer (BOT) Law (Republic Act 6957 as amended by Republic Act 7718), the country’s watershed legislation towards privatized infrastructure development. These projects do not require direct government guarantee, subsidy or equity, and presumably involves a new concept or technology. The BOT Law also defines and allows the Swiss Challenge as the procurement system to be followed for unsolicited proposals, where upon the project proposal of a private entity, the government invites similar or competitive proposals from third parties which the original proponent can still match afterwards.

Pres. Duterte adopted the Swiss Challenge and eliminated the normal bidding process for public works, wherein the government presents the specifications of the procurement and invites entities to make offers, which could be in an open or closed bidding. Controversially, Malacañang argued that this would quicken the pace of Build Build Build and minimize corruption. On the contrary, the Swiss Challenge can potentially concentrate infrastructure control to only a few proponents as well as government officials. It can definitely lower transparency, such that the novelty of the concept or technology does not get to be subjected to public scrutiny. In other words, the government has skipped the development planning process and relied on what the private sector wants to embark on, thereby making infrastructure inherently exclusive rather than inclusive.

All of the unsolicited PPPs are for transport and mobility. In fact, 76 of the 112 IFPs, or 91% of the total project cost, are for transport and mobility. Likewise with 71% of the total project cost of the 40 projects that the administration hopes to announce as done by 2022. Build Build Build prioritizes transport and mobility as though the country’s transport and traffic problems take precedence over the crisis and stagnation of agriculture and manufacturing.

In reality, the ‘infrastructure ambition’ is about three things for the Duterte administration. It is about providing the infrastructure foreign investors want – to improve connectivity to the economic zones and ease the cost of doing business. The country’s creditors, notably the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), have been nagging the Philippine government to make pleasant infrastructure to increase the country’s creditworthiness and investment grade and to attract much-needed foreign investment in the import-export economy. That is visibly the first and basic reason for making Build Build Build look grand and why past administrations had merely focused on providing infrastructure as their primary task in a liberalized and privatized economy.

Secondly, Build Build Build is about providing foreign and local investors and builders the business they want. The Duterte administration wanted to take advantage of the global infrastructure investment glut that was largely untapped in 2016 by flashing a grand infrastructure menu card. In short, it has promoted infrastructure as the foreign investment destination, along with energy, water and public utilities which also have vast infra needs. This has immensely enriched foreign infra, utilities, construction and transport technology corporations despite the rise in global interest rates and prolonged global economic slide. And now, despite the pandemic and declining global investments, the Duterte administration continues to sell the dream.

Thirdly, Build Build Build is about boosting the wealth of the country’s economic oligarchs, especially those in real estate construction, ports building, transportation, energy and water, and the consequent speculation on values of land and natural assets. International and national media have observed how Pres. Duterte has empowered a new business elite, the “Dutertegarchs”, and created his own set of cronies who have benefited from full-scale liberalization of foreign investments and private capital in otherwise public goods and domain.

Legacy of deeper crisis

Much of the hyped benefits from embarking on a massive infrastructure program have failed to materialize. Build Build Build has been the Duterte administration’s only hope to arrest the economic slowdown pre-pandemic, and now to recover the economic collapse during the pandemic and beyond.

But it has been the wrong choice of policy from the start. The economy needs mending in its production sectors, especially those catering to domestic needs and that have the capability to create meaningful jobs for the mass of jobless and sustainable incomes for the poor majority. But the government has chosen to spend on boosting investor confidence and opportunities. Even spending on health pales in comparison with the Php1.1 trillion allocation for infrastructure in the 2021 budget.

Consequently, this wrong policy mindset only boosts the production of infra materials by the corporations of the contracting countries. In the case of ODA for instance, loans are always preconditioned by the host country’s use of the so-called donor country’s contractors, technology as well as businessmen. At one point, China even pushed for the use of its own workers in Philippine projects. Consequently, this has increased the country’s imports bill, resulting in the country’s worst trade deficit. But the more important consequence is that Build Build Build’s reliance on foreign contractors and materials has undermined our chance of locally producing these materials and building our own infrastructure using local resources. Even the absorptive capacity, the ability to “learn and use” external knowledge, of the Department of Public Works and Highways (DPWH) and Department of Transportation (DOTr), is limited.

Build Build Build has also failed to deliver the jobs generation that the administration has imagined as one of the benefits. Every year since 2017, the growth in construction employment has been a lot smaller than in 2016. The projected job generation from Build Build Build of 1.2 million annual average in 2017-2022 is a far cry from reality. The annual average job generation from all sectors pre-pandemic or 2017-2019 only reached 313,000,[1] the lowest among all administrations post-Martial Law. We lost 2.6 million jobs last year.

Optimists have looked forward to the public services that may be improved with the finished projects, even if these are not exactly the kinds of infrastructure that are much needed to recover lost jobs and incomes. But that is also one of the follies of debt-driven and privatized infrastructure development – we get to pay for these increasingly irrelevant projects with our taxes and high user-fees. Build Build Build has been backed by the most regressive tax reform the country ever had and the built-in automatic upward adjustments in toll fees, fares and other user-fees.

In all probability, in the future post-pandemic as the economy yields lower returns on investment, the debt owed today will be more expensive than initially computed. This will mean heavier debt burden, more anti-poor and regressive taxes, and higher user-fees for so-called public services. In all certainty by then, we can say that the grand infrastructure age has delivered a legacy of untold poverty and deeper economic crisis. #


[1] Average of 2017-2019 only because of change to 2013 Master Sample Design in 2016

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

‘DOE has become a mere announcer of oil price hikes’

“Oil price hikes have direct and lasting effects on agricultural and fishing production cost, cost of farm inputs, and overall cost of living for Filipinos. Throughout the deregulation era, the Department of Energy (DOE) has become a mere announcer of oil price hikes. Deregulation under Duterte also caused much damage to the livelihood and economic status of Filipinos.”Rafael ‘Ka Paeng’ Mariano, Chairman Emeritus, Kilusang Magbubukid ng Pilipinas

Jobs crisis continues, informal work worsens

by IBON Foundation

Despite economic managers’ claims, the country’s jobs situation is bleak and far from returning to pre-pandemic levels, said research group IBON. Millions of Filipinos are still struggling to find work or turning more and more to informal jobs and self-employment to survive. The group said that substantial ayuda is urgently needed and that Congress should hold a special session to ensure the immediate allocation and distribution of funds for emergency aid.

IBON said the latest labor force figures show that the 3.7 million unemployed in May 2021 remains higher by 1.3 million than in January 2020 before the pandemic. The 2.2 million increase in employment is not enough to accommodate the additional 3.5 million Filipinos in the labor force, still leaving over a million unemployed. The number of underemployed has only decreased by just 807,000.

The employment increase also hides a significant decline in the quality of work and incomes as the country remains battered by the ongoing health and economic crisis, said the group. Millions of Filipinos are increasingly resorting to informal self-employment to make a living any way they can.

IBON noted that, by class of worker, the number of wage and salary workers declined by 131,000 from January 2020 to May 2021. This is mainly due to the 711,000 drop in those that worked for private establishments, likely from closures and retrenchments in micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

The number of Filipinos entering informal self-employment and unpaid work is also worsening, the group said. Self-employed work without any paid employees climbed to 12.7 million (1.6 million increase) from 11.1 million in January 2020. Unpaid family workers also rose to 3.6 million (932,000 increase). Employers in own family-operated farms and businesses however dropped to 761,000 (241,000 decrease) from about one million – an indication that small businesses and farms have been unable to cope and are shutting down amid the pandemic crisis.

IBON stressed that the number of employed by hours worked also reveals how bad the informal employment situation has gotten. Those that worked part-time went up by 3.2 million to 16.7 million, while those that worked full-time fell by 1.3 million. Those considered as “with a job, not at work” increased by 273,000 to 606,000.  The increase in part-time workers and those with a job but not at work can also be attributed to the rising number of self-employed and businesses implementing reduced workdays and hours.

More and more Filipino workers are entering sectors that are known to be low-paying and irregular, the group noted. Employment in wholesale and retail trade increased by 1.6 million to 10.2 million and in agriculture by one million to 10.6 million. Economic growth in these two sectors however continued to contract in the first quarter of 2021 – agriculture contracted by 1.2% and trade by 3.9%. This strongly implies lower sectoral incomes made worse by overcrowding.

The rise in part-time employment in these sectors also reflects the irregularity of work, said IBON. The number of part-timers grew by 1.1 million to 3.2 million in trade and by 889,000 to 7.2 million in agriculture. 

IBON said that with an increasing number of Filipinos struggling to support themselves amid poor job prospects and falling incomes, substantial aid, subsidies and support are urgently needed. It is time for the government to take immediate steps in providing these and prioritizing the welfare and interests of millions of vulnerable Filipinos. The group said it can start by heeding people’s demand for a special session to ensure the speedy passage of legislation that will ensure the immediate release of funds and distribution of ayuda.

There’s money for bigger Bayanihan 3: Economic managers just refusing to give more — IBON

by IBON Foundation

There is more than enough money for bigger emergency aid and stimulus in Bayanihan 3 if only the economic managers prioritize ayuda, research group IBON said.

There are various sources that the government can immediately tap for a more meaningful Bayanihan 3, said the group.

These include at least Php217 billion in unobligated and unpaid obligated funds from Bayanihan 1 and 2, and realigning 2021 budget allocations from less urgent items.

The Php401 billion Bayanihan 3 stimulus bill sponsored by over 290 lawmakers has been passed on second reading at the House of Representatives.

Though a larger program than Bayanihan 2, the provisions for emergency aid remain paltry, said IBON.

The group said, for instance, that the Php1,000 emergency assistance given twice to each Filipino will mean that the average family in the badly-hit National Capital Region (NCR) will just get the equivalent of around half of the monthly minimum wage.

The NCR minimum wage is currently Php537 for an equivalent monthly rate of Php16,300.

The economic managers however have been blocking efforts to increase the aid that will be given to millions of distressed families and enterprises.

The government has not even certified Bayanihan 3 as urgent. The budget, finance and treasury departments have also yet to issue a certification on the availability of funds, a constitutional requirement for the passage of bills seeking funds appropriation.

IBON said that the problem is not where to get funding but rather the Duterte administration’s unwillingness to prioritize poor and pandemic-stricken Filipinos.

The group said that there are potentially hundreds of billions of pesos available in funding if only the government pushes the priority legislation needed.

Budget department data as of April 15 shows that there are still Php217 billion in funds from Bayanihan 1 and 2.

This includes a considerable Php158.4 billion that remains unobligated out of the Php653.4 billion in allotments.

Moreover, there is Php58.9 billion in unpaid obligated funds.

These are funds allocated for COVID response that have not yet been committed to a specific item or program (unobligated) or have been committed but not yet disbursed (unpaid obligated).

IBON also notes that there are Php5.9 trillion in revenues (Php2.9 trillion) and borrowings (Php3 trillion) estimated for 2021.

IBON stressed that the administration can realign budgetary allocations from items that are now less urgent, given critical pandemic-related needs, and even counter-productive.

The government can realign from the huge Php1.8 trillion allotted for debt service (Php1.3 trillion for principal payments and Php531.6 billion for interest payments), Php1.1 trillion for infrastructure, Php9.5 billion for confidential and intelligence funds, and Php19.1 billion for the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict (NTF-ELCAC).

The group emphasized that the enormous health and economic crisis requires a proportionately enormous response.

This is particularly because the Duterte government’s ill-conceived protracted lockdowns are the biggest reason for the collapse in livelihoods and incomes of tens of millions of Filipinos.  

Bayanihan 3 can be a start to the  expansionary fiscal policy that IBON has proposed to jumpstart the economy.

The Duterte administration can readily find the funds for meaningful aid and stimulus if it wanted to, IBON said. After 420 days of the government’s poor and stingy response, Filipinos more than ever need a government with the political will and boldness to put the people’s needs first over the profits of a wealthy few. #

Big stimulus bill prioritizing aid more urgent than easing foreign restrictions–IBON

Research group IBON said that a real stimulus package that prioritizes emergency cash subsidies, support for small businesses and farmers, and strengthening the health system should be top of lawmakers’ legislative priorities.

This is more critical, the group said, than the bills lifting limits on full foreign ownership in certain economic sectors which the President recently certified as urgent.

IBON said that containing the pandemic, helping the sick, and helping millions of Filipinos badly affected by job losses and falling incomes need immediate attention.

Prioritizing bills to attract foreign investors now is misplaced, and legislators’ attention is much better spent on the country’s more pressing needs, the group said.

Pres. Duterte certified as urgent amendments to the Public Services Act, the Foreign Investments Act, and the Retail Trade Liberalization Act.

The amendments seek to allow full foreign participation in public services such as transportation and communications; lower the number of local hires required of foreign companies in the country; and lower the paid-up capital for foreign enterprises here, respectively.

IBON stressed that the enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) and modified ECQ (MECQ) in the NCR+ only added to the 12.1 million unemployed and underemployed Filipinos already as of February 2021.

The most badly affected are the majority of informal workers especially in retail trade, carinderias, transport and small businesses, and in the hotel and restaurant, transportation and storage, and manufacturing sectors.

The group also said that some 4.9 million poor and low-income families in the Greater Manila area are extremely vulnerable to any income losses from not having any savings to cushion interruptions of their livelihood.

The impact of the ECQ and MECQ will affect these distressed households the most. IBON also said that as much as 189,000 small businesses may have closed nationwide by February, with many likely being in the Greater Manila area.

The continued spread of COVID-19 shows how dismal the government’s testing and tracing efforts to track the virus are over a year since the pandemic hit.

Infected people continue to circulate and too many of those who eventually get sick are not even able to get proper treatment.

IBON blamed this on the government’s tepid response, which falls far short in dealing with the situation.

The Philippines’ fiscal response, equivalent to just 3.8% of gross domestic product (GDP), is among the weakest in Southeast Asia, according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

Economic recovery is hampered by the spread of COVID-19 and the lack of fiscal stimulus.

IBON pointed out that the 11.3% increase in government spending last year was even below the average annual increase of 14.3% from 2017-2019.

There is also little aid forthcoming, which the group scored as insensitive. The Php239.3 billion allotment for COVID aid under Bayanihan 1 was reduced to just Php22.8 billion under Bayanihan 2, and even further to Php18.4 billion under the 2021 budget.

Despite tight quarantine levels being sustained beyond two weeks since end-March, the government has not spoken of any addition to the Php23 billion in aid for 22.9 million affected individuals in NCR+.

The Duterte administration’s refusal to spend what’s needed to address the pandemic crisis means that any measure that increases spending on COVID-19 response is urgent and very welcome, IBON said.

In its own recommendation for a Php1.5-trillion expansionary fiscal policy, IBON proposes Php540 billion in emergency cash subsidies for 18 million poor and low-income families (Php10,000 per month for three months); Php101 billion in wage subsidies to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) to support a Php100/day wage increase for three months; Php40.5 billion for cash-for-work programs; Php220 billion in agricultural support; Php200 billion in financial assistance for MSMEs especially those that are Filipino-owned and domestically-oriented; Php78 billion in financial assistance for informal earners; Php200 billion in COVID-19 health response; and Php113 billion to fund distance education.

The group also cited the Makabayan bloc’s House Bill 7620 or the People’s Strategy for Strengthening Health, Social Protection, Economic, and Local Industrial Development (SHIELD) and House Bill 8628 or the Bayanihan to Arise as One Act (Bayanihan 3) sponsored by House of Representatives Speaker Lord Velasco and Marikina Representative Stella Quimbo.

SHIELD’s Php1.57 trillion budget includes allocations for free and intensified COVID-19 mass testing, treatment, tracing and mass hiring of healthcare and non-healthcare personnel, monthly subsidies for the unemployed, stipends for students, and strategic economic programs.

Bayanihan 3 meanwhile allocates Php420 billion for subsidies to small businesses, businesses in critically-impacted sectors, social amelioration for households, assistance to agriculture producers, and aid for the unemployed.

IBON said that the Duterte administration and lawmakers should give the greatest attention to these proposals which are most deserving of being certified as urgent.

Every additional COVID-19 response measure over the meager amounts allotted by the administration will help the country get out of this crisis faster, stressed the group, whereas bills expanding foreign businesses’ profit-making will not be of any help at all. #

14 Charts: What the Government Has Done to Our Pandemic Economy

by IBON Communication

If you bothered to start to read this then you probably know by now that the 9.5% contraction of the Philippine economy last year was the worst on record – which is to say since the end of World War II which is only when gross domestic product (GDP) started to be estimated for the country.

he government blames the bad economic performance on the pandemic. Well, COVID-19 certainly was a problem for the country.

In September last year, the well-respected Lancet medical journal reported to the United Nations 75th General Assembly that the Philippines ranked 65th out of 91 countries worldwide in terms of COVID-19 response. We were already the worst performer in Southeast Asia then.

The Lowy Institute came out with a similar study last month. In the chart showing the Philippines and a few of our Southeast Asian neighbors, a higher line means better performance in dealing with COVID-19 as the weeks go by. The Communist Party-led Socialist Republic of Vietnam was a star performer from the very beginning.

The Philippines fared even worse in the Lowy Institute study and placed 79th out of 98 countries worldwide. The only countries that ranked lower in Asia were Bangladesh (84th), Indonesia (85th), and India (86th). Perhaps not coincidentally, what the four worst performing countries in Asia have in common is that the pandemic hit as they all struggled with authoritarian leaders and democratic decline.

Effective public health response is the most important starting point of good COVID-19 response without which other measures wouldn’t get much traction. But the economic response is also very important.

Unfortunately the Philippines lagged badly even here and, measured as share of gross domestic product (GDP), had among the smallest fiscal response in the region. The poor public health response combined with the trifling fiscal response to result in the Philippines having the worst economic performance in the region.

And is actually set to have the worst performance not just in the region but to as far away as South Asia and across East Asia.

The Duterte administration insists that it was a choice between health and the economy, kalusugan or kabuhayan, and portrayed itself as having agonized but made the difficult choice to prioritize health. The economic collapse was the price to pay, it said.

But that is a false choice – both could have been attended to well as the experience of the likes of Vietnam and Thailand have shown.

And it’s also not really the choice the administration made. In terms of COVID -19 response, the choice they made was the militarist one to treat the people as the enemy and rely on harsh lockdowns and long community quarantines. And also the choice to prioritize creditworthiness over spending to contain the pandemic and to ease the suffering of tens of millions of Filipinos.

The Duterte government chose not to spend. In the first 11 months of 2020, it only spent Php3.69 trillion which is just an 11.6% increase from the same period in 2020. Unless government spending picks up substantially in December, the last month of the year, this means that it even underspent its 2020 budget which is supposed to be as much as 13.6% more than the 2019 budget.

The historical annual average increase of budgets for the last four decades is 11.1% so the government can’t claim that there’s any stimulus happening.

And so the economy’s unprecedented collapse – because the pandemic was not contained and then because the government did not spend to stimulate it.

Hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and construction were hit especially bad. Investments and foreign trade as well.

The biggest job losses were in hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and manufacturing.

Agricultural employment increased – maybe partly because so much of farming and fishing is physically-distanced already, and maybe partly because retrenched and laid-off workers thought to find work there instead. Somewhat surprisingly, employment in education rose.

The biggest job losses were in hotels and restaurants, transport and storage, and manufacturing.

Agricultural employment increased – maybe partly because so much of farming and fishing is physically-distanced already, and maybe partly because retrenched and laid-off workers thought to find work there instead. Somewhat surprisingly, employment in education rose.

The drop in employment was unparalleled. In April 2020, at the height of the government’s lockdown, the number of employed suddenly fell to 33.8 million which was as low as a dozen years before in 2008.

In short, there’s a huge social crisis with millions of unemployed, poverty increasing, and hunger worsening.

Yet the Duterte administration seems oblivious and COVID-19-related emergency cash assistance, or ayuda, has dwindled to almost nothing this year – while corporations (especially large and foreign firms) are being given Php133 billion in corporate income tax cuts.

Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of distressed micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) are getting scant support. Various surveys by the International Trade Center (ITC), Department of Labor and Employment (DOLE), United Nations Development Program (UNDP) and World Bank reported as much as 10-15% of businesses expecting to close permanently.

Yet, according to the president’s reports to Congress, Bayanihan 1 and Bayanihan 2 have extended financing support to less than 28,000 by the end of last year.

The government’s preferred approach of using monetary and financial policy to stimulate the economy simply isn’t working. Despite hundreds of billions of pesos in liquidity poured into the economy and interest rates down to record lows, businesses aren’t borrowing – with loan growth even contracting for the first time in 14 years.

This is most of all because so many ordinary Filipinos with no work and no incomes just don’t have enough money to spend so businesses have no reason to stay in or expand their businesses.

Now it’s true that the government is grappling with record budget deficits…

… and with record debt.

The problems are huge but the equally huge solutions are well within the capacity of the government to implement if it so wanted. The Philippines needs a much more ambitious COVID-19 economic response than the Duterte administration’s current business-as-usual approach.

In broad strokes, the Duterte administration has to take much more decisive measures to contain the pandemic such as by: tracing better, more judicious quarantines, and more rapid isolation; giving more emergency cash subsidies and support to MSMEs; and actually starting on long-term reforms to strengthen domestic agriculture and build national industry.

Most of all, it has to respond in a much more rational and humane manner. Too many Filipinos and their families are suffering from the government’s inaction, and too many small businesses are distressed from being left behind.

IBON takes up the economy’s problems in more detail and outlines possible solutions more concretely in our forthcoming Birdtalk paper. Please have a look at it! #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Shifting to MGCQ a short-sighted and desperate move without containing pandemic

By IBON Communications

Research group IBON said that lifting COVID-related restrictions to boost the economy is a short-sighted and desperate move amid continuing failure to contain the pandemic. The group agreed that the government’s excessive quarantine restrictions since last year are behind the economy’s unprecedented and continuing collapse. IBON however said that easing restrictions will not spur recovery without a real fiscal stimulus while risking the more rapid spread of COVID-19.

Economic planning secretary Karl Kendrick Chua recently advised Malacañang to put the entire country under modified general community quarantine (MGCQ). The ‘less restrictive’ MGCQ will supposedly allow the resumption of business activities previously limited under the pandemic lockdown.

IBON pointed out that the proposal to ease restrictions comes while the number of COVID-19 cases has been increasing since the start of the year. The 9,161 cases in the first week of the year increased to 10,741 so far in the week February 4-10. Data for this most recent week may even still be incomplete because of delays in reporting. The group asked where the optimism that the coronavirus is contained is coming from.

IBON stressed that the administration needs to greatly improve its measures to contain COVID-19 instead of relying on its favored blunt instrument of protracted community quarantines. The group enumerated the measures needed as better testing, more aggressive contact tracing, selective quarantines of possible cases, and speedy isolation of confirmed cases. With the number of cases still increasing, easing restrictions without these measures in place risks COVID-19 spreading even faster.

At the same time, IBON added, shifting to MGCQ may not even spur the economy all that much because the government still refuses to spend on any real fiscal stimulus. The group stressed that significantly higher levels of government spending are needed to make up for the lockdown-driven collapse in consumption and investment. This is more so given the now record joblessness and widespread loss of incomes and savings.

Government first of all needs to contain the pandemic better, IBON said. On top of this, it simply has to spend more to help households and small businesses cope with record jobs and income losses and to recover from the economic shock, stressed the group.

The group pointed out how the record 9.5% contraction of the economy in 2020 was substantially due to how the Philippine government refused additional spending last year. In the first 11 months of 2020, its disbursements only increased by 11.6% which is not just below the originally programmed 13.6% increase for the year but even lower than the average 12.9% increase in spending over the period 2017-2019. 

IBON also highlighted how spending even slows this year with the Php4.5 trillion 2021 national budget just a 9.9% increase from the 2020 budget. As it is, the Philippine COVID-19 response is the smallest of the major countries of Southeast Asia at just 6.3% of GDP according to the Asian Development Bank (ADB).

IBON proposes the following to address people’s urgent needs and stimulate the economy:

  1. Php10,000 monthly emergency cash subsidies to 18 million poor and low-income families (poorest 75% of families) or Php10,000/month for up to three months or Php5,000 for six months. This amount comes to Php540 billion.
  2. Php100 emergency wage relief for workers (towards eventual implementation of a Php750 national minimum wage). Micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) can be supported to give this for three months with a Php101 billion fund.
  3. Php40.5 billion cash-for-work programs for the unemployed.
  4. Php78 billion financial assistance (zero/low interest rate and collateral-free loans) for informal earners.
  5. Php200 billion in financial assistance (zero/low interest rate and collateral-free loans) prioritizing Filipino-owned and domestically-oriented MSMEs.
  6. Php220 billion in agricultural support to increase the productivity of farmers and fisherfolk.
  7. Php200-billion COVID-19 health response and Php113-billion distance education to ensure quality education.

The group also stressed that the government can finance these if it really wanted to. IBON identified a universe of at least Php3.9 trillion in funds from which realignments can be made, Php1 trillion in emergency bonds and other government securities, Php391.9 billion in immediate revenues from progressive taxes especially a wealth tax, and at least Php333 billion more from a land value tax. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.

Wage hike necessary, overdue amid pandemic and high prices

The Duterte administration gave least number of wage hikes and lowest wage increases of any administration in past 35 years.

by IBON Media & Communications

Research group IBON said that, amid rising prices of basic commodities, minimum wage earners are suffering from how the Duterte administration has been giving the least number of wage hikes and lowest wage increases of the past six administrations in the post-Marcos era. This only made working class families even more vulnerable to the economic shocks triggered by the pandemic. Multiple strategies are needed to arrest the economic distress of poor and low-income households especially since the onset of the pandemic.

IBON noted how the real minimum wage, or the value of wages after adjusting for inflation, is worth 7.2% less today than at the start of the Duterte administration. (See Table) This does not even yet fully include the recent surge in prices of pork, fish, chicken and vegetables. IBON estimates that the real value of the National Capital Region (NCR) minimum wage has fallen to Php434.47 from Php468.06 in June 2016. This is the lowest real wage in over eight-in-a-half years or 103 months.

The Duterte administration was sparing with its wage hikes even before the pandemic. The NCR minimum wage was only increased twice, in September 2017 and November 2018, and by such small amounts that they did not even make up for inflation. When the lockdowns started in March 2020 the real value of the minimum wage was already 3.6% less than in June 2016 – this only deteriorated further to being 7.2% less today.

IBON pointed out that other administrations hiked wages six or seven times and that even the Estrada administration hiked wages twice in its short 2 ½ years in power. These resulted in the real minimum wage increasing by 2.7% (Arroyo) to as much as 54% (Cory Aquino) compared to the more or less continuous decline under the Duterte administration.

It has been more than two years or 27 months since the Duterte administration’s last wage hike to Php537 in November 2018, said IBON. This is the longest period without an increase since July 2004 under the Arroyo administration when the wage increase came after a dry spell of 29 months.

IBON noted that the current minimum wage is even further away from meeting the basic needs of workers’ families. The Php537 minimum wage in NCR is Php520 or 49% short of the Php1,057 family living wage or the amount a family of five needs for a decent living as of December 2020.

As it is, the December 2020 inflation rate of 3.5% is the highest in 21 months, mainly due to higher inflation in food and non-alcoholic beverages, health and transport. The prices of pork, ampalaya, sitao, cabbage, carrots, habitchuelas, tomato, potato and eggplant significantly went up from anywhere between Php40 to Php120 per kilo since December last year. Price increases were even worse for the poorest 30% of households nationwide with a 4.3% inflation rate.

IBON said that the Duterte administration needs to give much greater attention to alleviating widespread economic distress among poor and low-income families. The most urgent measure are new cash subsidies of Php10,000 monthly for at least 2-3 months especially while record unemployment and falling household incomes are not resolved. Price controls are also needed on the food items whose prices are soaring especially amid reports of alleged exploitative pricing by wholesale and retail traders.

The Duterte administration however also needs to go beyond short-term damage control, stressed IBON. The long-term solution to rising food prices is for meaningful government support for farmers and fisherfolk to increase agricultural productivity and output. Yet, IBON pointed out, the share of the national government budget for agriculture has been falling from 3.6% in 2019 to just some 3.2% in 2021.

IBON moreover stressed that a substantial wage hike remains just and necessary even amid the pandemic economic shock. The group said that it is incumbent on the government to come up with schemes to enable a wage hike that increases incomes of low-income households and which will also stimulate aggregate demand in the economy. Among others, this can include mandating higher wages while giving wage subsidies to micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs). Wage hikes are long overdue and it is unfair for the working classes to always be made to bear the burden of adjustment to economic crises. #

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Kodao publishes IBON articles as part of a content-sharing agreement.