Philippines cited as Standout - 74% led over all ASEAN countries

Philippines cited as standout

THE PHILIPPINES is poised to be the standout in Southeast Asia yet again, leading the pack in terms of economic growth and investor confidence, Standard Chartered Bank has projected.

In a survey of more than 900 investors in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Manila emerged as the frontrunner among other key cities in the region, the British banking giant said in a report yesterday.

"The Philippines was the standout country in terms of the strength of on-the-ground sentiment… We expect the Philippines to see stronger investment growth this year, sustaining the strong momentum from 2012," Standard Chartered said.

Some 74% of investor-respondents in Manila expect to see better business prospects in 2013 compared to the year before, dwarfing scores in Jakarta (46%), Bangkok (44%), Singapore (44%) and Kuala Lumpur (41%).

The survey also found that investors in Manila are most worried about the European, American and Chinese markets this year. No one cited the Philippines as a concern. In comparison, 47% of investors in Kuala Lumpur said their own country worried them, followed by 43% in Singapore, 35% in Jakarta and 19% in Bangkok.

The peso is expected to get stronger, with 86% of investors in Manila saying they expect to see their currency appreciating against the dollar in 2013. Only 67% of investors in Bangkok, 52% in Kuala Lumpur, 50% in Singapore and 35% in Jakarta thought the same.

"We are optimistic that the Philippines will outperform the region and enjoy another year of strong growth momentum in 2013," Standard Chartered said.

It forecast that the country could grow by 5.8% this year and 6.1% next year, beating its 10-year average of 5.2%. The estimates, however, fall below the government targets of 6-7% and 6.5-7.5%, respectively. This follows the banner performance in 2012 when the gross domestic product (GDP) growth hit a stunning 6.6%, beating market expectations and the official goal of 5-6%.

According to Standard Chartered, the economy will likely be driven by domestic consumption yet again. Public and private investment should pick up too but exports could remain weak, acting as a "negative but limited drag on growth."

It also expected further progress in the public-private partnership (PPP) program, after eight projects -- mainly in infrastructure, transport and power -- were rolled out last year and others lined up for launch this year.

PEACE TO PROVIDE LIFT

Another upside to growth is the peace deal with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, it added. Citing its studies, the peace deal could add 0.1 percentage point to GDP in its first year of implementation, increasing to 0.3 percentage point by the fifth.

Standard Chartered also expects the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) to keep policy rates on hold for now, then raise it by as much as 50 basis points by yearend. Rates could then be kept steady at that level next year.

Policy rates -- the benchmark for interest rates -- are at record lows of 3.5% and 5.5% for overnight borrowing and lending, respectively.

The rate hike could be prompted by an increase in the pace of inflation, it said. Higher energy and food prices, robust consumer spending and base effects could combine to push up inflation rate to 3.6% this year and 4% in 2014. These are well within the BSP target of 3-5% but much higher than the forecast full-year averages of 3% and 3.2% for 2013 and 2014, respectively.

The peso should remain strong, the bank said, underpinned by strong economic fundamentals. The local currency could climb to P39 against the dollar this year and P38 the year after.

The peso appreciated by some 6.8% against the greenback in 2012 -- one of the strongest performers in the region -- closing at P41.05 on the last trading day. So far this year, it has traded within the P40-to-a-dollar territory, much stronger than the P42-45 exchange rate assumed by the BSP.

Lastly, Standard Chartered said that reduction of the fiscal deficit is on track, especially with the recent increase in excise taxes on liquor and cigarettes, propelling the Philippines to bag its first ever investment grade credit rating.

The bank anticipates the deficit to fall to 1.8% of GDP in 2013 and 1.6% in 2014 -- against the cap of 2% for both years -- roughly equivalent to P238 billion and P266.2 billion, respectively.

"We expect at least two of the three main credit rating agencies to upgrade the Philippines to investment grade by end-2013…" it said.

"The case for investment grade is supported by a number of factors, including a resilient economy, a current account surplus, stable fiscal policy and the narrowing of the budget deficit."

The Philippines currently stands at one notch below investment grade with the three major credit rating agencies. It has a Ba1 rating with Moody's Investors Service and a BB+ rating with Fitch Ratings and Standard & Poor's. –

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