Last week, President Rodrigo Duterte sent to Congress the proposed national budget for 2017. This P3.35-trillion budget, which represents an increase of 11.6 percent over the current year’s budget, is by far the country’s biggest.
The President described his budget proposals as “for the people and by the people.” That seems true. Look at the budget details, provisions by sector. The largest allocation, P1.34 trillion, is for social services, more than half of which for education, culture, and manpower development. Actually, the increase in intended expenses for social services is even higher compared with the increases in all other sectors combined.
On the other hand, if we view the proposed budget in terms of program or objective, we’ll see that an increasing share of the budget is allocated for public infrastructure with capital outlays 15.6 percent larger than the current operating expenditures which will increase by a little over 10 percent. This supports the President’s assessment that this is an expansionary budget. The government is intentionally increasing the share of public spending at 21 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP), which is much higher than the average government spending of 16.6 percent of GDP over the past ten years.
Also, consistent with the President’s strong platform of social order, the provision collectively for the Philippine National Police (PNP) and Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) has risen by about 19 percent, and this does not yet include his promised increase in salaries for the police and soldiers which will be made in another proposal.
All of these increases in cash outflows come with an expected strain on the country’s fiscal position. The deficit, or excess of expenses over revenues, is expected to be higher at almost P480 billion or 3 percent of the GDP (previously targeted at 2 percent by the Aquino government for both 2015 and 2016).
Fiscal conservatives might want to sound the alarm, but we have to put this in perspective. Perhaps the easiest way to do this is to view the operations of the national government like a regular corporation. For example, if we are to lend money to Philippines Inc. to fund this 2017 plan, should we be worried? The quick answer is: No.
First, a higher deficit need not be a serious concern because the Philippines has a healthy level of international reserves (or foreign currency financial assets of the government that can back its liabilities). Latest data from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) puts the country’s international reserves at $85.5 billion—a respectable level that is even higher compared with those of richer countries like Canada, Australia and several large European economies.
Second, the peso value of the country’s debt may be increasing but the country’s debt-to-GDP ratio is at its lowest level. If we simplify GDP as the country’s total revenues, we can say that its debt is more sustainable because the country’s ability to pay back its borrowed money has significantly improved these past few years. A testament to this improvement is the numerous credit rating upgrades we received during Aquino’s term.
Third, a creditor will be happy to note that there is a steady stream of cash inflows to Philippines, Inc. We all know of the contributions of our OFWs—remittances of $28.5 billion were recorded for 2015 according to the BSP, and the yearly increase is expected to continue. Besides the OFWs, our local workers in the BPO sector are also bringing in foreign currency inflows. Revenues of the BPO sector is estimated conservatively at $22 billion in 2015 and we can assume that a large part of this represents salaries of the industry’s 1.3 million employees.
Fourth, the President and his finance team promised a tax reform package that aims to increase the government’s tax revenues. At the center of the soon-to-be proposed tax package is the lowering of tax rates for corporations and a more progressive income tax brackets for individuals. These will then be compensated by the expansion of the value-added tax base and the indexation to inflation excise taxes on oil. Overall, the President believes that the government’s revenue collections as a percentage of the GDP will even improve to 18 percent by 2022 versus the 2015 level of 15.8 percent.
Lastly, the increase in deficit is actually lower than the combined increases in education and infrastructure budgets.
A creditor might observe that Philippines, Inc. is borrowing funds to support the training of its employees (citizens) and to expand its property, plant and equipment—areas that are expected to provide higher returns in the future compared with the cost of borrowing today. What they say in the private sector is also true for the public sector—you have to spend money to make money.
Renan Piamonte is partner at Audit & Assurance of P&A Grant Thornton. P&A Grant Thornton is one of the leading Audit, Tax, Advisory, and Outsourcing firm in the Philippines, with 21 Partners and over 700 staff members.