IN 2008, at the onset of the Great Recession, many predicted a nightmare scenario – a huge drop in OFW remittances. The great fear, not entirely baseless, was this: Nurses and other health care workers from the Philippines would be sending less hard currency as North America and Europe, both hard-hit by the meltdown, would have to cut back on health care expenditures.
In both regions across the Atlantic, Filipino health care workers have been mainstays of the health delivery systems, which in turn pay the Pinoy workers well. Which benefits the home country in terms of sustained and above-average remittances.
The average yearly remittance of a North America-based health care worker is five times higher than the remittance of a construction/service worker in the Middle East. If the North America-based Pinoy worker is in technology or finance, the yearly remittance is five to ten times higher than the yearly remittance of a construction worker in the Middle East.
There was real reason for worry in 2008, given the remitting power of North America and Europe-based Pinoy OFWs. It just follows that any economic sneeze in North America and Europe will cause a terrible economic cold in the home country.
From 2008 and onward, the Pinoy-based workers in North America and Europe have defied the grim remittance forecast. While the remittances, say, of Mexican workers in the US suffered dramatically, that has not been the case of Pinoy-based workers in the US, Canada and Europe. Year-on-year, the remittances increase.
In fact, according to BSP figures, the total of OFW remittances for the first ten months of 2014 is almost $20 billion. The surge in November-December remittances, historically the peak remittance months, is also expected. From 2006 to today, there has been no slack year in so far as remittances are concerned. There is no study on how Pinoy OFWs do it but the non-stop increase in yearly remittances has been the most amazing Pinoy story since Ka Blas institutionalized manpower exports.
What about the hard currency reaching the country through informal sources that cannot be tracked by the central bankers. The total yearly OFW remittances has always larger than what is being reported by the central bank.
The current regime of cheap oil which has battered economies in the Middle East is now reviving those fears and nightmares of 2008. While the US is on its way economic recovery, the Middle East, which hosts the bulk of the Pinoy OFWs, has been suffering from the plunge in crude oil prices. Most oil-dependent economies plan their budgets on a crude oil price of $75 per barrel. Venezuela needs a crude oil price of $90 plus per barrel to sustain funding for its populist programs. The current price is more or less on the precarious (for producers ) $60-per-barrel price.
Boosts in the US production, weaker demand from China and the other oil-thirsty economies and relatively stable conditions for oil production in Libya and elsewhere have caused the price plunge. And there is no short-term hope for a reversal of these conditions.
Now, it is the turn of the Middle East to be the troubled host of our OFWs. And it is precisely this woe of the oil producers that is behind the revival of the nightmares of 2008. The Middle East-based OFWs account for close to 19 percent of yearly remittances to the country
So, the big question is this. Will remittances, the anchor of the country’s economic stability, accounting for more than 10 percent of the GDP, drop to a game-changing level?
Conventional wisdom says so. The economic forecasters are really worried. Moody’s Investors Service said that the lower oil prices would definitely impact on lower remittances. All these worries and fears have story lines similar to the fears and worries of 2008. Will that happen? Or, will our heroic OFWs defy the grim forecasts anew and send more to partly mock the forecasters?
What is not factored in the forecast is the intangible – the resilience of OFWs to changing times and circumstances and their intensity of purpose. A friend who visited the remotest county of Alaska in summer was pleasantly surprised when the husband-and-wife team that ran the general store in one of the loneliest places on earth was Pinoy. The couple runs the general store in summer. And goes back to the US mainland and other parts of civilization to work when the deep freeze sets in. If the Arctic opens up to commerce, the two told my friend, they are ready for that adventure.
The recovery, albeit slow, of the US economy will also impact positively on the remittances of Pinoy workers there into the country. The growth, the bulk of it fueled by consumer spending, will get a boost from lower pump prices. North Dakota and Texas – both prodigious producers of oil – will be affected but the rest of the oil-importing states will benefit immensely from the oil price drop. There are less than ten states that produce oil and more than 40 states that do not.
More than 40 percent of remittances is sent from the US and the improving economy there would be a net positive for remittances.
So this is the prognosis for 2015. Our unsung heroes will deliver and will defy, for the nth time, the grim forecasts on horrifically-low remittances. When did these true heroes ever fail the country?