Bernardo M. Villegas
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The Best Time to Invest

           It is not very often to have more than 800 of the top executives of the Philippine largest corporations gather in one room.  There was such an event last November 12 when the 5th Annual Asia CEO Awards were presented by PLDT Alpha Enterprise which celebrates leadership excellence in the Philippines in such areas as entrepreneurship,  technical innovation, global management, sustainable development, corporate social responsibility and other key areas of management. Among those present were Manuel V. Pangilinan representing the First Pacific  group and Henry Sy, Jr. representing the SM group.  These two of the largest conglomerates in the country have given the lie to statements that investments in 2015 will slow down because of political uncertainties.  On the contrary, their spokespersons  have announced investments of hundreds of billions of pesos for 2015.

   The highest awards of the evening were to the Lifetime Contributors, yearly given to individuals “whose actions have resulted in significant progress in the well-being of the entire nation extending over many years.”  What follow below are remarks I made to introduce the lifetime contributors for 2014, one chosen in the private sector and the other in the public sector.  As will become obvious from my comments, these two lifetime contributors are part of the reasons why talks of an investment slowdown in 2015 are unfounded.

          This early before the next national elections in May 2016, there is already so much political smoke darkening the investment climate in the Philippines.  I have heard of business people, both domestic and foreign, who are threatening to freeze all investment decisions until they know for sure who will be occupying Malacanang Palace starting the second half of 2016.  There is much talk about dark horses and choosing among lesser evils.  There is a danger that fear of the unknown would paralyze the most important sector of the economy that has been lagging behind as an engine of growth—the investment sector.

          I was glad to read about a declaration made by Tessie Sy-Coson addressed to investors in Singapore that “now is the best time to invest in the Philippines.”  I fully support her daring statement.  First, there are enough irreversible economic trends and institutional changes that make the elections in 2016 somewhat irrelevant.  These are the remittances from OFW increasing at 5 to 6 per cent annually; the earnings of the one million workers in the BP0/KP0 sector increasing at 12 to 15 per cent year in and year out; the spill over effects of these two engines of growth on the consumption, real estate (housing and office buildings), and domestic tourism  (about 40 million Filipinos) sectors.  All these will guarantee an annual growth of GDP of 6 to 7 percent beyond 2016.  Such a growth rate will still be one of the highest in East Asia, trailing behind only China.

          The statement of Ms. Sy-Coson, however, can be interpreted in another way for the extreme pessimists.  Even assuming the worst-case scenario that the election of the wrong leader in 2016 will undo many of the gains that the Philippines has achieved in the last quarter of a century, it is still the best time to invest in the Philippines.  It is in this sense that we are honouring as a life-time awardee the father of Ms. Sy-Coson:  the quintessential entrepreneur Mr. Henry Sy, Sr.  It was this self-made man who in the turbulent period of 1984 to 1986, when the annual inflation topped 50 per cent and GDP declined in two years by as much as 15 per cent and the national coffers were completely empty, started investing in hundreds of hectares of land, committing his fortunes to the long-term recovery of the Philippines.  As the records will show, he was right:  it was the best time to invest in the Philippines.  For his daring, business acumen, and commitment to the country come hell or high water, he more than deserves to receive the Life-Time Award with which he is being honoured today.

          The public sector is not entirely without its own heroes.  No matter how disappointed we may be with some of our national leaders today, we cannot deny that there are some very refreshing exceptions.  I referred to the 40 million Filipinos who are finally discovering such places as Coron and San Vicente in Palawan;  Panglao,  Malapascua, Siquijor and Dumaguete in Central Visayas;  the surfing sites in Baler, Aurora; San Juan, La Union; and Siargao in Surigao del Norte; and numerous other  here-to-fore unknown or unreachable tourism destinations.  Building on the accomplishments of former Administrations, the present Secretary of Tourism Ramon Jimenez has harnessed the proverbial creativity of the Filipino people, first in his own person as a top advertising executive, and in the many talents with which he surrounded himself, in convincing us Filipinos that it is more fun in our country.

            To make sure that this success in creating a better image of the Philippines is no flash in the pan, Secretary Jimenez has invested a lot of resources and time in the two most important tasks of a top executive:  people development and institution building.  The Department of Tourism has been professionalized.  As a good leader, he has made himself dispensable.  If I may be permitted to give an unsolicited advice to the next President, whoever he may be, I would suggest, however, that he retain Mr. Jimenez in his present post  for at least the first half of the next Presidential term to give  him time to consolidate even more the salutary changes he has introduced into the DOT bureaucracy.  For these reasons, there is no doubt in the minds of the Board of Judges of the CEO Forum that Secretary Ramon Jimenez should be this year’s Life-Time Awardee from the public sector. For comments, my email address is bernardo.villegas@uap.asia.