Global commodity prices, trade and growth

* This is my article in BusinessWorld yesterday.

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One of the beauties of free trade and global economic integration is that countries can benefit from low commodity prices as improvement in technology and processes in other countries result in bigger output for the same land area and other inputs. The downside of course is that when commodity prices go up, economies that are more dependent on imported products would tend to wobble.

The period from 2008 to 2014 was characterized by generally high food and commodity prices.

For instance, price of corn was only $98/ton in 2005 but it shot up to $223 in 2008. I think it was the momentum of the biofuels law in the US in 2005, spurring huge demand in the US, Brazil, other countries. The price mellowed in 2009-2010 during the global financial turmoil that started in the US, but shot up again to nearly $300 in 2011-2012.

The global spike in rice prices (aka as “rice crisis of 2008”) from $288/MT in 2005 to $700 in 2008 was caused by several factors, among which are (a) price hikes in major energy sources oil, natural gas, and coal in 2008, and (b) rice export restrictions by India, Vietnam, Brazil, other countries.

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Maize (corn) — US No.2 Yellow, FOB Gulf of Mexico, US price
Rice — 5% broken milled white rice, Thailand nominal price quote
Swine (pork) — 51%-52% lean Hogs, US price
Poultry (chicken) — Whole bird spot price, Georgia docks
Sugar — Free Market, Coffee Sugar and Cocoa Exchange (CSCE) contract no. 11 nearest future position
Coffee — Other Mild Arabicas, International Coffee Org. New York cash price, ex-dock New York

Crude Oil (petroleum) — West Texas Intermediate 40 API, Midland Texas

Natural Gas — Indonesian Liquefied Natural Gas in Japan, $/million metric British thermal units of liquid

Coal — Australian thermal coal, 1200 btu/pound, less than 1% sulfur, 14% ash, FOB Newcastle/Port Kembla

Among the reasons why world oil prices rose to record levels in 2008 was the high energy demand in the two biggest countries in the world in population, China and India. Prior to 2008, from 2003-2007, China’s GDP growth was always double-digit, averaging 11.7% per year. India’s growth during that period was also high, averaging 8.8% per year.

Implications for the Philippines

Among the things that the Philippines should optimize given these price fluctuations in world commodity prices are the following:

  1. Rice trade liberalization should have been started in 2010 when the Aquino administration took power. After short price spikes in 2011-2012, rice prices went downhill. The Duterte administration should proceed with full rice liberalization this year because of high medium term outlook for rice output and exports by our neighbors, Thailand and Vietnam especially.
  2. Sugar liberalization should be pursued too as world sugar prices have declined from their peak prices in 2010-2012 average of around 22 US cents per pound.
  3. Trade of corn and swine, even poultry should also be liberalized. Prices of rice, corn, swine, poultry and other food products are among the major contributors of the overall consumer price index (CPI) which are used to compute the inflation rate.
  4. Energy-intensive industries like manufacturing, hotels, construction, and transportation (on air, land, water) can expand their production and fleet to take advantage of lower prices of oil, natural gas, and coal.
  5. Two hindrances here: (a) the planned hike in excise tax for oil products by P6/liter across the board, and (b) continued onslaught by feed-in-tariff (FiT) and soon, renewable portfolio standards (RPS) that will result in expensive electricity. The purpose of trade and energy revolution is to make global energy prices become cheaper. The purpose of government in this case to make cheaper energy more expensive. These two measures should be abandoned and reversed someday.
  6. Among the ASEAN-6 big economies (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and Philippines), the Philippines registered the highest average GDP growth per year from 2010-2015: Thailand 3.7%, Indonesia and Malaysia 5.7%, Singapore and Vietnam 6.0%, and Philippines 6.2%. There was something good that the previous Aquino administration was doing that the new Duterte administration should somehow continue.

Bienvenido S. Oplas, Jr. is the head of Minimal Government Thinkers and a Fellow of SEANET. Both institutes are members of Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia.

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Mobility of goods, capital, and people in Asia

* This is my article in BusinessWorld last Tuesday.

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One big issue that failed to land on front pages during the ASEAN Prosperity Summit last week is the creeping protectionism, not through rising tariffs but rising non-tariff barriers (NTBs).

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak pointed out during the Summit that NTBs and non-tariff measures (NTMs) from 2000 to 2015 have surged by nearly four times to 5,975 from 1,634. This despite the zero tariff regime for intra-regional trade and the creation of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) or the regional single market.

While ASEAN was created initially for defense cooperation against regional communist revolutions in the ’60s and ’70s, it has evolved into a platform for freer movement of goods, people and services, and capital or investment. It was a good development and it should be pursued.

This coming November, the Philippines will host the ASEAN partners’ meeting composed of ASEAN + 6 (China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand) + Russia and US. Mr. Putin, Mr. Xi, and Mr. Trump and other leaders will be coming to Manila.

The US exit from the Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPPA) and China-Japan leadership in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) are important developments.

By how much have Asian economies improved based on freer mobility of goods, services, investments, and tourism? Here are some basic data (see table).

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Those that have expanded by more than seven times in just 15 years are the following:

  1. Vietnam: 11.2x in exports, 10.6x in imports, 9.1x in investments, and 10.6x in tourism receipts.
  2. Myanmar: 7.2x in imports, 12.1x in investments, 12.9x in tourist arrivals; also high expansion in tourism receipts.
  3. Cambodia: 14.2x in investments, 10.3x in tourist arrivals, and 24x in tourism receipts.
  4. Laos: 9.3x in imports, 10.4x in tourist arrivals and 36x in tourism receipts.
  5. China: 9x in exports, 7.5x in imports, almost 6x in investments, and 7 to 7.5x in tourist arrivals and receipts.
  6. Japan: 7.4x expansion in international tourist arrivals.
  7. India: 7.5x in exports, 12.3% in imports, and 7.8x in exports.

The Philippines also experienced modest growth in all the above indicators but not fast enough to create more jobs and businesses to its 104 million people. We should take hard lessons from our two small neighbors with huge economic achievements, Singapore and Hong Kong.

Singapore with only 5+ million people and just 3 1/2 hours by plane south of Manila, has 6x more exports, 11x more FDIs, attracts more than 3x foreign tourists and more than 4x in tourism receipts than the Philippines.

Hong Kong with only 7+ million people and less than 2 hours by plane north of Manila, has 8x more exports, 32x more FDIs, attracts nearly 7x foreign tourists, and nearly 8x in tourism revenues.

What small economies Singapore and Hong Kong have that the Philippines lacks are two important policies: free trade (zero tariff, minimal NTBs) and stricter rule of law (the law applies equally to both rulers and ruled, applies equally to unequal people).

So while we have improved our GDP size and material wealth via freer trade, freer movement of people and capital, we need to free up more.

We should allow more islands and provinces to have their own industrial zones to attract more investments and foreign trade. To have their own international airports and seaports to attract more investments and more tourism.

More modern infrastructure, simpler rules, and freer trade will help the Philippines attain what our developed neighbors have already achieved. Drastic reduction in NTBs and the removal of rice quantitative restriction (QR) and protectionism for instance. And less politics, taxes and bureaucracies, more respect for the law by politicians and bureaucrats.

Bienvenido Oplas, Jr. heads Minimal Government Thinkers and a Fellow of SEANET. Both institutes are members of the Economic Freedom Network (EFN) Asia.