Filipinos investing in the local property market with money earned overseas helped make the peso Asia’s best-performing currency of 2012, even as a global economic slump sapped demand for riskier assets.
Euliver Dizon, a web designer in the U.S., is scouting for a home in Manila, praising President Benigno Aquino for improving the economy. Rommel Adre, a software developer who worked abroad from 2000 to 2011, bought a home in the capital and some properties to rent. Aileen Respicio, a former domestic helper, opened a beach resort with her Scottish husband six years ago and is now buying more land.
The peso has gained 3.7 percent this year versus the dollar including interest. Capital inflows aid Aquino’s drive to win an investment-grade rating, which would allow the Philippines to attract pension money needed to build roads, bridges and airports. Central bank data shows remittances from overseas workers rose 5.4 percent in the first quarter from a year earlier to $4.8 billion, accounting for 10 percent of the economy. They don’t detail use of funds.
“Aquino has been working to remove corruption and other things that used to make investors reluctant to put money into the country,” Toshifumi Sugimoto, president and chief investment officer in Tokyo at Capital Asset Management Co., which runs a $16 million Philippine stock-dedicated fund, said in an interview on June 7. “The country has been moving quite fast and, because of strong growth and solid demand, there are many new properties going up.”
The peso rose as much as 0.5 percent to a one-month high of 42.43 per dollar after exports rose 7.6 percent in April from a year earlier, exceeding the estimate for a 0.5 percent gain in a Bloomberg News survey. The central bank predicts remittances will reach a record $21 billion this year and is due to report April figures tomorrow. They are growing faster than the 5 percent target, supporting the peso, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima said. He said there is no evidence of hot money driving property prices higher.
“We are monitoring carefully the situation to make sure we don’t create problems down the road for us in terms of asset bubbles,” Purisima said in a June 12 interview in New York. “We are very far from the situation.”
Overseas Filipinos account for about 30 percent of residential sales, as many workers have already satisfied the food and clothing needs of their families, said Alex Pomento, head of research at Macquarie Group’s Manila unit. About 100,000 housing units have been added per year since Aquino took office in 2010, up from about 60,000 in 2007, he said.
Property firms are targeting returning Filipinos, known as balikbayan. Ayala Land Inc., the nation’s largest developer, has been holding project exhibits in places such as Milpitas, California and Washington D.C. as well as three Canadian cities to attract expatriates with the slogan “we’ll bring you home.” Filipino-American actor Sam Milby sang at the opening of the company’s first U.S. office in Milpitas on April 28.
Between 2005 through first half of 2011, prices of two-bedroom condominiums rose at a compound annual growth rates of between 5.5 percent to 16 percent for selected projects located in five areas in Metro Manila, according to Richard Laneda, analyst at CitisecOnline.com.ph.
“I’d like to have my own home in the Philippines,” Dizon, 37, said in a June 6 interview. “It’s a good investment considering the positive developments in the economy.”
The peso may weaken as Europe’s debt crisis hurts Asia’s export outlook, according to Jonathan Ravelas, chief market strategist at BDO Unibank Inc. in Manila.
“The peso is resilient but not immune to this global volatility,” he said.
So far the economy is outperforming regional peers. First-quarter growth of 6.4 percent was the most among Southeast Asia’s five biggest economies as Aquino increased state spending to a record this year.
The government reported its second monthly budget surplus of 2012 in April and aims to narrow the annual shortfall to 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2013 from 2.6 percent this year. Collections made by the Bureau of Internal Revenue rose 14 percent from January to April, surpassing the 12 percent increase in state spending, official data showed on May 21.
Moody’s Investors Service upgraded the nation’s rating outlook in May to positive, citing improving debt levels. That followed a similar move by Standard & Poor’s in December. Both companies rank the $200 billion economy at the second-highest junk level. Fitch Ratings raised its assessment to one step below investment grade last year.
Borrowing costs for the Philippines are now lower than higher-ranked Spain, which was downgraded by Moody’s yesterday by three steps to Baa3, the lowest investment grade. The Philippines’ 15 percent peso-denominated government bonds due March 2022 yielded 5.99 percent today, compared with 6.79 percent for Spain’s 5.85 percent bonds due 2022.
The cost of protecting Philippine five-year debt against non-payment has fallen 19 basis points to 173 basis points this year, while that for investment-grade Indonesia, slid nine basis points to 199, according to CMA, which is owned by CME Group Inc. The swaps pay the buyer face value in exchange for the underlying securities or the cash equivalent should a nation or company fail to adhere to its debt agreements.
Aquino unveiled a $16 billion infrastructure program when he took power, including elevated highways that will link expressways to the north and south of Manila. He succeeded in winning Senate approval for the ouster of Renato Corona, the country’s top judge, for illegally concealing his wealth.
The Philippines climbed in last year’s Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index to 129th place from 141th in 2008, below Thailand at 80th and Indonesia at 100th, according to the Berlin-based watchdog’s website.
The Philippines is on track to win credit upgrades in two or three years as “broad political stability” allows fiscal reforms, said Chia-Liang Lian, Singapore-based head of investment management for Asia excluding Japan at Western Asset Management Co., which oversees $443 billion of assets globally.
“The potential for the Philippines to unshackle itself from its sub-par growth trajectory has never been stronger,” said Lian, who holds more peso bonds than the benchmark used to track performance. “Policy makers should seize the opportunity to do the right thing. What this current administration has been successful at is the revenue side of the equation.”
Information technology and business-process outsourcing have also driven inflows, said Finance Secretary Purisima. Revenue rose 24 percent to $11 billion in 2011, the Business Processing Association of the Philippines said on its website. Purisima estimates it will grow to $24 billion by 2016.
Manila’s stock market attracted a net $187 million of inflows in May even as Europe’s debt crisis deepened. The boom is helping Adre make money on his rental properties.
“My objective in working abroad was to save and it was my intention to plow these savings back into the Philippines so I can get more out of what I earn,” said Adre, 38.
Purisima, 52, said tourism has the potential to be the third driver of the peso with 4.6 million visitors expected this year. Visiting expatriate Filipinos are driving sales for Respicio’s Punta Riviera resort in Bolinao, Pangasinan province, which can accommodate 320 and is four-and-a half hours by car from Manila.
“Business has progressively increased as the resort was developed over the last six years,” her husband Ian McFeat-Smith, 64, a Scot with a doctorate in engineering, said in an interview on June 8. “Our main customers are the balikbayan.”