Dec. 6 (Bloomberg) -- If Benigno Aquino is the sunny face of the new Philippines, the gun-toting Kim Henares is his alter ego.
Henares, 53, is the crusading tax commissioner President Aquino hired in July 2010 to do something new in the Philippines: doggedly chase down tax cheats. That includes national heroes such as boxer Manny Pacquiao. Last month, Henares went toe-to-toe with the world champ, freezing two of his bank accounts as she sought to collect $50 million in unpaid taxes.
This fight is helping to fill the coffers of the Philippines, a onetime basket case that’s more recently been embraced by investors. Several dramatic moves from Aquino -- including jailing predecessor Gloria Arroyo, firing Chief Justice Renato Corona for hiding assets, and raising taxes on politically connected companies -- have been key to the Philippines winning investment-grade ratings for the first time.
This week brought some fresh, and welcome, news to a country still reeling from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. The country’s ranking in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index improved 11 places in one year, putting it 94th out of 177 countries. That still leaves the Philippines just behind India, but it’s a rare good-news story in a year that otherwise, according to Transparency International, cast doubt “on the prediction that the 21st century will be the Asian century.” Clearly, the Aquino-Henares tag team is doing something right.
But as walls of money zoom toward the Philippines, some observers are asking if it’s all too much, too soon. In other words, is excitement over so-called Aquinonomics outpacing the reforms needed to keep the economy on the path toward reform? Does the 82 percent surge in Philippine stocks from the time Aquino took office mostly reflect hot money emanating from the Federal Reserve and Bank of Japan? Is Aquino’s miracle nothing more, as some have argued recently, than a bubble?
Probably not. Aquino’s good-governance campaign is more than a slogan. It has increased checks and balances -- Henares among them -- in a system where there were scant few. That’s yielding real benefits, including a narrowing budget deficit, lower bond rates and a stable currency. The Philippines boasts a current-account surplus of more than 4 percent of gross domestic product, which folks in Jakarta and New Delhi will tell you is a great thing to have when markets are gyrating. Amando Tetangco has proved to be a steady hand at the central bank.
Still, recent questions about the economy are a timely reminder that with his six-year term a bit more than half over, Aquino’s job is very far from done. Mark Mobius, who works in Singapore for Templeton Emerging Markets Group, told Bloomberg News something one hears a lot lately: “It’s just too expensive. There’s a shortage of good companies. They need more IPOs.” Overseas investors need fresh incentives to put more money into the Philippines economy.
One downer is the unsteady way the government has aided the more than 10 million people affected by the typhoon. Before the storm, a huge pork-barrel scandal in which politicians misused a $566 million anti-poverty fund reminded the world how much of the old Philippines remains. Chronic neglect and overlapping levels of deeply entrenched vested interests means this isn’t a six-year job, but a 10- or 15-year one.
The most important thing Aquino can do is institutionalize his policies by strengthening the judiciary, creating a more powerful and fully independent anti-corruption agency, and encouraging freer watchdog groups to police the government. Aquino should clamp down on rampant smuggling at the Bureau of Customs, divert more of the investment going into real estate into much-needed infrastructure projects, and make the education system more globally competitive.
Aquino also needs to rally Filipinos around the nation’s China-challenging 7 percent growth rate in order to advance the idea that good governance will enrich all citizens. The quid pro quo, of course, is that Aquino must work harder to lower unemployment, which remains stubbornly high at 7.3 percent.
The president should also take the Aquino-Henares tag team to the next level. Why not start doing more lifestyle checks not only on politicians, but also on the legions of “middle class” actors, singers and sports stars who, like Pacquiao, long avoided the tax man? Henares’s tenacity has helped claw back some of the $10 billion -- 4 percent of GDP -- in taxes the government estimates go unpaid every year.
Henares began carrying a semi-automatic pistol eight months into the job as she made more and more headlines -- and enemies. Now she occasionally joins Aquino for target-shooting practice. Talk about an apt metaphor for an economy that’s rarely been able to shoot straight. The key now is to make it into one that can’t miss.
(William Pesek is a Bloomberg View columnist.)
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