Consumer Boom Fuels Philippines as Asian Exports Falter

The Philippines is poised to join the world’s 10 fastest-growing economies this year and next as Filipinos buying goods from dresses to condominiums cushion a faltering in exports that’s hurt the rest of the region.

The economy expanded 6.8 percent last quarter from a year earlier, among the fastest in Asia and exceeding economist estimates. The Philippines will probably grow 5.5 percent this year, and 5.4 percent in 2014, putting it among the fastest-expanding economies, according to Bloomberg surveys.

“We have a generation that has a better lifestyle now,” said Frances de la Cruz as she waited to pay $100 for a black dress and a belt at a Zara store in a packed Manila mall one recent Saturday. The 31-year-old call-center head is part of an industry that helped spur 10 percent income gains over 2009-2011, along with overseas remittances and a jump in manufacturing.

The consumer spending strength means the nation may be more resilient to global shocks compared with export-dependent economies from Singapore to South Korea, where growth slowed in 2012 as overseas demand eased. President Benigno Aquino has sought to erase the Philippines’ image as a regional laggard by increasing government spending and reducing corruption, taking the country closer to an investment-grade rating.

Tommy Hilfiger

“The Philippines has proven it’s got particular strength in mitigating external headwinds because its domestic demand has kept the economy running even as other nations suffered,” said Vishnu Varathan, a Singapore-based senior economist at Mizuho Corporate Bank Ltd. “Now with Aquino boosting infrastructure, capacity building, the growth potential over the longer term is rapidly increasing. The Philippines is on a very good footing to remain the blue-eyed boy in the region.”

Consumer spending in the nation, among the most consumption-driven in Asia, rose 6.9 percent last quarter, holding above 5 percent for an eighth quarter. That’s spurred sales of brands from Tommy Hilfiger to home-grown Suyen Corp.’s Bench. Household consumption has risen to about three-quarters of gross domestic product from 63 percent a decade ago, World Bank data showed.

The Philippine peso has risen about 5 percent in the past 12 months, the best performer among 25 emerging-market currencies tracked by Bloomberg. It was little changed at 40.695 per dollar as of 9:24 a.m. in Manila, according to Tullett Prebon Plc. The benchmark Philippine Stock Exchange Index climbed to a record in January.

Demographic Dividend

Southeast Asia’s second-most populous nation already enjoys a demographic dividend compared to many of its neighbors, with most of its population in the 15-to-64 working-age range. Its labor force will expand by almost 18 million, or 31 percent, to 75 million by 2020 compared with 2010, with a median age of

23.9, Merrill Lynch has predicted. That compares with 37.8 in China and 43.4 in South Korea.

“It’s a young, booming population,” said Trinh Nguyen, a Hong Kong-based economist at HSBC Holdings Plc. “There’s an energy, a euphoria you can sense in the Philippines. The domestic market is burgeoning, thanks to strong population and income growth. This has attracted flows from foreign investors looking to capitalize on the consumption-driven economy.”

Japanese investment into the Philippines grew about 30 percent in 2011, while global retailers including Harry Winston Diamond Corp., Uniqlo Co. and Forever 21 Inc. have opened shop or expanded operations recently. Auto sales rose 11 percent in 2012, according to the Chamber of Automotive Manufacturers of the Philippines.

Rating Outlook

Aquino, the son of former President Corazon Aquino, is increasing spending to a record this year while seeking more than $17 billion of investments in roads and airports to spur growth to as much as 7 percent in 2013. Standard & Poor’s in December raised the country’s sovereign rating outlook to positive, citing improved governance and public finances.

A peace agreement with Muslim guerrillas in the mineral-rich Mindanao island in October is forecast to bring about $1 billion in investment commitments. Aquino has also shown progress in the fight against graft, with Transparency International raising the country’s ranking on its annual corruption index to 105 last year, higher than Indonesia at 118.

Exports, which made up about 30 percent of GDP in 2012, slowed in November from the previous month. The nation also remains reliant on remittances, which account for about 10 percent of GDP. The unemployment rate is 6.8 percent.

“Growth is uneven,” Nguyen said. “The government needs to raise investment to create jobs and cut poverty to make growth more inclusive.”

That hasn’t deterred consumers like Charlotte Co, a 26-year old accounting analyst who bought a one-bedroom condominium for

3.2 million pesos ($79,000) in 2011 and purchased a bright yellow Céline Trio bag for $1,000 in December with her savings.

“I would be brave to invest if I don’t believe things are really changing,” Co said.