Banking on Stability

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The Philippines boasts one of the few banking sectors around the world to have evaded many of the consequences of the US-led financial turmoil. Certainly much is owed to lessons learned in the form of strong monetary and fiscal policy reforms after the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98. Relatively conservative banking practices also played a significant role in sheltering the country's finances during what has proven to be one of the most siginificant economic downturns in recent history.

The overall risk management framework of the banking industry has improved greatly, thanks to sensible banking supervision and monetary guidance. Reforms initiated by the country's central bank, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), have created solid fundamentals that are currently underpinning the banking sector today. The BSP's adoption and implementation of Basel II in July 2007 was a significant step in ensuring that the Philippines' banking sector is in line with international standards.

Sanjiv Vohra, the country officer of Citibank, told OBG, "There is certainly a correlation between the Asian countries that were impacted by the Asian crisis and those that have managed to limit the effects of the current financial turmoil. Those countries, such as the Philippines, that were affected in 1997-98 have generally been able to implement the necessary reforms to withstand the current crisis."

In fact, today's average capital adequacy ratios (CARs) among banks are pushing close to 15%, well above the international standard of 8%. Asset quality ratios also performed well in 2008, as non-performing loans (NPLs) fell below 5% of total assets last year.

Despite the solid progress made in the financial world, other sectors of the Philippine economy, particularly those heavily reliant on foreign demand, such as the manufacturing of semiconductors, have been caught up in the global economic slowdown. The decrease in activity in these sectors is expected to feed through to the banking sector.

Nevertheless, in recognition of its stability, especially within the financial arena, Moody's Investors Service has upgraded the Philippines credit rating from B to Ba3 for the first time in over four years in late July.

In a statement to the press Moody's executive vice-president, Thomas Byrne, said, "The upgrade was prompted by the relatively high degree of resiliency exhibited by both the country's financial system and external payments position in the face of the global financial and economic crises."

Indeed, liquidity in the country has reached a new high as foreign currency reserves have peaked at $39.6bn, while some economies are suffering from declining foreign capital.

Headline inflation, which peaked just 12 months ago at 12.3%, dropped to a record low of 0.2% in July, bringing the average of the first seven months of 2009 to 4.3%, as increases in prices of commodities have slowed recently. The BSP predicts an annual inflation rate between 2.5% and 4.5% in 2009 and 3.5% and 5.5% in 2010.

The dramatic decrease in inflation over the past year has provided the BSP with adequate room for monetary policy easing. The crucial inter-bank lending rate is currently at an all-time low of 4%, having been decreased six times since December 2008.

Responding to questions from local press, the governor of the BSP, Armando Tetangco Jr, said, "We believe our current stance remains appropriate. Nevertheless, we are closely monitoring developments, particularly the firming of global demand to check for any price press build-ups. We will then make adjustments to our stance as needed."

Perhaps one of the most positive signs of a return to substantial growth is the fact that foreign direct investment (FDI) in the Philippines, which dropped dramatically by 77% in 2008, has posted an 86% increase in the first seven months of 2009, reaching just over $1bn in FDI, according to the BSP.
Tetangco later hinted at the emergence of some positive signals, stating, "The emerging signs of stabilisation of global financial markets and economic conditions are expected to encourage the gradual return of capital flows to Asia. With the ongoing realignment in risk perceptions, flows to emerging economies, particularly those with sound macroeconomic policy and good growth prospects, are expected to improve in the second half of 2009 and in 2010."

Despite the current stability in the sector, some experts have observed a large number of relatively weak small and medium-sized banks in the industry. Consolidation within the sector has slowed due to the current economic climate and it is not likely to see any major movements within the top tier of the banking sector in the remainder of the year. The merger between Philippine National Bank and Allied Bank, which was due to take place in 2008, appears to have stalled again and likely won't take place for another six to nine months.
For its part the BSP has strongly encouraged mergers and acquisitions in an effort to strengthen efficiencies within the sector. Typically mergers are subject to regulatory penalties, which the Monetary Board has been willing to waive if the merging banks are able to prove substantial friction costs.

Although the financial industry of the Philippines remains strong, its overall economic performance continues to be called into question after posting a surprisingly low first quarter of just 0.4% growth. The slow economic growth of the country has created an air of caution among bankers as they have seen some adverse affects on profit margins. However, the financial stability of the country, combined with the resiliency of the economy will certainly bode well for the country in 2010.

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