International credit watchdog Standard & Poor’s Ratings Services affirmed last week the Philippines’ investment-grade status, a month after Fitch Ratings gave it its first investment-grade credit rating. Malacañang spokesperson Edwin Lacierda, Finance Secretary Cesar Purisima and Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Amando Tetangco all credited the good governance platform of President Aquino for the upgrade. They said the S&P action would trigger an influx of investments that, in turn, would fuel and sustain the economy’s stellar growth. Will it, really?
The term “investment grade” historically referred to bonds and other debt securities that bank regulators and investors viewed as suitable investment outlets. Now, the term is broadly used to describe issuers like governments or corporations with relatively high levels of credit-worthiness and credit quality.
In its latest ratings action, S&P cited the Philippines’ increased ability to pay its foreign debts, as evidenced by its dollar reserves that currently stand at about $84 billion and are driven largely by remittances from Filipinos overseas, foreign investments in the business process outsourcing sector, and “hot money” (foreign investments mainly in the local stock market). S&P also noted the Philippine government’s declining debt burden, which it attributed to a nearly decade-long effort to improve tax collection. After peaking at 74 percent in 2004, the ratio of the government’s outstanding debt to the country’s gross domestic product declined to about 50 percent by the end of 2012 and is projected to fall further to 47 percent by yearend. “The current and previous administrations improved fiscal flexibility through restraining expenditures, reducing the share of foreign currency debt, deepening domestic capital markets and more recently through modest revenue gains,” S&P said.
But S&P did not say that foreign direct investments would start flowing to the Philippines. What exactly do credit ratings mean? Here is what S&P has to say: Credit ratings are opinions about credit risk. S&P ratings express the agency’s opinion about the ability and willingness of an issuer, in this case the Philippine government, to meet its financial obligations in full and on time. They are just one factor investors may consider in making investment decisions. Credit ratings are not guarantees of credit quality or of future credit risk.
While the forward-looking opinions of rating agencies can be of use to investors and market participants who are making long- or short-term investment and business decisions, S&P pointed out that credit ratings are not a guarantee that an investment will pay out or that it will not default. While investors may use credit ratings in making investment decisions, S&P said, its ratings are not indications of investment merit. In other words, the ratings are not buy, sell, or hold recommendations, or a measure of asset value. They speak to one aspect of an investment decision—credit quality—and, in some cases, may also address what investors can expect to recover in the event of default, it added.
“In evaluating an investment, investors should consider, in addition to credit quality, the current makeup of their portfolios, their investment strategy and time horizon, their tolerance for risk, and an estimation of the security’s relative value in comparison to other securities they might choose. By way of analogy, while reputation for dependability may be an important consideration in buying a car, it is not the sole criterion on which drivers normally base their purchase decisions,” S&P said.
Foreign investors entered the banking sector in the 1990s and the retail sector starting in 2000 when the Philippines was not investment-grade. They also recently entered the mining industry when the Philippines was not investment-grade. They did so because the government allowed them to—by removing restrictions and
other barriers that were provided in the Constitution and in laws and regulations.
Purisima said something very significant when he was asked to comment on the S&P upgrade last week. In a TV interview, he said the Aquino administration was preparing measures that would open up certain sectors of the economy to foreign investors, economic activities that would not need time-consuming congressional action to amend the Constitution.
Now that—and not a ratings upgrade—will really excite investors.