Aquino's US trip shy of investment goals

American and Filipino financial analysts agree that the recent visit to the United States by Philippine President Corazon Aquino was a public relations triumph -- but from an investment standpoint, many feel her visit may have been premature. ``Most of the big corporations have not really started to move,'' says Jess Estanislao, chief executive officer of the Development Bank of the Philippines. ``There's a lot of talk and a lot of plans now, but it's still a wait-and-see situation.''

What potential investors say they're waiting to see is a ratified constitution, a definite International Monetary Fund agreement, and a stable federal and local government.

Mrs. Aquino told some of America's most influential bank executives ``to invest in the Philippines, because it is to our mutual advantage.'' But one US banker who did not wish to be identified says that ``even though there's a great deal of potential, we're not willing to make the leap. The number and seriousness of the variables combine to make us very cautious.''

He cites conflicting ambitions within Aquino's Cabinet, forthcoming local elections, and the communist insurgency.

Most current and potential investors in the Philippines will not comment on the question of extending US military base leases, due to expire in 1991. A few investors, however, express concern that should the bases be eliminated, American businesses might be the next to go.

But Joseph Saggese, president of Borden World Trade Inc. and head of the Philippine American Chamber of Commerce, maintains that ``multinationals will invest with or without bases.''

US investors' doubts are echoed by the Philippine community. Business, says one Filipino businessman, is ``in a twilight zone between now and Nov. 5 [the projected time of ratifying the constitution].

``The laws have to be put into effect before any real movement will be made,'' he says. ``We'll do everything we can in the meantime, but right now we're just sitting on our hands.''

Mr. Saggese says a major part of the problem Philippine companies are facing is that of idle capacity and underused assets, and he says that in many areas there isn't a need for additional capital.

``Right now, we're [Borden's chemical business] operating three plants. We're satisfied, but we're not operating at as high a rate as we'd like.''

Aquino put the value of idle and underused assets at $7 billion, and according to Mr. Estanislao, the Philippine banker, only 950 million pesos (about $46 million) of these have been sold.

But in a recent interview, Jose Concepcion, Philippine minister of trade and industry and chairman of the Board of Investments, said he felt that ``the positive signs of increased US economic assistance have caused a spontaneous response in the private sector.

``The cautiousness manifested prior to this visit,'' Mr. Concepcion said, ``will be replaced with a new aggressiveness. Already we've seen about a 200 percent increase in new business offers [since Aquino took power].''

Concepcion expresses confidence in attracting investors by offering liberal investment incentives, including tax credits; exemptions from, or reduction of, taxes and tariffs; simplified import and export procedures; and carry-forward of losses.

Caltex, a petroleum refining and marketing company co-owned by Chevron and Texaco, is one US company that, according to William Dunning, vice-president of Asia and Africa operations, ``believes what they [Aquino's government] say about free markets, free enterprise, and their new attitude of nonintervention in business operations.''

Over the next five years, Mr. Dunning says, Caltex will be investing about $100 million to upgrade its refinery and improve its distribution system in the Philippines, because ``we feel that there is going to be a continued growth, and we want to service that growth.''

Trade Minister Concepcion stresses the labor cost and technical skill advantages the Philippines can offer high-tech export industries. But the competition in these markets from other developing Asian countries is already intense.

Saggese says he feels that the most immediate need for economic recovery is to concentrate on increasing domestic demand by first increasing Filipino purchasing power.

Since 70 percent of the population lives in rural and farm areas, agribusiness would employ the largest number of people. He recommends an intensive crop diversification program, concentrating on cash crops that are cheap enough for export.

``Now we're thinking more about solutions instead of Swiss bank accounts,'' Estanislao says, referring to the channeling off of funds by the regime of Ferdinand Marcos.

In addition to special concessions and incentives, Estanislao says, ``more homework will have to be done [to attract foreign investors]. Right now we're putting together a one-stop investment shop'' -- an investment assistance office catering mostly to US and Singapore investors.

He also expects the Omnibus Investment Bill, a document intended to consolidate and clarify all investment rules and regulations, to be completed within the next month.

Several people in the US banking community endorse the conversion of Filipino debt into equity. It is ``is a good deal for the Philippines,'' one US banker says, ``and a good discount for the willing investor, depending on how long it takes for the market to normalize and the discount to disappear.''

Once the market does normalize, Aquino will have already laid the groundwork in demonstrating credibility and generating goodwill. She is, says the American banker, ``the complete antithesis of what came before her,'' and her message is: ``Either you're with me or not, and I'll go on from there.''

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