Philippines vs Indonesia: Which is 'better'?

MANILA, Philippines – It’s been a close battle between Asia’s two rising economic stars -- Philippines and Indonesia. 

At first, Indonesia was edging ahead with its two investment grade status from Fitch Ratings in December 2011 and Moody’s in January 2012.

But slowly and surely, the Philippines has crept up from behind, achieving its first investment grade rating from Fitch Ratings on March 27, and now its second from Standard and Poor's on May 2.

Philippines and Indonesia both have two investment grades from different credit rating agencies.

Both countries, which are considered Asia's new tigers have been demonstrating strong economic growth against a sluggish global economy, almost catching up with Asia’s other economic powerhouses, China and India.

So the tallies are even, but which one is really winning?

GDP growth

In terms of GDP growth, the Philippines has emerged a winner with a 2012 GDP faster rate of 6.6%.

Indonesia, on the other hand, saw its economy slow down after the government failed to reduce subsidies, which drained the governments finances, hurting the rupiah, resulting in lower foreign investor confidence. Indonesia grew at 6.23%.

On Monday May 6, Indonesia reported a first quarter 2013 growth of 6.02%, the slowest pace in more than two years. The Philippines is due to announce their first quarter results on May 30. 

In the 3rd quarter of 2012, the Philippines recorded a growth of 7.1%, replacing Indonesia as the second-fastest in Asia next to China's 7.7% and the fastest in Southeast Asia. Indonesia, which dropped down to 3rd position, registered a growth of 6.2%.

The year 2012 saw a turning of tables for the Philippines. In 2011, the Philippines expansion of 3.9% was well below Indonesia’s growth rate of 6.5% in 2011.

Aquino vs Bambang Yudhoyono

The promises of Presidents Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono in Indonesia and Benigno Aquino III in the Philippines to fight corruption, lower budget deficits, and bring in investment has won them both upgrades from Fitch Ratings and Moody's Investors Service in the past year.

Philippine President Aquino, who is halfway through a 6-year term, has been successful in increasing state spending and managing the budget deficit, while seeking more than $17 billion of infrastructure investments to spur growths.

The country's budget deficit has been brought down to 2% of gross domestic product (GDP) by 2012 from 3.9% when he took office in 2010. Aquino has also increased tax collections, passed the controversial sin tax law amendments, and ousted former Chief Justice Renato Corona in 2012 for illegally concealing his wealth

Indonesian President Bambang Yudhoyono, who is in his final year in office, failed in 2012 to cut fuel subsidies, which have drained the government finances. This means the government has to find more funds to allocate to infrastructure spending.

According to the World Bank, the President Yudhoyono has said that his government is weighing the pros and cons of raising fuel prices or choosing another method that would more effectively target the subsidies at poorer consumers in a nation where almost one in 5 people lives on less than $1.25 a day.

Foreign investments

In this arena, Indonesia has the lead. The country has been attracting the second biggest chunk of foreign direct investments - $19.2 billion in 2012 - flowing into Southeast Asia, next to Singapore's $54 billion.

The Philippines on the other hand has remained a laggard, capturing only $1.5 billion in 2012.

Corruption Perceptions

The Philippines has the lead and is now seen as less corrupt than Indonesia. The Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index has boosted the Philippines' ranking to 105th place in 2012 from 139th in 2009, a year before Aquino became president.

Indonesia on the other hand was ranked 118th last year, slipping from 111th three years earlier.

As both rising stars diverge in their economic growth, it remains to be seen who will emerge the clear winner.

Investment destinations

To fund managers, however, both investment destinations remain attractive, and some don't even have to choose between the two. 

Amid the economic woes, belt-tightening measures, gloomy outllook and credit rating downgrades in the west, most investment funds on the lookout for solid growth are eastward-bound. 

A global fund manager told Rappler that the competition for investors' attention is not between Indonesia and the Philippines, but against other emerging economies in other regions, like Eastern Europe and South America.

The Philippines is the "P" and Indonesia is the "I" in "TIMP," which Bob Turner, chairman and chief investment officer of Turner Investments, coined to group together with Turkey and Mexico as the sexy alternative to the BRICs nations -- the large emerging markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China.

In a March 28 opinion piece, Reuters noted that TIMPs' record stock market gains range from 9.4% for Indonesia to 37.7% for the Philippines. Against the smaller but excellently performing TIMP markets, the BRICs are "suddenly more mature, move a bit slower, and some hotter thing is threatening to replace you," Reuters noted.

Turner noted the the BRICs are "impaired by imbalanced economies, political corruption and poor demographics.”

The TIMPs could become the next generation to watch, said Turner whose investment firm has about $10 billion in assets under management. - with research from Ramon Calzado and Lean Santos/Rappler.com