As 2016 New Year’s resolutions went, few matched the enthusiasm, ambition, and fragility of the commitment made by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). On Jan. 1, its 10-member countries — Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam — inaugurated the ASEAN Economic Community, a common market whose goal is to forge a prominent regional bloc to rival China and Japan, and bring economic well-being to its 625 million citizens.
Some 13 years in the making, the Community promises an increasingly free flow of services, investment, skilled labor and capital to a market that is now larger in terms of population than either North America or the European Union. Such a single market, its creators envision, will increase intra-ASEAN trade and justify greater spending on infrastructure. Currently, the six leading nations in the group (Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore, the Philippines and Vietnam, a.k.a., ASEAN-6) allocate an average of 26 percent of their GDP to investment, which any recent visitor to Manila or Jakarta might argue is nowhere nearly enough.
Where one stands on ASEAN integration depends, of course, on where one sits. On a recent visit to the Philippines, we posed the question to various people, including government and central bank officials, and bankers whose businesses will be impacted by the Community.
As 2016 neared, the Philippines government expressed confidence that the nation was ready for integration. The country’s 6.3 percent growth rate, the highest five-year average in the last four decades, puts the nation in a “sweet spot,” said Department of Trade & Industry Secretary Gregory Domingo. Citing projections from HSBC and Goldman Sachs, Domingo predicted the Philippines would be the fifth-largest economy in Asia by mid-century, and the 14th largest in the world. He added, however, that prioritizing micro, small and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in the regional trade agenda was critical; Philippine MSMEs comprise 98 percent of all registered GDP.
The Philippines’ central bank, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), was less sanguine. Under the ASEAN Banking Integration Framework, qualified ASEAN banks will be allowed to establish operations throughout the Community. Greater competition is a given. Regional integration would, for example, drop BDO Unibank, the Philippines’ largest bank as measured by assets, to the 19th spot in ASEAN. To help prepare banks to compete in a regional system, the BSP is adopting higher capital requirements, enhancing credit-risk management rules and raising governance standards, among other actions.
“It is imperative that you define and carve out your comparative advantage in our local market,” advised BSP governor Amando Tetangco in a speech to Philippine bankers just before the Jan. 1 deadline. In case the message wasn’t clear, he added, “If you have not done so, you will need to make those tough decisions now to give yourselves time to execute your strategic goals.”
The ASEAN way
Time, fortunately, appears to be on bankers’ side. Integration will be delayed, if not confounded, by an approach among ASEAN members that favors consensus-based decision-making and a policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of others – the “ASEAN way,” as it has come to be known. An absence of penalties for noncompliance and the lack of a powerful central bureaucracy add to the challenge.
Unlike the EU, ASEAN has no plans for a common currency, and cross-border travel is still limited. Trade liberalization is the only aspect of the Community’s vision that shows any significant progress. Nearly all of the items the top six countries have agreed to put on the “inclusion list” are free of tariffs. Nevertheless, countries such as Indonesia and the Philippines have held back many important agricultural and food-related products from the inclusion list, citing a food security rationale. Development gaps and infrastructure differences between and among ASEAN-6 and the less developed ASEAN-4 nations present have added obstacles. ASEAN financial integration, the Financial Times pronounced recently, is “embryonic.”
Nicolas “Sonny” Lim (pictured left) did not exactly exude enthusiasm over the prospect of integration when we asked, but neither did he sound particularly concerned. It is, he says, just one factor he considers in his strategic planning. Lim is president and CEO of 1st Valley Bank in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao. Rural and family-owned, medium-sized but growing, profitable but not without pressures, 1st Valley works on the front line of bringing ordinary citizens into the global economy. Founded in 1956 by Sonny’s father, Rosario, as the Rural Bank of Kapatagan Valley, it was created to serve the rice and corn farmers of the north-central provinces of Mindanao, the Philippines’ second-largest and southernmost island.
A rice farmer himself, the elder Lim understood his clients’ needs. The bank grew – not stupendously, but steadily – and eventually merged with the Rural Bank of Sinacaban in 2005 to become 1st Valley. With 60 to 70 percent of the Philippines’ rural population lacking a bank account, says Lim, and only a mere 6 percent of business growth in small, provincial businesses funded by bank lending, 1st Valley’s mission and market is to reach these businesses and households with support and economic prosperity. Today, 37 branches serve more than 70,000 clients, making it one of the Philippines’ largest rural banks.
Fully 61 percent of 1st Valley clients use loans for agriculture, typically rice and corn, and now, increasingly, cacao. Two loan types are offered: those secured by land or salary stream, and those that are unsupervised (uncollateralized). Salary loans of up to 525,000 pesos ($11,200), made mainly to government employees and teachers, account for 2.4 billion pesos ($51 million), or almost half of 1stValley’s portfolio. Microfinance loans of up to 300,000 pesos ($6,400) comprise a small share of the bank’s portfolio but serve as an important test bed for all its credit products. Small and medium enterprise (SME) lending, from 300,000 to 5 million pesos ($6,400 to $106,000), accounts for 10 percent of the portfolio and is growing at 30 to 40 percent per year, with plans to ramp it up even faster.
National bank liberalization has already led commercial Philippine banks to acquire more rural and thrift banks, potentially increasing competition for 1st Valley. The big banks see money, Lim says, particularly in salary loans. Christian-Muslim antagonism and Communist insurgency — the latest attack by the New People’s Army blared from Cagayan de Oro headlines the day we arrived – add spice to his planning challenges. For now, he explains, 1st Valley will focus on what it does best: agricultural and SME lending, and microfinance.
If you enjoyed this post, you can read part two, where he continues exploring the challenges and opportunities facing one of these institutions, 1st Valley Bank in Cagayan de Oro, Mindanao.
This post originally appeared on NextBillion.