Will the Power Sector Survive a Recession?

The COVID-19 pandemic is more than just a health crisis. It is also an economic one given that the lockdowns and restrictions have resulted in the loss of jobs and livelihood of people.

In the Philippines, the long enhanced community quarantine (ECQ) paralyzed the economy and caused a sharp economic contraction for the second quarter at 16.5%. According to Acting Secretary of the National Economic Development Authority (NEDA), Karl Kendrick Chua, 8.8 million jobs were lost between January until April “because of the very strict quarantine.” The country’s average unemployment rate in 2020 to date is at 11%, 6% up from the normal 5%.

Unfortunately, it is the masses, the rank-and-file employees, and the micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) that are particularly affected by the economic recession. A survey from Publicus Asia revealed that 78% of survey respondents said at least a member of their family who earns Php9,500 to Php 19,040,00 per month and 65% of those earning between Php19,040 to Php 38,080 have lost their jobs due to the ECQ.

In terms of businesses, only 22.1% is on full operation according to the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI). Around26% are closed and 52% are only partially operating. Professor Eric Soriano, a World Bank Consultant, in a webinar with the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry (PCCI) said that it is the MSMEs that have been the hardest hit. The MSMEs contribute 40% of the GDP and employ 70% of the workforce.

The magnitude of the job losses and business closures means that many poor and low-income families are having a hard time making ends meet, and have barely enough to eat. With no source of income, how will they afford to pay their utility bills?

In the United States, the report from the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA) showed that U.S. electric cooperatives could take a financial hit of approximately $10 billion through 2022. “As GDP growth falls below pre-COVID-19 projections, electric co-op electricity sales are projected to decline,” NRECA noted.

The group said that high rates of utility bill delinquency along with service disconnection moratoria in some states and the surge in unemployment is making it difficult for electric coops to continue providing services. “Lost revenue can severely constrain the ability of certain electric co-ops to meet the needs of their community,” the NRECA said in a letter addressed to lawmakers.

Local utility companies are facing the same challenges. Many utility companies for months now are experiencing a significant drop in their collection rates and surviving with considerably less cashflow. Eventually, these companies will have no option but to discontinue their services for those who cannot pay. So, how will utilities survive?

Perhaps we should look at our government’s response to address the impacts of high unemployment rates and business closure.

The International Labor Organization (ILO), in its policy paper entitled “COVID-19 and the world of work: Impact and policy responses” stressed that epidemics and economic crisis tend to have disproportionate impact on some segments of the population, exacerbating the worsening wealth inequality.

ILO said government policy responses should have two immediate goals: Health protection measures and economic support on both the demand and supply side.

The organization noted that stimulating the economy and labor demand through economic and employment policies to stabilize economic activity, through active fiscal policies and particularly social protection measures is necessary. Governments must protect employment and incomes for enterprises and workers negatively impacted by the indirect effects

Yes, one might argue that we have the Bayanihan To Heal as One Act One signed into law last March that provided cash aid to displaced workers. Plus, we have the newly signed Bayanihan Act II with a Php 140 billion allotment to help revive the economy and fight COVID-19.

However, are those enough? Some experts agree that the Bayanihan Act is too small and too late. 

University of the Philippines (UP) economics professor and former NEDA chief Solita Monsod pointed out that the first Bayanihan law is only equivalent to 1.93 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) a measly amount when compared to other countries that are allocating funds equal to 5 to 21 percent of the GDP. She stressed that “But my God, Bayanihan 2 if you add it all together, is only 0.7 percent of GDP.” 

The UP economist said that the government fears that the debt figure will balloon and the credit ratings will suffer is a misguided fiscal conservatism. “We spent 1.3 percent (of GDP) in the first half and got nowhere. You think we’ll get somewhere by spending only 0.7 percent?” she added.

JC Punongbayan, a teaching fellow at the UP School of Economics echoed the thoughts of Monsod. “Good though its intentions are, Bayanihan 2 is too small. It’s not nearly enough to shore up our embattled economy.”

He pointed out that only Php 6 billion are being allotted for the Department of Social Welfare and Development’s various aid programs including emergency subsidies for poor households but only households in granular lockdowns will receive cash aid.

Punongbayan said that that economic managers are banking on the multiplier effects wherein a peso spent on business loans for companies can generate Php8 to 10 in economic activity, which is why the government thinks it does not need to shell out much more to revive the economy. However, he noted that there is no government study to back up this claim.

Both economists agree that the bill does little to help already struggling Filipino families. And in the words of Monsod, “The people, especially the poor, are always the last priority. The first priority, I tell you, seems to be the credit rating of the country,” she added.

I am no economist but I do know that joblessness during the pandemic brings economic hardships to low-income families and that it is the government’s job to provide aid to them. Economists have been giving their opinions on the meager amount allotted to help Filipinos and revive the economy, which the government must pay attention to.

From a utility standpoint, loss of jobs and business closures definitely have a negative impact not only on the collection of utilities since the consumers’ ability to pay for basic utilities will also erode over time. When the population no longer can pay basic utilities, how can these utilities survive? 

The answer to the above question is beyond the power sector of which I belong to. This is exactly why I included the economists’ thoughts on our government’s response to the health and economic crisis. But let me point out that utility companies are suffering too when consumers do not have enough in their pockets to pay for their basic needs. NRECA CEO, Jim Matheson said it best “The economic health of electric co-ops is directly tied to the wellbeing of their local communities.”

Thus, we need to find a way to help the Filipinos struggling to pay for food and other basic needs. And as Matheson stressed, “As the economic impact of this pandemic spreads, electric co-ops will be increasingly challenged as they work to keep the lights on for hospitals, grocery stores, and millions of new home offices.” In the end, power companies, which are essential in economic development and nation building might also be left with nothing.

References:

https://rappler.com/voices/thought-leaders/analysis-bayanihan-2-here-yet-too-small-late

https://www.spglobal.com/marketintelligence/en/news-insights/latest-news-headlines/nreca-says-us-electric-co-ops-may-take-10b-financial-hit-from-covid-19-58152700

NCR COVID-19 Survey 3: ECQ job loss affects 69% of households surveyed

One thought on “Will the Power Sector Survive a Recession?

  1. PH can spend 20% over its GDP just like former PM Robert Menzies did after WW II to revive the Australian economy but deficit spending if not handled judiciously is prone to corruption. PH have done that during the Marcos years if not for the excesses of vested interests. It can still be done though with adequate safeguards not empty pronouncements.

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