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Manila: A fresh wind blows across the Philippines

With a new administration making the right noises about reform, the banks cleaning up their balance sheets and abundant capital market liquidity, the mood in Manila is optimistic. Locals feel their country might get its due, but it won’t be easy to effect lasting change. Lawrence White reports.

ON A SMOGGY late August afternoon, the traffic-clogged streets of Manila seem as hectic as ever as Euromoney completes the 30-minute taxi ride from the Makati business district to the vast Mall of Asia complex. Inside the adjoining office building, however, SM Investments investor-relations vice-president Cora Guidote says that in one important way the Philippines has become quieter since the new president, Benigno ‘Noynoy’ Aquino III, took office on June 30 this year. One of the president’s first acts was to ban the wang-wang, the sirens that Manila’s senior government officials and business elite had attached to the front of their cars so they could barge noisily through the city’s traffic. "It might sound like a small thing," says Guidote, "but those sirens were really a form of oppression and their removal is a symbol of this administration’s ambitions. It feels like a fresh wind is blowing now."

Guidote’s mood of optimism, and her sense that the country might be about to get its due after years of watching regional peers draw more investment and more positive coverage, is shared by many in Manila’s financial services community. There are several indicators to that effect: the five-year CDS spread – a measure of investor confidence in the country’s debt – tightened to below 200 basis points in 2009 and stayed there more or less consistently throughout this year.

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