Philippine firms going on billion-dollar global shopping spree

Traffic passes by a mall run by SM, the largest shopping mall and retail operator in the Philippines, in suburban Manila, on Oct 11, 2015.
Traffic passes by a mall run by SM, the largest shopping mall and retail operator in the Philippines, in suburban Manila, on Oct 11, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine firms are on an unprecedented global shopping spree, spending billions on everything from vineyards to food manufacturers and casinos, reflecting the nation's recent economic rise.

A combination of strong domestic growth, bargain prices in retreating economies abroad and rock-bottom borrowing rates have fuelled the acquisitions, analysts said.

The South-east Asian nation has for years exported shopping malls and junk food to the region, but cashed-up Filipino firms have diversified in recent years with acquisitions around the world and in many sectors.

"It has not happened in this rapid succession. It's like a colonial mentality in reverse," said Mr Luis Limlingan, research head at Manila stock brokerage Regina Capital.

The pace of the acquisitions has startled both local and foreign investors, according to BDO Unibank chief market strategist Jonathan Ravelas.

"Filipino companies are moving into the global space and it's not limited to just one sector. The opportunities abound," he said.

In one of the most-recent big-ticket acquisitions, local instant noodle firm Monde Nissin said last month it was buying British meat substitute manufacturer Quorn for £550 million (S$1.17 billion).

In the last two years, the private company also snapped up popular fruit juice brand Nudie and chilled dips manufacturer Black Swan, both from Australia, for undisclosed amounts.

Monde Nissin is owned by Ms Betty Ang, who started her company 30 years ago and is now the nation's 19th richest person with a net worth of US$900 million (S$1.25 billion), according to Forbes.

Meanwhile, Emperador, a company controlled by the Philippines' fourth richest man, Andrew Tan, and which specialises in cheap brandy at home, is looking to spend more than one billion dollars on diversifying in Europe.

In May, the company said it would bid to acquire French cognac maker Louis Royer SAS.

There has been no resolution in that attempt yet but last year it paid £430 million for Scottish whisky maker Whyte and Mackay.

Emperador also spent 60 million euros (S$95 million) last year for half of Spanish brandy producer Bodega Las Copas.

The Philippines' third-richest man Enrique Razon has made headlines by expanding on the port operator business that has made him his fortune by setting his sights on the Asian gaming market.

He opened a billion-dollar casino in Manila in 2013, and then in March this year his Bloombery Resorts firm announced it was buying an island and part of another one in South Korea for his first overseas gaming foray.

Analysts said these were some of the highest-profile acquisitions overseas, but there were many others in a wide range of sectors, including telecommunications, power, fast food and oil.

Filipino firms are leveraging their earnings from a robust local economy to snap up bargains in countries where growth has slowed, analysts said.

"These companies have huge stashes of cash and they are maximising it to compliment their existing businesses," said Mr Astro del Castillo, managing director at Manila stock brokerage First Grade Holdings.

The Philippines had for decades endured low economic growth compared with other Asian tiger economies, partly due to crippling corruption and red tape.

But in recent years the economy has been one of the strongest in Asia, averaging growth of 6.3 per cent between 2010 and 2014.

President Benigno Aquino, whose six-year term ends in 2016, has been widely credited overseas for the economic gains due to his efforts to tackle graft and stifling government bureaucracy.

This year the economy has slowed but still expanded by 5.3 per cent in the first half.

But many of the enduring problems remain at home and these are forcing the local firms to look elsewhere, according to Mr Victor Abola, an economist at the University of Asia and the Pacific.

"It's not so much a lack of growth opportunities (locally)," Mr Abola said, explaining why Filipino companies were investing abroad.

"It's about the government changing the rules of the game midstream... and slow action on proposals." The Philippines ranks 95th out of 189 economies based on ease of doing business, according to The World Bank's International Finance Group.

But that is a huge improvement: Under Mr Aquino's reign the Philippines has moved up 53 spots in the last four years.