December 01, 2006

In a class of his own

BusinessMirror Editorial
Dec. 1, 2006

IT has often been said that being head of the central bank is one of the loneliest jobs in the world, mainly because he must at all times be independent.

One joke says you have to do nothing but count all that money and gold in a fortress, knowing you’ll never own it, but you’re always expected to be ready to say how much you’ve counted on any given day.

It is thus no surprise that in the US, Alan Greenspan projected exactly the kind of distant image that fits this vision of a gnome, no matter that as a professional jazz saxophonist in his younger days you’d have expected him to be—well, warmer. Greenspan rarely talked to people at the peak of his power at the Fed, but when he opened his mouth, just a word or phrase could shake up markets around the world. Whether or not he deliberately cultivated that Sphinx-like mien because he thought it was necessary to succeed in his difficult job, only Mr. Greenspan knows.

Closer to home, one man who held a similar job, during some of the most challenging transitions in recent years, succeeded without necessarily projecting that kind of image. Like Mr. Greenspan, he was “human” enough to appreciate art, and blended well in the rarefied air of high society. But Mr. Rafael Buenaventura never came across as needing to look proud or distant to be believed.

The immediate past governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), in contrast, simply projected that quiet air of authority from someone who knew what he was doing and was determined to do what needed to be done. Whatever he did, he exuded class. Yes, insiders once said, even when he had to defend the Monetary Board position in spirited closed-door debates.

It is perhaps the best tribute to his ability as central banker that he made sure the man he mentored to succeed him would handle the job as well. In Buenaventura’s eyes, the incumbent, Governor Amado Tetangco, had even exceeded his teacher.

In this paper’s recent first-anniversary folio that included an article on Tetangco’s handling of the country’s monetary affairs in October, our reporter repeatedly quoted Mr. Buenaventura as “expert witness” to the competence of Say Tetangco. “He [Tetangco] has made good at the top and that is something that is usually not very easy to achieve on your first year on the job. Governor Tetangco deserves the award very well,” said Mr. Buenaventura. That was just less than three months ago.

On Thursday, the generous, self-effacing teacher was gone, ending a long bout with cancer. But it was obvious that he had been at peace, knowing he had left his difficult job to a very qualified student.

Both men had garnered recognition as chief monetary craftsmen from the New York-based Global Finance publication that yearly picks the best central bankers on the planet. It’s a most coveted award.

Buenaventura was awardee two years in a row, receiving a grade of “A” for 2002 and 2003; he is one of only two central bank governors to receive such a distinction. Yet in the eyes of this giant of a man, Say Tetangco had achieved something better—getting the award in less than 18 months when his mentor took all of three years to be recognized.

Wherever Mr. Buenaventura is now, such hair-splitting over awards and records would hardly matter, as we are certain it never mattered to him. What was obvious was that here was someone who felt the biggest reward lay in being able to do a difficult job.

The kudos—named by BusinessWeek as one of the 25 leaders in Asia who are at the forefront of change in their annual award for the “Stars of Asia for 2003,” cited as “Central Bank Governor of the Year for the Asian Region” by The Banker magazine, a London Financial Times publication, among others—were purely incidental to him.

Not that he was a prophet recognized only in foreign lands. Here at home, Mr. Buenaventura received from the Quedan and Rural Credit Guarantee Corp. the “Agri-Credit Achievement Medallion for Governance” for his commitment to the cause and promotion of agricultural credit. He was also named the 2004 Management Man of the Year by the Management Association of the Philippines for his “unquestioned distinction in the place of management” and contribution to the development and progress of the country.

Before the central bank, Mr. Buenaventura had capped years of successful private banking, where peers and rivals acknowledged his leadership enough to make him president of the Bankers Association of the Philippines from 1994-1997, and chairman of the Asean Banking Council from 1996-1997.

For 10 years he was president and chief executive officer of the PCI Bank and chairman of the various companies of the PCI Bank Group. During his tenure, PCI Bank was recognized many times for leadership in banking, including “Best Bank in the Philippines” (1993-1997) from Euromoney, “Commercial Bank of the Year” (1994-1997) from Asia Money, “Highest Ratings Granted to any Local Bank” (1994-1996) from Standard & Poor’s, and “among the Top 10 Leading Companies in the Philippines” (1994-1996) from the Far Eastern Economic Review. He was named Commercial Banker of the Year 1991 by Asia Money and Finance.

Before that, he also held many senior positions at Citibank.

Having steered the BSP through many years of tough reform, Mr. Buenaventura certainly left rather big shoes to fill. It’s comforting to have heard recently from him no less, that in his eyes the present chief is more than up to the challenge. After all, more reforms are still being pursued.

In a nutshell, Say Tetangco vowed in a recent speech to continue the reforms “in accordance with our mandate to ensure stable prices and a strong banking sector.” Namely: guiding banks toward full adoption of financial and monetary standards under Basel 2; and the continuing consolidation and merger of the banking industry.

The nutshell may be a tough one to crack, but if Mr. Buenaventura was satisfied with his student, then perhaps that’s enough comfort for the country he served so well.

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