July 13, 2011

Tetangco, right on target

Just a few days ago, a business leader and I were talking about Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP) Governor Amando M. Tetangco Jr. She quipped, “Ang seryoso pala nya ano?! Nakatabi ko sya sa isang dinner e.”

I couldn’t help but snicker. For sure, Tetangco, who has just made Philippine history as the first central bank governor reappointed to a fresh six-year term, can be quite stern and unsmiling in public. Bankers know he is not one to be toyed with as he doesn’t hesitate to crack the whip when they fall out of line.

More often than not, he is heard mouthing off some complicated but significant monetary policy or the other that, unfortunately, usually sounds Greek to the public. But those who have known him for some time, and especially the veterans among the business media, are already so tuned in to his language and manner of speaking, they can already tell whether the economy is in for an interest rate hike or not. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t pull a mean surprise once in a while, especially when he deals with foreign-exchange speculators, just to get everyone’s attention and calm down the currency market.

But in private, away from the limelight, Tetangco is not one to shy away from cracking jokes. He enjoys a good laugh shared with a number of naughty friends and fellow revelers, especially when relishing the occasional hearty dinner of baby crispy pata (oops!), with a bold-berried red. And even more so when he is mercilessly winning another round at the green against his fellow golfing buddies, or at the shooting range.

In this candid interview with the BusinessMirror, a very trim and youthful Tetangco (aka “AMT” to his staff, or “Gob Cutie” or “the Godfather” to his fans) talks on the makings of a BSP governor, in True Hollywood Story fashion.

Balancing competing interests

“Central banking policies are not that easy to understand,” admits Tetangco, 58. Nicknamed “Say,” the governor inhabits a remarkably straightforward office, room 501 at the BSP five-story building, just the kind where you know actual work happens. All tables are made of solid narra, with some high-backed black office seating, which adjusts to one’s height.

Enlivening the space are choice paintings and sculptures from the BSP art collection—Fernando Amorsolo’s Maytime in Antipolo hangs on the wall directly behind Tetangco’s main desk. In one corner sits a massive golden yellow globe, which has been in every central bank governor’s possession since Jose “Jobo” Fernandez.

During our interview, he is dapper in a serious but fashionable dark gray suit—he has a long-time personal tailor who sews them—and his yellow tie with dancing ponies gives him a touch of whimsy.

“The job of the BSP governor is one of balancing the many competing interests in the economy that are affected by BSP policy,” Tetangco continues explaining his role in the country’s economic management. “Take monetary policy, for instance. While borrowers want low interest rates, savers want these at higher levels. The BSP must find the appropriate level that would be reasonable so that borrowers can borrow to prop business expansion and savers are enticed to put money into banks and alternative sources of saving/investment.”

(Tetangco shares his insights with new employees on how it is to work at the Bangko Sentral. Who knows, one of them just might follow in his footsteps and become another BSP governor!)

He adds, “Another example is exchange-rate policy. Exporters and families of overseas Filipino workers want the exchange rate high, while importers and those with debts in foreign currencies want it low. We can’t cater to specific sectors, so we make sure the peso remains market-determined and relatively competitive, with volatility of its movements low. So, we see the impact of these central banking policies on the everyday value of these economic prices.”

A career central banker for 37 years, having started as a statistician in 1974, his reappointment was much applauded by the banking and business community alike. No other appointment by President Aquino has been as widely accepted by a majority who see the need for some continuity in strong government policies that foster continued growth.

Under Tetangco’s watch, the economy was able to sail through the rough seas of the global economic crisis of 2008-09, which was brought on by a collapse in US financial institutions’ investments in subprime mortgage-backed assets. And yet in 2010, the country’s inflation rate averaged less than 4 percent, while the economy hit a stunning growth rate of 7.3 percent.

He also managed to keep the BSP’s benchmark interest rates at record lows, even as the rest of Asian central banks went on a tightening mode to quell inflationary pressures. Of course, these days, just as inflationary pressures are building up, the BSP’s Monetary Board has decided to nudge the overnight rates just a tad higher to siphon off excess liquidity from the system.

‘My guy, Say’

Tetangco says he never thought he would become head of the BSP, even when he had already been deputy governor for six years under his predecessors, Gabriel Singson, and the late Rafael Buenaventura. “It just never happened before, I mean, that a career central banker became BSP governor.” But by all indications, even his birth already foretold of the brilliant heights he would reach in his career.

The son of Amando Sr. and the former Teodora Maglalang, and the fifth child in a family of nine, Tetangco came from humble beginnings in Apalit, Pampanga. When he was born, the slogan “My Guy, Magsaysay” was quite popular leading the family’s neighbors to call him “Magsaysay” (later shortened to “Say”). More than the song being in fashion, perhaps the neighbors already saw in the little guy an earnestness and commitment to do well in his life and for others, much like the President then.

“My father was a dedicated accountant. He worked at the Commission on Audit for many years, and was an exemplary public servant. My mother managed our household of nine children. She used to tell me, even as child, I was very organized. I was also a diligent student. So my parents set up a table where I could study and do my homework. From them, I learned the values of integrity, modesty and being a man for others.”

(Tetangco is an expert marksman. It’s no wonder he is just as accurate in targeting inflation rates and taking aim at market speculators.)

After finishing his elementary and high school in San Fernando, Pampanga, Tetangco then studied at the Ateneo de Manila University, graduating cum laude with an AB Economics degree.

“I like the way how numbers tell a story, although Math was not my favorite subject. Somehow, this must be why I had an inclination to economics. Economics is the story of everyday life, depicted in numbers and concepts. Both Economics and Math are courses that help you hone analytical skills, so you can do anything you want to do for the rest of your life!”

Looking for the right fit

Upon graduation he joined the prestigious accounting firm SGV, trying to follow in his father’s footsteps as an auditor, and because the firm “had a reputation for training and development. In my generation, at 18-19, you pretty much did what your parents told you.”

Being an economist in an accounting firm, however, didn’t seem the right fit for Tetangco, so he transferred to the then Central Bank of the Philippines in 1974 “because I heard it was a prestigious institution to work for,” especially for one with his educational background.

It was there that he met his wife Elma, also an Ateneo graduate, with a luminous beauty and a svelte figure to match her brains. It is because of this fateful meeting that Tetangco says he would be “forever grateful” to the monetary institution. They are blessed with three children—Patrick, Eula and Mia—and one cute bundle of a granddaughter, Zara, from Patrick and his wife, Miko.

So does his wife ever complain to him about the rising prices at the supermarket? Tetangco chuckles, “What wife doesn’t complain about rising prices? Usually, it’s a hint for us poor husbands to raise their allowances! Hehehe!”

But he turns serious and explains that the seven-man monetary board’s rate-hike decisions “are not made in a vacuum. You will find it interesting that among the considerations on whether we would raise or lower policy interest rates is how such action would ultimately affect the individual consumer.” As BSP governor, Tetangco chairs the policymaking MB.

His usual day

A typical day for Tetangco begins at 6 am with a prayer, then 45 minutes exercising on a bike, a cross trainer and lifting weights, while he flips through the TV news channels—CNN, Bloomberg and the BBC. After a shower, he eats his breakfast (“usually coffee and toast”), during which he scans the broadsheets. If he finds anything in the newspapers concerning the BSP and needing immediate action, then he starts tapping away at his BlackBerry to give specific instructions to his office staff or BSP officials.

“All this time my apo could be anywhere in the dining area, she’s an early riser like me. I think if she can come to the office with me, she would,” shares Tetangco, amused and obviously relishing being a grandfather to the fast-growing toddler. “Zara likes riding the car so if I have time, I indulge her and I let her ride my car once around the block.”

(After a long day, finally a chance to just shoot the breeze with the staff - the "angels" who make the governor's office run in tip-top order. Tetangco also goes to the in-house gym to exercise when he has a relatively easy day. PHOTO COPYRIGHT OWNED BY STELLA ARNALDO)

At the office, there are the usual internal meetings and appointments with bankers, dignitaries, academics, foundations—and a ton of paperwork which he works on. He juggles all these while trying to field questions from reporters, either via text message or phone calls. (He is one of the very few government officials who are accessible to both local and international media.) Throughout the day, he’ll scan the wires for breaking news via his computer terminals—four of them sit on a long console table adjacent to his main desk.

All that pressure (while comforting himself with delicious cholesterol-rich food) unsurprisingly did take its toll on Tetangco’s health, which almost prevented his reappointment. He underwent a heart bypass in February 2010, which forced him to take a leave for a month. With many speculating he was no longer interested in being reappointed due to his family’s concerns for his health, a number of names cropped up as possible replacements.

Tetangco also says he had wanted to try his luck in the private sector for a change so he could travel more with his wife. He rues that he’s “been to many places but mostly to see the airport-meeting venue-airport only. I had to hold back a dream of traveling more with Elma without necessarily having an agenda folder in hand.”

But what made it easy to accept the President’s offer was the renewed call to continue service and “work with one of the most, if not the most professional set of civil servants,” Tetangco adds. “I was also taken by the possibility of pushing for banking and monetary policy reforms and advocacies to expand the reach of credit, financial education and consumer protection. I am honored by the trust that the President bestowed on me for having offered it to me.”

Aside from adhering to a stricter diet (usually he does, ahem), and exercising more often, Tetangco takes the time to relax by playing golf and is quite adept at target shooting. “These are sports that, at their heart, make you compete only against yourself. The things you cannot control do not depend on actions of others. Other than the weather, how you perform at the end of the game is simply dependent on how much focus you put into the game at hand. Let’s face it, you can only be lucky so many times to succeed in these kinds of sports. They are games of precision.”

The need for the same kind of accuracy in keeping market speculators in check and taming inflation in Tetangco’s work as BSP governor is not lost on me, of course. His reappointment as head of the monetary institution is recognition of just how his aim has always been right on target.

(This piece was originally published on July 4 in the CEO Views page of the BusinessMirror. All photos courtesy of Gov. Tetangco's office unless otherwise stated.)

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