Marcos’ economic team: Learned and accomplished but meek and muted

TIRACHARDZ-FREEPIK

When President-elect Ferdinand Marcos, Jr. announced that his economic team would be composed of Benjamin Diokno as Secretary of Finance, Felipe Medalla as Governor of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas (BSP), and Arsenio Balisacan as Director-General of the National Economic and Development Authority (NEDA), the Philippine Stock Exchange Index (PSEi) gained 47.76 points, to 6,645.52 while the broader All-Shares Index went up by 14.61 points to 3,568.65.

Local business groups expressed elation at the appointment of technocrats as the economic managers of the Marcos II administration. George Barcelon, president of the Philippine Chamber of Commerce and Industry said, “They are all seasoned and competent economic leaders. We believe they would do good in managing our fiscal affairs.” Coco Alcuaz, executive director of the Makati Business Club, said the appointment of “experienced, well-known leaders” would boost the confidence of big businesses as well as MSMEs.

Indeed, the new economic managers are learned and accomplished. Diokno graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Public Administration in 1968 and completed a master’s programs in Public Administration in 1970 and in Economics in 1974, all in the University of the Philippines (UP), Diliman. He has a master’s degree in Political Economy from Johns Hopkins University, and a Ph.D. in Economics from Syracuse University. He is a Professor Emeritus of the School of Economics of UP, He previously served as undersecretary for Budget Operations of the Department of Budget and Management from 1986 to 1991 under President Corazon Aquino, Secretary of Budget and Management under President Joseph Estrada from 1998 until the latter’s resignation in January 2001, and under President Rodrigo Duterte from 2016 to 2019. He also served as the governor of the (BSP) from 2019 under President Duterte to the end of the latter’s term in June 2022.

Medalla earned bachelor’s degrees in Economics and in Accounting from De La Salle University in 1970, a master’s degree in Economics from UP Diliman, and a Ph.D. in Economics from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois in 1983. He served as dean of the UP School of Economics for four years starting in 1994. He served as secretary of Socio-Economic Planning and director-general of NEDA under President Joseph Estrada, a member of the Monetary Board during the terms of President Benigno Aquino III and of President Duterte.

Balisacan earned a bachelor’s degree in Agriculture from the Mariano Marcos State University, a master’s degree in Agricultural Economics from the UP Los Baños, and a Ph.D. in Economics from the University of Hawaii at Manoa. He served as an economist for the World Bank in Washington, DC in 1986. He came back to the Philippines in 1987 and joined the faculty of UP Los Baños as assistant professor of Economics. In 1988 he moved to the School of Economics of UP Diliman where he eventually became a full professor in 1995.

Seconded from UP, he served as undersecretary for Policy and Planning at the Department of Agriculture from 2000 to 2001 and then again in 2003. In 2010, he was appointed dean of the School of Economics of UP Diliman. Concurrent to his role as secretary of Socio-Economic Planning and director-general of NEDA, he served as Board Chairman of the Philippine Institute for Development Studies and the Philippine Center for Economic Development.

I was not as elated as the captains of industry were when Bongbong Marcos announced the names of the members of his economic team, though experienced and competent, learned and accomplished they are. I have misgivings about Diokno. He has been in the high echelons of government for too long such that I believe he has been infected with the kind of politics the top government officials he has been dealing with practice.

On the very first working day of 2017, then Budget Secretary Benjamin Diokno made this statement: “The candidate Duterte is different from President Duterte. You make campaign promises but when you see the data you realize it’s impossible to fulfill.” He supported the candidacy of Davao City Mayor Duterte for president when he knew all along that what he was promising during the campaign could not be fulfilled. It raised for me the question of what his motive was for supporting candidate Duterte.

In 2018, he declared, “The budget is a political tool to reward administration allies and punish political enemies. If you’re with us, then you get something. If you’re not with us, then you don’t get something.” When he was a private citizen and a BusinessWorld columnist during the presidency of Noynoy Aquino, he wrote that the pork barrel was bad for the economy. But when he was in power, he practiced what he considered was bad for the economy.

The Philippine Daily Inquirer says there is persistent talk that Diokno plans to return to his position of governor of BSP by the second half of next year. Sources told the Inquirer that Diokno was initially hesitant to accept his appointment as secretary of Finance as it meant leaving the central bank where he had fewer headaches and got better pay. That suggests that Diokno is either submissive to the powers that be as the BSP governor cannot be removed without cause, or that he is an astute dealer for having struck up a deal by which he accepts his appointment as Finance secretary on condition he is appointed again as BSP governor.

The governor of the BSP serves a term of six years and can be re-appointed for another term of six years. President Duterte appointed Nestor Espenilla, Jr. as BSP governor on July 4, 2017. When Espenilla died in office on Feb. 23, 2019, President Duterte appointed Department of Budget and Management Secretary Diokno as BSP governor to complete the term of Espenilla. When Diokno was named secretary of Finance by President Marcos Jr. on June 30, 2022, before he could serve out the unexpired term of Espenilla, the President chose Monetary Board member Medalla to replace Diokno as BSP governor for the remainder of Espenilla’s original six-year term.

If Diokno is appointed BSP governor again in July 2023, he would be 81 years old by the time he completes the six-year term. At the purported salary of P3 million a month for six years, he can retire in 2029 and live fabulously thereafter.

Now what about Medalla, who had been a member of the Monetary Board for 11 years before his appointment as BSP governor, is his re-appointment in July 2023 as BSP governor for a six-year term not in consideration at all? Or will he meekly go by whatever the President wants to do with him?

That brings to mind the meekness of the economic team towards the issue of the country’s supply of sugar. The President says we need not import as we have enough sugar. The top officers of the Sugar Regulatory Board say otherwise. The impressive academic credentials and long experience as government economists suggest the President’s economic managers, particularly Arsenio Balisacan, who has a master’s degree in Agricultural Economics, know what the real situation is with regard to the country’s sugar supply. But they have not been heard from with regard to the raging issue.

I tend to think that if they agree with the President, they would have called a press conference and asked the Malacañang Press officer to tell the National Telecommunications Commission and the Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas to order all broadcast stations to telecast and broadcast live the press conference so that the entire nation would hear them say the President is absolutely right. But no, they have been meek — meek in the sense of being easily imposed on — because, I conclude, they disagree with the President.

Blessed are the meek for they shall keep their job.

Oscar P. Lagman, Jr. is a retired corporate executive, business consultant, and management professor. He has been a politicized citizen since his college days in the late 1950s.