Upping the ante by doubling down
For a moment on Dec. 8, it seemed a kind of critical mass had been reached: saying public hearings made them change their minds, House of Representatives sponsors of the Maharlika fund scheme said they’d drop the Government Service Insurance System (GSIS) and Social Security System (SSS) as sources of funds (colleague Raphael Pangalangan in his Dec. 8 column brings up an additional incentive for the decision: while voluntary, the Santiago Principles on sovereign wealth funds excludes pension funds as sources). Having led from behind, Sen. Imee Marcos could declare victory, combined with the satisfaction of cheekily raising the issue of possible future corruption. For his part, even as his colleagues dived for cover, Albay Rep. Joey Salceda did a Forrest Gump on Dec. 9 and started running with a scheme of recapitalizing the venerable old National Development Company with billions in Landbank funds, just to prove, perhaps, that his imagination is more fertile than that of his peers. When that didn’t catch on, he tried to play the China card: the Maharlika scheme, he claimed to Ted Failon, will be the instrument to take back control of the National Grid Corporation (“which is run by the Chinese,” Salceda undiplomatically said) from the Sys and Coyiutos.
For a time, it seemed the lesson learned was to take the President out of harm’s way: the president as chair was dropped on Dec. 9, substituting the secretary of finance instead. What this revealed was who in the realm of public opinion has clout. Thumbs up to angry pensioners, but thumbs down for business, academic, and civil society organizations who issued a joint statement opposing the scheme, which was viewed as helping to back the prudent stand of the governor of the Central Bank who said Malaysia’s 1MDB mess should give Filipinos reason to be careful. Instead of taking courage from the joint statement, even as House proponents ducked for cover, the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas governor on Dec. 8 caved in: saying he’d changed his mind and that dividends from the BSP could be used for the Maharlika scheme. The pressure inside the BSP from unnamed members of the Monetary Board sent tongues wagging about terrific pressure. Whether true or not, it revealed the upper echelons of our society: weak, because their backstopping the BSP governor couldn’t stop his acting weakly. The combined pressure of Finance Secretary Gollum upping the ante by insisting BSP should chip in, and pointing out the scheme was the President’s wish, with possible internal pressure, is what mattered. A point proven by Solita Monsod on Dec. 10 when she pointed out a statement appeared in the name of the President’s economic managers supporting the scheme: let us all stand together or risk hanging separately.
To be sure, in defense of Governor Medalla, the law already demands that 75 percent of the earnings of government agencies be remitted to the national government; so in reality, he was giving up nothing that the national government doesn’t already have the right to do anyway. Secretary Gollum seems to have suggested what sounds to my layman’s mind, a doubling-down on the question of sourcing funds from the BSP, by suggesting up to 100 percent of BSP’s dividends could be devoted to the Maharlika scheme, at least at the start (how this squares away with the plan to beef up the capitalization of the BSP to P200-250 billion, a project postponed during the pandemic when what ought to have gone to that purpose was diverted instead to pandemic spending probably bears explaining). And even more doubling down was Secretary Gollum and others saying on Dec. 9 that SSS and GSIS can buy into the scheme later, anyway. Not to mention additional funding to come from the Philippine Amusement and Gaming Corp. and the national budget.
One knowledgeable official did say that the question of BSP capitalization isn’t the cause for concern. What is troubling is the litany of exemptions for the Maharlika scheme in the proposed legislation: exemption from the government-owned and -controlled corporations law, exemption from the civil service law, exemptions from the Salary Standardization Act, the procurement law, the Philippine Competition Act, and legislation on dividends which mandates that 75 percent of the earnings of government agencies should go to the national government. On Dec. 10, the economist and National Scientist Raul Fabella bluntly declared the scheme “beyond repair.” Then again, perhaps such objections are a moving target since the President himself said it’s pointless to argue specifics for now as they could be changed at any time by the legislature.
But the fact remains, the proponents expecting the House and Senate to wag their tails weren’t expecting existing and future pensioners to get angry. So someone has to pay: after having to backtrack it’s been reported (Dec. 9, in Bilyonaryo) that some members of the House are looking to make the BSP governor the scapegoat for their loss of face; but then, the BSP governor has already lost face by seemingly caving in to the Palace line as put forward by Secretary Gollum. The President, upon landing in Belgium on Dec. 12, took up the cudgels for the Maharlika scheme, standing by the claim of Secretary Gollum and the Speaker, and the Senior Deputy Speaker that the Chief Executive wants the scheme to continue. At this point, the old brand of lipstick was selected for the Maharlika pig, giving up on its attempted rebranding as the Maharlika Wealth Fund and instead reverting to the Maharlika Investment Fund.
Here, a reflection is in order: technocrats are (in)famously inept at politics. The BSP governor proved this in raising the white flag after big business, academe, and civil society charged up the hill to defend him; and his defenders argue he stuck his neck out enough to take earlier proposals by proponents off the table (using the BSP forex reserves was one; using 10 percent of forex remittances was another). Even if this were so, the problem is that ultimately Medalla’s timing fostered the impression of giving way to the executive’s demands. In contrast was the tougher attitude of Secretary Gollum who doubled down on the arguments and upped the ante by corralling the rest of the economic team; and now the President has been rolled out which sends the message this is one fight this administration is not prepared to lose.