Philippine central bank chief Espenilla dies after cancer battle

The governor of the Philippine central bank, Nestor Espenilla. (Bloomberg pic)

MANILA: The governor of the Philippine central bank, Nestor Espenilla, died Saturday after a battle with cancer, Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas said in a statement. He was 60.

Espenilla, known as “Nesting” by friends and colleagues, disclosed his medical condition in February 2018 as he recovered from surgery and radiation therapy for tongue cancer. At the time he was on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem with his wife and friends, and told reporters in a lengthy text message that his doctors had told him he was cancer-free.

The cancer returned, however, and Espenilla had taken intermittent medical leave since September in addition to an overseas trip for treatment in January.

The Monetary Board has designated Deputy Governor Cyd Tuano-Amador as the central bank’s officer-in-charge effective immediately until President Rodrigo Duterte appoints a successor or designates another officer in charge, the bank said in a statement.

Espenilla was a three-decade veteran of the central bank when he took office in July 2017. During his first year as governor, he faced mounting pressure as inflation soared and the peso slumped.

After initially facing criticism for being slow to act to rein in price growth, he delivered five successive interest-rate increases between May and November 2018, making Bangko Sentral one of the most aggressive central banks in Asia last year. The peso went from one of the worst-performing currencies in the region in the first half to rebound as Asia’s second best in the following six months.

Inflation cooled for a third month in January, after climbing to a nine-year high in September and in October. The peso has strengthened a further 1% this year.

Trusted Instincts

“I respond to moments and situations,” Espenilla said in a June 2017 interview, revealing that he was a fan of Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink. “I trust my instincts.” Gladwell argued that split-second decisions in complex situations can be as good as, or even better, than ones made under careful thought.

The only boy among five children, Espenilla joined the central bank as a debt analyst in 1981 after graduating magna cum laude in economics from the University of the Philippines. He juggled law school while working, but knew after a year that he had to choose one path for his career. At that time, he was considered talented enough to join then-Governor Jaime Laya on foreign trips, and said that made the choice easy for him.

At the central bank, Espenilla did a number of roles — from advising the International Monetary Fund to investigating the nation’s biggest financial scams. He also crunched numbers and wrote speeches for governors, including his predecessor Amando Tetangco. He worked his way up to become one of three deputy governors in 2005 and head of the bank supervision division.

Espenilla was a champion of so-called financial inclusion programs, such as the use of electronic wallets and better credit access to farmers and rural entrepreneurs. He sought to strengthen the capital market and cut the cost of doing business. Some of the initiatives included establishing a bond repurchase market, loosening foreign-exchange rules, and financial technology innovations.

Strict Father

“During his tenure, the amendments to the BSP charter were finally passed, strengthening the capability of the central bank to deliver its mandate to promote price and financial stability and to foster a safe, efficient and inclusive payment system,” the bank said in a statement.

As a father, Espenilla was strict but gave his children enough freedom to pursue their passion, his son Nikko said in a 2017 interview. Espenilla is survived by his wife Tess, their daughter, two sons and a grandchild.

“If you treat people like they can’t be trusted, they won’t be mindful of their responsibilities,” Espenilla said in a previous interview.