COLUMN: FUND SEEKER

MANILA, January 20, 2004 (STAR) FROM THE STANDS By Domini M. Torrevillas - The job of secretary of finance may be envied by many, but it is a difficult job. The current holder of the position, Juanita D. Amatong, took over from Jose Isidro Camacho last month, and her job is primarily to raise revenues for use in government operations and negotiating for foreign loans and payment of external debts. She is unfazed, though, picking up the challenge posed by the sudden resignation of her competent predecessor with the confidence of someone with her vast experience in international and domestic finance.

"It is a difficult job, it’s something that I had not desired," she says, "but I’m in it, I have to make do." And although she did not seek it – she was in fact surprised when Camacho called her when she was in Mindanao to say that he was leaving, and that he was recommending her to take over – she says she is no stranger to the job, having been with the department since 1971, becoming assistant secretary in 1986, and undersecretary in 1992. People in the know say she wrote many of Mr. Camacho’s speeches and highly technical matters touching on financial investment. She is the first female DOF secretary.

Those are not her only credentials. She was tax economist of the International Monetary Fund from 1963 to 1968, and she was with the World Bank from 1985 to 1998 where she became the first female executive director of an eight-country constituency that included the Philippines. Her high status at the World Bank earned her the privilege of being one of "First 100 Women" given during the country’s centennial celebration.

The DOF has agencies attached to it such as Customs, Bureau of Internal Revenue, and the Insurance Commission, and monitors government financing institutions such as the Government Service Insurance System, Social Security System, and Development Bank of the Philippines. Those agencies are sources of revenue for DOF through the taxes, fees and charges they collect. The collections turned over to DOF are used to pay for government obligations including payment of foreign and domestic debts.

Asked if DOF is able to pay the debts incurred, Ms. Amatong says, "Yes. We have to have growth in the economy. You can have more income taxes if there is growth in the economy."

She has a positive attitude towards the country’s economic growth. The GDP (Gross Domestic Product) grew by 4.3 per cent in the last year, which she says is "very positive growth, and higher than that of Singapore and Hong Kong."

For 2003, she says, the collections of the bureaus of customs, internal revenue and the national treasury exceeded the targets for revenues. "I hope we can sustain this."

The secretary, however, cautions that the country’s population growth rate negates its economic growth rate. "Even if there is positive economic growth rate, if the population rate is 2.3 per cent annually, that means you have more people to feed, clothe, give water. You need more income for services." She adds that if we want a zero growth rate, "every family should only have two children."

Ms. Amatong says the present foreign debt is an aggregate of past administration borrowings. But this can be eventually reduced "if we are mindful of fiscal discipline."

A hoped-for revenue would be the indexation of "sin taxes." She is studying the implementation of ad valorem taxes on tobacco and alcohol in lieu of specific taxes as this would increase tax revenes..

Ms. Amatong mentions the contribution made by Overseas Filipinos Workers who remitted US$8-billion dollars last year. "When the workers make their remittances through banks, that increases our foreign reserve."

Being indebted is not really a bad thing – provided that the debt is used "properly, that is, to build roads, etcetera, but where did our debt go during the Marcos and Erap years? Where did they put the money?"

The secretary denies that the administration is spending government money for its election campaign. She says the 2004 budget has already been imputed into election-related activities, such as COMELEC activities. Funding for infrastructure projects has been imputed already, so if there are add-ons, it would be spending by politicians who use their own resources for their campaigns.

She believes in electing the candidate for president based on his/her economic know-how. "If somebody becomes president who does not know economics, how can our economy grow?"

Her office is on the sixth floor of the DOF along Roxas boulevard, where one can still behold the remnants of a glorious sunset. Here she holds meetings with international and local financing executives as well as department staff, and prepares speeches for never-ending public engagements.

Nits, a native of Dumaguete City, finished her BS Business Administration degree at Silliman University in 1955, and her MA in Economics and Public Service at Syracuse University in New York. Her first job was as associate professor at Silliman.

Her husband, Ernesto, is a former representative of Dipolog City.


Reported by: Sol Jose Vanzi

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