Address Maharlika fund anxiety
Another day, another challenge to the Maharlika Investment Fund—this time from a group of lawmakers who have asked the Supreme Court to declare this high-profile initiative of the Marcos administration unconstitutional.
Indeed, it seems that there is opposition to the creation of this sovereign wealth fund from opponents at every corner along its long and tortured journey toward realization, so much so that one has to wonder if it will ever end.
From the moment the proposal was made public, rumors immediately began swirling that the scheme was meant to be a vehicle to help repatriate the hidden wealth of the Marcos family that has been kept abroad since the 1986 Edsa revolution.
Once the idea of the fund started to take a more definite shape, its critics—including not a few voices from within government—started to express their apprehension over the financial resources that would have to be drawn from other state agencies to provide the seed for Maharlika’s creation. In particular, the public balked at the idea that billions of pesos of pension contributions of members of the Social Security System and the Government Service Insurance System would be contributed to the fund. After a few weeks of rowdy public debate, the idea was dropped.
Technocrats, businessmen, and economists were also alarmed that dollar reserves of the central bank would be earmarked as the monetary authority’s contribution to the fund. This was, quite possibly, the weakest element of the Maharlika fund’s proposed structure since it would draw resources from a pool of foreign exchange which the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas holds in safekeeping to help stabilize the value of the peso during times of economic stress.
Then came the criticism that the President of the Philippines—originally slated to be the fund’s chair under the original proposal—would politicize the use of the resources, possibly ordering fund managers to invest in businesses or projects that are more beneficial to the sitting administration than those that are not, regardless of their utility to the Filipino public. After a few weeks, that idea, too, was quietly set aside, with Maharlika’s chairmanship being given to the finance secretary.
Addressing a slew of worries about how the fund would be run, its proponents in the executive and legislative branches inserted layer upon layer of supposed safeguards to protect the money of the Filipino people from misuse. This included provisions requiring the appointment of an investment professional as its head, an investment committee that would screen all potential uses of its billions, and a board of directors composed of various government and private sector representatives to oversee the fund’s operations.
Despite all this, the public remains wary about the Maharlika fund and the latest challenge by progressive lawmakers before the high tribunal is simply the latest iteration of the fear—formed through years of Filipinos’ bad experiences of their funds being misused by so-called public servants—that they will once more be on the losing end of a deal (with billions of pesos of public funds as the prize).
What then should the Marcos administration do to put an end to the public’s anxiety that permeates any discussion about the fund, so that the country can move on to tackling more important issues at hand?
For one, the President can help lessen the lingering distrust by naming posthaste the person whom he will entrust with managing billions of pesos of public funds and making it grow for the benefit of the country and its citizens.
The next step after this would be to name his appointees to the fund’s board of directors.
Doing so would allow the public to assess more clearly whether their funds are in good hands. And, assuming President Marcos chooses the right people for the job, the public will be more at ease with the idea, bad experiences of the past notwithstanding.
The proponents of the fund have to understand that the public’s skepticism toward Maharlika is not part of some plot to derail the initiatives of the Marcos administration but is, instead, a wariness borne out of many years of the public seeing their precious resources squandered by people who were oathbound to take care of them.
The sooner the President puts the public’s mind at ease—with more, not less transparency—the sooner we can get down to the more crucial task of nation-building.