Getting to the bottom of the ‘Arrovo’ bill currency boondoggle

BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven -
Governor Amando M. Tetangco Jr., the new boss of the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas was given a splitting headache before barely warming his seat, succeeding retired BSP Governor Paeng Buenaventura. (Buenaventura, whose term came to end, had done well during crisis times in the BSP, but, ailing for the final year of his tenure, last November went to Stanford University Hospital in Palo Alto, California, where all our VIPs go for serious medical treatment).

Joining us at the Tuesday Club in the EDSA Plaza yesterday morning as our guest of honor for the weekly breakfast, Tetangco told us, upon being queried about it, that the investigation of what went wrong when the BSP last year issued those awful newly-printed P100 bills when the President’s name misspelled on it, above the words "SANDAANG PISO."

Alas, to great embarrassment – unnoticed before scores of thousands of banknotes had been issued and gone into circulation – La Presidenta’s name had been printed beneath her signature to identify her as GLORIA MACAPAGAL-ARROVO – the "Y" having been misprinted as a "V" to great consternation in officialdom, but to the delight of the collectors and the curious who managed to snap up some banknotes before the BSP hastily rushed to retrieve the rest.

There was an almost universal guffaw. The Opposition crowed in glee. The President was not amused. How had the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas, the publisher, issuer, and guardian of our currency, goofed so disastrously. Okay, we’re obviously not the only country where such a bungle occurs. By coincidence, on last Monday’s front page of The STAR, there was the reproduction of a United States $20 bill which had just been auctioned off in Orlando, Florida, with a big "DEL MONTE" logo, you know the familiar red on yellow border, on a green oval, with the words "ECUADOR" above, then the serial number #4011 below it. (It’s identical to the "DEL MONTE" logo on our own homegrown cans and boxes). Surely it wasn’t a propaganda ploy for San Miguel’s Ramon Ang and Unilab’s former President and CEO Butch Campos who’d recently purchased majority control of Philippine "DEL MONTE."

The 1996 twenty dollar bill had originated at a US Treasury Department printing facility in Fort Worth, the Associated Press (AP) story accompanying it, datelined "DALLAS (Texas)", revealed, "but how the fruit tag found its way onto the paper of the greenback is unknown. Sus, there was the image of US President Andrew Jackson virtually staring at the intruding "red, green and yellow DEL MONTE sticker" and, in my imagination perhaps, looking very embarrassed. (Jackson’s statue, astride his stallion, by the way, stands in front of the cathedral in New Orleans, Louisiana, where Hurricane Katrina struck, so I suppose aside from being embarrassed, the dashing Jackson was also inundated). But I digress.

Anyway, that "rare", flawed dollar bill fetched $25,300 at the auction. What I’m wondering about is whether those irate Texans dragged out the manager of the Forth Worth US Treasury Department printing shop, or whoever was responsible for the embarrassing overprint, to be blued and tattoed, or tarred and feathered, and run out of town on a rail – or did they send him to the gallows, Texas-style? Or was he given a commendation?

In any event, offending the deceased President Jackson is one thing. But printing hundreds of thousands (millions?) of Philippine P100 bills with La Emperadora’s name misspelled is cause for alarm – by golly, even counterfeiters do better. It’s not something frivolous like a mistaken overprint on a stamp, or a stamp printed upside down, or one with a hero’s or heroine’s face on it cross-eyed, it’s the Republic’s currency involved. It’s amazing, and in a way gratifying, that despite this egregious bungle, the Philippine peso has, in the past month and a half, strengthened and become, to repeat the boast, "Asia’s best performing currency."
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He may regret having come to breakfast yesterday when he reads this – but I must laud Governor Tetangco for candor and forthrightness in what he revealed to us. He’s well-known as one of the principal architects of the reforms the BSP is implementing to enhance the conduct of monetary policy, as well as foster the development of the domestic capital market, and strengthen the banking center.

Tetangco’s goal, as the official Bangko Sentral blurb declares, is to "propel the BSP into a world-class monetary authority," etc. Indeed, I’ve followed his career even before he emerged from Buenaventura’s shadow (Paeng, aside from being one of our most astute bankers, whether overseas or in central banking, had dash, panache, and was, too boot, an Ateneo classmate of former President Joseph "Erap" Estrada). Sus, like Buenaventura, Governor Tetangco is an Atenista, having graduated AB Economics from the Ateneo de Manila University, cum laude, where he also took graduate studies in business administration. He earned his Masters in Public Policy and Administration, majoring in Development Economics, at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, as a Central Bank scholar.

In sum, Tetangco racked up 30 years of experience in the Bangko Sentral on top of his high scholastic ratings, in the implementation of monetary and foreign exchange policies, the conduct of open market operations, and the management of the BSP’s international reserves during his tenure as Deputy Governor In-Charge of the Banking Services Sector, Research and Treasury, prior to his ascension to the coveted and hotly-contested post of BSP Governor.

Also with us at yesterday’s Tuesday Club breakfast-cum-gossip session was Commissioner Jose Mario C. Buñag of the Bureau of Internal Revenue, whom we’ve enlisted as one of our Club members so we can tax the Taxman with questions without hassle. Frankly, I’ve known and admired Jojo Buñag for a long time, and never was a BIR chief been so charming (don’t be deceived, he’s a toughie) and academically accomplished. Results, of course, will be the lithmus test of his incumbency in one of the most vital and delicate tasks ever assigned by the GMA government, from EVAT, to what’s what and to who to crack down on for tax evasion.

Jojo, studied Taxation in New York University, after getting his Masters in Comparative Jurisprudence from the same NYU. Of course, like Tetangco, he’s a "Blue Eagle" – sanamagan, he got his law degree cum laude from old ADMU in 1968, after a B.A. cum laude from the "Arrneow" (as our late friend and columnist Joe Guevara used to burp, when poking fun at the Sons of Loyola). A consistent valedictorian, Jojo is determined not to flunk the BIR test.

What bothers some people is that there are almost too many Ateneo "boys" in the GMA Team, assigned to "damage control" the Hyatt 10 defection (betrayal?) and re-start the economy, bolster our much-shaken financial institutions, and resume a trajectory to progress. To wit: restore confidence both at home and abroad in our embattled, politics-rocked, government.

On Monday night, at our gala "PEOPLE’S ASIA" magazine "People of the Year" Awards Night in the Rizal Ballroom of the Makati Shangri-La, Finance Secretary Gary Teves remarked to me – with a wide grin – that his Economic Team was so full of fellow-Ateneans (yep, him, too) that he has had to defensively tell everybody that they were not recruited for Old School ties but for their experience, ability, and enterprise.

Even yesterday’s breakfast, with Tetangco and Buñag at the same table, looked a bit like an Arrneow Alumni Reunion. Oh well, La Salle still beats the Ateneans often enough in basketball and football to teach them, thankfully, humility. Why, La Salle keeps on "beating at" (not beating) GMA.
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As for the disastrous ARROVO bill boondoggle, Governor Tetangco said that a serious, but quiet investigation was still ongoing, in order to exercise due process, fairness, and the usual amenities. Translation: The BSP lawyers are trying to identify the culprits, and discover what went grievously wrong.

"I don’t think it was economic sabotage!" the BSP Gov. told us.

What was it then? Under scrutiny, naturally, is the BSP’s currency and security printing division under BSP Deputy Governor Armando Suratos. Who goofed? Was it deliberate? Was there criminal laxity?

My opinion, and I don’t wish to rush to judgment, is that heads ought to roll – after due investigation.

As for the printing house that printed those misspelled P100 ARROVO bills, it must certainly be dunned, too. The "security" printing firm’s performance was disastrous. Why? Didn’t they have samples of existing P100 bills and noted that it should be ARROYO, not "ARROVO"? It turns out that the BSP had not contracted familiar, and well-tried printers like Thomas La Rue, etc., but an entirely new printer – a French firm whose name, while the inquiry is ongoing, Governor Tetangco politely declined to disclose. He said that the French firm’s conduct is under investigation and didn’t wish to discuss what its liabilities were, at this time.

The collectors, while universal embarrassment reigns in official circles (how can we have "faith" in the Peso? Some shake their heads), are in paroxysms of joy. What a bonanza for currency collectors, buffs, and accumulators of trivia!

Many, after acquiring an ARROVO bill are happily "framing" them to hang on the wall. Who’s keeping those "desirable" currency bills "recalled" or stopped before release by the BSP in custody? Or has any group cornered them? Or are they filtering "out"? Boy, whatta country!

The Italians have an old expression: "Ridiamo per non piangere." Meaning: "We laugh in order not to cry." Is that why we, in our sunny Philippines, laugh so much – both in merriment and in embarrassment. As long as we can keep smiling through, by gosh, we’ll overcome.

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