The appointment of Jwala Rambarran as Governor of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago is the latest instance of the continuing termitic assault on the institutions of State. It is the latest, but it will not be the last. Those of us who were hoping that this appointment would represent a departure from the Reshmi Ramnarine syndrome evident in the SSA, NGC, CAL, T&TEC, UTT and other State institutions were disappointed, but not surprised.
Our hope was that the critical importance of the role of the Central Bank would be appreciated; that it needed to be led, especially at this difficult juncture, by someone with depth of experience in economic management and policy-making and organisational skills, sufficiently independent to keep the government of the day honest in its conduct of the country's monetary affairs, and sufficiently strong and respected to keep the financial system stable. The hope was also that the new governor would also be able to command the respect of the regional and international financial community, not least among regulators and supervisors.
Our hope was that the process of selection would have been fair and transparent, which is not to say that it needed to be public, though in First World countries, top level appointments are subjected to some form of vetting in the public space, for example through parliamentary scrutiny. The candidate chosen, if drawn from outside the Central Bank, should at the very least be demonstrably superior to internal candidates.
In my estimation, the Bank had at least three very good internal candidates. Shelton Nicholls has been Deputy Governor for ten years, having worked in the Bank before as an economist. He holds degrees in Economics from UWI and his PhD is from the University of London. He is one of the finest quantitative economists in the region with several academic publications, and now has ten years of policy-making experience under his belt. He came from humble beginnings in Tobago, is fluent in French and a man of considerable artistic ability besides.
Alvin Hilaire, the Bank's chief economist, obtained First Class Honours in Economics at UWI and holds a PhD from Columbia University. He worked as an economist at the Bank and then pursued a career at the International Monetary Fund which included several missions and a stint as Resident Representative in Guinea, Africa. He is fluent in French. Hilaire grew up from humble beginnings in East Port of Spain.
Joan John, the current Deputy Governor, Operations has a career in the Bank of over 30 years, has worked as an economist and has run the Foreign Exchange and Banking Operations departments. She has been instrumental in modernising the country's payments systems. She is from Laventille.
Is the appointed Governor a demonstrably superior candidate to any of these central bankers? I do not think that he is. If Michael Mansoor was in fact a candidate, I would have even favoured him over Mr Rambarran (though not the internal candidates) because of the considerable experience he has, because he would have more likely asserted the independence of the Bank and would have had the immediate respect of the business and financial communities.
I take nothing away from Mr Rambarran's credentials as they have been represented in his resume, but he does not in my view measure up to those candidates, if the criteria for selection are experience in policy-making and competence in the skills and abilities required to do the job of Governor.
The Central Bank celebrates its 50th anniversary in 2014. It has a proud history, with foundations ably laid by Alex McLeod, Victor Bruce and Euric Bobb and repaired and strengthened by Ewart Williams over the last ten years. Central banks strive to be oases of calm and reason in the financial system, bulwarks against governments intent on debasing the currency, a voice of caution when the forces of immoderation gather, and a decisive actor when action is required. In my book which chronicled the first 25 years of the Bank's history, I compared the Central Bank to the judiciary in the role that it plays in the economic sphere. It places forthrightness, good judgment and accuracy before political correctness. It speaks truth to power, though not usually in the glare of the media.
But the Bank had suffered its first assault and insult two years ago when the then Minister of Finance foisted a slew of additional directors on the Bank. Not only did it make for the largest board of a central bank perhaps anywhere, but the calibre of the directors appointed paled in comparison with former directors of the central bank such as Algernon Wharton, Louis Blache-Fraser, Frank Rampersad, Patricia Robinson, John Hunt, Eric St Cyr, Elton Prescott, Carlyle Greaves and Frank Barsotti.
It is true that over the years successive governments had poured water into the fine brandy that the Central Bank board is supposed to be. But now the brandy has been diluted to microscopic proportions, leaving a Governor shorn of the wise counsel which is sometimes needed.
This latest appointment, which comes up well short of appropriateness, will I think not be the last such that we will see. Reshmi Ramnarine's appointment was characterised as a "misstep'', but the succession of similar appointments at key institutions suggests otherwise. It suggests that there is an agenda afoot. I am advised that State enterprise directors at an orientation meeting held at NAPA were told that the important quality of a director was "loyalty''. Directors must indeed be loyal, to their companies, to the rule of law, to integrity and to their consciences. I suspect though that the loyalty required is political, and blind loyalty to partisan political agendas could lead to the compromising of integrity, and worse.
The next big target will be the appointment of the President of the Republic. I do not think that anyone took seriously the Prime Minister's suggestion that a third term could be on offer to President Max Richards. In any event I rather doubt that he would be open to it. The appointment of the President unlocks the door to other appointments — judges, chairmen and members of service commissions and "independent'' senators — and will mute any criticism on the misuse of the country's defence force against civil society. These positions are critical given that some as yet unknown proposals for constitution reform will emerge in the next year.
In this dispensation, there are no sacred cows (with due deference to Owen Baptiste). It is open season on our institutions of State. We are afflicted with the Reshmi syndrome as the top positions at key institutions are populated by persons equipped with "Pacific Southern University'' type "qualifications'' (accredited but not credible), while persons with "Columbia'' and "London University'' type qualifications give way. The chaotic state of the University of Trinidad and Tobago shows what can happen as a result of short-sighted, partisan appointments to key institutions. UTT was too young an institution to be able to withstand the assault. The Central Bank may be able to, though its ability to do so when its most competent and experienced personnel leave, raises grave concerns.
Much will depend on the quality of economic decision-making over the next several years. For all of our sakes, I wish Mr Rambarran well. I sincerely hope he maintains and defends the finest traditions of central banking and of the Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago in particular.
• Dr Terrence Farrell is a former Deputy Governor, Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago