The Governor of the Central Bank is set to demit office in a few days. It is not the usual practice in this country for commentators and citizens generally to try to make assessments of the tenure of senior public officers who retire or leave office. Nor is it the usual practice of such persons, after a suitable period, to tell the tale of their stewardship.
It is unfortunate that these two practices are not more habitual and consistent for both of them would serve the country in good stead. They do so by opening to the public's gaze vital elements of the inner workings of major public institutions. Such knowledge would not only serve to encourage a better analysis of success or failure but would help to clarify and codify the standards by which such judgements might be made.
It is on this basis, therefore, that it is appropriate that some attempt be made to evaluate the decade-long tenure of Ewart Williams at the helm of what is perhaps the most important and critical institution in the economy of this country.
Let me from the very beginning acknowledge that I am perhaps the least qualified person to make such an assessment. I have never met Mr Williams and I am no economist. Thus, much of the assessment is based on Mr Williams's public postures and pronouncements and is therefore entirely preliminary. But this is no reason for not essaying the attempt since most citizens would be in exactly the same position.
Mr Williams was appointed Governor of the Central Bank in 2002, by Patrick Manning shortly after his PNM administration had been returned to office. The general public knew very little of Mr Williams. He had spent many years out of the country and his primary claim to the required experience and expertise for such an appointment was the years he had spent as a functionary at the IMF in Washington.
But it also has to be assumed, given the fact that he was appointed by Mr Manning and given our understanding of Mr Manning's proclivity for appointing persons to high office whom he perceived as being loyal to himself, that Mr Williams was also ideologically and politically aligned to the PNM.
If that is so, it does not, in and of itself, constitute a barrier to effective service. The issue always has to be judged in terms of whether or not such ideological or political affinities are allowed to pre-empt professional judgement and standards when decisions are to be made.
In this respect it might be fair to describe Mr Williams's performance as a tale of two tenures. In his early years the economy was in the midst of an economic boom. What was required, in terms of the regulatory powers of the Central Bank, was careful monitoring and a light touch.
We hardly heard from Governor Williams in those early days. It was only later that it emerged that the Governor's touch was so light as to be non-existent. For the fact is that he presided over a period in which the Central Bank was systematically packed, from the board on down, with PNM ideologues and apparatchiks.
Furthermore, even apart from the scandal of the slush fund, as an institutional leader Mr Williams could hardly be described as inspired. The bank, for example, has continued to publish its quarterly reports and these have become a required source of information for anyone wishing to understand the economy. This is good but it is the least that might have been expected.
It might have been hoped that Mr Williams would have guided the bank towards a more proactive use of other media of communication to help deepen the understanding of the population of the realities of economic analysis and planning. Most people, after all, do not read the quarterly reports. What would be wrong with the Central Bank having its own monthly television and radio show explaining economic matters in simple terms to the people?
It may well have been that Mr Williams's concept of professionalism extended only to strictly economic issues. For the first indication he gave to the population that he possessed any such attribute came at a time when Mr Manning's megalomania had become full blown and he had embarked on a reckless spending spree, full steam ahead.
It was then that we saw the Governor, for the first time, stand up against Mr Manning and warn the government and the country of the dangers of rampant inflation which would be released by Mr Manning's spending spree. Mr Manning's response was the blithe assertion that the "skies would not fall".
This capacity of Mr Williams to speak economic truth as he perceived it has continued to be demonstrated under the present administration. He has repeatedly called for a more prudent fiscal arrangement by the Government and, as with Mr Manning, has incurred the wrath of this administration.
Undoubtedly, Mr Williams's greatest challenge came with the collapse of the CLICO empire. That collapse, and the unseemly tale of greed and corruption which it revealed, certainly is a testament to the failure of the bank to exercise its regulatory functions with the required due diligence.
Mr Williams has stoutly supported and defended the decision to bail out the beleaguered financial empire. This was certainly a controversial policy decision which will be debated for a long time to come. But whether Mr Williams was right or not, it certainly cannot be denied that in effecting this agreement, there was a signal lack of due diligence. The then government and Mr Williams hastened to effect an agreement the full dimensions of which they had not properly explored.
Heads of institutions such as the Central Bank do not appoint themselves. They do however agree to serve. The measure of their service can only be that they did the best that they could, for the good of the institution and the country. If the achievements of the last decade were Mr Williams' best then let us thank him and hope for a better tomorrow.
• Michael Harris has been for many years a writer and commentator on politics and society in Trinidad and the wider Caribbean. He is a long-standing member of the Tapia House
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