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Profile : Mexico's Main Pillar of Economic Stability : Miguel Mancera has been a welcome symbol of austerity. Now he is pushing to make the Bank of Mexico autonomous.

July 13, 1993|JUANITA DARLING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MEXICO CITY — Mexicans knew the party was over and the bills charged to the oil boom were coming due when Miguel Mancera was named head of the central bank in 1982. Notorious as a fiscal tightwad in a government of big spenders, Mancera was his nation's symbol of austerity. In 11 years as the Bank of Mexico's governor, he has done nothing to alter that image.

"What does Mancera do with his old suits?" asks a familiar quip. The answer: "He wears them."

The dated suits, along with his combed-back, graying hair and no-nonsense black-framed glasses, lend the 60-year-old governor an ascetic air even in an office decorated with beveled wood panels and paintings that the noted artist Diego Rivera gave the government as tax payments.

Mancera's Spartan reputation served Mexico well as the country struggled through the 1980s, weighed down by debt and striving toward economic reform. In international financial circles, the Yale-trained economist became a sorely needed assurance of economic stability. He receives much of the credit for pushing the fight against inflation to the top of the government's agenda. In June, policies he advocated brought the annual inflation rate down to a single digit for the first time in two decades.

Now, the Mexican government is trying to transfer the symbolic mantle of austerity and stability from Mancera to the institution he has served since 1958, the Bank of Mexico.

After years of quiet persuasion--the subtle, Mexican version of lobbying--Mancera has persuaded President Carlos Salinas de Gortari to take an unprecedented step.

Salinas has proposed constitutional amendments that would cede part of the executive branch's power by making the Bank of Mexico autonomous--similar to the U.S. Federal Reserve--in its power to curb government borrowing and influence interest rates.

"We must institutionalize the fight against inflation and the most effective way to do it is to make the central bank autonomous," Mancera said during a recent interview.

The administration considered the step so important that over the three days following the announcement, Mancera set aside nine hours to discuss the initiative individually with reporters. A press briefing would have been faster, but as one senior government official noted, "Mancera does not like crowds."

In this presidential system, no one doubts that the amendments recently passed by Congress will be just as easily ratified by the states, making the bank legally autonomous on Jan. 1. The question is whether, in a country where personalities carry far more weight than institutions, Mancera's vision of an independent central bank can be more than a dream.

"This fits in with the broader process of trying to institutionalize the reforms in economic policy," said Denise Dresser, a political science professor at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico.

"If autonomy has a chance anywhere, it has a chance at the Bank of Mexico," she said. "It is one government institution that has created a semblance of a civil service. The elites there are a purely technocratic breed."

Mancera epitomizes that breed, shunning the rounds of receptions and public appearances, usually considered essential to political career-building, in favor of long hours at his desk.

Most of his business socializing is done over lunch in the private Bank of Mexico dining room down the hall from his office. That saves time and expense, he quickly points out to visitors.

At those lunches, Mancera serves domestic wines, although lately that is as much a sign of nationalism as economy. In these days of a strong peso--Mancera bristles at the word "overvalued"--a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from the Monte Xanic winery he favors costs about $28, significantly more than comparable imported labels.

But that is one of the few luxuries Mancera permits in the central bank offices.

The pen he draws from his suit pocket to sketch a diagram is not Mont Blanc or even Parker, but Bic.

He loves opera and the symphony, yet seldom attends, despite working across the street from the Palace of Fine Arts, the nation's premier concert hall. "I can never predict what time I will leave the office," he explained. "If I bought tickets and then couldn't go, that would be a waste of money."

Even after late nights at the office, he drives home to the house in the south of the city that he shares with his wife of 34 years, Sonia. Shortly after becoming governor, he canceled the lease on the apartment his predecessor kept two blocks from the bank.

Mancera allows time for diversions only on weekends at his vacation home near the resort town of Cuernavaca, about an hour's drive from the capital. There, he swims or rides horseback.

But his favorite part of the weekend, Mancera says, is the time he spends with his five sons and their families, especially his two grandchildren, ages 2 1/2 and 6 months.

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