Accepting presumptive president Ferdinand "Bongbong" Marcos Jr's offer to be a core member of his economic team, Arsenio Balisacan acknowledged the need to move quickly in the endurance race that is restoring the Philippines' pre-pandemic growth momentum. He is, after all, a marathoner.
Balisacan is returning as socioeconomic planning secretary, a post he held for four years under the late President Benigno "Noynoy" Aquino during which, the Philippines was among Asia's fastest-growing economies with its first-ever investment-grade rating.
From noon of June 30, his task is to restore that momentum that was lost during the pandemic and move things faster, for the sake of the poor.
"I will join the new Cabinet, mindful of the immense work needed to accelerate economic recovery and post-recovery development," Balisacan said in a statement late Monday, after Marcos Jr announced his appointment, alongside the secretaries of labor and migrant workers affairs.
"In fulfilling this new role, I look forward to working with the economic team and the private sector to bring back the economy to its pre-pandemic high-growth trajectory, delivery rapid poverty reduction, and reduce socioeconomic inequality," he said.
The socioeconomic planning secretary is also the director-general of the National Economic Development Authority, tasked to chart the country's growth path and make sure that it's felt all the way down. In Noynoy Aquino's Malacañang, Balisacan was the more low-key of the economic managers, walking in and out of Cabinet meetings and official functions with his iPad.
The challenge for Balisacan
In the quarter ended March, the economy grew 8.3%, exceeding analysts' forecasts and indicating that Marcos will have momentum to build on as he leads the Philippines out of the pandemic.
Pandemic lockdowns in the Philippines' were among the world's longest and strictest, resulting in the worst recession since World War II. According to an SWS poll two weeks before Marcos' landslide win, four in 10 Filipino families consider themselves poor.
There's also the specter of high inflation, or fast-rising consumer prices that led the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas last week to raise interest rates for the first time since the pandemic.
Currently the head of the Philippine Competition Commission that's tasked with fighting monopolies, Balisacan has a literal bird's-eye view of the economic divide from his Quezon City office, where he sees a giant shopping mall and hotel complex on one side and shanty houses on the other.
"When I see the social divide everyday, prosperity and poverty co-existing... This is why competition policy is so crucial. It can't be like this," Balisacan told ABS-CBN News before the lockdown.
"An economy that is rapidly growing, but with growth that is exclusive, it's not likely to last long," Balisacan said, adding it could give rise to "social instability, disenchantment, and populist" sentiments.
Marathoner, mountain climber
As PCC chairman, Balisacan said he sees to it that the size and scope of companies do not result in high prices or a lack of choices for consumers.
"Bigness in the law is not illegal. In fact, bigness is encouraged if that bigness leads to better efficiency, lower prices for goods and services. That's the reality in the marketplace," Balisacan said.
On Twitter, Balisacan shares his love of the outdoors. When climbing mountains, he said "cooperation, not competition is the name of the game".
During the COVID quarantines, he spoke in various forums both local and international on inclusive growth and ensuring fair competition while solving a couple of Wordle puzzles.
More recently, he crowdsourced for leads on how farmers' groups help them get a fair shake when it comes to prices.
Tweeting about his pandemic reads, he said: "Revisiting an old interest in a new context is gratifying. In a nutshell: The indirect longer-run effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security and poverty reduction are enormous. Still, national leaders can turn the crisis into an opportunity for reforms."