MANILA -- Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas Governor Nestor Espenilla, who succumbed to tongue cancer, knows when to crack the whip while pushing for wider access to financial services, especially for the poor.
Espenilla, 60, was a longtime deputy governor for enforcement, in charge of disciplining banks, until he assumed the governorship from Amando Tetangco in 2017.
His former boss, Ex-BSP Gov. Jose Cuisia, characterized Espenilla, known to the banking sector as Nesting, as a "mind-reader."
"He would seem to anticipate my needs. I didn't have to tell him, 'Nesting, I need this.' He would be there, so reliable. It's as if he could read my mind," Cuisia said if his former executive assistant.
Espenilla is hardworking, quiet, unobtrusive, and very bright, Cuisia said before the late BSP government assumed his post 2 years ago.
Before he stepped down as governor, Tetangco described his successor as a "pillar of support to the economy" and is respected by bankers and financial regulators at home and abroad.
The Bankers Association of the Philippines described Espenilla as a "good choice" to lead the central bank.
During his term, Espenilla raised the overnight borrowing rate by 175 basis points in 5 successive policy meetings last year as inflation hovered at near 10-year highs.
By January, inflation had slowed to 4.4 percent, closer to the BSP's 2 to 4 percent target.
When Espenilla was head of enforcement, the BSP fined Rizal Commercial Banking Corp a record P1 billion over the theft of $81 million from Bangladesh's foreign reserved that was shifted to RCBC accounts.
He also calmed consumers and financial markets when a senior Metrobank executive was caught funneling P900 million to a fictitious account in 2017.
"Banks have controls so that these kinds of things can be mitigated and withstood. No system is perfect," Espenilla told at that time.
"But the bank is expected to be resilient to these things and I have no concern that the bank can handle these things... This is very unfortunate, but they have to deal with it," he said.
To reporters covering the BSP, Espenilla was an official with a knack for demystifying finance speak to make it more accessible to the public.
When Lehman Brothers collapsed in the US in 2008, Espenilla was among economic officials at the forefront of government press conferences on its impact on the Philippine economy.
Espenilla is also an advocate of financial inclusion, or making banking services accessible to those on the margins, saving them from loan sharks, said the Bank Marketing Association of the Philippines (BMAP).
"He made an impact in the lives especially of the unbanked and underserved," BMAP said.
The nation lost a distinguished professional central banker who was preparing the Philippine banking system to adapt to a digital economy and ensure financial inclusion, Cuisia said.
Under his leadership, the BSP set up an electronic fund transfer system called InstaPay and an automated clearing house dubbed PESONet under a broader regulatory framework called the National Retail Payment System.
"We’re basically building financial rails," Espenilla said. "We’re building the highways that will connect every Filipino to every Filipino on an account by account basis."
Only 22.6 percent of Filipino adults have a formal financial account, including 11.5 percent with a bank account, a 3-point decline over 2 years, according to the BSP's 2017 Financial Inclusion Survey.
"Now with technology and the fact that a lot of our people are very digital savvy, particularly with the mobile phone, that’s a great opportunity to be able to deliver financial services," Espenilla told ANC's The Boss in 2018.
Espenilla graduated magna cum laude with a bachelor of science degree in business economics from the University of the Philippines. He also received his MBA from UP.
He also received a master of science degree in policy science from the Graduate Institute of Policy Science (GRIPS) in Tokyo, Japan.
He is survived by his wife, Maria Teresita Festin Espenilla, daughter, Jacqueline Joyce and son-in-law, Ben Baltazar, sons Nikko Nestor and Leonardo Nestor and grandchild, Zev Eron.
Malacañang on Sunday said Espenilla did "great service to the nation" and the palace was saddened by his "untimely demise."