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The financier who came in from the cold

 

AFTER more than a year of peace and soul searching, Ekamol Khiriwat, the former exchange watchdog chief, returned to the limelight for the first time on Wednesday as an unofficial spokesman for banking regulators.

Accompanied by Viroj Nualkhair, chief executive officer of Phatra Thanakit Plc and Pakkawat Kovitpattanawong, president of Securities One Plc, Ekamol spoke on the heavy subject of mergers and acquisitions of the financial institutions to rapt financiers, who flocked to the Hotel Siam Inter-Continental to listen to predictions about their future. His speech is likely to set in motion a massive shake-up of the Thai financial system. It was a dramatic return for Ekamol, who, as adviser to Finance Minister Amnuay Viravan had been playing a behind-the-scenes role in the creation of a radical merger package for the financial institutions. The merger package, announced earlier that day at the Government House by Rerngchai Marakanond, the central bank chief, charts a new course for Thai financial institutions by opening up the field for consolidation and new business opportunities.

As a former BOT deputy governor, Ekamol has a strong grasp of the nuts and bolts of the Thai financial system. He also commands great respect for his integrity. His conscience in public policy-making was always crystal clear.

It was this rich mixture of attributes that led Amnuay into accepting Ekamol into his inner circle of advisers. The finance minister has found him extremely helpful in matters that deal with the nitty-gritty bureaucratic machinery of the Finance Ministry, the Bank of Thailand, the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Stock Exchange of Thailand.

Ekamol's reading of the capital market is also legendary, for he is a believer in the market. Unlike most BOT officials, who prefer to remain in their shells, Ekamol frequently held talks with the world's top economists and investment bankers and tries to understand the nature of the markets.

''Public policy making now has to take into account how the markets react," he once said. ''One simply cannot sit in a room and draw up policies without listening to the markets." Ekamol accepted an invitation to become Amnuay's adviser without pay. His passion for financial policy is always strong. It was reported that he declined an offer as a deputy finance minister in the present administration because he saw no point in returning to the public life at this juncture when he has the freedom to do what he wants.

Besides, he thought that he would be, as an unofficial adviser, more useful to Amnuay than in the formal capacity of deputy finance minister, which would carry political obligations.

The period of unemployment following his unceremonious departure from the SEC and the Bank of Thailand in December 1995 was a low point in his life. The episode tarnished the reputation of both the exchange watchdog and the BOT, which lost one of its brightest men. Dr Surakiart Sathirathai, the then finance minister, and Vijit Supinit, then BOT governor, who joined forces to remove Ekamol, did not survive the political storm either.

It took quite a while before Ekamol adjusted to his new life. After all, he had been accustomed to discussing, planning and implementing policies that had far-reaching implications on the development of the Thai financial system. To work in the private sector and make money was simply not in character.

His friends helped him with some advisory jobs and Ekamol is now an adviser to the Saha Pattapapibul Group. Recently he was appointed chairman of Thai Swedish Motors Plc. He also teaches an MBA course at Thammasat University, hoping to instil students with a fundamental grasp of the interconnection of the money, foreign exchange and capital markets.

A friend heard him vow not to return to the SEC, where he became its first secretary general, provided leadership during the difficult formative period and laid down a foundation of integrity. And how could he return to the organisation, whose board sought his removal based on leaflets and unsubstantiated reports?

Yet, privately, Ekamol would like to return to his alma mater, the Bank of Thailand, where he won a scholarship to study at Dartmouth College and Harvard University.

His wish was fulfilled when the Cabinet approved his nomination as a member of the BOT's Court of Directors.

 

BY THANONG KHANTHONG

 

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