POSTSCRIPT / December 10, 1998 / Thursday


Philippine STAR Columnist

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4,000 tons of gold, $100-B in business

WILL some readers with a knack for figures please help us visualize how big a pile that some 4,000 tons of gold make?

How many Olympic-size swimming pools would the gold fill? How many 747 jumbojets would be needed to fly it? If the gold were the size of bricks, how long would they run if placed end to end? How many Statues of Liberty done in solid gold could one make from the pile? If I flattened the gold into paper the size and thickness of a dollar bill, how many dollar bills could I make? If we distributed the gold equally among 70 million Filipinos, how much gold would each receive?

If you had that much gold, what are the first three things that you would do with it?

Please send your replies or comments. We will acknowledge all responses.

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UNLESS you just woke up from a Rip Van Winkle slumber, you would know by now that the 4,000 tons refer to the mind-boggling quantity of the precious metal that former first lady Imelda Marcos claims to have been hoarded by her late husband Ferdinand.

The Imeldific revelation came by way of her opening a can of worms, or rather a barrel of big names in Philippine business who, according to her, are mere trustees of the late President Marcos for his secret business holdings.

Imelda said that these secret shares of stock, in turn, would now have a street value of at least P500 billion ($12.5 billion) or at most P1 trillion ($25 billion!) based on an exchange rate of P40 to the dollar.

“We practically own everything in the Philippines,” Imelda said glancing at her manicured nails, “from electricity, telecommunications, airline, banking, beer and tobacco, newspaper publishing, television stations, shipping, oil and mining, hotels and beach resorts, down to coconut milling, small farms, real estate and insurance.”

Whew! Just typing that long, heavy list of Marcos megabusinesses allegedly held in trust by his former cronies sent arthritic pain shooting through my fingers.

For the benefit of those who have not been home all these years… that long list includes Meralco, Philippine Long Distance Telephone Co., Philippine Airlines, Allied Bank, Fortune Tobacco, Asia Brewery, Manila Bulletin, ABS-CBN, Channels 9 and 13, Philippine Village Hotel, Puerto Azul, several big mining firms, et cetera, et cetera.

* * *

THAT claim of Imelda sent a tectonic shiver down the spine of Big Business, but most of the Marcos trustees who were accused of running off with the loot were too shocked to say a word by way of defense.

Only the Lopez clan, who got back Meralco and ABS-CBN from Imelda’s brother Kokoy Romualdez (still loose in the States?), fired off a quick retort. The Lopezes said an insatiable dictator grabbed the crown jewels of their business empire and that they merely got them back.

The Lopez patriarch had signed away their holdings under duress, mainly to protect the life of his son Geny Lopez who was then languishing in a Marcos prison, a hostage against the Lopezes possibly plotting to overthrow the dictator.

The other trustees fingered by Imelda are expected to recover their voices in a few days after they consult their lawyers.

In my book, however, their failure to answer back right away is a giveaway that there must be at least an iota of truth to Imelda’s claim that these big names in business were actually merely holding in trust the secret Marcos assets.

* * *

THE kilometric revelations of Imelda were reported in a series of front-page stories in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, which scored a clear scoop. The other papers had no choice but to grudgingly pick up the Imelda tales and catch up.

My personal assessment is that many of today’s captains of industry were/are merely holding some lucrative businesses for the late dictator, but not necessarily in the manner and the extent that Imelda claims.

In any case, there should be a serious effort to unmask the bantay salakay, the untrustworthy trustees who looted the loot. Imelda must also be formally asked to explain how Marcos, an unlikely Midas, came upon that wealth.

That is a tall order, given the state of the country’s flawed justice system.

To help ferret out the whole truth, Sen. Juan Ponce Enrile Enrile is now saying that Imelda should be granted immunity from suits (doesn’t that remind you of Monica somebody?) to encourage her to make a full disclosure of the Marcos dealings.

This is a curious reversal of roles for Enrile who as defense secretary in 1986 linked up with then constabulary chief Gen. Fidel Ramos, broke away from the commander in chief and helped trigger the EDSA Revolt.

* * *

BUT back to the fabulous 4,000 tons of Marcos gold.

Anti-Marcos elements are saying that this gold yarn was invented by Imelda to answer charges that they had looted the economy. The gold hoard, if true, could explain how the Marcoses were able to amass such fantastic wealth and corner controlling shares in blue chip companies.

Imelda claims she has several suitcases bulging with stock certificates, certificates of gold deposit, and other documents to back up her claim about the gold and their ownership of a string of businesses.

Are some of these documents fake? Were they originally genuine — but replaced, like paper money demonetized by a new government, by Marcos cronies trying to erase the paper trail leading to their doorstep? Or are they genuine all right, but snatched from the real owners who signed with a gun pointed to their heads, in a manner of speaking?

Some of these questions may be answered when the threatened mother of all suits — plus the cross-claims and counter-suits — are finally filed. We see a protracted legal war, possibly dragging on beyond the term of President Estrada or the lifetimes of some of the protagonists.

* * *

IF you have doubts about Imelda’s tales of gold, you’re not alone. Many gold experts are skeptical.

An expert with Mitsui Bussan Commodities in London said the 4,000 tons ticked off by Imelda are more than half the gold kept by the US Federal Reserve Bank in Fort Knox.

The volume is even bigger than the reserves of Bundesbank, the German central bank, which totals only 3,700 tons.

The Swiss National Bank, the expert added, has only 2,600 tons. The Marcos hoard, if it exists, approximates the entire gold output of South Africa, one of the world’s biggest gold producers, in 10 years.

The Marcos gold would fetch about $38 billion at current prices. If dumped on the market, it could cause complicated dislocation in the world economy.

At the time Marcos was allegedly gathering and trading gold in the 1970s, the Central Bank of the Philippines itself had only 650 tons of the precious metal.

* * *

WHEN elephants fight, the ants get trampled. In this war of Imeldific proportions — assuming the salivating lawyers on both sides make sure it pushes through — we small Pinoys, the quintessential kibitzer, better keep a safe distance.

My attitude is that we should welcome this coming duel to the death. It is when the big crooks in business and government get together and get cozy with one another that we should start worrying.

Meanwhile, smile… and dream of gold!

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