Mexican Data Agency's 31-Year-Old Board Member Draws Criticism

  • Opponents say Merodio isn’t qualified for position on board
  • Defenders say she’s being treated unfairly because of her age

Mexican President Enrique Pena Nieto’s move to install a woman close to his party on the board of the country’s statistics agency has critics crying foul.

Lawmakers, academics and think tanks have questioned Paloma Merodio’s qualifications to be one of four vice chairs. They say the 31-year-old shouldn’t have been considered for the post, which by law must go to someone who has held a high-level position in either the public or private sector or been a "prestigious" academic and researcher for at least five years.

Merodio -- whose husband was a state treasurer in an administration run by Pena Nieto’s party, the PRI, and who also did a stint in the nation’s Finance Ministry -- has a masters degree in public administration from Harvard University and has worked as a consultant and researcher for the government and organizations focused on development. Since 2014, she’s been a professor at a private university in Mexico City.

That’s not enough experience for critics such as Mexican economist Enrique Cardenas and opposition senator Juan Carlos Romero, who say the government is willing to overlook her inexperience to gain influence in the institution. Those who oppose her nomination are concerned it calls into question the independence and reliability of the statistics agency, which is charged with reporting data on inflation, poverty, economic growth and trade, and that government allies might be tempted to shape reports in a politically favorable manner.

“The quality of the data is crucial,” said Benito Berber, a senior economist at Nomura Holdings Inc. who has studied Mexico for more than 16 years and says he’s concerned Merodio isn’t qualified for the job. “For markets, this is as important as the credibility of the central bank."

Merodio’s nomination was approved by the senate Thursday and she was sworn in on the spot. In her new role, Merodio will be able to propose changes to the way data is collected and interpreted, approve them and determine what information should be disclosed, among other things. All decisions have to be approved by the majority of the five-member board.

While she can’t match the more than 30 years of experience in mathematics, law and statistics that the other vice chairs have, defenders say that she is being treated unfairly because of her age and argue that a woman should be given the opportunity to be on the board, which previously was made up entirely of men.

Critics are unmoved. To them, the independence of the statistics agency is a sacred principle which shouldn’t be put into question, given the importance of economic data for foreign investors as well as domestic policy makers seeking to alleviate poverty and damp inflation.

They point to what happened in Argentina, where the government was sanctioned by the International Monetary Fund for unreliable data during the administration of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. Venezuela’s economic data is considered wholly unreliable, when it’s available. There has been no official reports on inflation or growth since 2015.

Merodio joins Mexico’s agency at a critical time. Officials plan to release a new consumer prices index this year that will change some of the ways in which the number is calculated. The agency was also criticized in late 2015 when it modified the way it estimates income and poverty. Its chairman defended the methodology at a public event, when he said he was "convinced there were no ill intentions."

Merodio didn’t respond to messages and calls asking for comment.

“It’s become clear that there is an effort to undermine constitutional autonomous institutions, to make them partisan," said Cardenas, the economist who heads the Centro de Estudio Espinosa Yglesias think tank in Mexico City. “One of the fundamental worries is that we go through something similar to what Argentina, or Venezuela, are going through, where governments try to influence the data on indicators that are most relevant to them."

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