How a Colombian VP came to Tilburg University

How did he do it? Jonathan Malagón González is only 33 and finished his PhD at Tilburg University within three years, while being Vice President of the Colombian Banking Association.

The PhD-defense of Jonathan Malagón González on December 1st in the aula of Tilburg University is unlike others. For Dutch dissertation defenders it is often a festivity which almost looks like a wedding: dozens of friends, relatives and colleagues, and early champagne. Jonathan Malagón’s defense is more intimate. He is from Colombia, and could only fly over his family and a few friends. His wife, Natali, and Carlos, his friend and closest advisor, acted as a ‘paranimfs’, the traditional assistants next to the defender during the ceremony.

‘Escobar is still in our minds like a terrible memory, a bad dream’

But don’t be fooled by the apparent modesty of the celebration. Malagón happens to be one of the most important people of the Colombian economy. He is Vice President of the Colombian Banking Association (ASOBANCARIA) and professor at the National University and Externado University of Colombia. He is mentioned by Latin Trade Magazine to be one of the ten most important economists of Latin America in the near future. Some say he should go into politics and become the next Minister of Finance. How did he end up in Tilburg for doing his PhD on monetary policy?

Malagón, appearing joyous and relaxed in the Faculty Club after his successful defense, says the reason for coming to Tilburg University is plain and simple. He wanted to write his PhD on central banking, on national and international monetary authorities governing the state’s currency: “Concerning this subject, Sylvester Eijffinger and Harry Huizinga are really on the very top of the list with their publications and experience. I wanted the very best supervisors to work with, and therefore I came to Tilburg. Before professor Eijffinger decided to accept me as his PhD student, he first wanted to interview me in person. Within a week I took a plane to Tilburg. When I met him, it immediately felt that this was how it was meant to be.” They kept seeing each other, digitally through Skype, and three times a year in Tilburg.

Fear of floating

In the ‘laudatio’, the traditional speech of praise after the defense, professor Eijffinger praised Malagón’s PhD thesis for being much more than just a couple of essays on central banking, unlike the title – Four essays on central banking in Latin America – suggests. According to Eijffinger, it is a complete book on the most important aspects of monetary policies, with the main conclusion: external forces, such as European or North American trade agreements, are more important for Latin American monetary balance than internal forces. Malagón also discovered that although most Latin American countries officially have a system of free market with so called ‘free floating’ prices of currency, they still show a strong tendency to regulate currency. Values of international currencies are manipulated by Central Banks by trading dollars, preventing rapid changes of prices, and to counteract what economists call the ‘Dutch disease’. There is a ‘fear of floating’, to speak with professor José Antonio Ocampo of Columbia University, who came to Tilburg to be part of Jonathan’s Phd Committee, just like professor Guillermo Calvo, who has been named as a potential Nobel Prize winner by many economists because of the ‘Price Stickiness’-theory.

Laptop on the beach

How did Malagón manage to write this thesis next to his work as the Deputy Managing Director of a large banking association? From the age of 19, he worked his way up, working and studying at the same time: “You need to be determined, and you need the support of your company and of your family. I had all three of them. A doctorate must be a family project. Another key to success, I think, is being well-organized. If you are organized, you can do way more than you think. I always get up out of bed very early to write. I sleep only a few hours in order to get more time for the thesis. During the last three years, when my wife and I go for a swim, I also take my laptop with me to work on the beach.” His wife doesn’t mind, in fact, she encourages him and she is equally ambitious, owning and running her company for infrastructure and hydroelectric energy.

Anti-money laundering system 

Eijffinger advised Malagón to be a scholar, an economist, or the President of the Central Bank, and not give in to the temptation of going into politics. What does he think of this himself? “I want to do research, but I also would love to serve my country in the near future.” Latin America has many monetary challenges to face these days, because of political instability and an economy heavily dependent of oil prices and foreign currencies. However, Malagón also stresses that Colombia is a perfect example of showing resilience: “Of course we had the history of the cartels and Escobar in the eighties and nineties, which is still in our minds like a terrible memory, a bad dream. But because of this, we managed to install one of the most advanced and sophisticated anti-money laundering policies of the world. We have a system with many checks and balances in order to trace the origin of money, to keep out criminals and terrorists or those who want to finance them. Bankers from all over the world come to visit Colombia to see this and to learn from us.”

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