Janez Šušteršič, Meet Reality

Reality seems to have caught up quite fast with finance minister Janez Šušteršič. The man who headed the government macroeconomic office (the aptly named IMAD) during the first Janša administration and refused to pick up the pieces after Jože P. Damijan, the would-be wonder boy of Janša 1.0 jumped ship after only 91 days in office, was forced to fork out EUR 381 million to recapitalise Slovenia‘s largest bank, the state-owned NLB.

Janez Šušteršič and NLB (source & source)

Well, to be honest, the state directly recapitalised the bank with EUR 320 million, while the remainder was coughed up by para-state funds KAD and SOD which is almost the same as if the state gave the money, only it looks better on the balace sheet. KAD and SOD entered the clusterfuck that is the NLB at the eleventh hour, after Belgian KBC bank refused to partake in the operation (after initially agreeing to the deal) and has thus seen its share in NLB shrink from 25 to 22 percent. The funny thing is that only months Šušteršič claimed that not a single euro from the budget will be used to recapitalise NLB. Which means the realisation that no-one will touch NLB with a ten-foot-pole must have come as a rude shock to our austerity-oriented finance minister.

In fact, given the ferocity with which Šušteršič and the rest of the sell-them-all-market-will-know-its-own gang were championing the “market approach” means that what we have witnessed vis-a-vis the NLB was nothing less than an about-face of epic proportions. In other countries, ministers get heavy flak for much less.

OK, fact of the matter is that NLB at this time is about as attractive as three-day-old road-kill and Šušteršič was basically looking down the barrel of a gun, faced with either pumping cash into NLB or hanging it dry. And we’ve seen what letting a bank go bust does, right? But there’s more: Not only did NLB need 380+ million of Tier 1 capital, it also has about three billion of bad loans on its books. And while Šušteršič maintains that most of these loans can and will be repaid, that is more or less eyewash. The bank will never see this money returned, because there is no way for companies who took out these loans (by far and large during the first Janša tenure, when the government encouraged expansionary economic policies) to return them. They don’t have anything to return them with. No competitiveness, no markets, no income, no way to pay the labour force, not even state contracts to offset the above and – finally – no earnings to finance their erstwhile debts.

So, yes, NLB will probably have to suck up losses of about three billion euro. Or about 8,5 percent of entire Slovenian GDP. That’s a lot. And that’s just the biggest bank. Other banks have bad loans on their books as well. Thus the finance minsiter and his boss, the prime minister can assure the country and the world, until they’re blue in the face, that Slovenia will not ask for a bailout of its banks. But the reality is that there will be a call made to Brussels sooner rather than later.

And if the U-turn on NLB recapitalisation wasn’t reason enough, the moment this country asks for a bailout will also be the moment when finance minister Janez Šušteršič will have to ask himself whether he’s fit to continue in this government. In other words: a request for a bailout should be accompanied by a letter of resignation.

The reason for this is painfully simple. Šušteršič positions on the issue, indeed his entire economic platform was about removing the state as a majority owner in key companies. This plan fell apart on the first rock it hit. Yes, NLB needed to be recapitalised and yes, the state is not necessarily a bad owner (although NLB was mismanaged time and again by politically appointed management). Having a the biggest bank in the system limp forward is preferable to letting it sink. But Šušteršič’s political positions which won him the mandate as an elected official, are in direct and blatant opposition with his actions. The two can hardly be reconciled which means that Sloveinan finance minister has a huge credibility problem. And a finance minister with a credibility problem is not something to be looked kindly upon. Just ask Franci Križanič.

But Šuštešič’s biggest problem is not his (lack of) credibility, but the fact that he is, unbeknownst to him, probably earmarked as the fall guy if things go badly wrong. This, at least, would appear to be case since Positive Slovenia announced it will start interpelation proceedings against the finance minister. Technically, an interpelation does not have to end with a vote on minister’s dismissal (although it often does). Instead, it is an instrument of ministerial accountability per se, forcing the minister to explain and defend his or her action.

Now, PM Janez Janša already called starting interpelation this early in the term “nonsense” and at least technically backed Šušteršič up (again, a lovely case of double standards as his party filed an interpelation against Katarina Kresal less then three months after she took office in 2009). But since DL and SDS found themselves on opposite sides on quite a number of issues in the past few days (mostly stemming from the “red star issue”) Šušteršič can be sure that he’ll be made to pick up at least part of the tab.

It seems that the finance minister started this term knowing what his priorities are and falsely assumed that these are other people’s priorities as well (we’ll neglect that these priorities are dubious at best). When challenged about past economic policies of coalition parties in a recent interview with Mladina weekly, Šušteršič answered that he doesn’t care about who did what in the past but is rather interested in what this government will do. And this is the gist of it.

Šušteršič naively assumes that somehow it’ll be different this time around. He really should know better than that. The prime minister is the same. Most of the coalition parties are the same. Most of the key players are the same. Even the problems are the same. How then could results be any different? Remember: I’m not saying that either state or private ownership are inherently bad or good. But the speed at which stated goals of this government and its financial minister have disappeared into thin air is somewhat breathtaking.


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Stand By Your Man

Franci Križanič remains minister of finance in the government of Borut Pahor, the PM said during today’s press conference. He went to great lengths explaining why he went decided to ignore the Court of Audit which called for Križanič to be dismissed from office due to dereliction of duty.

Prime minister Pahor and finance minister Križanič (source)

PM Pahor pointed out that the Court’s call was merely a strong recommendation and that it was within his discretion whether to start the demission process or not. Furthermore he added that Križanič is the most burdened minister in these times of financial crisis and that he has performed well under the circumstances. Keeping the above in mind, continued the PM, combined with Križanič’s dedicated work in the part two years led to the decision to keep the finance minister on-board. Thus spake Borut Pahor.

Now what? Pengovsky believes this is a decision which will come to haunt the PM very soon. Regardless of everything this is a case of double standards. It doesn’t really matter if the coalition parties (and this includes DeSUS and Karl Erjavec, who was dismissed on similar grounds a year ago) claim to “understand Pahor’s motives”. They have the luxury to “understand” as this is a pool of hot water PM alone is in. True, Križanič’s job is probably among the least attractive in the country at the moment, but a year ago, during the protracted removal of Karl Erjavec the PM said that a new standard was set. Today, this standard doesn’t seem to apply.

Since Križanič is an old Social Democrats‘ hand who reportedly carries plenty of clout within the party, it is obvious that Križanič’s fate was primarily a question of relationship between Borut Pahor and his party. And with so many open fronts it is likely that the prime minister did not want to open one more. In the short term this means pacifying the party but enduring yet another round of mud-slinging in his general direction. Since the latter would most likely ensue regardless of everything, it may even seem prudent to keep Križanič on the team. But it is not.

With this rather important human-resource victory, the party, especially the faction Križanič belongs to, may get the feeling that it can play the table against the PM. And even though the PM is notoriously keen on compromise, he will not let challenges to his power continue indefinitely. Which means that a showdown within the ruling Social Democrats is inevitable and the closer to the 2012 elections this showdown happens, the weaker will SD be entering the election campaign. Next elections will be an uphill battle anyway, but with an internally divided party, success is virtually impossible.

Secondly, since it is likely that the Court of Audit do more of the same in the future (recommend ministers to be dismissed for dereliction of duty) the PM will be in an extremely tough position, especially if the minister in question will be of a different coalition party. What will the PM do then? Will he sack the minister, reiterating the appearance that different rules apply to ministers of his party than to ministers of other coalition partners, or will he waste even more energy and bend over backwards to explain how that (for now hypothetical) case is completely different than the two we’ve seen so far?

And lastly, the PM made it clear that the decision to keep Križanič as minister was his and his alone. This means that any possible fuck-ups Križanič might cook up in the remaining eighteen months will be the PM’s fault as well. And as readers of this blog know, Križanič is somewhat accident-prone. As of today Borut Pahor must keep finance minister Križanič on an extremely short leash. Whether this arrangement will work, is anybody’s guess.

There’s one other possibility, though. It could be that Križanič survived only temporarily and will resign later in the year, without immediate connection to the Court of Audit report. Since the minister is reportedly negotiating with Goldman Sachs to buy a stake in Maribor-based and state-owned bank Nova Kreditna Banka Maribor (NKBM), it might seem prudent to keep the top negotiator on the team for the time being and have him resign after the deal is made. But this is speculation, especially since there was no official word from Goldman Sachs on the matter. We only know what Križanič told the media. The question is, whether the finance minister was again overly optimistic and if so how long can the PM stand by his man.

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