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Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Mystery clouds Aker battle as 'oligarch' label draws fire

A special hearing in Parliament this week failed to reveal why Norway’s Labour-led and seemingly anti-capitalist government suddenly gave up a heated battle with one of the country’s biggest capitalists of them all, Kjell Inge Røkke. A wealthy shipping heir, meanwhile, has called Røkke Norway’s new “oligarch” but was quickly scolded by Røkke supporters.

Opposition politicians led by Per Kristian Foss of the Conservatives tried to grill the government minister in charge of business and industry, Sylvia Brustad, and her aides. They wanted to know what really went on between government officials, who have invested billions of taxpayer funds in the Aker industrial firms Røkke controls, and Aker officials in a conflict over internal deals said to benefit Røkke.

Brustad, who initially claimed she was “frustrated and irritated” over the deals but later gave in to them, wouldn’t admit to any mistakes in the process. Nor would she say why the state chose to ignore a highly critical analysts’ evaluation of the deals that Brustad herself had ordered. Even though the state’s representative on Aker’s board, Berit Kjøll, ultimately resigned over the controversy earlier this week, Brustad claimed she still had confidence in Kjøll.

Conventional wisdom held that Norway’s left-center government mostly just wanted to bury the conflict before the fall election campaign gets underway. Some commentators said the government opted for “a pragmatic solution” to the Aker conflict. They noted that Brustad had inherited the state’s initial investment agreement with Røkke, penned by her Labour Party predecessor Dag Terje Andersen, and that she and Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg were trying to make the best out of it. The investment has plummeted in value and led critics to call it “cash support” for Røkke, often listed as one of Norway’s wealthiest men.But the labour unions who support the Labour Party tend to love Røkke, claiming he has preserved jobs in Norway and has consideration for the working man and woman. The Labour Party will most often listen to Norway’s trade union federation LO, which backs Røkke.

Most securities analysts, meanwhile, maintain that Røkke is only out to enrich himself. They claim the state did a poor job of safeguarding the taxpayers’ investment in Aker Holding and, indirectly, Aker Solutions and now is trying to cut its losses by hoping they ultimately will profit from Røkke’s strategy.

Norway’s new ‘oligarch?’

Meanwhile, the heir to another major Norwegian capitalist came out hard against Røkke on Friday. Writing in newspaper Dagens Næringsliv , Petter Olsen claimed that “we now have in Norway an oligarch, chosen by the state to be the big capitalist with private ownership of public resources.”

Olsen, son of shipowner Fred Olsen and brother of successful businessman Fred Olsen Jr., likened Røkke to a person who was in the right place at the right time to “exploit state support programs, situations and alliances to the maximum,” with Aker as his means of “plundering the state treasury.”

Olsen’s views were blasted by Røkke’s longtime broker Mads Syversen and his friend Arthur Buchardt, a Norwegian investor and hotel developer. Syversen told Dagens Næringsliv Saturday that Olsen doesn’t know Røkke well enough to make such comments and “should be embarrassed” by what he wrote.

Buchardt was tougher in his defense of Røkke, claiming that “Petter Olsen was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. Before he attacks others, he should examine where his own fortune comes from.”

Newspaper editorial writers in Norway generally agreed that the government’s investment in Aker, and this spring’s subsequent conflict over it, has weakened the Labour Party. Never before has a business leader humiliated a government minister like Røkke did to Brustad, noted Aftenposten . “We wonder why they suddenly were in agreement,” wrote Dagens Næringsliv . Labour’s government partners, the Socialist Left and Center parties, have stayed firmly out of the fray during the entire drama.



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