Øystein Olsen, governor of Norway’s central bank, was once again drawing the country’s financial and politial elite to the headquarters of Norges Bank Thursday evening. They were invited to listen to his annual address that carries on a tradition begun in 1922, before they all adjourned for an equally traditional banquet at the Grand Hotel.
The central banker’s address, simply known as årstale (oars-ta-leh) among his audience, is one of the big “see-and-be-seen” events in Norway every year. It draws everyone from the Prime Minister, her cabinet and other top politicians, to the captains of Norwegian industry, the heads of all major employer and labour organizations, top academics and economists and major private business owners.
Olsen’s speech and the banquet afterwards have evolved into a central meeting place for the country’s most powerful people, who in turn keep a close eye on who’s invited and who’s seated where. Coveted invitations to the central banker’s årstale are non-transferable, so only those personally invited are allowed to attend. Not even the press is allowed to remain in the room when the address actually starts, forced to instead watch it via video link.
It all began during times of economic unrest 94 years ago, when Norway’s legendary and long-term central banker Nicolai Rygg launched the tradition as a means of summing up the country’s economic situation. Two professors at the University of Oslo, Eivind Thomassen and Einar Lie, wrote in newspaper Aftenposten last weekend that Rygg probably viewed the address as an accounting for the year that had passed, but it’s always been viewed as the central bank chief’s own speech, strongly reflecting his personality and own evaluations.
Olsen, who took over as central bank chief in 2011, immediately put his own mark on the annual address when he delivered a bold recommendation to the government to only use 3 percent of the value of the fund where Norway’s oil revenues have been stashed for years, instead of the customary 4 percent. That was quickly rejected by the prime minister at the time, Jens Stoltenberg of the Labour Party, and Olsen hasn’t repeated it but has continued to call for restraint. He told the current Conservatives-led government not to spend more oil money last year, too, and it has used less than allowed during its two years in office – even though that amounts to more actual money because the size of the oil fund keeps growing.
Olsen would also be peering into his crystal ball Thursday evening, at a time when calls are going out for another interest rate cut, possibly down to negative levels, in a move to stimulate Norway’s sluggish oil-fueled economy. Times are tougher in Norway now, with little economic growth, rising unemployment and a weak currency. Some think the downturn will itself turn around soon and most think Olsen’s bank board will lower interest rates to keep the krone from strengthening and thereby boost exports. Newspaper Dagsavisen was among those editorializing against the prospect of negative interest rates as Olsen prepared to speak.