Speculation swirls over Stoltenberg

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Speculation has been swirling for months over whether Jens Stoltenberg, the former Norwegian prime minister who’s headed NATO since 2014, will soon be moving home to Norway and taking on a new top job: Chief of Norway’s central bank, Norges Bank.

It’s widely believed that Jens Stoltenberg isn’t interested in another international posting when his second and final term as NATO Secretary General ends next year, and that he wants to move home to Norway. The then-63-year-old Stoltenberg may not be ready for retirement, though, and is known for taking on jobs that he finds “meaningful.” PHOTO: NATO

Stoltenberg, whose two terms as secretary general of NATO will end on October 1 next year, has been careful not to comment on all the speculation over his future. One of his aides in Brussels told reporters again earlier this week that “Stoltenberg still has all his attention on the job in NATO. It’s too early to say now what he will do when he comes home to Norway.”

Business newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), which first reported earlier this autumn that Stoltenberg was a top candidate to succeed retiring bank boss Øystein Olsen, continues to write that Stoltenberg “will say yes” if offered the job. He’s also been winning support for the post from top Norwegian economists and even some editorial support: “Jens should get the job,” editorialized newspaper Dagsavisen this week. The paper cited Stoltenberg’s education and background as a social economist before going into politics full-time: “He has an extremely good understanding of the global economy and climate issues. Norway couldn’t get a better central bank chief than Jens Stoltenberg.”

Oil Fund responsibility, too
The chief economists at both the national Norwegian employers’ organization NHO, Sparebank1 Markets and Nordic banking group Nordea seem to agree. “Stoltenberg has all the skills needed,” Harald Magnus Andreassen of Sparebank1 Markets told DN. “He’s an unusually competent economist, and what he’d need to learn about monetary policy can be picked up within a few weeks. He has all the experience demanded of someone who needs to make decisions and he’s a brilliant communicator.”

Most important is that whoever takes over as governor of Norges Bank also becomes leader of the board of Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund, popularly known as the Oil Fund. It’s a major player in global stock markets and about to take a bigger role as a manager of climate risk and potential investor in so-called “green industry.” Stoltenberg’s international network after two terms at NATO and his sheer practical knowledge of international affairs has given him unique global authority that would also make him a good monitor of the Oil Fund’s chief executive, Nicolai Tangen.

Norway’s central bank, Norges Bank, is currently led by its governor Øystein Olsen (center) and his two deputies Øystein Børsum (left) and Ida Wolden Bache (right). Bache has been widely viewed as the best internal candidate for the top job when Olsen retires, but now may face competition from Jens Stoltenberg. PHOTO: Norges Bank

The central bank itself is so well-run that its operations present no huge challenge, notes Kjetil Olsen, chief economist at Nordea. “It’s in the role as umpire for the Oil Fund that Stoltenberg would have an authority that other candidates can’t match. Therefore having Stoltenberg as central bank chief would be exciting.”

There are other candidates, however, led by one of the bank’s two deputy governors, Ida Wolden Bache. She was widely viewed as the best candidate before Stoltenberg’s name suddenly came up at the end of last summer. Bache is in many ways better qualified for the post because of her economic brilliance and knowledge of bank operations. She’d also be the first woman to head Norway’s central bank.

Stoltenberg, meanwhile, was one of the architects of the Oil Fund, in which Norway’s oil revenues are saved and invested to fund Norwegians’ pensions for years to come, long after oil revenues themselves dry up. He also played an important role in forming the rule that only a small percentage of the fund (currently 3 percent) can be tapped each year to pad the state budget. Stoltenberg’s international competence and credibility can also help Norway manage its oil wealth during the rest of the current decade, when important and likely unpopular climate-related decisions will need to be made. Since Stoltenberg is now age 62, it’s likely he’d only serve one six-year term as central bank boss.

Stoltenberg’s main rival for the top job at Norges Bank, Ida Wolden Bache. PHOTO: Norges Bank

Øystein Dørum, chief economist for NHO, told DN that “the next-best candidate, Ida Wolden Bache, would regardless get her opportunity (to take on the top job)  in six years.”

DN reported last weekend that according to its sources, Stoltenberg will accept the job if offered it. DN reported that he’s aired the idea with those closest to him, and consulted some “central people in Norwegian society” over how they think he’d be received.

There are some skeptics, mostly because of Stoltenberg’s long history in politics and representing the Labour Party. The head of the Bank of Norway is supposed to be politically independent, and Stoltenberg would become the first former politician to take on the role since 1954, when Erik Brofoss, who had been a finance and trade minister for Labour, was selected. On Thursday, one of Labour’s own politicians, Thomas Breen, and Sveinung Rotevatn, a recent government minister for the Liberal Party, aired some reservations.

“Overlooking a highly competent woman (Bache), confirmation that nepotism is alive and well (because Labour currently holds government power and its finance ministry selects the central bank boss), and open questions over (whether Stoltenberg would have enough) political independence are examples of three arguments” against Stoltenberg’s candidacy, Breen wrote on social media. Rotevatn, meanwhile, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he also fears “Stoltenberg’s ties to Labour can raise doubts about his political independence as central bank chief, if he’s given the job.”

Others think differently. “I don’t think anyone would doubt Stoltenberg’s integrity,” one source told DN. “To be central bank chief demands an understanding of Norwegian society, not just its economy. He led us safely through the finance crisis and has now gained more preparedeness training through NATO. The man also delivered one of the best exam results in social economics ever.”

With current bank boss Øystein Olsen due to retire in February, Norway’s finance ministry officially started advertising for his successor this week. The deadline for applications is December 9. It will mostly be up to Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, who served as both foreign- and health minister under Stoltenberg, and current Finance Minister Trygve Slagsvold Vedum of the Center Party to hire a new governor for Norges Bank. Neither would comment on the process.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund