Jens Stoltenberg has, as expected, added his name to the list of applicants vying to take over as chief of Norway’s Central Bank. Stoltenberg’s second term as secretary general of NATO expires next year, and he now says he’s “very motivated” for the job as leader of Norges Bank.
Stoltenberg has earlier declined comment on reports that have swirled for many weeks in Norwegian media that he was a candidate for the post. He’s 62 and, in addition to being a former prime minister, is formally educated as a social economist. He’s clearly not ready to retire and a six-year hitch as central bank chief back in the homeland could be the perfect end to a brilliant career.
Stoltenberg is certainly not alone in applying for the post. Before his name was added to the list, the front-runner was widely viewed as being the current deputy chief of the bank, Ida Wolden Bache. She’s 48, highly respected both inside the bank and outside it, and the only woman among 22 applicants on the list. She would also be the first woman to become what the Norwegians formally call “governor” of the bank that’s tied to the finance minstry and also in charge of Norway’s huge sovereign wealth fund known as the Oil Fund.
Both Bache and Stoltenberg now say they were encouraged to apply for the post by officials at the finance ministry. “As deputy chief of the bank, I have a good picture of what the job involves and am motivated for the job,” Bache told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Tuesday, when the list of applicants for the post was made public.
That’s when it was finally confirmed that Stoltenberg’s name was on it, too. The disclosure of the list forced him to comment on his new career prospect for the first time: “I was contacted by the (Norwegian) finance ministry in November with the question whether I would evaluate applying for the job,” Stoltenberg wrote in a statement distributed Tuesday by one of his media advisers, Sissel Kruse. “I have now done that, and this is a job for which I’m very motivated.”
He said the ministry had clarified that his background as a former Norwegian prime minister and secretary general of NATO would not conflict with central bank rules about who can hold the job. It’s often gone to the leader of Norway’s state statistics bureau SSB, Statistics Norway, or other top bureaucrats.
One problem Stoltenberg faces is that he wouldn’t be available to take over until October 1 of next year at the earliest, since his term at NATO runs until September 30. Current bank chief Øystein Olsen, a former SSB director himself, is due to retire later this winter. Bache, meanwhile, could presumably take over immediately.
A bigger problem for Stoltenberg may be his long career as a top politician for Norway’s Labour Party, not least since Labour now holds government power once again in a coalition with the Center Party. Current Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre already declared himself as having a conflict of interest regarding Stoltenberg’s candidacy even before it was confirmed, since the two are old friends and colleagues. Stoltenberg used to be the boss for both Støre and Trygve Slagsvold Vedum when they served in his government. Vedum is now finance minister, and may be seen as having a conflict of interest a well.
Stoltenberg’s background as a leading politician in Norway also breaks with a long tradition that the central bank boss should be a highly competent professional without political connections. “There’s a danger this could set a new precedent,” Espen Henriksen, an assistant professor at Norwegian business school BI told NRK. Several Members of Parliament agreed, with MP Kari Elisabeth Kaski of the Socialist Left Party (SV) warning that such “open ties to the sitting government” would be a problem. MP Sveinung Rotevatn of the Liberal Party is also skeptical, noting there’s “no tradition for a top politiian to take on this important post. It’s extremely important that everyone can have confidence that the central bank operates independently of day-to-day politics in everything from setting interest rates to the Oil Fund’s investments.”
Others hail Stoltenberg’s leadership experience and vast international network at a time when the Oil Fund plays an important role in international finance. Few if any of the bank’s former chiefs have had such international experience, though, or been required to. A decision on the post is expected in the New Year.