Norway’s Conservative Party triumphed in local elections this week, but its leader and former prime minister was all but reduced to tears on Friday. Erna Solberg had to announce that her husband, Sindre Finnes, had bought and sold shares in Norwegian companies more than 3,600 times while Solberg was prime minister, subjecting her to conflicts of interest and risking the prospect of insider trading.
“Sindre has traded far more shares than he has told me,” Solberg said at a press conference, after distributing information from the list of transactions Solberg had earlier this week asked him to compile. “Everyone can see that (his trading) was extensive.”
That now means Solberg was not impartial on several issues she had to handle while prime minister from 2013 to 2021, when they involved companies in which her husband had invested. She should have disquaified herself, but didn’t realize she was what the Norwegians call inhabil, literally unqualified to handle a certain issue because of personal interests in it.
The problem was that Solberg didn’t know she had personal interests because she was unaware of her husband’s stock market activity. He never told her about his stock trading in Norwegian companies or the profits he was generating. Finnes, who’s also had a job at national employers’ organization NHO, earned around NOK 1.8 million on his market activity during the eight years his wife was prime minister. Solberg claims he didn’t inform her of his earnings either. He actively bought and sold shares in state oil company Equinor, defense contractor Kongsberg Gruppen, salmon producer Mowi, shipping firms Wallenius Wilhelmsen and Western Bulk Carriers, and Norske Skog, among others.
Finnes, moreover, had been warned against stock market trading because short-term deals would be difficult for Solberg to monitor and any trading could subject her to conflicts of interest. Solberg said she was under the impression he had ceased trading, not least after Finnes himself informed the prime minister’s office (SMK) in 2014 that he had sold out of seven companies.
“Based on that, we decided there was no need to forward any concerns to the finance- or justice ministries for evaluation,” Anne Kristin Hjukse, communications chief at SMK, told news service E24. Finnes himself claimed he had tried to follow the rules in the handbook for political leadership that was distributed to all all ministers and their spouses. Failure to follow them also led to the recent resignation of one of current Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre’s Labour-Center government, Ola Borten Moe, and landed Støre’s Foreign Minister Anniken Huitfeldt in trouble. Huitfeldt’s husband was also active in the stock market without telling her.
Newspaper Dagens Næringsliv (DN), meanwhile, reports that Solberg’s husband Finnes hadn’t reported any further share trading to SMK since 2014. Just during the last five months Solberg was in office, however, Finnes bought and sold shares 22 times in 12 companies including Solstad Offshore, Elopak and Elkem among others.
“Now it’s clear he has conducted extensive short-term share trading,” Solberg said at her press conference on Friday. “He did that even though he knew he shouldn’t. He also knew why he shouldn’t do it.” He had also sent an email to the Office of the Prime Minister’s staff in 2017, claiming he had moved his investments to a stock market fund, after receiving questions about his trading from newspaper Dagbladet. Newspaper VG reported, however, that he began trading individual shares again in 2018.
“A breach of confidence is always difficult, and extra difficult in a family and in a marriage,” Solberg said as she fought back tears on Friday. “It hurts me that I need to be so hard on Sindre as I am today.”
Finnes himself told E24 on Friday that he was sorry he put his wife in a difficult situation. “I haven’t been honest, either towards her or the Office of the Prime Minister,” Finnes said. “I have made serious mistakes that have made it impossible for Erna to evaluate her impartiality when she was prime minister. I regret that deeply.” He said he now understands that he can no longer engage in the stock market, and must place his savings in funds or bank accounts if Solberg becomes prime minister again in 2025.
Consequences for Solberg
Speculation immediately started flying, however, over whether Solberg should resign as leader of the Conservative Party, or remain its candidate for prime minister again in 2025. She’s already been campaigning hard to win back political power, and basked in the glow of victory earlier this week, but she’s now being criticized for failing to question her husband and being so uninformed about the couple’s own personal economic status. She acknowledged that like many couples, she and Finnes have a joint household economy. Questions remain over why she didn’t know about his stockholdings or all the money he made on trading, which would affect and should be visible on both of their annual income tax returns.
Solberg has already been called in for questioning at a parliamentary hearing later this fall. The Parliament’s disciplinary committee has also called in former minister Moe of the Center Party and Foreign Minister Huitfeldt of the Labour Party and now Solberg as well. The committee is led by Member of Parliament Peter Frølich, from Solberg’s own Conservative party. He told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday that her case is similar to Huitfeldt’s, because their husbands were behind the share trading. Moe, a former oil minister in an earlier government, bought and sold shares himself while he was Støre’s minister in charge of higher education.
Other top politicians were criticizing Solberg for not having a better overview of her own family’s financial holdings, with Ingrid Liland of the Greens Party concerned there were violations of the public confidence in several parties. “It looks like some politicians live in a bubble and don’t take their power and privilege seriously,” Liland told NRK.
The Norwegian police’s economic crimes unit Økokrim will also evaluate whether they’ll launch an investigation of their own to determine whether any insider trading is involved. They’re already investigating former minister Moe but not Foreign Minister Huitfeldt, since it was her husband who technically violated rules against shareholdings that could jeopardize a top politician’s impartiality.
Calls are also going out to ban share trading and holdings for politicians while they’re in office and their closest family The ban could also extend to state secretaries and top bureaucrats, many of whom are privvy to information that could sway the price of a company’s stock. Similar bans already apply to most journalists, lawyers, brokers and others in professions where conflicts of interest can damage their credibility.