2008/11/18

Bottom of the pile

Europe's finance ministers have been put through their paces - not just by economic turmoil but also in this latest Financial Times guide to the guardians of the continent's public purses.
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There was, however, one last man standing: Finland's Jyrki Katainen emerges as winner. Finland is a sudden rarity in Europe - stable financially and still expected next year to run a healthy budget surplus.

Mr Katainen is not (yet) a household name much beyond Helsinki but, aged just 37, cuts a slick figure. In October last year - before concerted action to save the world was all the rage - he called at the International Monetary Fund for the world to demonstrate that multilateral institutions and cooperation were "indeed relevant in an increasingly integrated global economy". He was also not afraid to take on Nicolas Sarkozy, France's president, criticising him last month for consulting initially just with leaders of other big European countries. "We're all in the same boat," Mr Katainen insisted.

Chance probably played a role. "Maybe Finland has been lucky in not being in the middle of all these problems," says Robert Bergqvist, chief economist at SEB in Stockholm and a member of the judging panel. As a eurozone member, Finland was not at risk of a local foreign exchange crisis. Like other Nordic countries, Finns were seared by a banking crisis in the 1990s, an episode few want repeated.

Those who fared less well might also complain about the rules of our competition, which extends this year to some non-eurozone economies, including the UK and Sweden, covering 19 of the European Union's 28 member states. Economic performance, for example, is judged over five-year periods - longer than many ministers survive. There is an emphasis on reducing deficits and cutting taxes - not always best for economic stability. Then again, past prudence creates more scope for fiscal stimulus packages now. Countries that started off in a strong position also had a harder time showing improvements.

Yet the guide - though not to be taken completely seriously - does show how the job of a finance minister has become more exacting, demanding a broader range of skills. "There are people like Steinbrück and some others who are instinctively conservative fiscally, so they had their houses in order," observes Erik Nielsen, European economist at Goldman Sachs and another jury member. "But when the depth of the crisis became apparent, they remained rather conservative.

"On the other hand, those who came out swinging in terms of policy response had been rather looser on the fiscal side during the good times." Maybe, Mr Nielsen concludes, "nobody has the complete wisdom".

Still, there was room for others besides Mr Katainen to excel. Sweden's Anders Borg has earned respect across Europe for his grasp of economics and the lessons his country offered from its 1990s experiences. Wouter Bos of the Netherlands proved adept at crisis management and the Dutch economy is not faring too badly either.

Elsewhere, Luxembourg's Jean-Claude Juncker, who chairs meetings of eurozone finance ministers, won praise for his commitment to European economic integration - but fell below the radar when it came last month to co-ordinating the continent's bank rescue plans, allowing the French and the British to steal the political show.

Others have disappointed more deeply. Spain's Pedro Solbes, a former EU monetary affairs commissioner, has left the European stage largely to others, at a time when Spain's fortunes are fast deteriorating. Ireland's Brian Lenihan was rated for his lucidity in the crisis - but a unilateral pledge in September to guarantee the debts and deposits of the largest Irish lenders raised hackles across the continent.

Bottom of the pile came Portugal's Fernando Teixeira dos Santos, dragged down by a poor national economic performance and his low European profile. in ft.com

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