STOCKHOLM, July 17 (Reuters) - His pony tail and track record on Sweden’s economy make Anders Borg one of Europe’s most recognizable and successful finance ministers.
But storm clouds are gathering around the elk-hunting 44-year-old and his frustration is showing.
Borg’s six years in a centre-right government have helped Sweden, which is not in the euro zone, gain a reputation as a poster child for European reform.
Named the EU’s best finance minister by the Financial Times last year, he has managed income tax and welfare cuts to keep a budget surplus while shielding Sweden from the worst of the debt crisis facing nearby euro members.
Now the economy is faltering, hit by the crisis, after one of Europe’s fastest growth rates last year. This has made Borg increasingly critical of EU policy, openly questioning Sweden’s reliance on the rest of Europe.
The way Borg navigates this latest crisis may help define his legacy and Sweden’s reputation as a text book case of fiscal conservatism and example of a small European economy that has managed pretty well without the euro.
“Europe cooperation, in particular over the last three to six months, has been very frustrating,” Borg, wearing a finely cut black suit more in keeping with a trendy urban designer than politician, told Reuters.
“There has been a lack of clear strategy to get the euro zone out of this crisis that has been quite frustrating for the rest of us.”
The Swedish economy is still healthy compared with most of Europe. National debt has gone down to around 30 percent of GDP from 80 percent in 1995. But the slowdown comes amid signs of second term policy blues and a slide in polls against a galvanised political opposition
Voters are worried about welfare cuts. The respected economist, who once worked at SEB bank, even faces criticism from business for not borrowing cheap money to invest in the slowing economy.
“Borg is probably the brightest minister we have ever had. I’ve seen him at dinner charming Nobel prize winners,” said Arne Karlsson, chairman of Swedish private equity firm Ratos. “But as finance minister, remember you are only as good as your latest economic data.”
When Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt celebrated his 45th birthday, Borg gave him a framed graph showing the tax burden falling under 45 percent of GDP for the first time in decades.
That gift, which nearly two years later hangs in the prime minister’s office, symbolizes the reformist zeal of a minister who also helped Sweden navigate the 2008 financial crunch.
It is little surprise, then, that Borg has become increasingly vocal over Europe, Sweden’s biggest export market. He has been far more critical of the Greek bailout than his European counterparts, and dismissive of calls to use public spending as a way out.
“We all know the lessons,” Borg said, “You just have to concentrate on continuing doing the reforms.”
Borg’s earring and pony tail hint at a cliché Swedish liberal. He is a staunch feminist with a past of social libertarianism. A YouTube video shows him as a student saying is he would let people do what they wanted if he was in power.
“It (the pony tail) was one of the major decisions I took when I left (the private sector),” Borg said. “Now I can dress how I want again. It is a symbol maybe of the fact that Sweden in the social sense are much freer than other countries.”
But rather like his hobby of hunting for Elk at his country home, there is also something of a traditional conservative Swede in Borg.
His dislike of borrowing borders on the fanatical. Even with a slowdown, the budget gap may be just 0.5 percent of GDP next year. National debt is forecast to fall to just over 20 percent of GDP by 2015.
Borg’s views have been shaped by Sweden’s 1992 financial crash, caused by a housing and credit boom that forced the government to nationalize banks. It led to austerity and that is why Swedes have accepted the reforms of the last few years.
“We went through the same process as Europe is now,” Borg said. “Given that so many people personally experienced the cost of cutting back a deficit, there is a large electorate that gives very strong support to the finance minister for upholding a balanced budget.”
Europe must now make similar reforms to free up labour markets, cut back on welfare entitlements and make regulatory life easier for businesses, he says.
“You will not improve growth prospects in Europe by investing a little more in public infrastructure,” Borg said. “What we will need is a much stronger business climate and this is not about short term stimulus ... There have been structural deficits in the economy in the general sense for last two decades.”
“He enjoys the position of being the truth-sayer in Europe,” said Klas Eklund, who was Borg’s boss when he was chief economist at SEB. “He can afford to be more brash than his counterparts.”
Sweden was already on the road to reform when Borg was nominated finance minister in 2006. But the political shift to the right has been so seismic that the Borg and Reinfeldt years have been compared to the Thatcher era in Britain
Borg was central to convincing his Moderate party, for years in the electoral wilderness, to reform. As the party’s chief economist he was famed for writing long emails, called “macro mails” by colleagues, that included pages of data and analysis, to win policy arguments.
“He would come into a meeting with ten ideas. Seven of them would be crazy. But three of them brilliant,” said Eklund. “He would dominate the numbers. He loves data.”
Colleagues have been surprised how neatly he fitted in as finance minister. A technocrat at heart, he has been politically nimble, pushing reform through a sceptical four party coalition.
“He has built up a huge power base,” said one European diplomat in Stockholm. “Nothing much gets done without getting the finance ministry’s stamp of approval.”
In Europe, his influence is more limited because Sweden is not in the euro zone whose troubles dominate policy discussions. But his expertise gives him sway on regulatory issues such as the financial transactions tax or banking union.
He can be a shrewd operator. At talks in May to agree new EU-wide capital buffers for banks, Sweden went into the meeting with reservations, insisting on higher bank capital buffers for its domestic lenders.
But unlike British finance minister George Osborne, who had a public falling out over his demands, Borg quietly got his way.
“He’s definitely one of the finance ministers who knows his stuff best and, on non-euro zone issues, he can really set the agenda, he can punch above his weight,” said one senior EU diplomat closely involved in EU finance ministers’ meetings.
“He speaks his mind. He’s not a minister who just sticks to his speaking notes. Some ministers sometimes feel he comes across as a bit pleased with himself, but he also commands a lot of respect.”
“He pushes hard on the need for reforms and he stands up to things he doesn’t like, such as Germany’s push for an EU-wide financial transactions tax, which Sweden obviously opposes.”
Borg now faces the same problem as his European counterparts - finding out where growth will come from.
“The big issue is growth.I think we will be less depending and less focusing on the euro zone,” he said at an interview during a political conference on the island of Gotland.
“They will not deal with their problems in any way that will dramatically change growth forecasts for the next 10 to 15 years.”
“The problem is that Europe in general has been lagging behind in growth reforms. Yes, we are now seeing some steps in Italy, Spain and Greece but their starting points that they have done too little and they are too late with growth reforms.”
“Europe is becoming less important for us, and we must very consciously redirect ourselves.”
Critics say there are signs he has lost his freshness. Executives are worried that Sweden is missing a golden opportunity to use cheap borrowing costs and its low public debt to stimulate the economy and invest in infrastructure.
Sweden also has the fastest growing inequality of any OECD country and endemic high youth unemployment.
“I‘m a bit surprised Mr Borg has not been more pro-active,” said Karlsson. “This may be a good time to spend money. The global economy is high risk we need to be ahead of the curve.”
Borg has hinted some stimulus may come in the autumn budget. Some predict doom at the next 2014 election if he does not.
“Now we can say it is the right time to do an investment program,” he said, before quickly adding his traditional caveat.
“But we will not have a big deficit,” he said.