Anders Borg: Sweden’s long-haired maverick minister

With Anders Borg, Sweden’s pony-tailed Minister of Finance, now helping the EU navigate through the global economic slump, the AFP’s Marc Preel takes a look back at the rise of this self-described pragmatist.

Anders Borg: Sweden's long-haired maverick minister

Behind the “rocker” image, Swedish Finance Minister Anders Borg is a deft politician set to take centre-stage as Sweden’s EU presidency grapples with the fallout from the global financial crisis.

With his hair slicked back into a ponytail, sharp suits and an earring in his left ear, Borg is a million miles away from the normal stereotype of a government numbers guy.

Yet this 41-year-old former banker is one of the major players inside the Swedish government and a mastermind behind the centre-right Moderate Party’s rise to power with his long-time political allies, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt and Foreign Minister Carl Bildt.

Klas Eklund, senior economist at SEB and Borg’s former boss at the Stockholm-based bank, told AFP Borg is a highly intelligent and individual politician “who doesn’t fit into the grey, sometimes boring mould of finance ministers.”

“He is very quick, he reads profusely, he soaks up information like a sponge and he’s very receptive, very intelligent,” said Eklund.

“Before he became minister of finance, he was a technocrat, a brilliant technocrat. He was like a volcano, always erupting with new ideas,” he added.

Something of a libertarian during his teenage years — he once wrote a newspaper article calling on Sweden to decriminalize drugs — Borg’s politics shifted to the right in his twenties, becoming a staffer of the then prime minister Carl Bildt at the tender age of 23.

But when the Moderate Party lost the 1994 general elections, the young Borg changed tack again, embarking upon a career in finance before switching back to politics in 2002.

“He’s very much the centre of attention when he’s in a room, the kind of guy that you would immediately recognize, not only for his style, but also because he likes to speak,” said Peter Wolodarski, the chief political editor at Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter.

“He has opinions about everything, he knows everything. Or at least he speaks in a way that people think he knows everything,” he added.

Sweden’s Social Democrats, the main opposition party, say Borg’s perceived move to the centre is purely presentation and lacks substance.

“He knows how to play a role as an ordinary guy and to use the Social Democratic vocabulary when he speaks about the economy and other political issues. But the agenda he’s sticking to is very different, very liberal,” said newly-elected Swedish MEP Marita Ulvskog, formerly the party secretary.

The opposition points out that while Borg has criticized the bonuses handed out in the banking sector, he continues to pursue an economically liberal policy agenda through cutting taxes and privatizations.

But the Swedish finance minister disputes that portrait of himself.

“One can probably call me a quite pragmatic politician,” he told AFP.

“For me, the highest priority is to make sure that we have sound public finances.”

Indeed, Sweden has made fiscal discipline one of the main themes of its EU presidency, giving Borg the perfect opportunity to take a starring role.

A married father-of-three, Borg lives in the countryside some 100 kilometres west of Stockholm. A keen reader and an occasional hunter, he describes his route into government as “conscription” — he has never been elected.

Borg says he won’t serve more than two terms as finance minister as he eventually wants to spend more time with his family.

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‘Weak, slow and difficult’ economy ahead: Borg

Swedes are in for a rough economic ride in years ahead, as Finance Minister Anders Borg has warned of rising unemployment, weaker economic growth and rising public debt in the spring fiscal policy bill released on Monday.

'Weak, slow and difficult' economy ahead: Borg

“There is a strong headwind from the global economy, which is holding back the recovery in Sweden,” Borg said in a statement.

According to the latest government forecasts, the Swedish economy is expected to grow at 1.2 percent in 2013 before creeping up to 2.2 percent next year and 3.6 percent in 2015.

Unemployment, meanwhile, is expected to reach 8.3 percent in 2013, rising to 8.4 percent next year before dropping to 8.1 percent in 2015.

“We have weak, slow, and difficult years ahead of us,” Borg told the Aftonbladet newspaper.

The new figures mark a significant downgrade from the government’s last economic prognosis released in December, which forecast 2014 growth of 3.0 percent, while the jobless rate was expected to peak at 8.3 percent next year before falling to 7.4 percent in 2015.

Borg said that Sweden is in the middle of a nine-year period of sluggish economic growth that began back in 2008.

“Our strong position and the confidence in Sweden’s public finances are making it possible to proceed with more measures to mitigate the impact of the international crisis on the labour market and support a gradual recovery,” said Borg.

Sweden plans to spend 3 billion kronor ($470 million) in 2013 and 2014 to combat unemployment, adding that the final budget bill to be presented in the autumn may contain “some room” for additional spending.

“The government’s goal is to strengthen the public finances as the economy recovers so as to achieve the surplus target. We will not deviate from this objective,” said Borg.

According to Monday’s figures, the government expects Sweden’s public debt to reach 1.6 percent of GDP in 2013 before falling to 1.0 percent next year. The government expects Sweden’s budget to reach balance in 2015.

Household consumption is seen as a key driver for the Swedish economy, with the government warning that a higher than estimated savings rate could negatively affect the country’s economic recovery.

“If household behaviour proves to be different and savings remain at a high level, Sweden’s economic recovery could be more drawn out than what’s expected in the forecast, with higher unemployment as a result,” the government said in a statement.

Erica Blomgren, analyst at bank SEB, said the government’s previous growth forecast from the autumn was “too optimistic”, while the current forecast was “more in line” with that of the central bank.

Sweden will hold legislative elections in September 2014, when the left-wing opposition, headed by Social Democrat leader Stefan Löfven, hopes to wrestle power from the centre-right government in power since 2006.

In a speech Friday, Löfven promised that if the Social Democrats were to win the elections, they would bring the unemployment rate down to 4.7 percent by 2020.

“The government has failed on the jobs front, and Sweden today has higher unemployment than comparable countries in the European Union,” Löfven lamented, citing eurozone countries such as Austria, Belgium, Finland and the Netherlands.

Until September last year, Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt’s government had aimed to have a budget surplus in 2013.

According to Monday’s forecasts, public debt is expected to climb to 42 percent of gross domestic product this year, compared to 38.2 percent in 2012.

TT/AFP/The Local/dl

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