November 22, 2017

Slovenia Falls From Economic Grace, Struggling to Avert a Bailout

The rewards of success included an imposing mountainside retreat and frequent mention of his name as a possible future finance minister of this small, idyllic Alpine country.

Now, though, Mr. Kordez stands convicted of forgery and abuse of office for financial dealings as Merkur struggled under a mountain of debt.

“My mistake and the mistake of the banks was to vastly underestimate the risk,” Mr. Kordez, 56, said in a recent interview at his home near the picturesque town of Bled, with a view of Slovenia’s highest peak. He awaits a decision later this month on an appeal of his conviction, which could send him to prison for five years.

As fears grow that Slovenia could follow Cyprus and become the sixth euro zone country to seek a bailout, his rise and fall have come to symbolize the way easy and cheap credit, combined with Balkan-style crony capitalism and corporate mismanagement, fueled a banking crisis that has unhinged a country previously praised as a regional model of peaceful prosperity.

The recent bailout of Cyprus at a cost of €10 billion, or $13 billion, which included stringent conditions forcing losses on bank depositors, has focused minds in Ljubljana, the Slovenian capital. Slovenia’s struggling banking sector is saddled with about €6.8 billion worth of nonperforming loans, about one-fifth of the national economy. Slovenia is now in recession, and the gloom across the euro zone shows little sign of abating. A European Commission forecast released Friday said that France, Spain, Italy and the Netherlands — four of the five largest euro zone economies — will be in recession through 2013.

Last Thursday, Slovenia bought time by borrowing $3.5 billion on international markets. That was two days after Moody’s Investors Service cut the country’s credit rating to junk status, citing the banking turmoil and a deteriorating national balance sheet. Analysts said the bond sale would probably enable the government of the new prime minister, Alenka Bratusek, to stay afloat at least through the end of the year.

The Cypriot debacle has shown how bailing out even a small country can damage the credibility of the euro currency union. But Slovenia, with two million people, insists that it is not Cyprus and will not seek emergency aid.

“For the time being, I have a sound sleep,” Ms. Bratusek, the 42-year-old prime minister, said in a recent interview.

This week, on Thursday, Ms. Bratusek, only a little more than a month in office, is expected to present a financial turnaround plan to the European Commission, the executive arm of the European Union. She said that privatizing Slovenia’s largely state-owned banking sector was a priority, along with creating a “bad bank” to take over nonperforming loans.

Her government, she said, will also unveil plans by July to sell the country’s second-largest bank, Nova Kreditna Banka Maribor, along with two large state companies that she declined to specify. The sales could raise up to €2 billion, she said.

Ms. Bratusek, who once headed the state budget office at the Finance Ministry, said Slovenia’s government debt, which analysts say rose from about 54 percent of gross domestic product to around 64 percent with last week’s bond sale, still ranked at the lower end of that scale in the euro area.

But the 6 percent interest rate Slovenia offered on the 10-year bonds in last week’s debt sale, at a time when some euro zone countries are enjoying historically low borrowing costs — Germany’s equivalent bond is trading below 1.2 percent — might only add to the country’s financial problems.

Mujtaba Rahman, director of Europe at Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, said the new financing could backfire if it lulled the government into laxity about making vital structural changes.

“The new financing was not a vote of confidence in the Slovenian government or in the economy, but rather reflects investors attracted by high bond yields,” Mr. Rahman said. “A bailout could still prove inevitable.”

What went wrong in Slovenia? The country, wedged between Italy, Austria, Hungary and Croatia, was considered the most promising among the 10 new European Union entrants when it joined in 2004. That was 13 years after it declared independence from Yugoslavia, avoiding a bloody Balkan war that had swept up other countries in the region.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/05/06/business/global/06iht-slovenia06.html?partner=rss&emc=rss