Tragedy or Farce?

It is easy to criticise the way the government dealt with the banking credit crisis and ABN Amro’s nationalisation, writes financial journalist Garry Piggott.

Back in 2008 when the financial crisis broke, then finance minister Wouter Bos was seen as the action man of Dutch politics.
While prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende ) and the head of the Dutch central bank, Nout Wellink, dithered and blathered, our handsome hero jumped right in an saved ABN Amro, ING and Aegon and helped to ‘disappear’ major Belgo-Dutch financial group Fortis.

Wow, saving the Dutch financial system – and Dutch savings, of course – and putting one over on the Belgians, who just months earlier had been crowing about the acquisition of (part of) the much bigger and even more arrogant ABN Amro.
Oops. It now turns out that Wouter – and pretty much everyone else – got it wrong at every single turn, at least according to the findings of a parliamentary committee led by socialist MP Jan de Wit.
Apparently, the Wouter and Nout double act should have been more critical of Fortis’s acquisition of (the Dutch part of) ABN Amro the first place. Then when Fortis struck the iceberg of the financial crisis and was rapidly going under, Wouter sat back and did nothing for months. Our Coriolanus was actually a bit of a Hamlet.
This tragedy of errors – or farce – continued with Wouter’s proud declaration that the Dutch state had picked up both ABN Amro and Fortis’s Dutch banking and insurance business for the bargain price of € 16 billion… just months after Fortis had paid €24 billion for its share of the ABN Amro pie. And nary a dissenting voice was heard. The press and numerous financial experts declared Wouter the bargain hunter of the year. He’d saved Dutch tax payers billions.
Oops. It turns out he paid at least €4 billion too much for the ailing ABN Amro-Fortis combine. And giving ING a very cheap € 10 billion loan was also a bit over the top, says de Wit. Just imagine, he implies, how much easier the government’s current cut-backs would be if Dutch tax payers hadn’t forked out so much back then. Dig, dig.
De Wit is keen to point out that Wouter repeatedly failed to keep parliament appraised of what was going on behind the scenes. And he has a good old dig at the Dutch parliament for not being critical enough and for not demanding more information.
Apparently, if it hadn’t reached the front page of popular daily De Telegraaf, very few of our elected representatives were even remotely interested. De Wit also had a few choice words for the Dutch central bank and the European parliament. If Bos was action man, they were a couple of Kens.
Bos, of course, points out the extraordinary circumstances in 2008. He made the best of a bad job, given the lack of time and information. What should he have done differently? Pretty much everything, according to De Wit and his committee of wise men.
Hindsight is such a wonderful thing.
Garry Piggott is a freelance journalist based in the Netherlands

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