A scandal involving the financial regulator and a Polish bank puts ruling Law and Justice's claims to be Poland's anti-corruption party under scrutiny. DW looks at how a version of 'economic nationalism' could backfire.
When the chairman of a football club feels obliged to offer his manager "backing," you know that manager's days are numbered.
So, when Poland's central bank chief Adam Glapinski stepped out to greet reporters after an emergency meeting of the Financial Stability Committee in Warsaw, his claim that Polish banks were "in the best condition in Europe" seemed to indicate that the opposite might in fact be the case.
His comments followed big falls in Poland's banking stocks last week after allegations of corruption in the corridors linking the worlds of business and politics in Poland.
The rumors had been swirling for months, but it was still a shock when the boss of the Financial Supervision Authority (KNF), Marek Chrzanowski, quit last week after claims published in the Financial Times and local daily Gazeta Wyborcza that he had attempted to solicit a bribe from Polish billionaire and bank owner Leszek Czarnecki in March.
Czarnecki claims Chrzanowski handed him a business card with '1 percent' written on it. Czarnecki said he understood this as a demand for payment of 1 percent of one of his bank's capitalization in return for an undefined favor for the ailing Getin Noble Bank.
Investors get out of Getin
Warsaw-listed Getin Noble Bank — the country's ninth-largest lender — has been in the debt since 2016 and the KNF put another Czarnecki-owned bank, Idea Bank, on its watch list recently. Shares in Getin Noble dropped 17.5 percent to a record low last week and Idea Bank was down 16 percent. Getin's stock price has fallen 75 percent this year.
The two banks are among the least capitalized of all listed domestic banks and rely on short-term retail deposits for funding.
Andrzej Powierza, Citi Handlowy Brokerage House, told the news agency Reuters that "even larger banks are starting to consider whether this could affect them." The largest local lender, PKO BP, fell 6.6 percent, while shares in Bank Pekao and Alior Bank both fell 7 percent last week.
Glapinski Finance Minister Teresa Czerwinska after a gathering in Warsaw promised to support the two banks with liquidity if needed.
But all is not well in the country's financial sector.
The newspaper Rzeczpospolita called on Glapinski to resign. Propping up Czarnecki's banks was a test for Poland's authorities, the daily said, which supported "creeping nationalization" and "don't like big private companies."
Economic nationalism a la Polonaise?
About 30 percent of banking assets in Poland are under state control. The government bought a 33 percent stake in No. 2 lender Bank Pekao in 2017 from Italy's UniCredit in a 10.6 billion zloty (€250 million, $290 million) deal. The government then felt able to claim domestic ownership had risen to 55 percent, a symbolic but also a rather pyrrhic, victory.
Chrzanowski, who was given the job in 2016 by former PiS Prime Minister Beata Szydlo, denies the allegations and claims they are part of a plot to discredit him. Czarnecki, he says, is trying to "destabilize the Polish banking system."
"And I want to tell them they won't succeed," Glapinski told public broadcaster TVP on Monday.
Glapinski said he was not planning to resign, and the PiS government said it would not sweep the scandal under the carpet. Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, a former Santander banker, has ordered an investigation and Justice Minister Zbigniew Ziobro has said he will handle the case personally.
Banks not worried, yet
The European Banking Authority (EBA) said recently that stress tests showed Polish banks had a high degree of resilience in the event of a macroeconomic shock. PKO BP, Poland's biggest lender, was the most resilient bank in the tests, while Bank Pekao ranked third.
The industry is underpinned by strong domestic growth and not burdened with a hangover from the financial crisis. Return on equity in the Polish banking sector is about the European average of 7 to 8 percent.
But there is a consolidation trend underway that has accelerated as PiS encourages domestic ownership in the fragmented sector. Consolidation is also driven by low interest rates undercutting the revenues of the smaller players.
When business and politics collide
Czarnecki says he has no political motives for making the revelations public other than resolving the scandal itself. But he has some form. When PiS came back to power in 2015 the billionaire expressed fears about its goal of repolonizing" the banking industry. His lawyer, Roman Giertych, said last week he would make public a video recording secretly made in July in which Czarnecki expressed these fears.
Giertych, who was a minister in a PiS-led coalition government in 2005-2007 but has since switched sides, went on to allude to what he called "the existence of an organized criminal group aiming to take over Leszek Czarnecki's bank.”
Added to this, political capital is not something the opposition has had much of since PiS came to power in 2015 and is keen to spend a little of it when it can now. "In democratic countries governments fall over this," Grzegorz Schetyna, head of the main opposition Civic Platform (PO) party, said.
And he should know.
The scandal comes on the heels of a probe into a financial scandal that damaged a previous PO government under Donald Tusk, now president of the European Council.
Tusk was questioned recently as part of a parliamentary investigation into a pyramid scheme that defrauded thousands of people during his time as prime minister.
The two scandals are returning to the limelight as the party Tusk founded, PO, is trying to build up steam ahead of important European and national elections in 2019 and 2020, and the stakes couldn't be higher.