Poland: "Balcerowicz must go"

"Balcerowicz musi odejsc" (“Balcerowicz must go”). This was the all-too-familiar demand made by the populist Polish politician Andrzej Lepper when the outgoing Polish central bank governor Leszek Balcerowicz was Polish Finance Minister in the early 90s. Mr Lepper’s wish is to some extent now finally being fulfilled, as Mr. Balcerowicz steps down today after six successful years as central bank governor.

Mr. Balcerowicz has always been a controversial figure in Polish policymaking, but no one can dispute his enormous influence in the past 20 years - first as an economic advisor within the independent labour union Solidarność and participant in the roundtable negotiations that in 1989 led to the end of communist rule in Poland. As the first Finance Minister in post-communist Poland, from September 1989 to August 1991, Mr. Balcerowicz used what he has called a window of opportunity to implement the plan named after him - the Balcerowicz Plan - to transform Poland from an inefficient planned economy to a market economy. The Balcerowicz Plan was the first example of shock therapy being applied in the former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe, and in our view there is no doubt that the reforms Mr. Balcerowicz engineered are one of the key reasons for Poland’s economic success over the last 18 years. Mr. Balcerowicz later continued the reform effort as Finance Minister once more from October 1997 to June 2000.

From December 2000 until today Mr. Balcerowicz has been governor of the Polish central bank (NBP). As NBP governor he has shown himself as a strong anti-inflationist central banker who has fearlessly defended the independence of the NBP from numerous unfortunate political attacks. The best measure of a central banker’s success is undoubtedly is the development in inflation, and here there is no doubt about Mr. Balcerowicz’s achievements. From December 2000 to November 2006, inflation in Poland dropped from 8.5% to 1.4% y/y - clearly something that Mr. Balcerowicz and his colleagues at the NBP can be proud of. Obviously there have also been policy mistakes over the last six years at the NBP. Some would, for example, argue that the NBP took far too long to ease monetary policy and this helped to push the Polish economy into a massive slowdown in 2001-2003. On the other hand, the NBP’s conservative approach to monetary policy during Mr. Balcerowicz’s rule has opened the door to a much more sustainable recovery in the Polish economy than would otherwise have been the case. It, of course, should also be noted that Mr. Balcerowicz’s term as NBP governor was to a minor degree tainted by fairly bad communication policies - that to some extent reflected internal disagreement at times within the NBP’s monetary policy council.

We say goodbye and thanks to Mr. Balcerowicz, but we don’t believe the charismatic liberal economist will be silenced and we expect - and hope - that Mr. Balcerowicz will continue to engage in the debate on economic policy in Poland in the coming years. Poland surely needs his input.

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