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Poland banking: Public dis-service

Like many truly bad ideas, state ownership of banks is a concept that refuses to die.

No matter how many times taxpayers end up footing the bill for patronage, cronyism, lack of accountability or sheer incompetence, there will always be politicians prepared to argue – and voters ready to believe – that banks are better in public hands.

In western Europe, high-profile disasters in countries such as Germany and Austria have recently made mainstream politicians wary of advocating public-sector banking, except as a last resort.

Further east, however, the idea is enjoying a renaissance. Since coming to power in late 2015, Poland’s nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS) has embraced it with enthusiasm. 

In its first two years in government, PiS sponsored the acquisition of three banks by state-controlled insurer PZU, including the successful challenger bank Alior and second-place player Bank Pekao. As market leader, PKO BP, was never fully privatized, this means around 30% of banking assets in Poland are now under state control. 

According to PiS politicians, the acquisitions were necessary to reduce levels of foreign ownership in the Polish banking sector. 

Western banking groups, they argue, will never truly have the interests of Polish companies and consumers at heart. At best, they will take profits out of the country.

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