Anca Paduraru in Bucharest -
This year's survey by Capital magazine of the 300 wealthiest Romanians reveals that they share among themselves over $33bn, or about a fourth of Romania's GDP, with the president of Romania's second-largest oil company Rompetrol Group, Dinu Patriciu, topping the list with an estimated $3.3bn fortune and the football player Adrian Mutu rounding it out with a measly $12m.
However, many of these fortunes may not stand the test of time, since over a third of the wealthiest Romanians have a good part of their assets in Romanian real estate, which most people agree is grossly overvalued. Further inflating the figures was the rapid appreciation of the local currency earlier this year against the euro and the dollar. Still, the list provides a fair picture of how Romania's economy has evolved, with all its imbalances and dark corners.
First, the geographical breakdown of personal wealth mirrors the development of Romania's regions, with the capital Bucharest hosting the businesses of 121 people making the list, worth an aggregate $23.2bn. Next comes the western region with the fortunes of 28 people adding up to some $5.4bn, followed by the eastern Dobrogea region, which contains the Danube Delta and the coast, where businesses focusing on tourism and real-estate helped create some $1.5bn for 24 Romanians on the list.
Second, most of the businesses of the people in the 300 are strongly linked to import activities, mirroring the overall trend of Romania's economy, which is witnessing a ballooning current-account deficit as demand for imported goods and services soars. This is worrying the governor of the central bank, Mugur Isarescu, who pointed out Wednesday that the dangerous imbalances in the economy will need structural reforms to fix them.
Third, the largest fortunes have given their owners the ability to use the media as both a business venture and a means to support their other businesses in the case of a fierce fight that more often than not will include allegations of unfair or outright illegal practices. Case in point: four of the first six wealthiest own large media empires as part of their portfolios.
Controversy has inevitably accompanied the building up of many of these fortunes, including the more or less overt links their owners have with political parties.
Heading up the Top-300 list is Patriciu, who was once banged up in jail for 24 hours over a cluster of allegations filed against him by the Prosecutor's Office, ranging from misappropriation of funds and money laundering to embezzlement, tax evasion and fraud during the privatization of Rompetrol. The investigations are still ongoing.
Number two in the list is George Becali with at $3bn, who is a flamboyant character frequently making the news as both the owner of the major soccer club Steaua and the founder of an extreme nationalist party, the New Generation Party. The beginning of Becali's real-estate fortune allegedly lies, however, in having exchanged a low priced property he owned with a highly priced one owned by the Ministry of Defence. This deal is still under investigation by prosecutors.
Number four in the Top-300 list is Sorin Ovidiu Vintu, worth $2.3bn, who was widely credited with masterminding the biggest pyramidal scheme called the National Investment Fund, which collapsed in May 2000, causing some 300,000 people to lose a reported $200m. However, the investigators couldn't link Vintu to the fraudulent business operation, since he never signed any papers that could be traced back to him.
The Paunescu brothers, listed at number six with $1.8bn, were allegedly linked to the former state security service the Securitate, which put them in a favourable position in the early days of post-communist rule when knowing the right people in the right places would beat any creditworthiness or business plan that one might have had.
However, the days of fortunes amassed from the redistribution of the existing wealth and the cunning exploitation of the legislative void are nearing to an end, reckons the director of the Economic Prognosis Institute, Lucian Albu. "These kinds of businessmen will likely continue their business practices for as long as the legislative system stays weak," Albu told Capital magazine. "However, their fortunes will most certainly collapse in the future when the market economy with tough rules of competition will kick in."
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