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French ministers get low grades from money experts

Greg Keller, Associated Press

PARIS (AP) -- France's government leaders have bared their financial assets and the ruling is in: they're not very good at money.

After a scandal in which his now-former budget minister lied about secretly squirreling money abroad, President Francois Hollande forced the 38 ministers in his Socialist-led Cabinet to publish their financial records this week.

The initial headlines focused on how eight ministers were millionaires. But several wealth managers who analyzed the numbers in-depth said the findings are more interesting for what they say about how well the officials charged with shepherding taxpayer money do when it comes to managing their own portfolios.

The results, they said Tuesday, are unimpressive.

"What I find shocking is the absence of investment in equities, and even less in small- and medium sized enterprises," said Meyer Azogui, the president of private wealth managers Cyrus Conseil.

Azogui said that if he was managing cabinet members' personal fortunes, "I'd tell them they need to invest more in the French economy, which needs it!"

Perhaps worryingly for France's national pocketbook, Azogui says the minister whose portfolio appears to be the least well managed is the finance minister, Pierre Moscovici.

"Moscovici's wealth statement is the most atypical," Azogui said. "For someone of his age, professional background and present responsibilities, it's quite small," Azogui said. "I hope he will take care of the country's money better than his own!"

Moscovici, 55 and a career politician, declared a total net worth of 268,000 euros ($350,000), largely accounted for by a 200,000-euro house in Montbeliard in eastern France. He has 17,368 euros in the stock market.

Asked whether France's ministers were good investors, another wealth manager responded with a curt "Non."

Henry Masdevall, president of wealth management firm Valorey Finance, said the cabinet's overall investment strategy appeared "very conservative." Like Azogui, he said he'd advise cabinet members to put more of their money in FCPIs, French investment vehicles designed to funnel money to small, innovative firms that find it hard to finance themselves from banks or on the markets.

Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius topped his colleagues with assets worth 6.55 million euros but it was the prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, who earned earned the wealth managers' greatest approval.

Ayrault, who began his career as a professor of German before entering politics in the 1970s, declared a net worth of 1.62 million euros, made up mostly in real estate, life insurance contracts, and interest bearing savings accounts. "It's a good portfolio, he seems to have done not too bad," Azogui said.

Overall, however, the ministers' personal financial acumen was judged middling at best.

"Their portfolios are really undeveloped for people with their professional level," Azogui said.

One explanation may be that the many of the Socialist ministers in Hollande's government pride themselves in not being part of the rich elite, but leading lives not too removed from those of the average French person.

A less charitable view may be that with very comfortable civil service pensions to fall back on, they have less need to save for retirement than the average French person, Azogui said.

The move at greater government transparency followed the shock revelation this month that Jerome Cahuzac, the former budget minister, had secret accounts worth hundreds of thousands of euros in Switzerland and Singapore and had lied repeatedly about them to the president, the parliament and the prime minister.

After months of public denials, and as the scandal ballooned, Cahuzac resigned. Since then, French authorities filed preliminary charges against him for alleged money laundering. If convicted, he faces up to five years in prison and up to a 375,000 euro ($481,500) fine.

Speaking Tuesday on BFM TV, Cahuzac said he shouldn't have accepted the budget minister post — and penitently said he had paid a "heavy price" for his lies, which he acknowledged. He also said he had decided to resign his seat in the National Assembly, one of the several public venues where he had long denied having foreign accounts.