Sweden is rightly admired for the way it handled its banking crisis in the early 1990s (and its ensuing fiscal challenges).
In yesterday’s Financial Times, Dag Detter looks back for some lessons for Europe as it struggles to resolve its current banking crisis:
When the Swedish banking system crashed in 1992, the government faced an identical problem. Yet in the end, Sweden’s taxpayers came very well out of their experience of bank ownership. How was this achieved, and what lessons can be learnt for Madrid and the EU’s new bank resolution policy?
First, move fast. Spain and bankers have been in denial about the scale of bad lending for too long. The Rajoy government rightly came to office this year on a promise to force banks to write down bad loans. The situation has predictably turned out to be much worse than assumed, but their policy is the right one. Painful as it is, transparency on the scale of bad debt is vital for the market to be confident that it understands risk and uncertainty in Spain and can therefore price it properly.
Catharsis can come only with a purge of bad assets. Banks should present plans to handle problem assets, strengthen controls and improve efficiency. This might require government or even supranational assistance in the orderly closure of moribund institutions. In addition, “bad” bank parts must be demerged from the “healthy” to facilitate recapitalisation. The state should never be left holding the junk while the healthy part of a bank wriggles free.
Second, maintain commercial principles. In Sweden, each state bank investment was made on what would have been commercial terms in a normal market, always with the aim of maintaining competitive neutrality. The terms of the investment must be structured in a way that gives the bank and its owners no grounds to request more state funding than is necessary, combined with the incentives to facilitate a swift exit. Yet it must be sufficient to ensure that the bank can return to profitability without additional government assistance.
The whole piece is worth a read.
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My Twitter feed lit up yesterday with folks recommending a speech by George Soros about Europe. [Link subsequently stopped working, but now it's back.] They were right. Whether you love him or hate him, he provides a fascinating perspective on Europe’s past, present, and future and, in so doing, provides a particularly clear presentation of his critique of (what he views as) mainstream economics.
The whole speech is worth a read. Here are some excerpts describing his view that the European Union is a bubble:
Among other things, I developed a model of a boom-bust process or bubble which is endogenous to financial markets, not the result of external shocks. According to my theory, financial bubbles are not a purely psychological phenomenon. They have two components: a trend that prevails in reality and a misinterpretation of that trend. A bubble can develop when the feedback is initially positive in the sense that both the trend and its biased interpretation are mutually reinforced. Eventually the gap between the trend and its biased interpretation grows so wide that it becomes unsustainable. After a twilight period both the bias and the trend are reversed and reinforce each other in the opposite direction. Bubbles are usually asymmetric in shape: booms develop slowly but the bust tends to be sudden and devastating. That is due to the use of leverage: price declines precipitate the forced liquidation of leveraged positions.
I contend that the European Union itself is like a bubble. In the boom phase the EU was what the psychoanalyst David Tuckett calls a “fantastic object” – unreal but immensely attractive. The EU was the embodiment of an open society –an association of nations founded on the principles of democracy, human rights, and rule of law in which no nation or nationality would have a dominant position.
The process of integration was spearheaded by a small group of far sighted statesmen who practiced what Karl Popper called piecemeal social engineering. They recognized that perfection is unattainable; so they set limited objectives and firm timelines and then mobilized the political will for a small step forward, knowing full well that when they achieved it, its inadequacy would become apparent and require a further step. The process fed on its own success, very much like a financial bubble. That is how the Coal and Steel Community was gradually transformed into the European Union, step by step.
Germany used to be in the forefront of the effort. When the Soviet empire started to disintegrate, Germany’s leaders realized that reunification was possible only in the context of a more united Europe and they were willing to make considerable sacrifices to achieve it. When it came to bargaining they were willing to contribute a little more and take a little less than the others, thereby facilitating agreement. At that time, German statesmen used to assert that Germany has no independent foreign policy, only a European one.
The process culminated with the Maastricht Treaty and the introduction of the euro. It was followed by a period of stagnation which, after the crash of 2008, turned into a process of disintegration. The first step was taken by Germany when, after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, Angela Merkel declared that the virtual guarantee extended to other financial institutions should come from each country acting separately, not by Europe acting jointly. It took financial markets more than a year to realize the implication of that declaration, showing that they are not perfect.
The Maastricht Treaty was fundamentally flawed, demonstrating the fallibility of the authorities. Its main weakness was well known to its architects: it established a monetary union without a political union. The architects believed however, that when the need arose the political will could be generated to take the necessary steps towards a political union.
But the euro also had some other defects of which the architects were unaware and which are not fully understood even today. In retrospect it is now clear that the main source of trouble is that the member states of the euro have surrendered to the European Central Bank their rights to create fiat money. … Due to the divergence in economic performance Europe became divided between creditor and debtor countries. This is having far reaching political implications … .
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Ezra Klein surveyed 18 economists for their charts of the year. Here’s my candidate, courtesy of Spiegel Online:
This chart illustrates the end of euro complacency. Investors once acted as though the euro eliminated not just currency risk but sovereign credit risk. All nations–from Greece to Germany–could borrow at the same low rates. No longer. As the financial crisis enters its fifth year, markets are again distinguishing between strong nations and weak.
I subsequently discovered that I am not alone in choosing this chart. The BBC has a version of this as the first entry in its survey of top graphs of the year (with commentary by Vicky Pryce of FTI Consulting), and Desmond Lachman of the American Enterprise Institute included it in Derek Thompson’s survey of top graphs over at the Atlantic.
P.S. For the United States, I think Brad DeLong is right: behold the shortfall in nominal U.S. GDP.
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The developed world is awash in sovereign debt. Greece stands on the precipice of painful (and inevitable) default. Italy and Spain struggle to convince markets that their debts are good. Portugal and Ireland hope to get in the lifeboat with Italy and Spain, rather than drown with Greece. And then there’s the United States. Much further from a sovereign crisis than many Euro nations, but still on a worrisome long-term path of spiraling debt.
So what should policymakers do? Well, the dominate meme this week was clear. If you are faced with sovereign debt worries, you should go big:
- On Tuesday, the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget released a letter signed by a group of former government officials, budget experts, and business leaders (including me) urging the Joint Select Committee, aka the super committee, “to ‘go big’ and develop a large-scale debt reduction package sufficient to stabilize the debt as a share of the economy.” A group of 38 senators followed with a similar letter, and a host of people made this argument at the super committee’s first hearing.
- The same day, Mario Blejer–who led Argentina’s central bank after its default–urged Greece to go big: “Greece should default, and default big. A small default is worse than a big default and also worse than no default,” he said in an interview reported by Reuters Eliana Raszewski and Camila Russo.
- And then there was Benjamin Reitzes of BMO Nesbitt who was quoted by The Globe and Mail’s Michael Babad offering similar advice to the BRICS. Not, of course, to deal with their own debt, but with Europe’s: “Considering Chinese purchases of European peripheral debt over the past year have provided only temporary relief, a small purchase won’t likely have much impact … go big or go home.”
So there you have it. If you find yourself at a loss for words in a weekend discussion about sovereign debt, you know what to say: Go big. Or, if you are contrary sort, go small. Either way, you can keep the conversation going.
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Mini is apparently the new thing in popular economics. Tyler Cowen’s new mini-book is getting lots of attention from the blogosphere. And econ-crooner Merle Hazard has released a set of mini-songs about the European debt crisis.
Best so far is Ode to Germany:
For more, click on over to Paul Solman’s page at the PBS Newshour, where you can also find info about their lyric-writing contest.
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A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of creative bookkeeping.
In an article in this morning’s Wall Street Journal (“Debt Deals Haunt Europe“), Charles Forelle and Susanne Craig provide more examples of the “aggressive” bookkeeping that European nations have deployed to satisfy the deficit and debt targets of the Growth and Stability Pact.
Greece, of course, takes honors in the field, not just for its recent use of derivatives to hide liabilities (see my earlier post), but also for other creative moves in the past. For example, the authors report that Greece:
insisted to the Eurostat statistics authority that large portions of its military spending were “confidential” and thus excluded from deficit calculations. In 2000, Greece reported that it spent €828 million ($1.13 billion) on the military—about a fourth of the €3.17 billion it later said it spent. Greece admitted to underreporting military spending by €8.7 billion between 1997 and 2003.
Such shenanigans are hardly unique to the Greeks. Other players include:
- Portugal, which “classified subsidies to the Lisbon subway and other state enterprises as equity purchases” in 2001, and
- France, which “arranged a deal with the soon-to-be privatized France Telecom in 1997 under which the company paid the government a lump sum of more than €5 billion. In return, France agreed to assume pension liabilities for France Telecom workers. The billions from France Telecom helped narrow France’s budget gap.”
Although dated, these examples illustrate some basic strategies that governments use to conceal the size of their deficits and debts: pretend the spending does not exist (Greece), pretend that spending is really an investment (Portugal), or pretend the future pension liabilities aren’t real (France).
A topic for another day is how these strategies may have been used in the United States. Suffice it to say that strategy three–ignoring future pension costs–is widespread both in governments and the private sector.
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