Privatise all the banks?

So it looks like we’re getting close to an announcement of a ‘bad bank’ here in the UK, with signs that this move has been co-ordinated with the new US adminstration.

According to the Telegraph:

The bad bank plan has climbed the political agenda in the past couple of weeks as the Government has become aware of the extent of the lenders’ bad debts.

Sources said that a bad bank would have to take on about £200 billion of toxic assets. That would take the Government’s total commitment to solving the banking crisis to almost £1 trillion in taxpayers’ money that has either been spent or pledged.

Valuation remains controversial, with banks scrabbling to extract as much as they possibly can from the taxpayer. One option (following the Swedes again) is to use an independent board to have a go at guessing what all the crap is worth.

Willem Buiter has a simpler suggestion – privatise the whole sector, with the government then making whatever valuation it likes as it transfers toxic assets into a new vehicle. Buiter, who thinks that even HSBC is now toast, points out that the current half-way house (partial state ownership) may be the worst of all worlds:

Ironically, by partially nationalising some of the banks, by making this injection of public capital expensive financially and as regards other conditionality, and by holding the threat of possible future (partial) nationalisation over the remaining banks, the authorities created an incentive structure that is biased strongly against bank lending, and against bank risk taking generally.  The best escape from this unfortunate halfway house is to go to temporary full public ownership of all the banks.  It would be cheap.  It should not cost more than £50bn for the state to buy the rest of the UK high street banks.  It could wait a while and get them even cheaper – possibly for nothing. But time is more precious than money in this case.

Bretton Woods II – let’s remember the last time

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In last month’s New Atlantic, James Fallows had a fascinating interview with Gao Xiqing, Chief Investment Officer at China’s sovereign investment fund, and the man responsible for a significant chunk of China’s huge holdings of American dollars.

Gao – who Fallows dubs one of the US’s new banking overlords – thinks Americans need to learn some humility and fast.

“The simple truth today is that your economy is built on the global economy,” he says, “and it’s built on the support, the gratuitous support, of a lot of countries. So why don’t you come over and … I won’t say kowtow [with a laugh], but at least, be nice to the countries that lend you money.”

The US should disentangle itself from expensive overseas conflicts, Gao believes, raise its diplomatic game, and – above all – tell its citizens to get saving as part of a “long-term, sustainable financial policy.”

It’s all well and good, but maybe Fallows should have pushed Gao a little harder on whether China’s own financial policy is sustainable. After all, despite recent appreciation, the yuan remains substantially under-valued against both the dollar and the euro – the main reason why the Chinese has ended up holding so much Western debt.

Gao’s comments on the dollar are somewhat contradictory (and reflect all the ambiguity of China’s own dollar position). On the one hand, it defends its status as a reserve currency. The US is still the most viable and predictable market, he says. But on the other, Chinese investment in the dollar is widely unpopular at home. According to Gao, China’s citizens ‘hate’ its support of rich Americans (“people eating shark fins”) at the expense of “poor [Chinese] people eating porridge.”

More significant than public pressure, perhaps, is Gao’s belief that the dollar is highly likely to lose value over the short to medium term (with a corresponding appreciation for the yuan). This will wipe billions of Chinese reserves (reserves that have only been built up through consumption foregone) – while challenging China’s export-led growth model:

We are not quite at the bottom yet. Because we don’t really know what’s going to happen next. Everyone is saying, “Oh, look, the dollar is getting stronger!” [As it was at the time of the interview.] I say, that’s really temporary. It’s simply because a lot of people need to cash in, they need U.S. dollars in order to pay back their creditors.

But after a short while, the dollar may be going down again. I’d like to bet on that! The overall financial situation in the U.S. is changing, and that’s what we don’t know about. It’s going to be changed fundamentally in many ways.

Unravelling these imbalances seems certain to be ugly. Reading George Cooper’s book, The Origin of Financial Crises, on a plane the other day, I was struck by strong parallels between today’s economic woes, and a crisis we have heard little about recently – the ‘Nixon Shock’ that led to the end of the Bretton Woods system. Continue reading

CEE In Crisis

I’ve covered eastern European markets for about eight years, and all of those eight years, the region has been on a growth trajectory, either because it is converging with the EU, or, in the case of Russia and Kazakhstan, because it has lots of natural resources. It’s been a boom region, with GDP growth averaging above 6% for the last eight years.

In the last two months, the region has been hit by the global financial crisis, and engulfed by it. Now, many analysts say that of all the emerging markets, the CEE (central and eastern Europe) region is the most vulnerable and exposed.

The main reason is that several CEE countries have very high current account deficits, which mean that they rely on FDI to get foreign currency to pay off their FX liabilities. Countries with current account deficits over 5% include Hungary, Ukraine, all the Baltics, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

The FDI that used to flow to these countries was mainly foreign currency loans – syndicated loans from western banks, or Eurobond borrowing. But the credit markets have completely closed. Now these countries are facing real difficulties in meeting the FX gap, and their currencies are coming under severe pressure.

All these countries have banking sectors that are dominated by western banks. These banks have high levels of foreign currency loan exposure to CEE countries. They want to stop the CEE countries from devaluing, because then their foreign currency loans would be worthless, and some of the foreign banks might even go bust.

However, the CEE countries I mentioned earlier might be forced to devaluate sharply in 2009, because their economies are now grinding into severe recessions, with economies shrinking by up to 4% next year. In the words of one analyst ‘they will have to devalue, otherwise their economic systems might break’.

Another analyst told me, ‘Next year for the CEE region will be like 1998 for the Asian economies. A number of currency collapses and severe recessions.’

The western banks that are heavily involved in the CEE region are desperately trying to prevent an Asia style crisis happening within the EU. Those banks are mainly Austrian (Raiffeisen, Erste Bank, Bank Austria Creditanstalt), but also Italian (Unicredit, which owns Bank Austria) and French (Societe Generale, BNP Paribas).

A senior banker at Unicredit, which is the biggest bank in the CEE region, told me: ‘We have about six months to stop the region from imploding. The EU and ECB need to do more. So far they have felt, it is not in the eurozone, it is not our business. But if there is a crisis in eastern Europe, it will affect western banks, and then it will affect western Europe.’

He also told me there was the real threat of nationalism in eastern Europe, with foreign banks being nationalised for not lending more to CEE economies.

The international financial system is straining, because it depends on international banks, on banks acting as bridges between countries. Now, however, both sides of those bridges are crumbling – western governments are demanding that semi-nationalised banks do more at home; while eastern governments are demanding they support their foreign subsidiaries. It is difficult to obey both.

If the CEE region did collapse, it could put great strain on the local political systems in these countries, and could give rise to isolationist, xenophobic governments, as it did in some CEE countries in the early 1990s. We should remember that the last time there was a major Austrian / CEE banking collapse was in 1931, with the fall of Creditanstalt, which helped give rise to the Nazi Party.

The EU should have the firepower to stop such a crisis from happening – the Baltic and Balkan economies are not that big. The EU or ECB may need to provide major bail-outs or guarantees to the local CEE banking system, in order to help local banks raise credit. Otherwise we are faced with an asymmetric bail-out, where western banking is guaranteed and eastern banking is left to rot.

Another pressing question is what happens in Ukraine, which looks set for a serious devaluation in the new year, and which is now struggling to pay its debts for Russian gas. Much of the EU depends on the gas that comes through Ukraine from Russia, so the EU needs to make sure its supply is protected there.

The long road

In our paper on Bretton Woods II (pdf), Alex and I provide rather a gloomy assessment of financial crisis – which we suggest is going to last longer than many think…

Given that we now face what Gordon Brown has described as “the first truly global financial crisis of the modern world”, our bet would be that it takes as long as a decade to bring it fully under control.

Let’s unpack the assumptions behind our pessimism. We start from the premise that, six months back, experts were overly optimistic about how far-reaching the meltdown would be. This is based, in part, on April’s Progressive Governance summit, where heads of state were (a) clearly freaked out; (b) fairly sure they grasped the problem, if not the solutions; (c) not acting as if they expected any further big surprises.

Consider, too, what the IMF’s Dominique Strauss Kahn was saying at the time. He was as worried by inflation, as he was by economic slowdown. Although he was forecasting a “rather important, serious slowdown in economic growth” – the expected pain wasn’t really that bad:

Something around 0.5 percent as a rate of growth for the United States in 2008 and a slight recovery during 2009-an average of 0.6 percent for 2009, which is both linked to the financial turmoil, of course, but also the business cycle. 

Next, we look at the lessons of earlier banking crises that, in developed countries, have tended to take four or five years to unravel, cost around 12% of GDP to resolve, and lead to a cumulative loss in output equal to almost a quarter of GDP. The figures are drawn from this useful chart prepared by PIMCO’s Michael Gomez:

Then add in what we know about the banking crisis that gripped Japan in the 1990s, which the IMF ascribes to “accelerated deregulation and deepening of capital markets without an appropriate adjustment in the regulatory framework”. Hiroshi Nakaso’s account is worth reading in full – seven years of crisis management and fire fighting as a senior manager at the Bank of Japan.

“When the bubble burst in the early 1990s, no one expected it was going to usher in such a prolonged period of weak growth in Japan,” he writes. Policy makers underestimated the seriousness of the problem, while banks lacked the ‘foresight and courage’ to confront their predicament head on.

At the time there was considerable schadenfreude in the West about Japan’s failure to get to grips with its crisis. It was eight years or so before its policy makers even found the levers that would begin to inch the crisis towards a solution. Are we right to assume that we’ll now do better? Continue reading

A Bretton Woods II worthy of the name

Ahead of this weekend’s G20 summit, David and I have published a short paper entitled A Bretton Woods II worthy of the name.  Key points:

– The summit is unlikely to be able to live up to its billing.  Leaders do not yet understand the nature of the problem well enough to be able to implement viable solutions.  However, the problem is more fundamental than a simple lack of shared awareness. 

 – History suggests that leaders will only think the unthinkable on institutional reform once the challenge they face has really hit rock bottom. But history also suggests that we are wrong to think that the worst of the crisis is now past, given that many past banking crises have taken five years or more to unravel.

 – Bretton Woods 1 looked across the whole international economic waterfront in 1944, while this weekend’s summit will be much more narrowly focused.  Leaders will make a big mistake if they try and tackle finance in isolation, given the growing impact of resource scarcity, and that 2009 is supposed to see another ambitious global deal – on climate.

 – We need to recalibrate what we expect from globalization through a serious debate about subsidiarity. Where has globalization gone too far, too fast? Where do we need more integration at a global level? These were exactly the questions that preoccupied Keynes in 1933, when he weighed the relative benefits of global versus local across a range of variables.  We need a similar debate today as a precursor to serious international economic reform.

 – Leaders need to extend their horizons in (at least) five directions: onto longer time scales; beyond financial regulation into wider resource scarcity challenges; into other international processes, especially climate; towards grand bargains with emerging powers; and beyond government, to non-governmental networks.

Full version after the jump, or better yet here’s the pdf.

Continue reading

“No evidence of human-induced financial crisis”

Bernard Keane and David Howarth in Crikey:

It’s disappointing that Crikey, like others in the liberal media, have fallen for the nonsensical line that the so-called “financial crisis” is either real or requires urgent action. Anyone who disputes this claim, which is advanced with evangelical fervour by its advocates, is howled down as a heretic and a “denialist”. The days of the witch-hunt are truly back.

Put simply, there is no evidence of a human-induced financial crisis, regardless of the hysterical claims advanced in trendy films like Al Gore’s Inconvenient Loot. The financial environment moves through cycles unrelated to human activity. Financial records from the distant past demonstrate that key indices have previously been much lower than they are today, and move up and down of their own accord. Man’s contribution to these movements is dwarfed by the natural rise and fall of markets.

The following graph shows that the long-term financial trend is — inconveniently for crisis fanatics — resolutely upwards:

And to anyone objecting that the market is now declining — what happened yesterday?

Another rise. So much for the purported, so-called, alleged myth of anthropogenic financial collapse, which is not real at all, but actually made up.

Any recent, temporary falls in the Dow Jones Index are nothing to do with human-induced crises. Quite apart from natural ups and downs, recent sun spot activity has increased the cash burn rate, contributing to a mild reduction in credit availability, but again it is a wholly natural cycle, unrelated to human activity. The current cycle of solar activity is due to end in the next couple of years, returning credit availability to normal.

If there is to be any attempt to mitigate this wholly fictional crisis, it should be done with moderate, balanced measures that take into account the needs of businesses and the importance of maintaining job growth and profit share. The fanatics urging us to take immediate action must be rejected.

We should take no unilateral action, but await a comprehensive international agreement that includes the big financial emitters like China. To do otherwise would be to risk our own economy without having the slightest impact on the problem we’re trying to fix. Local jobs will be lost due to “bailout leakage” as firms simply move offshore to countries where taxpayer money is not being wasted propping up uncompetitive firms.

Other industries will simply be wiped out due to massive increases in their costs arising from the additional tax burden. Our LNG (Lots of Noxious Gits) industry is particularly vulnerable.

If we are foolish enough to take unilateral action then we must ensure full compensation for affected companies so that they are not required to contribute to the bailout. A special Bailout Liability Underwritten Banking certificate (BLUB) crediting firms with the amount of money contributed to the bailout must be provided to all trade-exposed industries, particularly those in bailout-intensive sectors.

But before we proceed, further work needs to be done on an appropriate bailout target. Setting too high a bailout target risks imposing a massive burden on the economy. A low bailout target would provide a sensible transitional pathway to stabilising the financial sector at $550 million ppm (payouts per manager) by 2050.

This prudent, moderate, sensible, balanced course of action, while opposed by trendies and financial crisis fundamentalists, will ensure we protect the very jobs and businesses most at risk from this new secular religion.

[With thanks to Michael Mainelli.]

Meltdown update: go long on gold, canned food, guns

Oh, so you thought that the torrent of criticism directed at US Congressmen for voting ‘no’ on the bail-out meant that Senators would be more likely to vote yes tonight, and that this would finally bring some reprieve?

Well, Javier Blas at the FT has news for you: the world’s super-rich don’t share your optimism.

Investors in gold are demanding “unprecedented” amounts of bullion bars and coins and moving them into their own vaults as fears about the health of the global financial system deepen. Industry executives and bankers at the London Bullion Market Association annual meeting said the extent of the move into physical gold was unseen and driven by the very rich.

“There is an enormous pick-up in investment demand. I have never seen a market like this in my 33-year career,” said Jeremy Charles, chairman of the LBMA. “The gold refineries cannot produce enough bars.” The move comes as fears grow among investors over the losses at investment vehicles previously considered almost risk-free, such as money funds.  Philip Clewes-Garner, associate director of precious metals at HSBC, added that investors were not flying into gold simply because they saw it as a haven amid Wall Street’s woes. “It is a flight into gold because it is a physical asset,” he said.

Well, that’s a vote of confidence, eh readers? They’ve probably been perusing Nouriel Roubini, who reckons (bailout prospects notwithstanding) that “we are now back to the risk of a total systemic financial meltdown”:

The next step of this panic could become the mother of all bank runs, i.e. a run on the trillion dollar plus of the cross border short-term interbank liabilities of the US banking and financial system as foreign banks as starting to worry about the safety of their liquid exposures to US financial institutions; such a silent cross border bank run has already started as foreign banks are worried about the solvency of US banks and are starting to reduce their exposure. And if this run accelerates – as it may now – a total meltdown of the US financial system could occur.

We are thus now in a generalized panic mode and back to the risk of a systemic meltdown of the entire financial system. And US and foreign policy authorities seem to be clueless about what needs to be done next. Maybe they should today start with a coordinated 100 bps reduction in policy rates in all the major economies in the world to show that they are starting to seriously recognize and address this rapidly worsening financial crisis.

Doom, gloom.  Still, readers may also like to be aware that in noting the ongoing travails of Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs, Nouriel suggests that “the only institution sound enough to swallow Goldman may be HSBC”.  Another reason – as though one were needed! – why those of us who bank with HSBC’s lovely First Direct can shake our heads in bewilderment at those of you who choose not to. 

Now, if they only offered safe deposit boxes…