The Power of Inaction: Bank Bailouts in Comparison

In this new book, Cornelia Woll examines the political economy of bank bailouts in a variety of countries; it includes a comparison of Ireland versus Denmark.  More details here.

54 replies on “The Power of Inaction: Bank Bailouts in Comparison”

It is also worth recalling the debate that took place on “covert” ELA lending by the BOE and other central banks at the height of the crisis.

The “power of inaction” of banks would also suggest to any objective observer that the aim of “breaking the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns” adopted by the European Council in June 2012 is no more than a political mantra. The two are joined at the hip.

The fourth and fifth options of ignorance, and paralysed denial in the face, of the gravity of the problems, by both perpetrator banks and national and supranational authorities are not identified in the book’s précis.

No doubt some banks gamed the likely reaction of authorities.The Lehman’s collapse was the culmination of a discernible mis-funding/under-capitalisation problem evidenced by Northern Rock and Bear Stearns (at a minimum) before the Sep 15 2008 Lehman’s event.

Some acknowledgement of the timeline would be welcome. NRock collapsed on 14 Sep 2007, following the seizing up of the interbank market (and the dawning realisation that credit spreads and risk measurement had become dangerously disassociated). The interbank market remained seized up for over a year, and became the proverbial tide revealing the naked swimmers. Bear Stearns went belly-up in March 2008 – it could have been them or anyone. At the time the SEC head repeated the mantra of regulators and governments everywhere – that it was a liquidity rather than a capital or solvency issue. That analysis was both horse-poo and, worse, shared among governments and regulatory authorities worldwide.

Misdiagnosis leads to mistreatment.

Merrill Lynch imploded on September 14th 2008. The Fed arranged another bail-out for them. Then Lehman’s went the next day, and the Fed/US government cried “enough”. Then they saw the (stockmarket) reaction, plus the market reaction globally, and realised that markets had expected a continued bailing out, via taxpayer contribution or lower interest rates or both, of any possible problem. They caved in, and stuck taxpayers withn the bill.

Lehman’s collapse did, in many ways, lead to the problems we still face. Had more banks been allowed to go, we might have been better off by now, if worse off in the shorter-term. The authorities’ reaction to the market reaction to the Lehman’s was sub-optimal. Had resources been concentrated on survivor banks, rather than applied to an effective “no bank left behind” policy, we all in the western world might be in a better place.

The febrile reaction by leading authorities to the then-inevitable collapse of some/many banks has led us to today – where there is no properly functioning interbank market, and monetary policy transmission mechanisms are impaired.

Where inactivity (on a bank’s part) is rewarded, or gives a better chance of being rewarded via survival, it would be a foolish one who didn’t adopt the strategy.

fyi – man of the moment

Why A Global Wealth Tax Would Help Address Inequality
22/04/2014 by Thomas Piketty

The issue of inequality is one of the most salient in global politics. Thomas Piketty writes on the economic forces which have impacted upon inequality since the end of the First World War. He argues that with disparities in income and wealth rising substantially over recent decades, a global progressive tax on individual net worth would offer the best option for keeping inequality under control. He writes that although implementing such a tax would be a major challenge politically, it would be feasible if the EU and the United States, each accounting for around a quarter of world output, put their combined weight behind it.

Pity that those to be taxed control the politicos; hence no change.

Two further links relevant to this thread.

It is clear that the drafters of the phrase “breaking the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns” had in mind breaking the negative feedback loop between them i.e. implying that there also exists a “virtuous circle” or positive feedback loop. That there is a loop is not disputed. Politicians, however, responding to popular sentiment, are creating the impression that the fate of banks and sovereigns can be entirely separated. This is clearly a nonsense, short of a revolution in the organisation of international finance.

‘… a revolution in the organisation of international finance.’

Badly needed.

Spose there is no chance of a ‘selfie’! If really an ‘algorithm’ a few lines of relevant spun code will suffice.

Oh for the days of the Ballybrack Dolmen when gold, silver and brass were in vogue and the ATMs and banks were 4500 years down the road.
The bank, sovereign nexus will never be severed. The first test of a currency is that the sovereign accepts it in payment of taxes with the bank as a necessary intermediary. We could go back to barter, a load of turf in return for a half load of spuds and a bushel of cabbage.

I ran across this in Famine and the Rise of Economics in Victorian Britain and Ireland
Gordon Bigelow 2003
I was overjoyed to find the Crown incurred significant debt. I deemed it worth sharing. It appears not much has changed in the last 300+ years.

The Bank of England was founded in 1694 in order to manage the Crown’s significant debt, incurred in the military suppression of Ireland and in continuing
war with Ireland’s Catholic ally, France. The Bank did this by distributing government debt in shares, which were themselves bought and sold on an open stock market. This system of government finance institutionalized the possibility of amazingly rapid creation and destruction of personal wealth; share prices could fluctuate widely according to the degree of public confidence in government policies, and with these price shifts thousands of pounds could appear or vanish overnight. The instability of this system of
national debt and stock investment seemed compounded by the increasing use of unguaranteed paper money, which any bank could issue in this period in any amount it saw fit.

@ Mickey Hickey

That is an interesting historical reference! Maybe the beginning of wisdom would be to get popular acceptance that the nexus, as you describe it, it will never be broken. I have noted that professionals seldom, if ever, refer to the “vicious circle” description but use other more accurate terms. One wonders if the reality is not also accepted at a popular level but in a manner that cannot be publicly conceded. Who wants to admit that his/her government is, if not in thrall to, in a symbiotic relationship with the country’s banks? It certainly must be clear to the Irish public by now.

Martin Wolf on the subject (and the defence of the British Banking Association).

How far we are from any level of safety can be gauged by a reading of the Bankers’ New Clothes.

In Ireland there was both inaction and denial.

In early 2008, a year after the news of multi-billion dollar losses on subprime mortgages at HSBC units in the US, Department of Finance officials discussed different scenarios for banking in the event of a deterioration of the economy but as we know, despite the bailout of Northern Rock in the UK, it took until the panic following the collapse of Lehman Brothers for serious political attention to be given to the banking risks.

Still, despite a worsening international situation and most of the developers with big loans not even paying interest, PwC, the Big 4 accounting firm, in Feb 2009, produced wildly optimistic forecasts of Anglo’s bad debt charges for 2009 and 2010.

There is the ‘consensus view’ shared by both public officials and private sector insiders – remember the soft landing?

A key issue in Ireland is whether the system is now more open to evidenced based policy making and dissenting views than it was during the bubble.

I doubt it.

While Europe will have a more active control of the banking sector, there isn’t much evidence of a change in mindset.

On Wed the  annual Global Technology Report of the World Economic Forum, INSEAD and Cornell was published and Finland is again the top tech ready economy in the world with Ireland in 26th place – not bad as a level to improve from but how can that happen when the big chiefs believe that Ireland is the capital of the digital world?

On Tues I was at a press conference on the OECD’s review study of the Action Plan for Jobs, which was attended by the deputy secretary-general who is a former Belgian prime minister.

Yves Leterme was relaxed about being told that some of the ICT sector data was flawed.

The minister didn’t appear to have been amused and at one point his press handler interrupted to say: “Please don’t interrupt the minister.”

What the experience of the last two years shows is that the standard EU harmonised national accounts are not a satisfactory framework for understanding what is happening in the Irish economy.

Celtic Tiger RIP: Change in conservative Ireland six years after crash


Wagons get circled the minute any of the protected few is under pressure – twas ever this. Dissent not appreciated.

In the review of the NHS Mid Staffs scandal the authors noted that the most frequently used phrase by key witnesses was ‘with the benefit of hindisght’ – this is one of the best ways to cover your backside. Only problem is that this had already been noted a decade earlier in the review of the Bristol Paediatric Cardiac scandal. The insiders were using an excuse that had already been identified as bsm imagining no one would care.

And, to maintain an appropriate balance, this comment to the article by John 2011 (which Denning largely agreed with).

Isn’t the missing bullet point here?

“Millions of Americans willingfully went into debt far beyond their ability to pay. Rather than responding prudently to real estate appreciation that was clearly unsustainable, they continued their spending binge by extracting every penny of their new found and predictably temporary equity by taking second mortgages to pay for vacations, boats, and other luxury items. They now blame the bankers who offered them these loans for their present predicament.”

Theres an astouding lack of knowledge of and appreciation of human psychological behaviour here DOCM. Newsflash – people do foolish things. Newsflash – they always have. Newsflas h- Qui Bono from not putting in place regulatory and other means to mitigate the selfharm?


“Rather than responding prudently to real estate appreciation that was clearly unsustainable”

But what if they watched Larry Kudlow on CNBC?

By 2006 it was almost impossible to persuade people the real estate market appreciation was unsustainable. That is almost the definition of a bubble.

Back in 1998 it was almost as difficult to persuade people there was nothing to stop it going up.

while I was looking at a structural question, I have pondered for a while,

I was looking for the number of central bank employees in various countries.

First the short version

(the number for the US is 17015 for comparison)

and then some pretty interesting tome of 285 pages from some

“Standing committee of European Central Bank Unions”. Yeehaa, I didn’t know that something like this exists.

A little more to my question a little later : – )

@ grumpy/BL

I suppose I should have put “appropriate balance” in quotation marks. The point is a fairly simple one, it seems to me, i.e. that a bubble is a collective folly for those involved apart, of course, from those who emerge from the other end as winners (and who often do not include the knowing instigators of it but rather those who sense its end is nigh). Denning, replying to John 2011, pointed out that his straightforward objective was to help create conditions in which future Ponzi schemes can be avoided. This would include pointing out blatant misrepresention of the facts which Bloomberg was indulging in and which has gained wide credence in the US.

@Michael Hennigan
Excellent article.

Innate conservatism, that’s us. In North Kerry the bogs are deep so they use the colloquialism “stuck in the bog up to their necks”. In West Cork the scraw bog is only a few inches deep which might explain how you escaped being afflicted with the normal Irish mindset.

Heise = Scheisse. The LAST Thing Europe needs is tigher monetary policy. Well, maybe second last behind an invasion of rabid radioactive dragons with halitosis. If he thinks this is ultra-loose….
Now over to Maultiersprechen auf Dresden for an explanation of why thats wrong…

@ grumpy

Needless to say, the really significant element of the article by Heise, given his position, is the following.

“The need for more investment in transport, telecoms, energy, and education certainly is not only a German issue. Given most European governments’ debt problems, the challenge is to attract more private capital into these areas. Improved regulatory conditions for long-term investments and savings would help. So would expansion of financing instruments for infrastructure investment.

Indeed, why not create European Infrastructure Bonds, backed by revenues generated by the investments or tax income from the countries that emit EIBs? This would not only spur job creation and long-term growth; it would also stem the rise in Europe’s external surplus.”

@ John Gallaher,

Remember when I told you that he is coming back, asking for more of it?

Last night mini-me Michael (with a gigantic h-index of 4, after a dozen years in academia 🙂 was trotted out, to truly mimic his mentor and master, and to finish the hatchet job.

After all, the Irish bubble, it was all teamwork, text-book style, like “Pentagon Wars – Bradley Fighting Vehicle Evolution”

But why care about more detailed knowledge that a Dresdner Bank doesn’t reside in Dresden anymore since like 70 years? How would such detail obsession fit with a “lite touch”?

Martin Wolf on the topic of this thread.

Luckily, the prospects for his proposal are exactly zero. The only thing worse IMHO to banks having the right to create money would be to give the state i.e. politicians the right to do so. The other aspect is the impracticality of the idea. The business of assessing what constitutes a “good” investment i.e. one that will, at least, repay the capital loaned, cannot be centralised. This has already been attempted.

oh Dear Francis
look here : thats what I was trying to portray you as. I forgot that much vaunted teutonic humourlesness
Maultiersprechen : concatenation of (google translation of ) talking mule.
Memo to self : never sarcasticate a german
BTW francis – youv convinced me , you are german. I apologise for thinking otherwise of you
I shall let Dr Dowling do his own talking. He is quite able to do same. Anyone who thinks otherwise has not met Michael.

Hi francis and thanks,just finished visiting an exhibition “Magic Color Flair”,the world of Mary Blair.Mary visited Ireland and proposed a short animation picture to Disney where she worked titled “The Little People”.
In Ireland currently despite only representing 2% of outstanding loans subprime accounts for half of all forced repossessions,apologists and paid mouthpieces have a lot to answer for.I worked for many years,before cashing out,in the commercial RE space as a owner/borrower and knew most the senior subprime players in the US.GE was very active in Ireland most of the companies to protect their reputations distanced themselves by using catchy names.
In NY RE circles there is an old saying it’s called getting “money whipped” what it means is basically don’t tangle or threaten or sue someone much richer than you,as they will simply money whip you by deploying vastly superior resources at their disposal.
I don’t work for JP Morgan but I do bank with their private bank.
Very little research is available or historic documents regarding the mindset and thinking behind subprime in Ireland.In my opinion that sponsored research should be in the public domain I intend to do my best make that happen.
Reached out to a few sources in the UK/Irl so far no luck but will put a few people on it Monday.Brian can save himself and trinity a lot of bother by simply posting it.The client will have no issues.
Going take a break for a while francis,one the “kids” in the office wants set up a site called “Ireland’s Subprime S**m” naming and shaming those involved,I will think about it over the weekend.


I certainly do not have to be popular with you and Brian.

And what Philip and Stephen would not tell you into your face, I can.

I learned of you just yesterday, when you tried to kick somebody, you thought is down. We will see.

Then I looked you up, and got some laugh out of it. Some cheap attention seaking stuff, like biorythm, weather, in 3rd tier journals.

I spar the bitching on this “graphene breakthrough”


Leave me out of your circle jerk with John Gallagher. Cheers.

Oh now Michael…don’t get upset at your professional reputation being traduced by an.anonymous poster….:)


it would be so easy for you both to trott out your academic insight achievements, powerful papers,

just one important thing you did in your life, you are proud of, and can present.

Where is it?

one of the five papers Draghi cited last fall,

was philip lane,

quality, style, and timely

Why wont the man presiding over the greatest failure of central banking in the modern world draw.inspiration from ME…


I’m not sure Philip Lane would be as proud to have you as his advocate as I think you think he is

Imagine if Francis finds out about the present Mrs MD and me….his head would explode..

Ah no, he seems like the serious sort who wouldn’t be prone to self-important frivolities such as head explosions.

The IT property section has its mojo back. 20 pages is fluirseach. A search on for the frequency of the word” redbrick ” would be interesting.
Is property the only way to generate economic momentum these days?

@John Foody
That Wolf article is very interesting. “Only about 10% of UK bank lending has financed investment other than commercial property”. Very Zeitgeistig.


That jumped out at me also. Of course Commercial property development employs people, but 90%!! It reminded me of the often used excuse here for lack of lending, ‘all out guys only know property’. It does seem like an absurdity to have the creation of money linked to the whims of bankers. Particularly considering so many of them appear to be sociopaths.

Just a couple of Mick’s doing the usual carry on.
Adult supervision required.

I explicitely like the way it looks now. thank you.

Yesterday evening I actually wanted to contribute something intelligent (IMHO) and relevant to the thread topic, central bank staff, and in relation to DOCMs BoE link.

I will bring it tomorrow afternoon, and think this might not be such a bad idea in general.

Starting with DOCM’s openEurope link, I wonder whether other folks might tell that “the end of unlimited ELA” “nearly just slipping through at the BoE” story a little different.

A table of central banking staff, population and the ratio for various countries of relevance / comparison

Country ratio People (Mio) Central Bankers
Cyprus 359 0.924 332
Denmark 97 5.56 540
Deutschland 127 81.1 10288
England 32 63.4 2038
Finnland 92 5.3 490
France 182 65.9 12000
Greece 250 10.8 2700
Irland 313 4.8 1500
Italy 116 61.4 7100
Luxembourg 420 0.514 216
ECB 10 320 3300
USA 54 316 17015

In former times I would have asked, why we can’t cut down some more on our headcount and the expenses for it, just look at the UK. Now, does the selection of Canadian Mark Carney mean, they just took the better man, or that they felt that none of the few homegrown is filling the shoes of the former mighty BoE?

Now I feel good about that we have for every nook and cranny a go-to guy there, people working on scenarios, obtaining and analyzing information far beyond reporting requirements, every political stream has somebody scrutinizing all treaty and law texts, and a critical mass for in-depth discussion. And, quite frankly, I want to have this for my own country and not just at the ECB.

Most of the numbers are from my otoe union link above, except for some I had looked up before more recent numbers on the respective web pages (the ECB is hiring 1000, just in case somebody needs a job : – ), on which I also found for Cyprus “Details and application forms concerning staff vacancies are only available in Greek.” At a time where every major meeting in larger German companies is held in English, because they have many non-German employees.

Cyprus is a little Island, separated in a Greek speaking part of about 900 thousand people and an eastern part with about 200 k people under Turkish administration since 1974. 2 larger UK navy bases, who until about 1960, let’s say administrated the Island. The first local university was something like this also since that time.

They pumped their Cyprus banks with unlimited ELA, got entangled in the Greek shenanigans, some over confident Bank manager pressuring the local politicians, including a communist president, to force the central bank to go lite touch, the central bank president, with at least a MIT PhD now back there. They got into the Euro just in 2008, after some Greek interventions on their behalf. My secret service BND pretty openly says, that a significant part of their GDP was money laundering for Russian folks.

Just a year ago, when the ECB Governing council got finally serious about fixing up their banks and huge outstanding ELA, after a new Cyprus president was elected for a few weeks, they were apparently surprised, that the whole rest of the Euro would not even start to discuss their idea of “we just don’t pay”. Only the Luxembourg guy abstained, reportedly a little pale in the face, considering his own multiples of bank balance sheets to GDP, etc.

After all the others told them to either come clean, or else, to be cut off Target 2 just for starters, it took them over a week, to realize that they are alone with their pirate way of thinking.

Their central bank guys, politicians, etc. were apparently living in their own little isolated island world, at the fringe of Europe, with very little exchange with a more normal world like France, Germany, US. Getting along with their Cyprus kin trumped international views of acceptable behavior.

Since now pretty much everybody with a basic command of English can emigrate to plenty of other countries, the advantage for Ireland is actually that you can get people from the outside come in, and avoid isolated group think.

When this financial crisis developed, I noticed, that in my Germany pretty much everything works as expected (by me : – ), but certainly not in many other countries, and I wondered, do we organize things better or did we just get lucky this time?

I started visiting quite a number of economics blogs around the world, in order to gather many different viewpoints and opinions, beyond my German views and models.

Most of the blogs degenerated over time.

Folks like Brad de Long routinely censored polite contributions like mentioning a Gavyn Davies FT article, criticizing (I say: completely destroyed) Olivier Blanchard’s Multiple calculation, when it didn’t fit their particular agenda.

On economistsview a small number of activists did bite off everybody who doesn’t fit their small window of political correctness.
Most folks on the conservative side (Taylor, Mankiv) do not accept any comments and speak just ex cathedra.

In Germany kantoos economics closed (to the public) after being terrorized by ideologues of both extremes. Why is there nothing comparable to this blog in a much larger Germany?

Etc, etc. More can be said about many others. At some point people like me just don’t go there anymore.

Your irisheconomy here is actually a pretty precious thing, where people with very different viewpoints exchange in a mostly civil and intelligent way. I believe that most people here are not fully aware how rare that is.

Comments are closed.