By Simon Johnson
We live in an age of unprecedented bailouts. The Greek package of support from the eurozone this weekend marks a high tide for the principle that complete, unconditional, and fundamentally dangerous protection must be extended to creditors whenever something “big” gets into trouble.
The Greek bailout appears on the scene just as the US Treasury is busy attempting to trumpet the success of TARP – and, by implication, the idea that massive banks should be saved through capital injections and other emergency measures. Officials come close to echoing what the Lex column of the Financial Times already argued, with some arrogance, in fall 2009: the financial crisis wasn’t so bad – no depression resulted and bonuses stayed high, so why do we need to change anything at all?
But think more closely about the Greek situation and draw some comparisons with what we continue to learn about how Lehman Brothers operated (e.g., in today’s New York Times).
The sharp decline in market confidence last week – marked by the jump in Greek yields – scared the main European banks, and also showed there could be a real run on Greek banks; other Europeans are trying to stop it all from getting out of hand. But there is no new program that would bring order to Greece’s troubled public finances.
It’s money for nothing – with no change in the incentive and belief system that brought Greece to this point, very much like the way big banks were saved in the US last year.
If anything, incentives are worse after these bailouts – Greece and other weaker European countries on the one hand, and big US banks on the other hand, know now for sure that in their respective contexts they are too big to fail.
This is “moral hazard” – put simply, it is clear a country/big bank can get a package of support if needed, and this gives less incentive to be careful. Fiscal management for countries will not improve; and risk management for banks will remain prone to weakening when asset prices rise.
If a country hits a problem, the incentive is to wait and see if things get better – perhaps the world economy will improve and Greece can grow out of its difficulties. If such delay means that the problems actually worsen, Greece can just ask Germany for a bigger bailout.
Similarly, if a too-big-to-fail bank hits trouble, the incentive is to hide problems, hoping that financial conditions will improve. Essentially the management finds ways to “prop up” the bank; on modern Wall Street this is done with undisclosed accounting manipulation (in some other countries, it is done with cash). If this means the ultimate collapse is that much more damaging, it’s not the bank executives’ problem any way – their downside is limited, if it exists at all.
The Greeks will now:
- Lobby for a large multi-year program from the IMF. They’ll want a path for fiscal policy that is easy in the first year and then gets tougher.
- When they reach the tough stage, can’t deliver on the budget, and are about to default, the Greek government will call for another rapid agreement under pressure – with future promises of reform. The eurozone will again accept because it feels the spillovers otherwise would be too negative.
- The Greek hope is that the global economy recovers enough to get out, but more realistically, they will start revealing a set of negative “surprises” that mean they miss targets. If the surprises add to the feeling of crisis and further potential bad consequences, that just helps to get a bailout.
- The Greek authorities will add a ground game against the European Central Bank, saying things like: “the ECB is too tight, so we need more funds”. We’ll see how that divides the eurozone.
In their space, big US banks will continue to load up on risk as the cycle turns – while hiding that fact. Serious problems will never be revealed in good time – and the authorities will again have good reason (from their perspective) to agree to the hiding of issues until they get out of control, just as the Federal Reserve did for Lehman Brothers. Moral hazard not only ruins incentives, it also massively distorts the available and disclosed information.
As for Mr. Geithner, head of the New York Fed in 2008 and Secretary of the Treasury in 2009: Those who cannot remember the bailout are condemned to repeat it.