Eleven Financial Lessons from Iceland's Collapse

Summary (via Voxeu)

How to stop a repeat of Iceland’s crisis – both in the country and elsewhere? This column provides eleven lessons covering asymmetric information, moral hazard, better warning systems and improved regulation, preventing banks becoming “too big to fail” and restricting asset bubbles, holding creators of externalities to account, and providing safeguards on political interference.

Excerpt (Via Voxeu)

Lesson 1. We need effective legal protection against predatory lending just as we have long had laws against quack doctors. The problem is asymmetric information. Doctors and bankers typically know more about complicated medical procedures and complex financial instruments than their patients and clients. The asymmetry creates a need for legal protection through judicious licensing and other means against financial (as well as medical) malpractice to protect the weak against the strong.

Lesson 2. We should not allow rating agencies to be paid by the banks they have been set up to assess. The present arrangement creates an obvious and fundamental conflict of interest, and needs to be revised. Likewise, banks should not be allowed to hire employees of regulatory agencies, thereby signalling that by looking the other way, remaining regulators may also expect to receive lucrative job offers from banks.

Lesson 3. We need more effective regulation of banks and other financial institutions; presently, this is work in progress in Europe and the US (see Volcker 2010).

Lesson 4. We need to read the warning signals. We need to know how to count the cranes to appreciate the danger of a construction and real estate bubble (Aliber’s rule). We need to make sure that we do not allow gross foreign reserves held by the Central Bank to fall below the short-term foreign liabilities of the banking system (the Giudotti-Greenspan rule). We need to be on guard against the scourge of persistent overvaluation sustained by capital inflows because, sooner or later, an overvalued currency will fall. Also, income distribution matters. A rapid increase in inequality – as in Iceland 1993-2007 and in the US in the 1920s as well as more recently – should alert financial regulators to danger ahead.

Lesson 5. We should not allow commercial banks to outgrow the government and Central Bank’s ability to stand behind them as lender – or borrower – of last resort. In principle, this can be done through judicious regulation, including capital and reserve requirements, taxes and fees, stress tests, and restrictions on cross-ownership and other forms of collusion.

Lesson 6. Central banks should not accept rapid credit growth subject to keeping inflation low – as did the Federal Reserve under Alan Greenspan and the Central Bank of Iceland. They must take a range of actions to restrain other manifestations of latent inflation, especially asset bubbles and large deficits in the current account of the balance of payments. Put differently, they must distinguish between “good” (well-based, sustainable) growth and “bad” (asset-bubble-plus-debt-financed) growth.

Lesson 7. Commercial banks should not be authorised to operate branches abroad rather than subsidiaries if this entails the exposure of domestic deposit insurance schemes to foreign obligations. This is what happened in Iceland. Without warning, Iceland’s taxpayers suddenly found themselves held responsible for the moneys kept in the IceSave accounts of Landsbanki by 400,000 British and Dutch depositors. Had these accounts been hosted by subsidiaries of Landsbanki rather than by branches, they would have been covered by local deposit insurance in Britain and the Netherlands.

Lesson 8. We need strong firewalls separating politics from banking because politics and banking are not a good mix. The experience of Iceland’s dysfunctional state banks before the privatisation bears witness. This is why their belated privatisation was necessary. Corrupt privatisation does not condemn privatisation, it condemns corruption.

Lesson 9. When things go wrong, there is a need to hold those responsible accountable by law, or at least try to uncover the truth and thus foster reconciliation and rebuild trust. There is a case for viewing finance the same way as civil aviation: there needs to be a credible mechanism in place to secure full disclosure after every crash. If history is not correctly recorded without prevarication, it is likely to repeat itself.

Lesson 10. When banks collapse and assets are wiped out, the government has a responsibility to protect jobs and incomes, sometimes by a massive monetary or fiscal stimulus. This may require policymakers to think outside the box and put conventional ideas about monetary restraint and fiscal prudence temporarily on ice. A financial crisis typically wipes out only a small fraction of national wealth. Physical capital (typically three or four times GDP) and human capital (typically five or six times physical capital) dwarf financial capital (typically less than GDP). So, the financial capital wiped out in a crisis typically constitutes only one fifteenth or one twenty-fifth of total national wealth, or less. The economic system can withstand the removal of the top layer unless the financial ruin seriously weakens the fundamentals.

Lesson 11. Let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Since the collapse of communism, a mixed market economy has been the only game in town. To many, the current financial crisis has dealt a severe blow to the prestige of free markets and liberalism, with banks – and even General Motors – having to be propped up temporarily by governments, even nationalised. Even so, it remains true that banking and politics are not a good mix. But private banks clearly need proper regulation because of their ability to inflict severe damage on innocent bystanders.

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About Miguel Barbosa

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14. February 2010 by Miguel Barbosa
Categories: Curated Readings, Finance & Investing | Leave a comment

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