Pragmatic Capitalism

Capital for Living a More Practical Life


It seems the U.S. government had a pretty good blueprint for the ensuing credit crisis and decided not to implement it.  Who ever went wrong with Swedish models?

In the late 80’s and early 90’s Sweden was suffering from a massive debt bubble that was the result of deregulation and monetary expansion (sound familiar?).  It resulted in inflated stock and real estate prices, low savings and high government and private debt.  Below are excerpts from the Riksbanks approach to the crisis:

Looking back, one can see that in the course of the crisis the seven largest banks, with 90 per cent of the market, all suffered heavy losses. In these years their aggregate loan losses amounted to the equivalent of 12 per cent of Sweden?s annual GDP. The stock of non-performing loans was much larger than the banking sector?s total equity capital and five of the seven largest banks were obliged to obtain capital contributions from either the State or their owners. It was thus truly a matter of a systemic crisis.

In connection with a serious financial crisis it is important first and foremost to maintain the banking system?s liquidity. It is a matter of preventing large segments of the banking system from failing on account of acute financing problems.

In September 1992 the Government and the Opposition jointly announced a general guarantee for the whole of the banking system. The Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, formally approved the guarantee that December. This broad political consensus was I believe of vital importance and made the prompt handling of the financial crisis possible.

The bank guarantee provided protection from losses for all creditors except shareholders. The Government?s mandate from Parliament was not restricted to a specific sum and its hands were also very free in other respects. This necessitated close cooperation with the political opposition in the actual management of the banking problems. The decision was of course troublesome and far-reaching. Besides involving difficult considerations to do, for example, with the cost to the public sector, it raised such questions as the risk of moral hazard.

The political system concluded that in the event of widespread failures in the banking system, the national economy would suffer major repercussions. The direct outlays in connection with the capital injection into the banking sector added up to just over 4 per cent of GDP. However, it is now calculated that most of this can be recovered.

One way of limiting moral hazard problems was to engage in tough negotiations with the banks that needed support and to enforce the principle that losses were to be covered in the first place with the capital provided by shareholders.

A separate authority was set up to administer the bank guarantee and manage the banks that landed in a crisis and faced problems with solvency, though the crucial decisions about the provision of support were ultimately a matter for the Government. A clear separation of roles was achieved between the political level and the authorities, as well as between different authorities. Naturally this did not preclude very close cooperation between the Ministry of Finance, the Bank Support Authority, the Financial Supervisory Authority and the Riksbank.

It was up to the Riksbank to supply liquidity on a relatively large scale at normal interest and repayment terms but not to solve problems of bank solvency. Collateral was not required for the loans to banks, neither intraday nor overnight. The banking system was free to obtain unlimited liquidity by drawing on its accounts with the central bank. The bank guarantee meant that the solvency of the Riksbank was not at risk. In order to offset the loss of foreign credit lines to Swedish banks, during the height of the crisis the Riksbank also lent large amounts in foreign currency.

Banks applying for support had their assets valued by the Bank Support Authority, using uniform criteria. The banks were then divided into categories, depending on whether they were judged to have only temporary problems as opposed to no prospect of becoming viable. Knowledge of the appropriate procedures was built up by degrees, not least with the assistance of people with experience of banking problems in other countries.

The Swedish Bank Support Authority had to choose between two alternative strategies. The first method involves deferring the reporting of losses for as long as is legally possible and using the bank?s current income for a gradual writedown of the loss making assets. One advantage of this method is that it helps to avoid the bank being forced to massive sales of assets at prices below long run market values. A serious disadvantage is that the method presupposes that the bank problems can be resolved relatively quickly; otherwise the difficulties compound, leading to much greater problems when they ultimately materialise. The handling of problems among savings and loan institution in the United States in the 1980s is a case in point.

With the other method, an open account of all expected losses and write-downs is presented at an early stage. This clarifies the extent of the problems and the support that is required. Provided the authorities and the banks make it credible that no additional problems have been concealed, this procedure also promotes confidence. It entails a risk of creating an exaggerated perception of the magnitude of the problems, for instance if real estate that has been taken over at unduly cautiously estimated values in a market that is temporarily depressed. This can lead, for instance, to borrowers in temporary difficulties being forced to accept harsher terms, which in turn can result in payments being suspended.  The Swedish authorities opted for the second option.

Sweden was dealing with an incredibly similar issue to the U.S. credit crisis, albeit on a much smaller scale.  Their approach was publicly accepted, transparent and swiftly implemented.  In a nutshell, they guaranteed deposits to avoid runs, forced write-downs, performed triage on important banks, liquidated bad banks, and reduced moral hazard as much as possible.  GDP was growing at 6% within just a few years and their stock market had rebounded rapidly after a 2 year 50% drop.

This all begs the question: what’s wrong with a Swedish model?

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