European Union

The too big to fail problem has been central to the degeneration and corruption of the financial system in the north Atlantic region over the past two decades. The ‘too large to fail’ category is sometimes extended to become the ‘too big to fail’, ‘too interconnected to fail’, ‘too complex to fail’ and ‘too international’ to fail problem, but the real issue is size.  The real issue is size.  Even if a financial business is highly interconnected, that is, if its total exposure to the rest of the world and the exposure of the rest of the world to the financial entity are complex and far-reaching, it can still be allowed to fail if the total amounts involved are small.  A complex but small business is no threat to systemic stability; neither is a highly international but small business.  Size is the core of the problem; the other dimensions (interconnectedness, complexity and international linkages) only matter (and indeed worsen the instability problem) if the institution in question is big.  So how do we prevent banks and other financial businesses from becoming too large to fail?

For the past week, I have put the Green Shootometer in the garden and have taken regular readings.  The upshot is: the glass is definitely half empty – or half full.  Let me explain.

US budgetary prospects are dire, disastrous even. Without a major permanent fiscal tightening, starting as soon as cyclical considerations permit, and preferably sooner, the country is headed straight for a build up of public debt that will either have to be inflated away or that will be ‘resolved’ through sovereign default.

Old papers never die, they just get recycled.  The Den Uyl lecture I gave in Amsterdam on 15 December 2008 has been under continuous redevelopment since then.  Its latest outing was as background paper for a lecture I gave at the 25th anniversary Workshop ” The Global Financial Crisis: Lessons and Outlook”, of the Advanced Studies Program of the IFW, Kiel, Germany, on May 8/9, 2009. The whole current enchilada can be found here.  For those with lives, I reproduce below the Introduction, Section 1, the Conclusion and the 16 recommendations in between.


“Never waste a crisis. It can be turned to joyful transformation”. This statement is attributed to Rahm Emanuel, US President Barack Obama’s White House Chief of Staff.  Other versions are in circulation also, including “Never waste a good crisis”, attributed to US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton.  The statement actually goes back at least to that fount of cynical wisdom, fifteenth century Florentine writer and statesman Niccolo Machiavelli “Never waste the opportunities offered by a good crisis.” Crises offer unrivalled opportunities for accelerated learning.

I believe that the current crisis teaches us two key lessons.  The first concerns the role of the state in the financial intermediation process and in the maintenance of financial stability.  The second concerns the role of private and public sector incentives in the design of regulation.  Unless these lessons are learnt, not only will the current crisis last longer than necessary, but the next big crisis, following the current spectacular example of market failure, will be a crisis of state ‘overreach’ and of government failure.  Central planning failed and collapsed spectacularly in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union.  The next socio-economic system to fail, after the Thatcher-Reagan model of self-regulating market capitalism with finance in the driver’s seat – finance as the master of the real economy rather than its servant – may well be a stultifying form of state capitalism, with initiative-numbing over-regulation and overambitious social engineering.

‘Enough capital for what?’ should be the question prompted by the title of this post. The short answer, amplified below, is “enough capital to be able to engage in effective monetary policy, liquidity policy and credit-enhancing policy (including quantitative easing or QE), without endangering its price stability mandate.”

The President of the European Central Bank, Jean-Claude Trichet, did not say that the recession was bottoming out. He said that it had reached an ‘inflection point’: “As far as growth is concerned, we’re around the inflection point in the cycle, that’s the sentiment,…” . Unlike the gormless arts students, limp-minded lawyers and woolly social scientists that dominate British and American economic policy making, President Trichet actually knows and understands mathematics. An inflection point is not a turning point.

The problem

I agree with Greg Mankiw[1] that it is time for central banks to stop pretending that zero is the floor for nominal interest rates.  There is no theoretical or practical reason for not having the Federal Funds target rate and market rates at, say, minus five percent, if that is what your Taylor rule, or whatever heuristic guides your official policy rate, suggests.

Economics as a science and economic reality have never had problems with negative real (inflation-adjusted) interest rates.  So what is the problem with nominal rates?  In a word, it’s currency.

The modern independent central bank was born in New Zealand in 1989. It had a short life.  The onset of the financial crisis of the north Atlantic region in August 2007 signalled the beginning of the end.  Today, only the ECB still has a significant degree of operational independence left, and it will have to give that up if it is to be effective in the current phase of the crisis. In other words, the ECB is the last central bank to understand that, if it is to play a significant financial stability role, it cannot retain the degree of operational independence it was granted in the Treaty over monetary policy in the pursuit of price stability.

Google is to privacy and respect for intellectual property rights what the Taliban are to women’s rights and civil liberties: a daunting threat that must be fought relentlessly by all those who value privacy and the right to exercise, within the limits of the law, control over the uses made by others of their intellectual property.  The internet search engine company should be regulated rigorously, defanged and if necessary, broken up or put out of business.  It would not be missed.

In a nutshell, Google promotes copyright theft and voyeurism and lays the foundations for corporate or even official Big Brotherism.

(1) The autodafé of the unsecured creditors is coming to a US bank near you

A binding budget constraint sure concentrates the mind, even for the US Treasury. There is just one way to make the US government’s policy towards the banks work.  That is for the Congress to vote another $1.5 trillion worth of additional TARP money for the banks – $1 trillion to buy the remaining toxic assets off their balance sheets, and $0.5 trillion worth of additional capital.   The likelihood of the US Congress voting even a nickel in additional financial support for the banks is zero.

There is no real money left in the original $700 bn TARP facility – somewhere between $ 100 bn and 150 bn – to do more than stabilise a couple of pawn shops.  The Treasury has been playing for time by raiding the resources of the FDIC (which, apart from the meagre insurance premiums it collects, has no resources other than what the Treasury grants it) and of the Fed.  The Fed has taken an open position in private credit risk to the tune of many hundreds of billions of dollars.  Before this crisis is over, its exposure to private sector default risk could be counted in trillions of dollars.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website