Like all these long low squat houses, it had been built not for but against. They were built against the forest, against the sea, against the elements, against the world. They had roof-beams and walls and doors and hatred

January 29, 2013 § Leave a comment

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In a time span of less than a week, more than 90% of Iceland’s banking system, on the scale of assets, went down the drain.

Most of the rest followed in the coming months but was, contrary to the folklore outside Iceland, bailed out by the Government. SpKef and Byr, two savings banks, are cases in point. There, the Icelandic bankers’ gluttony was not lesser than in the case of the big banks. Nevertheless, the government gave them some cash, casting a terrible shadow on Iceland’s image as a country which does not bail out banks. Good thing nobody noticed. SpKef was later assimilated into New Landsbanki (a state owned bank) but Byr ended up in Islandsbanki (New Glitnir).

It is very important to realise one thing: the governments, both the “conservative” one prior, during and after the October crash, and the “left wing” one, which took over after the 2009 general elections, did everything they could – absolutely everything – to try and keep the banks afloat. And of course, the banks themselves tried what they could to save their faces by buying up their own stocks and thereby maintain their price (which, in their case, was quite close to being a market abuse). The savings banks that went off the cliff after the Big Three had closed down their shops were small enough to be rescued by the government but the Big Three in October 2008 were simply too large to be saved. That did not stop the government from trying everything it could do to throw out the safety net, including practically emptying the foreign reserves of the Central Bank when it tried to keep Glitnir afloat.

It was Iceland’s “fool’s luck” not to be able to rescue the banks in October 2008. I don’t want to even consider the cost of rescuing the banks today, it would have been horrible! The 31%-of-GDP public deficit in Ireland in 2011 would have been a laughing stock compared to the gargantuan cost the Icelandic public coffers would have suffered if the banks had been saved.

The jails in Iceland are not full of “banksters”
So the first lore on Iceland – that it intentionally let the banks to bankrupt – is not according to reality. The reality is that the government tried to save them but could not. The one about all the jailed banksters is, well, not entirely true either.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Katrin Backes

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I must say, Amy, pretending to have intercourse with you has given me a great deal of satisfaction

December 12, 2012 § Leave a comment

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I’ll let you in on a secret: before this crisis, when I thought about the budget deficit I was like everyone else in that I paid no attention to how the government budget interacted with the private and trade sector balances. This is a big error. If you do that, you treat the government budget deficit in isolation, when the reality is that the government is an integral part of an open economy with households and businesses that trade domestically and abroad. When the government balance changes, the balances for those businesses and households change too. If you are talking about deficits then, you need to know how changes in the government balance affect the rest of the economy.

Here’s the thing: when we exchange goods and services with each other, from an accounting perspective, it’s a wash; if you buy my goods, I get money and you get goods of equivalent value. If you pay for those goods with an I.O.U., with a debt, your liability, your deficit in the year we made the transaction, is exactly equal to the asset on my balance sheet and my surplus for the year. I mean this is basic accounting, folks. There’s no hocus pocus. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s debt is someone else’s asset. Any person’s, any household’s, any business’s, any group’s, any government’s deficit is someone else’s surplus. Again, it’s basic accounting.

Think of it like exchange traded options and the profit and losses on the exchange. People buy and sell oil futures or soybean futures. At the end of the option period, they either have a loss or a profit and that period’s deficit or surplus is exactly offset by the deficit or surplus of the counterparties. When you sum up these deficits and surpluses they net to zero. Again, no hocus pocus. That’s how accounting works.

The same is true for national accounts. At the end of any accounting period, then, the sum of the sectoral financial balances must net to zero. The government balance – the private balance – capital account balance = 0. The government balance = the private balance + the capital account balance. See my post Economics 101 on government budget deficits for the full write-up. I credit British economist Wynne Godley for making this identity relevant to macro economics.

What does all this mean then? Put simply, the financial sector balances framework means that when the government sector runs a deficit, the non-government sector runs a surplus of equivalent size. So, to move any sector balance in an open economy, you need to move the other two balances exactly opposite in equivalent measure. To reduce the government deficit in any period, the private balance and the capital balance must increase by the exact same amount in that period.

Thinking about government deficits this way opens a whole new understanding of what cutting deficits means for the economy. What it should mean to you is that deficits are the effect and not the cause. Budget deficits are the result of the ex-post accounting identity between the sectoral balances and should not be a primary goal of public policy.  read more

PHOTOGRAPH: Francesca Woodman

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