Global Policy Forum

Bailouts + Downgrades = Austerity and Pain

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In this blogpost, journalist and former managing director at Goldman Sachs, Nomi Prins, explains why the enormous bailouts of private banks by US and European governments have further undermined their economies rather than "saved" them. Prins also criticizes rating agencies for threatening governments with credit downgrades if they would not implement austerity measures, only to proceed with downgrades shortly after because their economies did not "respond favorably." According to Prins, the current system will remain at grave risk for the foreseeable future, with governments taking on ever more expensive loans to keep banks afloat at the expense of their citizens.

By Nomi Prins

January 17, 2012

The markets (read: traders with big books at mega financial firms and hedge funds) weren’t particularly shocked by last week’s wave of heavily pre-broadcast S&P sovereign debt downgrades. For months, the question wasn’t ‘if’, but ‘when.’ True to form, just as with the US downgrade, S&P’s reasons skated the surface of prevailing wisdom – governments have too much debt, and not enough income. That’s only a fraction of the story.

Nowadays, when any sovereign (including the US) gets downgraded by a rating agency, it's not just because its debt repayment ability is questionable (the publicized logic of rating agencies), but because it incurred more expensive debt to float its banking system. It chose to subsidize banks over people.

The S&P likes moving on Friday nights. It was on a Friday night that it downgraded US debt to AA+ from AAA. On Friday night, January 13, 2012,  it downgraded France and Austria from AAA to AA+, and 7 other European countries, too; Cyprus, Italy, Portugal, and Spain by two notches; Malta, Slovakia, and Slovenia, by one notch. Portugal, Cyprus, Ireland and Greece are at junk status. Germany’s AAA rating is intact.

Nowhere in S&P’s statement about “global economic and financial crisis”, did it clarify that sovereigns were hit due to backing their largest national banks (and international, US ones) which engaged in half a decade of leveraged speculation. But here’s how it worked:

1) Big banks funneled speculative capital, and their own, into local areas, using real estate and other collateral as fodder for securitized deals with derivative touches. 2) They lost money on these bets, and on the borrowing incurred to leverage them. 3) The losses ate their capital. 4) The capital markets soured against them in mutual bank distrust so they couldn’t raise more money to cover their bets as before. 5) So, their borrowing costs rose which made it more difficult for them to back their bets or purchase their own government’s debt. 6) This decreased demand for government debt, which drove up the cost of that debt, which transformed into additional country expenses. 7) Countries had to turn to bailouts to keep banks happy and plush with enough capital. 8) In return for bailouts and cheap lending, governments sacrificed citizens. 9) As citizens lost jobs and countries lost assets to subsidize the international speculation wave, their economies weakened further. 10) S&P (and every political leader) downplayed this chain of events.

The United States

On Aug. 5, 2011, S&P downgraded US government debt to 'AA+'. This was four days after Congress voted to raise the US debt cap - to prevent a downgrade - proceeded by political squabbling and the US Treasury and Fed begging Congress to raise the debt cap. S&P, beacon of stamp-any-toxic-asset-AAA, accountability, claimed, “American policymaking and political institutions have weakened at a time of ongoing fiscal and economic challenges.” In other words, too much debt, too little income.

According to the US Treasury, the main reason for the debt increase was a stalling economy –  lack of enough incoming tax receipts to pay US expenses, (which include interest payments on growing debt.) That’s not true. Tax receipts dropped $400 billion to $2.1 trillion in 2009 vs. 2008. Expenditures jumped to $3.5 trillion in 2009 from $3 trillion in 2008. Treasury debt ballooned by nearly $4 trillion from 2008 through 2010.

Where’s the money? About $1.6 trillion lies on the Fed’s books as excess reserves which banks  - dealers for sovereign debt - put there. Nearly a trillion dollars went to backing Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac - which enabled banks to artificially overvalue related securities, and extra interest payments. There was $700 billion in TARP, which though mostly repaid, never manifested into debt reduction, and hundreds of billions of dollars of asset guarantees underlying big bank mergers. So, 75% of the extra debt went to saving banks. S&P didn’t mention this. The policy repeated across the Atlantic.


The Irish government’s pain started when it guaranteed the bonds of Anglo-Irish bank in September 2008. By May, 2010, Central Bank head, Patrick Honohan, assured the world that he’d have ‘two big banks, fixed by the end of the year.’ Upon that endorsement, the government backed bondholders on the banks’ behalf. The economy deteriorated.

Six months later, nobody would lend to Irish banks. Irish austerity promises didn’t change the fact that Irish banks weren’t big enough to contain their waste. By November, 2010, banks paid for $60 billion Euro of maturing bonds with emergency ECB loans, and the ECB became the backbone for the Irish bank guarantee scheme, whose participants included Ireland’s big financial firms: Irish Life & Permanent p.l.c., Bank of Ireland, Allied Irish Bank p.l.c., Anglo Irish Bank Corporation Limited, and Irish Nationwide Building Society. Irish Government Debt doubled from 65.3 billion Euro to 118 billion Euro since 2009.

The ECB deemed the bailout a success. Yet, by the summer of 2011, Ireland was downgraded to a notch above junk and households (and foreigners) accelerated extracting money from Irish banks, weakening the banks’ funding base further. The Irish government now owes 110 billion Euros to the banks, the National Asset Management Agency (NAMA, aka “bad bank”) the EU, ECB and IMF, with no way to repay it.


According to a recent Business Week article, Spanish banks hold 30 billion Euros ($41 billion) of “unsellable” real estate loans. Just like in the US where smaller banks got hit hardest, small and mid-sized Spanish banks did too. In addition, about 308 billion Euros worth of Spanish loans are ‘troubled.’ Home prices in Spain are off 28% from their April, 2007 peak, with land values in the outskirts of urban areas, down by as much as 75%.

In economic desperation, the public elected conservative party leader, Mariano Rajoy, as Prime Minister in the end of 2011 who promised to lead Spain to economic recovery, by invoking austerity measures in return for backing to help the biggest Spanish banks.

Meanwhile, the top six Spanish banks sit on $33 billion of foreclosed assets having set aside 105 billion Euros in write-downs against bad loans since 2008, with another 60 billion Euros to come. The backdrop is a 23% unemployment rate, triple its 7.9% May, 2009 level. Property transactions continue to decline. Foreclosures keep ramping up. The gap between what banks want to sell foreclosed or troubled property at, and what investors are wiling to pay continues to widen, forcing more small and mid-size banks to buckle under larger than anticipated losses, which in turn squeezes liquidity out of local usage.


According to an SEC report from the National Bank of Greece (NBR) for the year ending 2010 – loans to businesses and households were expected to “remain under considerable pressure…[due to] “downward pressure on household disposable incomes and firms’ profitability from the austerity measures… are likely to impair further demand for loans.” They weren’t kidding. In order for the NCB (or any bank) to reduce its dependency on ECB funding, it has to reduce loans to its own economy.

The ECB agreed to accept worse collateral (with junk ratings), including bank issued bonds with Greek government guarantees (under a May, 2010 rule change for all member countries). The ECB bought Greek (and other) government bonds in the secondary markets, to support their value and thus, their value as loan collateral. As with the Fed’s QE measures, Euro-style – this only perpetuates a fantasy of demand.

After four rounds of austerity measures, nationwide protests, 110 billion Euros in IMF and ECB bailouts to keep bondholders (and banks) happy, escalating interest rates driving borrowing costs higher, a downgrade to junk, and a Prime Minister swap; Greece remains in tatters with more pain to come.

Italy and Portugal

Last summer, S&P warned it would downgrade Portugal if it didn’t play ball with the IMF and EU over a 78 billion Euro bailout. So Portugal towed the austerity line. Its economy deteriorated. S&P downgraded it to junk status.

The IMF and EU declared that Italy too, needed ‘structural reform’, meaning public austerity and privatization.  National assets went up for fire-sale, as they did in Spain and Portugal, to the highest international bidder. Now, the high borrowing costs the government faces as a result of bolstering the banking system, paying bondholders and selling infrastructure, has resulted in more downgrades and dim prospects.

According to the Italian Central Bank, 500 Italian cities are facing losses on derivatives contracts. JPM Chase and Banco IMI are accepting Italian government bonds as collateral, rather than less risky US Treasuries or cash, certain that the ECB will step in to buy, and thus prop up, Italian bonds if needed, as they did in August, 2011.

As Greece showed, using high-cost sovereign debt as collateral leads to more bailouts to ensure big lenders get their money back. JPM Chase, having weathered the US subprime crisis with support from the US Fed, isn’t about to lose on that bet. Meanwhile, several Italian towns, the City of Milan and the Tuscan region, are suing the big American, German, Swiss and French banks over derivative losses and misleading asset purchases, who will likely get bailout money anyway.

Bailout Economics Doesn’t Work

ECB bailout money didn’t (and won’t) go towards helping any European country’s local economy, any more than it went to aiding the mainstream US economy. The ECB and IMF, at the Fed, US Treasury and US administration’s urging, camouflaged the insolvency of European banks, perpetuating losses with bailouts, and forcing cowardly governments to support them, while turning a blind eye to boosting core economies.

Meanwhile, banks with access to the ECB’s ‘window’ are taking the money and immediately putting it back into the ECB as reserves. Overnight deposits at the ECB continue to break records, currently hovering around 500 billion Euro ($640 billion). As in the US, European banks aren’t using that liquidity to help fix local economies, but hoarding it to preserve themselves. The amount on reserve is 98% of the total made available in emergency 3-year loans in late December at 1% interest; banks get 0.25%, which means they are paying 0.75% interest for the loans, far less than the market would charge them.

The die has been cast. Central entities like the Fed, ECB, and IMF perpetuate strategies that further undermine economies, through emergency loan facilities and bailouts, with rating agency downgrades spurring them on. Governments attempt to raise money at harsher terms PLUS repay the bailouts that caused those terms to be higher. Banks hoard cheap money which doesn’t help populations, exacerbating the damaging economic effects. Unfortunately, this won't end any time soon.


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