History shows solutions exist to the current banking crisis : try the Swedish one. It can be summed-up in one concept : guarantee the assets, punish the shareholders. The massive rescue of the Swedish economy in the 90′s was recounted last week in a Wall Street Journal article :
” In December 1992, Sweden guaranteed its entire banking system, insuring creditors and depositors — but not shareholders — of 114 banks against losses. Sweden imposed strict terms. To shore up confidence among creditors, the new authority required banks to disclose expected losses immediately, and it quickly assigned values to other assets, rather than let banks postpone reporting losses and take gradual write-downs. Banks receiving capital injections or loans surrendered shares to the government to avoid the possibility of rewarding shareholders, and to give Swedish taxpayers a chance to profit when the market improved”.
We are not here yet. The international financial system is still in the privatized-profit-socialized-losses mood. In the meantime, questions increasingly focus everywhere on the excesses of the system. In this interesting cover story “How to fix Wall Street”, Fortune magazine is pointing fingers at the flaws of the financial system. Compensation mechanisms, for example, have gone out of control : in 2007, employees of the Wall Street Big Five (Bear Stearns, Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch and Morgan Stanley) have captured 60% of the firms revenues, versus 32% for JP Morgan and 28% for bank of America, both run more conservatively. In the meantime, ratio of assets to equity was 41:1 in 2007 vs. 30:1 in 2002, an interesting evolution knowing that, if a portfolio is leveraged 33:1, it takes a mere drop of 3% to wipe out its entire capital, as Fortune recalls. Did we reach an inflexion point ? Not so sure. Maybe the situation has not gotten ugly enough yet. But everyone is working on it.