Der stille Staatsstreich

Simon Johnson, Professor an der MIT Sloan School of Management, Blogger für und Ex-Chefökonom des IWF in 2007 und 2008, schrieb folgenden erstklassigen Aufsatz über seinen Umgang mit Pleitestaaten während der Russland und Asienkrise und wie sehr ihn die aktuelle USA daran erinnert.

Hier ein paar Auszüge aus dem Artikel, der im The Atlantic erschienen ist:

Every crisis is different, of course. Ukraine faced hyperinflation in 1994; Russia desperately needed help when its short-term-debt rollover scheme exploded in the summer of 1998; the Indonesian rupiah plunged in 1997, nearly leveling the corporate economy; that same year, South Korea’s 30-year economic miracle ground to a halt when foreign banks suddenly refused to extend new credit.

But I must tell you, to IMF officials, all of these crises looked depressingly similar. Each country, of course, needed a loan, but more than that, each needed to make big changes so that the loan could really work. Almost always, countries in crisis need to learn to live within their means after a period of excess—exports must be increased, and imports cut—and the goal is to do this without the most horrible of recessions. Naturally, the fund’s economists spend time figuring out the policies—budget, money supply, and the like—that make sense in this context. Yet the economic solution is seldom very hard to work out.

Hmmm, ein Land muss nach einer Zeit des Überschwangs lernen auf einen bezahlbaren Lebensstandard zurückzukehren. An welches Land erinnert uns das?

No, the real concern of the fund’s senior staff, and the biggest obstacle to recovery, is almost invariably the politics of countries in crisis.

Typically, these countries are in a desperate economic situation for one simple reason—the powerful elites within them overreached in good times and took too many risks. Emerging-market governments and their private-sector allies commonly form a tight-knit—and, most of the time, genteel—oligarchy, running the country rather like a profit-seeking company in which they are the controlling shareholders. When a country like Indonesia or South Korea or Russia grows, so do the ambitions of its captains of industry. As masters of their mini-universe, these people make some investments that clearly benefit the broader economy, but they also start making bigger and riskier bets. They reckon—correctly, in most cases—that their political connections will allow them to push onto the government any substantial problems that arise.

Auftragsvergabe im Irak, massive Rüstungsausgaben und die Finanzexperten der Regierung sind kaum noch von denen von Goldman Sachs zu unterscheiden. Dass die wahre Ursache der Krise die Sicherheit der Märkte/Banken/Eliten ist, dass die Regierung ihnen zur Not beispringt, hatte ich hier auch schon mal geschrieben: Lasst sie pleite gehen. Sonst funktioniert Marktwirtschaft nicht.

Es folgt ein Absatz über den Aufbau von Kreditpyramiden, den ich auslassen, weil ich sonst Gefahr laufe den ganzen Top-Artikel zu zitieren. Ist so schon länglich geworden…. :-)

The downward spiral that follows is remarkably steep. Enormous companies teeter on the brink of default, and the local banks that have lent to them collapse. Yesterday’s “public-private partnerships” are relabeled “crony capitalism.” With credit unavailable, economic paralysis ensues, and conditions just get worse and worse. The government is forced to draw down its foreign-currency reserves to pay for imports, service debt, and cover private losses. But these reserves will eventually run out. If the country cannot right itself before that happens, it will default on its sovereign debt and become an economic pariah. The government, in its race to stop the bleeding, will typically need to wipe out some of the national champions—now hemorrhaging cash—and usually restructure a banking system that’s gone badly out of balance. It will, in other words, need to squeeze at least some of its oligarchs.

Ja, GM, Goldman Sachs oder AIG pleite gehen zu lassen, heißt ein paar Freunde hängen zu lassen.

Squeezing the oligarchs, though, is seldom the strategy of choice among emerging-market governments. Quite the contrary: at the outset of the crisis, the oligarchs are usually among the first to get extra help from the government, such as preferential access to foreign currency, or maybe a nice tax break, or—here’s a classic Kremlin bailout technique—the assumption of private debt obligations by the government. Under duress, generosity toward old friends takes many innovative forms. Meanwhile, needing to squeeze someone, most emerging-market governments look first to ordinary working folk—at least until the riots grow too large.

Könnte nicht ähnlicher sein in den USA. Staatshaftung für private Kredite? Haben wir in den USA. Natürlich auch in Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz und eigentlich überall in der westlichen Welt. Aber in den USA, so mein Gefühl, sind die Seilschaften besonders ausgeprägt.

Aber das Volk ausdrücken klappt ganz gut: Schulden der Banken wollen auch mal abgetragen werden. Durch höhere Steuern, höhere Inflation oder gestrichene Sozialleistung. Die Politik wird den besten Mix finden. Da bin ich sicher. Und es gibt kleine Aufmerksamkeiten: Konsumgutscheine oder 100 Euro pro Kind. Dann merkt das Volk die Enteignung erst später.

Many IMF programs “go off track” (a euphemism) precisely because the government can’t stay tough on erstwhile cronies, and the consequences are massive inflation or other disasters. A program “goes back on track” once the government prevails or powerful oligarchs sort out among themselves who will govern—and thus win or lose—under the IMF-supported plan. The real fight in Thailand and Indonesia in 1997 was about which powerful families would lose their banks. In Thailand, it was handled relatively smoothly. In Indonesia, it led to the fall of President Suharto and economic chaos.


In its depth and suddenness, the U.S. economic and financial crisis is shockingly reminiscent of moments we have recently seen in emerging markets (and only in emerging markets): South Korea (1997), Malaysia (1998), Russia and Argentina (time and again). In each of those cases, global investors, afraid that the country or its financial sector wouldn’t be able to pay off mountainous debt, suddenly stopped lending. And in each case, that fear became self-fulfilling, as banks that couldn’t roll over their debt did, in fact, become unable to pay. This is precisely what drove Lehman Brothers into bankruptcy on September 15, causing all sources of funding to the U.S. financial sector to dry up overnight. Just as in emerging-market crises, the weakness in the banking system has quickly rippled out into the rest of the economy, causing a severe economic contraction and hardship for millions of people.

But there’s a deeper and more disturbing similarity: elite business interests—financiers, in the case of the U.S.—played a central role in creating the crisis, making ever-larger gambles, with the implicit backing of the government, until the inevitable collapse. More alarming, they are now using their influence to prevent precisely the sorts of reforms that are needed, and fast, to pull the economy out of its nosedive. The government seems helpless, or unwilling, to act against them.

Viele Änderungen der Gesetzgebung, die zur Katastrophe beigetragen haben, sind durch hartnäckiges Lobbying der Finanzindustrie zustande gekommen. Ich denke da an die Abschaffung der Trennung zwischen Commercial Banks und Investment Banks. Das Fanny und Freddy nie reformiert wurden, liegt sicher auch daran, dass die Politiker dort ihre Freunde hatten. Das kann man auch für die deutschen Landesbanken ins Feld führen.


Of course, the U.S. is unique. And just as we have the world’s most advanced economy, military, and technology, we also have its most advanced oligarchy.

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. Once, perhaps, what was good for General Motors was good for the country. Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.

Ja, und dieser Irrglaube ist auch in Europa weit verbreitet.

A whole generation of policy makers has been mesmerized by Wall Street, always and utterly convinced that whatever the banks said was true. Alan Greenspan’s pronouncements in favor of unregulated financial markets are well known. Yet Greenspan was hardly alone. This is what Ben Bernanke, the man who succeeded him, said in 2006: “The management of market risk and credit risk has become increasingly sophisticated. … Banking organizations of all sizes have made substantial strides over the past two decades in their ability to measure and manage risks.”

Of course, this was mostly an illusion. Regulators, legislators, and academics almost all assumed that the managers of these banks knew what they were doing. In retrospect, they didn’t.

Es ist ja noch schlimmer: Die Regulatoren schreiben jetzt unbrauchbare resp. fehlspezifizierte Modelle für das Kreditrisikomanagement vor (Basel II). Außerdem haben ich bislang noch kaum einen Menschen getroffen, der wirklich verstanden hat, dass Risikomanagement nicht im Interesse der Anteilseigner der Unternehmer ist. Die Anteilseigner haben nur ein Interesse daran, dass die Anleihenhalter glauben es gäbe ein effektives Risikomanagement. Ansonsten sind sie der Ansicht: Je mehr Risiko desto besser.

From this confluence of campaign finance, personal connections, and ideology there flowed, in just the past decade, a river of deregulatory policies that is, in hindsight, astonishing:

• insistence on free movement of capital across borders;

• the repeal of Depression-era regulations separating commercial and investment banking;

• a congressional ban on the regulation of credit-default swaps;

• major increases in the amount of leverage allowed to investment banks;

• a light (dare I say invisible?) hand at the Securities and Exchange Commission in its regulatory enforcement;

• an international agreement to allow banks to measure their own riskiness;

• and an intentional failure to update regulations so as to keep up with the tremendous pace of financial innovation.

Hier ist der Autor etwas inkonsequent. Das eigentliche Problem ist nicht die schwache Regulierung, sondern die implizite Garantie, dass der Staat es im Zweifel richten wird. Wenn es dem Staat schlicht verboten wäre Unternehmen zu retten, dann könnten wir uns sehr sehr viel Regulierung sparen. Aber ein solches Gesetz wollen die Oligarchen nicht.


In October, nine large banks were recapitalized on the same day behind closed doors in Washington. This, in turn, was followed by additional bailouts for Citigroup, AIG, Bank of America, Citigroup (again), and AIG (again).

Some of these deals may have been reasonable responses to the immediate situation. But it was never clear (and still isn’t) what combination of interests was being served, and how. Treasury and the Fed did not act according to any publicly articulated principles, but just worked out a transaction and claimed it was the best that could be done under the circumstances. This was late-night, backroom dealing, pure and simple.

Genau so wie man es sich in einer Bananenrepublik vorstellen würde. In Deutschland sind die Rettungskriterien zwar festgelegt, aber es ist nicht erkennbar, dass sich die Regierung daran halten würde: Ist die IKB systemrelevant? Oder die WestLB oder HSH Nordbank?

Throughout the crisis, the government has taken extreme care not to upset the interests of the financial institutions, or to question the basic outlines of the system that got us here. In September 2008, Henry Paulson asked Congress for $700 billion to buy toxic assets from banks, with no strings attached and no judicial review of his purchase decisions. Many observers suspected that the purpose was to overpay for those assets and thereby take the problem off the banks’ hands—indeed, that is the only way that buying toxic assets would have helped anything. Perhaps because there was no way to make such a blatant subsidy politically acceptable, that plan was shelved.

Instead, the money was used to recapitalize banks, buying shares in them on terms that were grossly favorable to the banks themselves. As the crisis has deepened and financial institutions have needed more help, the government has gotten more and more creative in figuring out ways to provide banks with subsidies that are too complex for the general public to understand. The first AIG bailout, which was on relatively good terms for the taxpayer, was supplemented by three further bailouts whose terms were more AIG-friendly. The second Citigroup bailout and the Bank of America bailout included complex asset guarantees that provided the banks with insurance at below-market rates. The third Citigroup bailout, in late February, converted government-owned preferred stock to common stock at a price significantly higher than the market price—a subsidy that probably even most Wall Street Journal readers would miss on first reading. And the convertible preferred shares that the Treasury will buy under the new Financial Stability Plan give the conversion option (and thus the upside) to the banks, not the government.

Und das ist der eigentliche Skandal: Leute, die die Krise verursacht haben, erhalten Staatsgeld ohne Ende. Dabei gibt es keinerlei Veranlassung die Banken mit Geld zu retten – keine außer, dass die ursprünglichen Geldgeber der Banken gerettet werden sollen. Es geht im keinen Fall darum die Banken zu retten. Das geht bekanntlich auch ohne Staatsgeld. Aber dann sind die Oligarchen pleite. Dass will ja keiner. Jedenfalls kein US-Politiker. Deutschland hat sich in der Beziehung bislang besser geschlagen.


Even leaving aside fairness to taxpayers, the government’s velvet-glove approach with the banks is deeply troubling, for one simple reason: it is inadequate to change the behavior of a financial sector accustomed to doing business on its own terms, at a time when that behavior must change. As an unnamed senior bank official said to The New York Times last fall, “It doesn’t matter how much Hank Paulson gives us, no one is going to lend a nickel until the economy turns.” But there’s the rub: the economy can’t recover until the banks are healthy and willing to lend.

Ein schlechter Deal ist ein schlechter Deal. Wenn eine Kredit ein schlechter Deal ist, dann wird eine Bank den nicht machen. Auch dann nicht, wenn sie gerade Milliarden vom Steuerzahler geschenkt bekommen hat.

Es folgen lesenswerte Zeilen über die nötigen Maßnahmen und folgendes Schlusswort:

The conventional wisdom among the elite is still that the current slump “cannot be as bad as the Great Depression.” This view is wrong. What we face now could, in fact, be worse than the Great Depression—because the world is now so much more interconnected and because the banking sector is now so big. We face a synchronized downturn in almost all countries, a weakening of confidence among individuals and firms, and major problems for government finances. If our leadership wakes up to the potential consequences, we may yet see dramatic action on the banking system and a breaking of the old elite. Let us hope it is not then too late.

Das unterschreibe ich auch. Was viele Volkswirte, die uns jahrelang etwas von „Decoupling“ erzählt haben, nicht verstehen ist die internationale Korrelation im Abschwung. Viele BIP-Schätzungen müssen deswegen nach unten korrigiert werden, weil das Ausland sich schlechter als erwartet entwickelt hat. Und das gilt freilich für alle Länder….


4 Responses to Der stille Staatsstreich

  1. […] Die Regierung eines Landes umgeht die Gesetze, um einzelnen Interessengruppen Geld zu zuschanzen. Das passt all zu gut in die These von Professor Simon Johnson, über den stillen Staatsstreich in den USA. […]

  2. […] die Krise selber aufarbeiten. Dass die US-Regierung von den Banken gekapert wurde, ist übrigens keine Einzelmeinung. Es gibt schon Ereignisse, die eher zu eine Junta als einer Regierung passen. Dübel: I am […]

  3. […] Kauf dir Politiker ein und Du bekommst auch Geld. War ja eigentlich schon länger klar, dass das so läuft, aber schön es mal wissenschaftlich verbrieft zu […]

  4. […] of Management, Blogger für und Ex-Chefökonom des IWF in 2007 und 2008, zu zitieren: Every crisis is different, of course. Ukraine faced hyperinflation in 1994; Russia desperately […]

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