The Swedish banking crisis response – a model for the future?

Yesterday I pointed out that today’s global banking crisis has some historical precedents worthy of comparison. In particular, I looked at the Japanese bailout schemes from their housing bubble to see if there was anything there to learn. Unfortunately, the Japanese experience leaves doubts as to whether government intervention is helpful or harmful.

There are other examples, however. The Nordic model is a particularly useful one to look at as we move forward. Sweden’s Central Bank Chairman Bäckström shared some of his insights from that experience some eleven years ago in a speech to a Federal Reserve symposium that is available on the Swedish Riksbank website. This is a brilliant piece of work.

Below are a number of snippets with my usual commentary.

First a word of thanks to the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City for the invitation to discuss the financial problems Sweden went through in the early 1990s. I shall also try to draw some conclusions from our experiences that may be relevant for other countries.

Before I came to Sveriges Riksbank I was state secretary at the Ministry of Finance and involved among other things in the management of Sweden’s financial crisis. While there had, of course, been a good many indications of mounting problems, I was personally made formally aware of the acute and severe financial crisis by a phone call. At the beginning of October 1991 I had been in the job just a few days when I got a call from the head of the Financial Supervisory Authority (banking supervision in Sweden is performed by this authority, not by the central bank). He wanted to inform the Government that a large Swedish bank had more than exhausted its equity capital and would have to go bankrupt if a reconstruction could not be arranged.

While working at the Ministry of Finance on the initial problems in the banking sector we started to study historical and international records of financial crises. Irving Fisher’s well-known paper in Econometrica, “The Debt-Deflation Theory of Great Depressions,” from 1933 provided inspiration. We also came across a new volume, The Risk of Economic Crisis, edited by Martin Feldstein and containing interesting contributions by, among others, Benjamin Friedman, Paul Krugman, Lawrence Summers and our chairman today, E. Gerald Corrigan.

The conclusion from these sources was that a fall in asset prices, such as we had in Sweden, may create problems for private sector balance sheets, affect the supply of credit and result in payment system disturbances. Step by step this may affect spending decisions by households and firms, thereby impinging on general economic activity. A destabilised financial system can bring the economy into what Fisher termed “debt deflation”, that is, a situation where the financial crisis may become very serious and protracted.

Thus it was important both to avoid a widespread failure of Swedish banks and to bring about a macroeconomic stabilisation. The two are interdependent. The collapse of much of the banking system would aggravate the macroeconomic weaknesses, just as failure to stabilise the economy would accentuate the banking crisis.

Here, Bäckström has set the scene. Basically, he outlines why central bankers fear deflation more than inflation — because of its negative effect on the banking system and credit as the real burden of debt increases. Below, he outlines what happened in Sweden.

Note, the key role that de-regulation played in the Swedish problems. De-regulation, while helpful in theory, often lets animal spirits run wild and leads to bubbles.

The Swedish crisis – what happened?
The economic problems in Sweden in the early 1990s should be seen in their historical context. For several reasons, economic growth in Sweden has been relatively weak ever since about 1970. Following the collapse of the Bretton Woods system the creation of a stable macroeconomic environment turned out to be difficult. Wage formation functioned badly, fiscal policy was unduly weak and this was gradually compounded by structural problems.

Credit market deregulation in 1985, necessary in itself, meant that the monetary conditions became more expansionary. This coincided, moreover, with rising activity, relatively high inflation expectations, a tax system that favoured borrowing, and remaining exchange controls that restrained investment in foreign assets. In the absence of a more restrictive economic policy to parry all this, the freer credit market led to a rapidly growing stock of debt (Fig.). In the course of only five years the GDP ratio for private sector debt moved up from 85 to 135 per cent. The credit boom coincided with rising share and real estate prices. During the second half of the 1980s real aggregate asset prices increased by a total of over 125 per cent. A speculative bubble had been generated.

The expansion of credit was also associated with increased real economic demand. Private financial saving dropped by as much as 7 percentage points of GDP and turned negative. The economy became overheated and inflation accelerated. Sizeable current-account deficits, accompanied by large outflows of direct-investment and other long-term capital (once exchange control had been finally abandoned in the late 1980s), led to a growing stock of private sector short-term debt in foreign currency.

Step by step the Swedish economy became increasingly vulnerable to shocks. During 1990 matters came to a head. Competitiveness had been eroded by the relatively high inflation in the late 1980s, resulting in an overvalued currency. This caused exports to weaken and meant that the fixed exchange rate policy began to be questioned, leading to periods with relatively high nominal interest rates. Moreover, the tax system was reformed in order to reduce its harmful economic effects but this also contributed to higher post-tax interest rates. Asset prices began to fall and economic activity turned downwards. Between the summers of 1990 and 1993 GDP dropped by a total of 6 per cent. Aggregate unemployment shot up from 3 to 12 per cent of the labour force and the public sector deficit worsened to as much as 12 per cent of GDP. A tidal wave of bankruptcies was a heavy blow to the banking sector, which in this period had to make provisions for loan losses totalling the equivalent of 12 per cent of annual GDP.

Below is the core of the regulatory response. I will highlight the key passages in bold.

Looking back, one can see that in the course of the crisis the seven largest banks, with 90 per cent of the market, all suffered heavy losses. In these years their aggregate loan losses amounted to the equivalent of 12 per cent of Sweden’s annual GDP. The stock of non-performing loans was much larger than the banking sector’s total equity capital and five of the seven largest banks were obliged to obtain capital contributions from either the State or their owners. It was thus truly a matter of a systemic crisis.

In connection with a serious financial crisis it is important first and foremost to maintain the banking system’s liquidity. It is a matter of preventing large segments of the banking system from failing on account of acute financing problems.

In September 1992 the Government and the Opposition jointly announced a general guarantee for the whole of the banking system. The Riksdag, Sweden’s parliament, formally approved the guarantee that December. This broad political consensus was I believe of vital importance and made the prompt handling of the financial crisis possible.

The bank guarantee provided protection from losses for all creditors except shareholders. The Government’s mandate from Parliament was not restricted to a specific sum and its hands were also very free in other respects. This necessitated close cooperation with the political opposition in the actual management of the banking problems. The decision was of course troublesome and far-reaching. Besides involving difficult considerations to do, for example, with the cost to the public sector, it raised such questions as the risk of moral hazard.

The political system concluded that in the event of widespread failures in the banking system, the national economy would suffer major repercussions. The direct outlays in connection with the capital injection into the banking sector added up to just over 4 per cent of GDP. However, it is now calculated that most of this can be recovered.

One way of limiting moral hazard problems was to engage in tough negotiations with the banks that needed support and to enforce the principle that losses were to be covered in the first place with the capital provided by shareholders.

A separate authority was set up to administer the bank guarantee and manage the banks that landed in a crisis and faced problems with solvency, though the crucial decisions about the provision of support were ultimately a matter for the Government. A clear separation of roles was achieved between the political level and the authorities, as well as between different authorities. Naturally this did not preclude very close cooperation between the Ministry of Finance, the Bank Support Authority, the Financial Supervisory Authority and the Riksbank.

It was up to the Riksbank to supply liquidity on a relatively large scale at normal interest and repayment terms but not to solve problems of bank solvency. Collateral was not required for the loans to banks, neither intraday nor overnight. The banking system was free to obtain unlimited liquidity by drawing on its accounts with the central bank. The bank guarantee meant that the solvency of the Riksbank was not at risk. In order to offset the loss of foreign credit lines to Swedish banks, during the height of the crisis the Riksbank also lent large amounts in foreign currency.

Banks applying for support had their assets valued by the Bank Support Authority, using uniform criteria. The banks were then divided into categories, depending on whether they were judged to have only temporary problems as opposed to no prospect of becoming viable. Knowledge of the appropriate procedures was built up by degrees, not least with the assistance of people with experience of banking problems in other countries.

The Swedish Bank Support Authority had to choose between two alternative strategies. The first method involves deferring the reporting of losses for as long as is legally possible and using the bank’s current income for a gradual writedown of the loss making assets. One advantage of this method is that it helps to avoid the bank being forced to massive sales of assets at prices below long run market values. A serious disadvantage is that the method presupposes that the bank problems can be resolved relatively quickly; otherwise the difficulties compound, leading to much greater problems when they ultimately materialise. The handling of problems among savings and loan institution in the United States in the 1980s is a case in point. With the other method, an open account of all expected losses and writedowns is presented at an early stage. This clarifies the extent of the problems and the support that is required. Provided the authorities and the banks make it credible that no additional problems have been concealed, this procedure also promotes confidence. It entails a risk of creating an exaggerated perception of the magnitude of the problems, for instance if real estate that has been taken over at unduly cautiously estimated values in a market that is temporarily depressed. This can lead, for instance, to borrowers in temporary difficulties being forced to accept harsher terms, which in turn can result in payments being suspended.

The Swedish authorities opted for the second method: disclose expected loan losses and assign realistic values to real estate and other assets. This method was consistent with other basic principles for the bank support, such as the need to restore confidence. Looking back, it can be said that in general the level of valuation was realistic.

This is an immense task that the Swedes took on. Their entire banking system was effectively insolvent. Yet, they were able to fashion a workout scheme that had bi-partisan political support, did not unfairly reward shareholders, dealt with moral hazard, separated regulatory and workout roles so as to reduce conflicts of interest, and that quickly wrote down valuations and liquidated the bad debts as opposed to dragging the process out. The Swedish authorities should be especially commended for dealing with the liquidity and solvency concerns simultaneously, while keeping moral hazard to a minimum.

I thoroughly suggest you read this memo, save it and pass it on to your local elected official. It should be mandatory reading for the BoE, the Fed, the ECB and key government officials in the UK, US, Ireland, and Spain where the magnitude of the housing bubble is largest. See the link below for the full article.

Why this plan has not been more widely discussed remains a mystery.

Update 27 Sep 2008: On Sep. 23rd, I compared the U.S. bailout plan to the Swedish plan and enumerated the points that a good bailout plan must have. These points have since been echoed by Nouriel Roubini and incorporated into his site as well.

The Swedish Experience, Riksbankschef Urban Bäckström, Federal Reserve Symposium, 27 Aug 1997

  1. MAB says


    Why this plan has not been more widely discussed remains a mystery.

    A small country like Sweden is one thing. The bastion of fiat is another.

    Absent faith, all fractional reserve banks are insolvent.

    We have serious problems.

  2. Edward Harrison says


    The bastion of fiat will soon be forced to make a bailout decision. It would be nice if they made one sooner rather than later. They are probably using the motto, “Don’t think, react.”

  3. Eric says

    The U.S. seems to be adopting the Swedish approach today. However, two important differences, I presume, are that Sweden was already a socialist country and second, did the average banking employee in Sweden earn over $1 million per year (as Goldman Sachs employees did in 2006)?

    The first is a cultural issue – the U.S. is (has) largely decided to socialize the risks of its banking system but most have not viewed the U.S. as a socialized country. This is a big cultural shift in the U.S.

    The second is that in the U.S. the bankers who profited handsomely from their own actions will continue to retain their past – and very large – personal gains.

    Most of us will now pay for their past gains as we absorb most of their risk taking – with most of us never having received benefits from their past upside.

  4. MQ says

    I think the longer version of the piece is even more interesting:

Comments are closed.

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