Saturday, 28 May 2011

Portugal’s bailout: reinventing the wheel

The details of the EU/IMF-Portugal financial aid agreement (see draft Memorandum of Understanding on Specific Economic Policy Conditionality or MoU – available here) that were first made public seemed to suggest that the EC/ECB/IMF troika that negotiated it had finessed its strategy ever so slightly, and had learnt from the experiences of Greece and Ireland.

Instead, the agreement with Portugal, as laid out in the draft MoU, is overwhelming in scope. The implied message from the troika seems to be that the approach is failing in Greece and Ireland because it did not go far enough.

The agreement has important measures and impresses by its breadth. However, it also suggests that the troika may not have had the time to check their facts on issues such as, for example, external trade or on housing prices. Data collected by Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff in a 2008 paper suggests that Portugal had one of the lowest housing price increases between 2002 and 2006 amongst 43 developed and developing countries. Therefore, one wonders why the troika imposed measures that make house buying more expensive at this stage of the cycle where numerous families are being forced to sell their homes either to avoid foreclosure or due to foreclosure on their mortgages.

More importantly, the agreement has serious issues of process and substance, of which four should be emphasized:

First, there is no discussion of the causes of this crisis, what led Portugal to this situation. It is like going to a doctor seriously ill, and coming back with no diagnosis of the illness but instead with 222 different prescriptions (the number of main action items in the MoU which runs to 34 pages, or roughly twice the length of action items in Greece and Ireland’s MoUs), hoping that some of the medicaments will work. They won’t. The patient’s health will worsen. Portugal faces a balance of payments and external debt crisis, rather than simply a sovereign debt crisis. Perhaps because the MoU does not identify the causes of the crisis, the policy response measures are misguided and likely to fail.

Moreover, given the sheer number of measures, there is no way that a future government, regardless of the party in power, will be able to fully meet the terms of the agreement. The government will likely miss several targets fairly early in the program and this will call its competence into question with its European Union partners, unnecessarily, but perhaps by design.

Second, the agreement does not ask nor respond to the question of who was responsible for what went wrong. One might argue it is neither possible nor relevant at this stage to do so. Quite in contrary, it is important to identify who erred because market economies are all about risk, reward, and punishment. It is also possible to find them. We just have to look for the proverbial elephant in the room.

Who are the largest debtors now unable to pay? Answer: in Portugal’s case, the government and the banks. So, they must have made mistakes. In this, the picture that emerges is similar to that found in Greece and in Ireland.

Who are the largest creditors now afraid of not getting their money back? Answer: large banks and insurers in a number of countries and the Eurosystem (ECB and Eurozone national central banks). In fact, the Eurosystem is the largest creditor of Portugal as well as of Greece and of Ireland’s banking systems and governments. So these creditors also made mistakes.

The consequences of the mistakes should be borne by those who made them. But it is not to be. Instead, the costs of the bailout are to be exclusively assumed by the Portuguese taxpayers and citizens. This is not the culture of merit and accountability the European Union deserves.

Third, the agreement focuses on the minutiae, on far too many wishful thinking ideas in a cross-section of areas from financial sector regulation and support, judicial system organization, to local and regional administration, to name a few. The large number of measures precludes any serious attempt to evaluate their individual effectiveness. Instead, the MoU should select the 20% of ideas with 80% of the economic impact (each with an economic impact above, say, €250 million per year) and thoroughly dissect each of them. Otherwise, it is simply obfuscation.

Finally, the policy measure with the largest economic impact is not correctly implemented. Specifically, in dealing with the Portuguese banks, whose combined liabilities represent 250% of GDP, the agreement does not adopt international best practice. This would have required, before any capital increase or guarantee, the introduction of a special bank resolution procedure (Special Resolution Regime with Prompt Corrective Action), like those available in the US and in the UK, for example. A strong and prompt bank resolution procedure would, among other things, impose losses on the creditors of failing banks and would force out failing banks’ management. Instead, the troika required the Portuguese taxpayer to further support the banking system with up to €47 billion (27.2% of GDP) between guarantees and capital increases.

Moreover, rather than replace failing banks' management, following, for example, the practice of the US FDIC, the MoU (p.7) states that the capital increases “will be designed in way that preserves the control of the management of the banks by their non-state owners”. That is, the taxpayer will likely recapitalize the private banking system, in effect nationalizing it, and yet management control will remain with the old owners. One possible explanation for the troika’s inaction on the banks Special Resolution Regime is the conflicts of interest faced by one of the troika members, the ECB. The ECB is a member of the Eurosystem, which would have faced large losses if a proper bank resolution procedure were adopted immediately.

The idea substantiated in the MoU that an entire country can be reengineered - notwithstanding its faults, the World’s 38th biggest economy - based on a 3-week 34-page outline is remarkable. The agreement seeks to reinvent the wheel and in the meantime destroy what does work. This treatment of Iceland, Hungary, Latvia, Greece, Ireland, and Portugal is beginning to seem like the West’s version of China’s Great Leap Forward: impossible targets based on but pure ideology. It is simply too sad to watch.


  1. "Therefore, one wonders why the troika imposed measures that make house buying more expensive".
    That's simple. As you put it, "Portugal faces a balance of payments and external debt crisis, rather than simply a sovereign debt crisis."

    The goal is simply to change the incentives that for many years favoured house purchases over house renting. The huge number of house mortgages is one of the main forces that pushed up private debt, and therefore, the deficit in the balance of payments.

  2. Thanks for the comment. There are a number of possible explanations either in favor or contrary to the housing measures in the MoU. My point is that it should not be left to the reader of the MoU to speculate on why the measure should or not be included.

    There should be at least an attempt at a causality nexus between the problem/issue and the policy response measure that was designed to address it. And the troika should really focus on the measures with the largest economic impact (i.e., the measures that are important and relevant)

  3. Fully agreeing with MC's comment, the remainder of Cabral's text is quite strong and clear.

  4. Disclaimer: I'm am not an economist.

    Three comments:
    1. One could infer that for the troika and for the portuguese politicians that agreed to the MoU, the cause of the crisis is the fact that the kind of measures written in the MoU were not implemented before.

    2. In regards to change in taxation for housing, it's not "up to the reader" to decipher

    "6.4. The Government will modify property taxation with a view to level incentives for
    renting versus acquiring housing."

    3. Labeling the fact that the ECB is one of our biggest creditors "a mistake" is a little naive. The ECB was buying our debt i.e. financing us because no one else would! And to some extent that applies to Portuguese banks that had to buy Portuguese debt and ended up with toxic assets

    It's a text I enjoyed reading, and lots of technical questions are beyond my scope, but I view it also as "ideological.

  5. " ... the agreement does not ask nor respond to the question of who was responsible for what went wrong ..."

    Cabral, your post is quite strong and I praise you for it. But do you really think anyone is seriously looking for real explanations for the Portuguese, or European problem ?

    I leave you all with a link that I find not only fun but enriching:

  6. Miguel,

    thanks for your comments.

    Regarding 3, the large amount of money at risk of loss is an indicator of mistakes in the decision making process of the Eurosystem (specifically, in the design of the monetary policy operations). The ECB purchases of government debt in the secondary market are, in my view, not the crux of the problem. But even in that case questions could be raised on the decision making.

    One important reason why Portugal was able to become so indebted over the last decade was that portuguese private and public debt could be used as collateral in ECB open market operations.

    If you are interested in this topic, I recommend the reading of the following column by Anne Siebert (Love Letters from Iceland).

  7. Btw, could you give the reference of the Reinhart and Rogoff (2008) paper that you mentioned?
    I assumed it was the AER one, but it just a AER note, so no much data.

    Thank you

  8. MC:

    Of course. The paper is "Banking Crises: An Equal Opportunity Menace". I had the draft from Dec. 17, 2008, fig. 3, p. 22.

    It is available here:

  9. Very good analysis, Ricardo.
    But we DO need a new wheel, or better yet, a sextant.
    When dealing with intra-Eurozone balance-of-payments adjustments, we are sailing into uncharted territory, because the usual IMF prescriptions (devaluation, tariffs, interest rate increases, capital controls) must stay now in the drawer.
    Are there any cases of successful external adjustments within a Single Market or Single Currency context, perhaps Hong Kong?
    Small country fiscal and incomes policies cannot do all the heavy lifting needed for rebalancing the Eurozone.
    So we have the peripheral midget economies playing trade volleyball with the central European big boys. We do need a new wheel, or better a sextant.
    When dealing with intra-Eurozone balance-of-payments adjustments, we are sailing into uncharted territory, because the usual IMF prescriptions (devaluation, tariffs, interest rate increases, capital controls) must stay in the drawer.
    Are there any cases of successful external adjustments with a currency board, perhaps Hong Kong?
    So we have the peripheral midget economies, with one policy hand tied behind their backs. playing trade volleyball with the central European big boys.
    It is not going to work.
    Mariana Abrantes de Sousa, PPP Lusofonia

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