The Biggest Bank Bailouts in History (#2 Is Happening Right Now)

Did you hear that? No? Well, it's not exactly the other shoe dropping, but the Cyprus bank bailout is still quite a milestone. It's the second-costliest, in terms of GDP, on record. At $10 billion in a $18 billion economy, bailing out its banks will cost Cyprus a stunning 56 percent of GDP -- trailing only Indonesia in 1997, as the chart below from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) shows. It turns out Greek bonds weren't such a good investment.


There are three big waves of banking crises here: Latin America in the 1980s, the East Asian financial crisis in 1997, and the global financial crisis in 2008 -- together with a few other conflagrations in the 1990s.

The countries changed, but the story stayed the same. Money flowed into an it-economy and that pushed asset prices up. But then the animal spirits went into hibernation. Investors worried that the boom had gone too far, and race to pull out their money -- and paper profits -- before everyone else could. In other words, a bank run on the country. The economy, and asset prices, collapsed, the latter leaving banks underwater. International lenders like the IMF in the 1990s and the EU more recently have bailed out the banks to prevent further financial carnage, but they have done so at significant cost for the countries involved. The chart below looks at how each of the above countries fared three years after their bailout, with GDP indexed to 100 in the year their banks went bust. (Note: Data on GDP is courtesy of the IMF).


It's not a perfect relationship, but, in general, the bigger the bailout, the bigger the bust. This is shouldn't surprise us. It's not that bailouts kneecap growth -- just ask economists if they think TARP did -- but rather that a bigger shock requires a bigger bailout, and bigger shocks mean bigger hits to GDP. Of course, it doesn't help when lenders insist on tight money and tight budgets as the conditions for a bailout, as the IMF did in the 1990s and the EU has today.

Globalization has made a brave new world, at least since 1914, where money moves across borders in search of the best return, but this hasn't given countries the best return. There hasn't been much to insulate them from the booms and busts of hot money inflows and outflows. It's been bad enough that even the IMF, which made "neoliberal" a curse word in the 1990s, admits that temporary capital controls might be necessary sometimes. And that's an even braver, newer world, where experience is trumping ideology.

Maybe that's the real other shoe.
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Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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