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Iceland put top finance executives behind bars, but fears of cronyism remain (bloomberg.com)
379 points by clorenzo on Mar 31, 2016 | hide | past | web | favorite | 127 comments

Exactly, the problem has got worse.

Banks are larger and more centralised, the offenders unpunished know they can act with impunity, legislation is unchanged.

Banking/ finance types now know that if they are losing money they must simply lose big enough to trigger more bailouts and the taxpayer pays.

This is despotic anti-capitalism: they keep the winnings and losses are generational debt on which they again profit.

The only ways that have ever worked to inject capital is to pay the poor and middle class by national infrastructure projects or GWBush style $1000 cheques - everyone benefits as money circulates.

Keynsian economics got this right.

Banks and the rich largely hoard capital where it is useless, pretending risk aversion when it was outright fraud that caused the econopocalypse, not risky but legitimate loans to business.

This will happen again unless investment and savings banks are again separated, but no nation wants to do it unilaterally fearing an exodus of non-dom capital they use to cook the government figures.

Finance is rotten to its core.

Quantative easing is bailouts by the backdoor.

Austerity stagnates an economy.

This can really be traced back to the repeal of Glass Steagal. After the great depression in the 30s, congress passed the Glass Steagal act, which put a firewall between investment banks and commercial banks. In other words, Wall Street investment banks could no longer gamble with customer deposits. This seems like common sense, and all of the financial problems actually occurred after Glass Steagal was repealed in the 90s.

It seems fairly obvious in hindsight that Glass Steagal was good legislation. It led to a 60+ year period of extended prosperity, and the greatest economy in the world. Once it was repealed, it set us up for a global financial crisis a decade later.

> This can really be traced back to the repeal of Glass Steagal

Can it? Because none of the banks who initially failed would have been firewalled by Glass-Steagal. Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, AIG...none of these were deposit-taking institutions.

The problem erupted from corn-fed mortgages, something Glass-Steagall wouldn't have saved us from. This isn't just my opinion. Most economists see Gramm-Leach-Bliley (the Act that repealed Glass-Steagall) as having had a minor effect, at most, on the 2008 financial crisis [1].

[1] http://www.npr.org/sections/thetwo-way/2015/10/14/448685233/...

One of the driving factors behind the bad mortgages that were issued pre-2008 was the lack of ongoing oversight and poor risk assessment with regards to those mortgages, driven primarily by securitization.

Your linked article itself tells that Geithner and his ilk admit to securitization being at the heart of the crisis, saying that "other factors were more important in causing the 2008 crisis, such as bad mortgage underwriting, poor work by the ratings agencies and a securitization market gone crazy."

But strangely, they write this as a defense of Glass-Steagall's repeal, as if those factors came from nowhere. In fact, those factors were the specific result of the efforts by the largest banks to sell as many of their banking products as possible--and offload as much of their risk as possible--through their investment banking and securities divisions. Many suspect that some banks took advantage of the inherent opacity of mortgage-backed-securities to knowingly hide bad assets (and possibly even fraudulent, non-existant assets) and sell them to unsuspecting securities buyers at fraudulently inflated prices.

Would securitization have become such a problem if the repeal of Glass Steagall hadn't effectively pushed all of the money center banks to acquire or build their own investment banks? Would it have been so easy for bad actors to have committed fraud in this area if it wasn't so easy to keep everything "in house"?

The main reason that Glass-Steagal was enacted in 1933 was because the Crash of 1929 was in-part caused by Banks' selling over-hyped, over-priced securities to ordinary, unsophisticated banking consumers. OK, so it happened in the reverse this time. That doesn't mean that the crisis wouldn't have been prevented by the same firewall, had it existed, from 2003-2006.

Yes, none of the institutions that failed initially were deposit taking. But maybe that was because this time around they were the outsiders and the rubes. Who had a better sense of what kind of risk mortgage-backed-securities actually represented, than the people who were originating them?

And if we look at the UK, all the banks that failed (RBS, HBOS, Northern Rock) failed because of their bad loans or over-reliance on short-term funding, not because of investment banking activities.

I disagree.

The RBS failed entirely because of foolish investments. Funding covered the cracks till it dried up.

Fred the Shred (RBS CEO) invested billions in toxic assets worldwide - his last act was to buy an investment bank full of them.

He still walked away with bonuses, though now the taxpayer paid for his golden parachute.

The problem erupted because of a gigantic grey market in CDOs and other esoteric "financial products" which mainly appear to have been designed primarily to siphon money from their customers.

Glass-Steagal never envisioned the Rube Goldberg tower of cards this market created, with many transactions being so complex that they resist analysis.


AIG wasn't a bad, but an insurance company that failed because it took on too much risk. If, for example, AIG was that only one to fail I'm not sure it would have taken down the economy with it. I see them as someone that got embroiled in the "sub-prime mortgage crisis", but not necessarily a perpetrator (unless I'm missing something).

AIG wasn't a bank but it was insuring a lot of the bank's assets, including securitized mortgages. By taking that risk off the banks' balance sheets, they let the banks take on more risk than they otherwise could have. So maybe AIG wasn't a perpetrator, but it was an enabler.

AIG insured the mortgage backed securities that caused the crisis.

The mortgages themselves weren't the problem - the problem was the way they were allowed to be bundled into mortgage backed securities, which created a firehose of investment money piling in from Wall Street to the mortgage market, which created bad incentives to issue more low quality mortgages (NINJA - no income, no job, no assets).

People forget there was a demand for them, because investors were starved for yield.

  >This can really be traced back to the repeal of Glass Steagal.
The evidence against this hypothesis is that Canada did not have Glass Steagal (or legislation similar to it), and yet they were not harmed by the financial crisis nearly as much. The banks were smart enough to not invest so deeply in mortgage backed securities.

Canadian banks have generally been much more regulated than US ones. Through the 90s and early 2000s they constantly complained about too much government regulation getting in the way of their profits etc. - they seem to have shut up about that since 2008.

They weren't smart enough. They were prevented by government regulation introduced in the 1990s.

Canada does not have personal residence mortgage deductibility and was riding a commodities boom at the time.

Speaking of the popular "austerity ruins the economy", Canada ran a budget surplus during the crisis, enabling them to weather the financial crisis quite well.

Keeping an eye on the accounting books is always a good idea.

We did not run a budget surplus during the crisis. Far from it.

There was extensive stimulus spending that led to very high deficits during that period.

We had a budget surplus in the decade prior to the crisis, but not right before, and once the Harper gov't took power it slashed revenue through a bunch of tax cuts and then once the crisis hit the opposition demanded stimulus spending or it would bring the gov't down (minority parliament at the time).

And while Canada was "riding a commodity boom" at the time this hardly helped anybody east of Saskatchewan or west of Alberta. You could argue it helped their investments but you'd also be wrong, in 2008 the stock market tumbled the same here as everyone else, including energy stocks.


According to this link, the Canada Federal Budget appears to have been in surplus during 2007-2008 crisis.

Deficits came later.

Their previous fiscal prudence mitigated the problems that struck Italy, Greece and the United States.

The stimulus budget was passed in 2009, the bulk of the spending came through in 2010, and the graph you linked to shows that.

Cutting your tax revenue isn't fiscal prudence. It's letting ideology triumph over reality. Harper never met a surplus he didn't throw away.

And I should add that housing prices did dip briefly immediately following the crash in the US. Just not nearly as bad and they almost immediately recovered.

OK, I propose we change the popular

"austerity ruins the economy"

to the most precise

"austerity ruins an economy, if it's not ridding a commodities boom at the time, and you don't have a private debt grow for compensating what the government is not spending."

I agree that this is the heart of the issue.

And the American people are about to elect back into the White House the couple that presided over the repeal of the Glass Steagal Act.

So much for learned lessons.

To be fair, Clinton only signed the law - it was created and voted for by a Republican majority congress. Look at the votes - every Republican senator voted Yea and only one Democrat voted Nay: https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/106-1999/s105

He still shouldn't have signed it, but to blame this law on the Clintons is really not being honest.

That's not the final vote. It passed 90-8 in the senate and 362-57 in the house. https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/106-1999/s354 https://www.govtrack.us/congress/votes/106-1999/h570

Thanks for the correction.

I worry we're confusing a number of different things here. I don't think Keynsian or Austrian economics is in favor of or really even addresses the idea of bank bailouts. Those two forms of economic thinking are much more about how to fundamentally run/grow an economy. This bank bailout thing is mostly about corruption and systemic risk management, which is really totally different.

> I don't think Keynsian or Austrian economics is in favor of or really even addresses the idea of bank bailouts

Neither school directly addresses the idea in the form we observe today - QE injections of liquidity to prevent runs that should bankrupt institutions that trade against/leverage an unsustainable amount of toxic assets - because central banks did not count QE as a viable option in their quiver of monetary policy tools until the BOJ (Bank of Japan) began to use QE in the early 2000's to try and solve secular stagnation. Hence why QE was termed "unconventional" monetary policy when the Fed and other major central banks started to use it as the FFR approached zero post financial-crisis.

"Keynesian" economists tend to favor intervention (leaning towards market manipulation), whereas "Austrian" economists tend to favor austerity (leaning towards free market). This is a gross oversimplification, as there is a huge range of thinking on both sides that spans many different views on the role of government in various markets. But let's use it as a rough way to judge QE:

OK, so corruption got out of hand - bankers did not live up to their fiduciary duty to protect investors. Predatory investors took out loans with the intent to default and dump property on banks. Excess leverage backed with toxic assets occurs and the system fails. Fine. What do we do next?

Austrians would call for austerity - let the corrupt institutions fail, enter bankruptcy, and be reformed. The system would tear itself apart and be reborn from the ashes. No misdirection of resources, no boom and bust.

Keynesians (who largely supported QE [1]) would call for intervention - prop the old system up, relieve the private sector of risk, inject liquidity into failing institutions, create artificial demand.

Obviously neither economic system calls for more corruption, but both acknowledge that it is an inherent human trait. Where they generally differ is in their response to crises brought on by corruption.

Austrian Economics clearly favors letting banks fail. Keynesian Economics and Chicago School Monetarists support bailing out banks. Although you have to infer these things out.


> GWBush style $1000 cheques

Note that none of those checks went to the poor or middle class, at least not with a value as high as $1000. All the $1000 checks were reserved for the relatively wealthy.


The fact that he got away with this with no real protest or outcry shows just how apathetic and disabled the lower classes in America are.

> Banking/ finance types now know that if they are losing money they must simply lose big enough to trigger more bailouts and the taxpayer pays.

This is ignoring a fundamental change in legislation that happened pretty much in every major country: the introduction of bail-in. For those who are unfamiliar with the concept, it is a major change to corporate law, it is a power given to the regulators to declare a bank non viable, and to impose losses on bond and equity holders over a week end, a sort of instantaneous chapter 11. The impact of which is to increase the capital of the bank and allow it to re-open the next Monday, affecting the creditors of the bank but not the economy. It is extremely unlikely that a politician, in any major country, would authorise a bail-out before having first attempted a bail-in. And banks are now required to hold a sufficient amount of bail-inable debt (called TLAC or MREL) to ensure that the bank can be recapitalised should it become non viable.

> This will happen again unless investment and savings banks are again separated, but no nation wants to do it

In the UK the regulators are implementing a strict ring-fencing which requires investment banking and retail banking activities to be in two separate and independent entities such that one can go bust without impacting the other.

> Banks and the rich largely hoard capital where it is useless

That's true, banks are hoarding capital, but not because bank like to make useless investment, because they have been required since the financial crisis to increase their capital ratios significantly, which means they need to hold more capital (or reduce their exposure) and not deploy it. But that's the price for a stronger banking system than in 2007.

> Austerity stagnates an economy.

Who does austerity? Everywhere I look I see massive amount of money printing and huge budget deficits. That's not austerity.

Funny that GWB got away with such a blatant bit of Keynesianism. A Democrat would be crucified.

This is actually the pretty well known "only Nixon could go to China" effect.

Not sure he actually did though, he gave huge sums of money to the upper class. We'd need to see a report that actually said more went to the middle / lower than the upper, and somehow I very much doubt that occurred. Though, of course, that also explains how he got away with it.

Probably not, since Obama did the same thing (and Carter did too, for that matter).

>the offenders unpunished

Unpunished...for what? What are the crimes?

I mean, people were certainly punished financially when their banks equity was wiped out or bought for pennies on the dollar.

>Quantative easing is bailouts by the backdoor.

Please elaborate.

>Keynsian economics got this right.

Do you know the academic origins of QE?

The crime is wilful financial mismanagement, it took many forms: sub-prime morgages, LIBOR manipulation, fake AAA ratings, Goldman's advising its clients buy toxic assets to get them off the books, ... the list of actual crimes is huge and largely unprosecuted by the revolving door financiers/ regulators.

Turning a blind eye, wilful ignorance should not be an excuse but it is a succesful one.

Capitalism is self-interest - the idea of self-regulation is a nonsense, if one can make money and get away with it then someone will which is natural.

What is wrong is the continued lack of oversight, either by lack of regulation; or the regulators and regulated change places - the revolving door.

The economy is a golden goose, wealth is continually created, but if the money is hoarded, economies stagnate - no-one benefits, the goose is dead.

Quantative easing removes value from money by printing more, then gives it to the banks who hoard it.

Yes QE doesn't have to be bad, if the printed money recirculates, the problem is how it is done (no guarantees about lending from banks) - its origins doesn't stop them juking it to all heck.

The problem is not capitalism but weak government who give out money but negotiate only vague promises not guarantees.

As the voters are responsible for government then the electorate is ultimately responsible for this, but were they really given a choice ?

On a humerous note perhaps in times of crisis the government should be suspended and let the civil-service run things with out the costly and unecessary changes indulged in by the popularity contests.

>Unpunished...for what? What are the crimes?

Wire fraud. Illegal since 1872.

>Please elaborate.

QE pushed up the value of assets which had plunged in value. Assets which were used by the banks as collateral for loans which were now bigger than the value of those assets and were going bad very quickly. That made those banks what is technically known as "insolvent"... until the stealth bailout.

>Do you know the academic origins of QE?

Monetarism. You can place the blame squarely at Milton Friedman's feet for QE, not Keynes. Keynes advocated fiscal expansion, not funny money tricks to reduce interest rates below zero.

Milton Friedman was firmly of the opinion that tweaking interest rates was enough to successfully manage any economy. Clearly not so much...

Who was committing wire fraud?

"Austerity stagnates an economy".

How did overspending work out for Greece?

[ edit: I'd be glad to discuss substance. The admittedly rhetorical question stands. What is the evidence on overspending and growth? ]

Put simply: it is fraudulent when a creditor uses lies or deception. JP Morgan deceived the Greek people by masking a massive loan to the Greek government as a "currency swap", seemingly to avoid the financial regulators within the EU. See here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/business/global/14debt.htm...

"Instruments developed by Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and a wide range of other banks enabled politicians to mask additional borrowing in Greece, Italy and possibly elsewhere."

Sounds like the Greek government was culpable.

Not blaming the culture of corruption in Greece and not pointing out that the Greek overspending was the root of the problem is disingenuous.

There have been two different Greek governments in this period.

Smearing Syriza, a socialist formation which made the same critique as the above poster, and would never have signed those deals -- for the corrupt actions of New Democracy & PASOK which did is a little bit of intellectual dishonesty.

PASOK = Panhellenic Socialists

They're a social democratic group with very extreme differences with Syriza.

Greece's debt was sustainable until the financial crisis.

However, when they joined the EU, many of their indigenous industries weren't competitive with other nations', so they 'specialized' in tourism. This brought in lots of income, but after the financial crisis, the tourists dried up, leaving them with a massive deficit. And of course, their debt ratio went up because of the contraction in revenues.

This is why Greece feels betrayed - they were spending more or less on par with other European nations prior to the financial crisis, but they were basically screwed by the cabal of European politicians and banks, who imposed absurd, punitive measures (which shrank the economy) in exchange for a 'bailout' (which was essentially more debt, on unfavourable terms).

Greece's debt seemed sustainable partly because official statistics were manipulated. Then, along with financial crisis, came more scrutiny.

The crisis was a trigger, but not a reason. Public spending in Greece was beyond what it could really afford; when skewed statistics were exposed, it turned out that the actual deficit was 12.7 % instead of 6 % - and this change came in about a month.

Not taking sides here but there are many middle-grounds between austerity and overspending.

Sensible spending on jobs and the economy has always worked.

Austerity is underspending not thrift.

Their current economic situation has very little to do with overspending. In general, they didn't. The country has it's traditional tax revenue problems and has never had a great economy, but without the Euro they would have simply devalued their currency (among other tools available only to governments) and left the debt unpaid for a few hundred years. Just like every other country does.

So what happened? Greece was effectively used to send 5 trillion (with a "t") in bailout money back to the banks big banks of Europe.

This was possible because of the idiocy that is the Euro and the ECB, which removed exchange risk and devaluation risk from across the European currencies. The banks of Europe did a volume convergence trade, effectively betting against their sovereigns that their new debt would have to be bailed out as they became "too big to fail".

Supposedly one of the bankers involved explained the scam like this:

    You borrow at one
    You buy at ten
    You use the spread
    To bury the dead
    You bank it at four
    And repo more
    And then go knock
    On the ECB's door
Except the ECB wasn't a lender of last resort and EU banks - and the EU economy in general - has been in a slow-motion crash ever since. The recent-ish use of QE is a stupid way to fix the economy, but it's better than letting the entire economy crash.

I'm leaving out a lot of details, of course. Anybody intrested in Greece and the EU (and the world economy in general) should watch Mark Blyth's very informative overview of how we got here.


See this more rent talk for a post-negative-interest-rate update, where Blyth observes that Europe is looking a LOT like Japan did during their "lost decade"...


...and this discussion with the former Minister of Finance of Greece, Yanis Varoufakis.


> austerity

Austerity is always a terrible solution to economic problems, because just about the stupidest thing you can do when the economy is bad is shrink the GDP. There is even a historical record of austerity (approximately) always leading to a smaller, more stagnant economy... and some nasty political shifts towards populism. The politics of austerity are terrible, because it's effectively a class-specific "put option". We are very good at socializing the risks of investment while blaming the lower classes for "overspending".

Unfortunately a lot of people make the mistake of assuming governments see the economy the same way the people or businesses do. This leads to the idea that government debts are zero-sum like personal debt, but the rules change when you are the group that prints the money and sets economic policy.

Some don't think it's "stupid" ...

"This study observes a negative relationship between government debt and growth. The point estimates of the range of econometric specifications suggest a 10-percentage point increase in the debt-to-GDP ratio is associated with 23 basis point reduction in average growth. "

from : Government Debt and Economic Growth – Decomposing the Cause and Effect Relationship

link: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2601874

You are still free to join about credit unions, use local banks, and the like.

You get bigger because of all the support persons your need to comply with regulations. The auditors alone can be very burdensome to smaller banks. They certainly don't try to grow large just to fail.

I am not sure you understand the words you are using.

Paying the poor is a calculated game where politicians try to find the point they won't be annoyed enough to vote against them the next election and finding that point which they won't take stuff from those who are voting

Keynsian is easily proven wrong on many accounts

Capital pools until there is a good outlet for it. It also tends to pull when taxing systems become burdensome with regards to spending it

Investment and savings do not need separation. you could say that making loans is a form of investment with similar risks and rewards

finance is confusing to many but it isn't rotten

quantitative easing is the result of poor money policy of the countries enacting it. usually the result of the same country borrowing so much money it depletes that which is available to others

Austerity does not cause stagnation, first you would actually have to find a country that claimed austerity that actually reduced expenditure and not simply slowed the rate of increase. Greece is an exception to the rule

In the end adopting a the sky is falling outlook never works. Politicians created this mess and they are damn good at ducking responsibility. This is because most operate under the ideals of fascism, meaning pretty much force the hands of private companies to behave a certain way and then blame them when it doesn't work. This lets politicians further exert control because the general population doesn't understand what is going on

Just to clarify,

They were sent to prison for "market manipulation and fraud" which are crimes in many places, not just Iceland.

They weren't sent to prison for being "bad bankers" which isn't a crime in Iceland or anywhere else.

Yes. Just look at all those bankers that went to prison for 30+ years of manipulating LIBOR. Well one banker anyway. And all those bankers that went to prison for reps and warranty fraud on synthetic CDOs. Well no bankers anyway.

This is clearly a dog bites man story about something that happens all over.

>Well no bankers anyway.

Please point to the convictions. We don't throw people in jail because we don't like their business practices.

The idea that the government wasn't absolutely salivating at the opportunity to throw some bankers in jail is one of the funniest things I read on the internet. People don't seem to understand that the government and banking industry are often at odds on many things. Of course, often these are the same people who interpret things like TARP as a "gift" to the banks.

Let's be honest, for every overworked DA who is ambitious enough to attempt to prosecute a banker, you will immediately have ten 6th year associates out of their top 1/3rd from UChic, Yale and Stanford willing to put in 90 hours because junior partner at Cravath or Skadden is so close they can taste it. TARP was absolutely necessary (we absolutely would have had a complete and total systemic failure had relief not been provided), but the US government could have dictated far stricter terms at which the T-notes were issued which would have benefited the country in the long-term.

Instead of a simple bond, they could have offered an alternative instrument that ensured less of a .. cavalier.. attitude towards trading. "These bonds are issued contingent upon .. {loans must be underwritten by X% in fungible assets, rather than ISDA 3rd-order derivatives (ugh bad pun); Y% of your profits for the next Z years must be invested in a FDIC-esque safety fund as insurance for the next crash; or hell, 'the US government will offer $foo MM in exchange for $bar equity, the profits of which will go towards this years deficit/national debt/...'. If you read first-party accounts at the time when Mae/Mac/Stearns and AIG when down, absolutely everyone was so panicked the board members/CEOs would have taken those terms.

>Let's be honest

Yes, convicting these people would have been difficult (which speaks to the alleged crimes, in my opinion). Yes, the bank bailouts weren't a paragon of good sense. Hopefully lessons will be learned for the next time.

Perfectly valid arguments and far removed from "toss these chaps in prison". I don't want to live in that world.

OK, how was TARP not a gift?

TARP has yielded a $64.5B profit [0] for the government. It was a loan, not a gift. It should be noted that the financial bailout was profitable, while the auto bailout netted a $9.5B loss [1].

[0] https://projects.propublica.org/bailout/

[1] http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/20/business/us-signals-end-of...

The return on TARP money was far below market rate. The difference is unquestionably a gift. In addition, had the TARP money not been sufficient to get the businesses back to profitability an additional bailout would have followed. It's heads-you-win tails double-or-nothing game. The recipients understood this was a gift, which is why wall street cheerfully awarded itself 18 billion in bonuses after receiving 125 billion in bailouts.

Of course, the way the banks paid back TARP is with money given to them through the quantitative easing programs......

As the auto bailout shows, bailouts are risky. There was no guarantee that the Treasury would "profit" on either bailout. Therefore, these public actions must be judged in terms of public priorities, not by the "returns". Really though, does this have to be spelled out? The government should represent citizens, not investors.

All of the chronic systemic problems that led to the "crisis" conditions in 2008 have only gotten worse since the bailouts. By that measure, they were not the best public actions that could have been taken, for the public. For Hank Paulson and his cronies, they certainly were the best public actions that could have been taken.

A loan to save your bank from collapse when no one else will, is a gift.

>We don't throw people in jail because we don't like their business practices.

We do when they're fraudulent*

* Exceptions for too big to jail bankers. Jamie Dimon won't see a day in jail despite running a criminal enterprise.

>The idea that the government wasn't absolutely salivating at the opportunity to throw some bankers in jail is one of the funniest things I read on the internet. People don't seem to understand that the government and banking industry are often at odds on many things.

The banking industry has a meltdown when the government isn't treating them with utter admiration.

If the DoJ were actually concerned about putting bankers behind bars they could easily use Sarbanes-Oxley to make a few bank CEOs do the perp walk in an orange jumpsuit.

They're far too rich a source of campaign contributions, however (see Hillary's Goldman Sachs speaking fees for instance).

The difference is that in the US, while it would have been possible to prosecute bankers under existing law after the 2008 meltdown, we did not.

I don't even care that we didn't prosecute them. I just wish they weren't bailed out by the government (aka my tax money) when they went under.

It's a free market: you make mistakes, you lose.

>It's a free market: you make mistakes, you lose.

Precisely, if you invest money, you should be prepared to lose that money. Now we're in a situation where if the amount you lose is large enough, no worries, the tax payers will refund your investment. It was a large amount you lost after all.

Here, in Denmark, we now have "systemic banks" aka "to big to fail", just like in the US. Not once have I hear someone suggest that MAYBE just fucking maybe, the issue is that the banks are to large. But no no, we'll have non of that. In fact let's make it an issue that to many people pick smaller, less well consolidated banks. How can a government not recognize that it's a problem if a country will be thrown in to chaos (apparently) should this private company fail.

Not once have I hear someone suggest that MAYBE just fucking maybe, the issue is that the banks are to large.

Smart people have said it. Here's Paul Volcker saying, "Any bank that is too big to fail is too big to exist." They should be broken up: http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB100014240527487048255045745863...

Sheila Bair, the head of FDIC was also talking about breaking up banks that were too big.

But you know, there were lobbyists, and also the regulators who want to regulate large things. Eventually it will happen, after the next crisis, or the one after that, because, as Volcker says, "it just makes sense."

I think there was something to the argument that systemic risk made the collapse of big banks undesirable -- but to the extent that was true it was obviously an argument for breaking up the banks and probably even outright nationalizing the ones that were bailed out, not just handing them a bunch of money, not prosecuting anyone, and leaving the system unchanged otherwise.

Oh this is the ugliest part.

When you spend 20 years convincing people that the right place to put their retirement nest egg is in mutual funds and stocks and that defined benefit pensions are not economically viable and that gov't run social security should be capped or cut...

Well big surprise you now have a huge constituency demanding that 'the stock market' be bailed out.

Its only a free market until the rich people start losing money

We didn't give them money, we invested in businesses that were in desperate need of investments. Those investments later paid back very good returns.

You can argue that we shouldn't have interfered in the free market like that, and in fact I agree in principle, but the "rawr, my tax money" argument doesn't hold water.

It does hold up. "rawr, my tax money was used to prop up a failed business distorting the market, damaging more successful players, and decreasing market efficiency, along with increasing real and perceived corruption of the government."

It's not like those banks were protected with no external consequences. What would have been an industry wide boon to mid and small cap banks instead turned into the ugliest type of market intervention conceivable. The only reason those tax dollars were paid back with interest is because no one can compete with the 800 pound gorilla who when he falls out of the tree because he got drunk on his own power, the government picks him back up and places him back on top.

  >Those investments later paid back very good returns.
Paid back with money printed by the federal reserve. Oh great, that makes me feel so much better. The whole thing was FUBAR.

To add to this, the fraud was pretty brazen. For example, these bankers [1] approved a loan to a shell company owned by the bank's insiders for the purpose of buying the banks shares. None of the large banks in the U.S. did anything like that. The closest we've had is the LIBOR scandal, where prosecution is certainly happening.

[1] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-iceland-crisis-idUKBRE8BR0E...

Yeah, but putting it that way it doesn't make Iceland seem like the Socialist utopia that it is. Evil bankers are the cause of all of the world's problems; they're why things aren't free and stuff. #FeelTheBern

Please stop posting unsubstantive comments to Hacker News.

Here's a more direct post about various Iceland-related myths: https://studiotendra.com/2012/12/29/what-is-actually-going-o...

Here's a quote from that article:

Icelandic MP’s received a lot of no-strings-attached free money from the banks and the key players in the banking bubble and ensuing collapse are not the same as the people who are being convicted for fraud or insider trading.

Thanks for the link. Very informative.

The whole article feels like a non-sequitur. "Iceland put bankers in prison for helping cause the financial crisis, yet there is still crony capitalism." How are these two facts related? Putting bankers in prison for helping the economy crash is not intended to solve the problem of bankers being too cozy with politicians. It's intended to solve the problem of bankers reaping private returns from taking public/socialized risk. It's trying to ensure that when bankers hurt everybody, they feel the hurt too.

Why should Iceland bankers have gone to prison? For taking money from British depositors and investing it in the Spanish housing bubble? Let the British send their bankers to prison.

FT covered the nature of the actual crimes in another article[1]. TD;DR -- Fraud to underwrite loans.

Interestingly, cult comic Doug Stanhope[0] has a pretty large European following and was invited by the former mayor of Reykjavik (also a comic) to essentially hang out. On a podcast, he recounts the tales of him and his long-term life-partner Bingo going to their jails[2]. It's quite a fascinating take as to how humane the jails are, and the liberties given to the convicts. (Sharp bread knives were held by the incarcerated to prepare dinner only tethered by a wire similar to the wires banks use to keep their pens from theft; Bingo said it felt "more like a college dorm than a prison".)

[0] Probably the most poignant alcoholic of our generation, offering insightful, often scathing, critiques on the failings of modern society, while vaguely masking his idealism in the levity of fist fuck jokes. After some sets, one is sat scratching your head - simultaneously sore from the physical pain of excessive laughter and mental pain as you're left ruminating on concepts Kierkegaard himself would categorize as 'angst' [1] http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/6a79df88-1a62-11e5-a130-2e7db721f9... [2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_0s8M6ZTmL8

There was outright fraud by some Iceland bankers, who indicated they had assets and relationships that did not exist. Issues include:

- Indicating to the ECB and others that they had relationships with strong German banks (when the Iceland bankers showed up at the German banks, the Germans indicated they had never heard of the Iceland banks)

- Engaging in "next-gen Enron-style" corporate asset-liability accounting deceit, such as counting zero-coupon bonds cross-issued with other banks as assets but not as liabilities

- Knowingly accepting billions in bailout funds from the ECB on said fraud

- Failing to acknowledge, take steps to prevent or mitigate damage, at the point when it was undeniable that Icelandic banks could never cover their liabilities

- Paying their executives on quarterly bonuses in spite of horrific losses

That's just a glossy sampling. If it's an interesting topic for you, I strongly recommend the book by my friend Gudrun Johnson, "Bringing Down the Banking System: Lessons from Iceland".

The Report of the Althingy (Icelandic parliament) is one of the most exceptional pieces of literature of our generation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Report_of_the_Investigatio...). It is the source on which Gudrun based her book, and arguably the best post-mortem on an insolvency ever made, or at least since the Amulree Royal Commission on the insolvency of the Dominion of Newfoundland.

EDIT Fixed list.

"...you have a dog, and I have a cat. We agree that each is worth a billion dollars. You sell me the dog for a billion, and I sell you the cat for a billion. Now we are no longer pet owners but Icelandic banks, with a billion dollars in new assets."

Michael Lewis in Boomerang.

Well, Fred the Shred had his "Sir" removed - which is pretty harsh by UK standards.

But he still has 24x7 police protection at levels similar to the Royal Family. His house was removed from Google Maps - which seems silly as you just look for the obscured house on the street (why do people do that???).

UK bankers were arguably key to the creation and implosion of the worldwide banking system but are already back to obscene bonus levels and see the taxpayer bailouts as a just reward to ensure their opulent and obscene lifestyles.

I'd happily have my 'Sir' title removed and be left with the money and have police officers guarding me 24x7 to ensure I can enjoy my ill-gotten gains. And if the media tries to publish anything about me, then I can go get a super-injunction to make it illegal to even say I got an injunction ! (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2011/mar/10/fred-goodwin...)

Well, I was being slightly sarcastic.

NB I remember crossing George Street here in Edinburgh in early 2009, a familiar looking chap waited in his convertible Ferrari for me to cross. A few minutes afterwards I realised why he looked familiar.... quite brave being out in Edinburgh at that time in a convertible - for a lot of reasons not just the weather.

Well, I was being slightly sarcastic

There should be a special tag for recursive sarcasm.

To anyone interested in this article, I would recommend reading the book Bommerang: Travels in the New Third World by Michael Lewis: http://www.amazon.com/Boomerang-Travels-New-Third-World/dp/0...

They're allowed to browse the Internet and go to the Gym? Sounds better than most hotels I've been.

Are you saying that life in a prison should be worse than living in a budget hotel? Why?

Americans like to punish. A lot. Instead of rehabilitation they focus on making sure convicted felons are practically unemployable once they are out of jail. This is changing, but slowly.

I agree with rehabilitation and make people employable, but let's face it, this is clearly not the case here. This is a white collar... with the outcome being paid vacations.

Another thing to mention is that even if Lárus Welding loses his appeal and the six months jail + three months parole sentence is upheld, that doesn’t mean that he’ll actually be in jail for six months.The way incarceration works in Iceland, he’s likely to be out in a halfway house with a GPS tracker on his ankle in two months, and completely free in three, serving the remaining six as parole.And he gets to keep all of the money he made. Which was lots.Baldur Guðlaugsson, the other major conviction mentioned, only served six months out of 24 in prison. [1]

[1] https://studiotendra.com/2012/12/29/what-is-actually-going-o...

And I'm sure they'll have plenty of private companies offering them a job once they get out of 'jail'.

Oh most certainly. But the original comment was basically a call to "hang'em high" which is what I was addressing.

Do you think putting them in that kind of prison will help rehabilitate them into society, as a healthy, contributing system?

Do you think it will prevent them from committing that crime again?

Do you think that prison will scare other bankers from making the same 'mistake?'

This is an empirical matter. I would have no opinion beyond consulting the literature, which by my superficial understanding does indeed indicate a greater success for pleasant, rehabilitation focussed institutions.

What I'm saying is that with so much public service to be done, why put them on a 'pleasant' place? They certainly have there roads with snow to be unblocked, pastures and streets to be clean, poor people to be fed...

Why should there be any link between forced labour and prison?

Yes. Because prisons are not "correctional facilities" they are instruments of punishment, yielded by the state in the same way other compliance enforcing institutions are. All authority in human societies are fundamentally based on violence, or the threat of it.

Now if prisons were in fact "correctional facilities" with the resources skills and programs required to train inmates how to function in a modern civil society the answer would be "maybe".

Prisons are exactly what the society that has them wants them to be, no more no less. If Iceland wants them to be correctional facilities, and provides the resources skills and programs required to train inmates to function in a modern civil society, then that's what they are. If your society does not emphasise that function for prisons, this is a choice that your society has made, not some reflection of a universal truth.

Even if, as in most societies there is some ambivalence about the functions of prisons, surely Iceland has the right to set its own priorities.

You must stay in shitty hotels.

Yup, those banks still owe me money.

Would you prefer we flog them in public? Prison accommodations need not be barbaric to punish.

I agree thats a bit over the top.

There's a lot to read. Can someone explain the details of actual crimes for which they were convicted? The whole "finance crimes" always seem a little fuzzy. If you run up $70 billion in debt, for example, and need a bailout, is that a crime?


It almost seems like a game.

My uncle is one of the jailed, mentioned in the article. One of Iceland’s most respected lawyers and teacher at the University of Iceland has gone on paper, and on radio, and on TV, saying that the Al Thani trials did not make any sense, for more than one reason. The most obvious mistake was that by the time the case went from local courtrooms to the federal level the prosecution had completely switched the focus of the case, going so far as to turn prosecuted into witnesses. (The courts also gave out 99% green light on all wire taps requested from the prosecutors to prepare the case, and let them put my uncle and others in multi-day isolation years after the events themselves... didn’t really get the reason for that)

The court ruling is very interesting. The foundation of the conviction is market manipulation, which, at least in Iceland, is highly interpretive by judges. It seems obvious when you read the ruling and the criticism that judges were ruling in favour of public opinion. That’s my opinion and reading of it, the public opinion is still very much against bankers, so ymmv when asking other people in Iceland.

The article also fails to mention how Kaupthing went bankrupt. Understandably as the article doesn’t go into any detail on anything at all really. But it involves credit lines shutting down completely following a raid by the British on UK offices of Kaupthing using terrorist law to seize files and shut down the bank’s UK presence.

You could maybe google translate this for better info: http://www.pressan.is/pressupennar/Lesa_Brynjar/al-thanimali...

If it's any consolation, using anti-terror laws against banks feels slightly, though just slightly, less intrusive and overblown than using the same laws against bin crimes. ("Dustbin Stasi" is the word).


It's fairly common in the US for people under threat of prosecution to turn into states witnesses to get a reduced sentence - "rat out your manager/boss who ordered the crimes and we'll let you off easy."

Is this uncommon in Iceland? It seems fairly straightforward and useful in cases like organized crime syndicates (and banking cartels) where if everyone denies wrongdoing they all get found not guilty.

I would take this reply with a huge grain of salt, the lawyer in the article is a personal friend/business partner and a defendant of one of the persons accused of the same crimes.

It’s one big grain of salt in Iceland since everything and everyone is somehow related.

No, they went to jail for fraud.

For example, these bankers [1] approved a loan to a shell company owned by the bank's insiders for the purpose of buying the banks shares. None of the large banks in the U.S. did anything like that. The closest we've had was the LIBOR scandal, where prosecution is certainly happening.

[1] http://uk.reuters.com/article/uk-iceland-crisis-idUKBRE8BR0E...

How did they manipulate the market?

Now please continue with the rest. Deutsche Bank anyone?

Welcome to the United States, where bad bankers create catastrophic bubbles while leading the Federal Reserve then deny their responsibility later.

Money is a social contract. Its core intention is to formalise the exchange of promises fundamentally based on trust. I trust you to honour your promise to me, thats why I accept this pile of colourful paper tokens for my precious cow.

Society, as we are used to, is dependant on this contract being honoured.

This system is currently so heavily laden with trust-sapping parasites that the host is verging on collapse.

I think if enough people cared you could greatly affect how US Banks act. In reality they are pretty much owned by you (through Vanguard, Fidelity, Blackrock, Capital Companies Group etc.) you have 0 input on how they vote though with your shares.

Bringing white-collar criminal cases may be easier in Iceland because courts don’t use juries. Rather, they employ neutral experts to help judges understand the intricacies of finance.

I believe Iceland is in the minority among developed nations that don't use juries, but I think this is a major strength in their court system.

I think that at least in most crimes and with a definition of "jury" similar to that of USA or UK, most developed nations don't have jury trials. The common law countries do (USA and UK plus some Commonwealth countries, such as Canada, Australia, Hong Kong).

Some countries have some elements of traditional juries in some kinds of court cases, but for example in Nordic countries, there are no jurors, just lay judges. The lay judges don't sit in a jury box, they sit on the bench for judges, and they sit many cases, not just one where they'd be called to jury duty.

For example, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Finland, Poland, Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Netherlands, Italy, Spain don't really have jury trials.

Belgium, France, Switzerland and Russia have some kind of juries in some limited cases, but not commonly.

Also many developed former Commonwealth countries have given up jury trials (South Africa, Singapore) while some countries that did not have jury trials have fairly recently started to experiment with them (South Korea, Japan).

However, it would be safe to say that most developed nations don't have jury trials, or only have them for very specific circumstances.

We should note that Iceland is a country with a population of 323,000 people - that's a large town in most other countries. The scale of the Icelandic banks compared to other countries was really not equivalent.

The scale of the Icelandic banks compared to the country's population/national economy was humongous. That is probably why the banking business was so difficult to control (once it was fed, as rumored, with some grey money from Russia).

You're making a comment that's often repeated when talking about whether or not a bank bailout is a good idea.. but that is not the issue being discussed here.

This conversation is about whether or not it's in everyone's best interest to try harder for criminal prosecution in these cases.. which should not be something determined by things like population size.

"They spend their days doing laundry, working out in the gym and browsing the Internet."

Hard time. Or as my wife calls it, time.

Badum tisch.

Well at least the biggest thing they can break now is the gym equipment.

so much party / political garbage in this thread. the reality is this: if the government could prove bankers in the us broke laws, they'd throw them in jail. they can't.

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