Since 2008, bank bailouts have entailed a significant transfer of private losses to taxpayers in Europe and the United States. The latest Greek bank bailout constitutes a cautionary tale about how politics – in this case, Europe’s – is geared toward maximizing public losses for questionable private benefits.
In 2012, the insolvent Greek state borrowed €41 billion ($45 billion, or 22% of Greece’s shrinking national income) from European taxpayers to recapitalize the country’s insolvent commercial banks. For an economy in the clutches of unsustainable debt, and the associated debt-deflation spiral, the new loan and the stringent austerity on which it was conditioned were a ball and chain. At least, Greeks were promised, this bailout would secure the country’s banks once and for all.
In 2013, once that tranche of funds had been transferred by the European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF), the eurozone’s bailout fund, to its Greek franchise, the Hellenic Financial Stability Facility, the HFSF pumped approximately €40 billion into the four “systemic” banks in exchange for non-voting shares.
A few months later, in the autumn of 2013, a second recapitalization was orchestrated, with a new share issue. To make the new shares attractive to private investors, Greece’s “troika” of official creditors (the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Commission) approved offering them at a remarkable 80% discount on the prices that the HFSF, on behalf of European taxpayers, had paid a few months earlier. Crucially, the HFSF was prevented from participating, imposing upon taxpayers a massive dilution of their equity stake.
Sensing potential gains at taxpayers’ expense, foreign hedge funds rushed in to take advantage. As if to prove that it understood the impropriety involved, the Troika compelled Greece’s government to immunize the HFSF board members from criminal prosecution for not participating in the new share offer and for the resulting disappearance of half of the taxpayers’ €41 billion capital injection.
The Troika celebrated the hedge funds’ interest as evidence that its bank bailout had inspired private-sector confidence. But the absence of long-term investors revealed that the capital inflow was purely speculative. Serious investors understood that the banks remained in serious trouble, despite the large injection of public funds. After all, Greece’s Great Depression had caused the share of non-performing loans (NPLs) to rise to 40%.
In February 2014, months after the second recapitalization, the asset management company Blackrock reported that the burgeoning volume of NPLs necessitated a substantial third recapitalization. By June 2014, the IMF was leaking reports that more than €15 billion was needed to restore the banks’ capital – a great deal more money than was left in Greece’s second bailout package.