How Nations Go Bankrupt, One Sliver at a Time

Governments in Greece, Portugal, the United States and elsewhere are borrowing, and often wasting, money at a reckless pace. Why do banks and financial markets cooperate? Because there’s something in it for them.

They keep a little slice of the public money being borrowed or wasted. Only a sliver. But the more that is borrowed, the larger the sliver becomes.

This is the Sliver Strategy, and it underlies the ways many of the Western world’s wealthy institutions relate to government.

Here’s how the Sliver Strategy works. If government spends a moderate sum and an interest group gets a large share, this will be noticed and denounced. If government spends a gigantic amount and the interest group gets a sliver, this won’t be noticed. But a sliver of a gigantic amount may be more than a large share of a moderate sum.

Many sovereign bonds and similar securities, for instance, are accompanied by credit-default swaps, which may amount to around half a percent of the amount borrowed. That’s just a sliver. But the more borrowed, the larger the sliver.

Half a percent of the low-end estimate on default swaps for bad Greek debt is $35 million. Half a percent on the high-end estimate of the roughly $600 billion that Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Italy are — let’s just say in arrears on — is $6 billion. Quite a sliver!

In the case of default swap fees, these proceeds go directly to the bottom line of financial companies, boosting short-term profits and pumping up executive bonuses. The more that is borrowed — by governments directly, or by quasi-government entities such as Fannie Mae — the bigger the sliver, and the bigger the executive bonuses.

In the case of many kinds of swaps, the fees are pure profit since if the loan defaults or otherwise goes south, the swap issuer will just shrug and claim penury. This is what happened in 2008 when AIG, the world’s largest issuer of default swaps, simply refused to cover the debts it had claimed to insure, handing a $182 billion bailout tab to U.S. taxpayers. Amusingly, AIG called its products “collateralized” default swaps, though it turned out there was little or no collateral. What a sense of humor those AIG crooks had! The swaps were pure profit — AIG took rich fees for providing nothing at all, other than a blessing that securities firms could use to pretend their issuances were backstopped against default.

How many AIG-like or Lehman-like slivers are out there right now in bad European debt? Nobody really knows. If it’s any consolation, the professional organization of derivatives and similar all-but-unregulated financial instruments promises “safe, efficient markets.”

Other kinds of Sliver Strategies have corrupting impacts on finance and government.

Why did big banks underwrite the liars’ loans that caused the housing bubble? Because they took origination fees and other payments, then passed the toxic debt along to taxpayers. The greater the loan volume the larger the sliver — and most of the slivers ended up in the pockets of the banks’ top management.

Why do defense contractors and companies that build roads, rail and bridges love cost overruns? The more bloated the final bill, the larger their sliver. If the Godzilla attack helicopter program cost $10 billion and the contractor kept a third as profit, the public would be outraged. If exactly the same program cost $50 billion and the contractor got a tenth as profit, the public will be quiet — though the former is a far more cost-effective buy than the latter.

Why does the U.S. Congress support obvious boondoggles, such as $6 billion a year in subsidies for corn ethanol production? A reverse Sliver Strategy is at play. The more money Congress wastes on corn ethanol, the more the ethanol lobby donates to members of Congress. The donations are but a sliver of the total subsidy — meaning the total subsidy must be large for the sliver to matter.

This incentive to hand out very large sums, in order to get back small sums as donations, is a hidden factor in many congressional decisions about agriculture policy, Social Security benefits and other issues. If members of Congress simply awarded themselves a couple hundred thousand dollars each for campaign expenses, the public would be furious. But if Congress gives away hundreds of billions of dollars, in order to ensure a couple hundred thousand dollars per member comes back as donations, the Sliver Strategy goes unnoticed.

The experience of Greece and Portugal — and perhaps the United States — shows that undisciplined borrow-and-spend depresses economic performance. So you’d think institutions with a major stake in national economic success, such as banks and industrial sectors, would resist government’s impulse to borrow.

Instead they are enablers, because the Sliver Strategy puts a cut directly into their pockets. It is one of the insidious reasons many nations’ balance sheets look steadily worse.

[Cross-posted at Reuters]

Gregg Easterbrook

Gregg Easterbrook is a contributing editor of the Washington Monthly and the Atlantic. He's also a columnist for