A fun, new way to waste time

The weather's interesting and the Statlinks are lovely
Work has ground to a halt here at OECD Insights since we discovered this. It’s a map of the world showing in real-time where people are downloading OECD StatLink files. We could stare at it for hours …

 What’s a StatLink? It’s a file with all the numbers (and sometimes more) that lie behind each OECD chart and table. Useful for researchers, and popular too – more than half a million files downloaded so far this year, and counting …

Click on the logo to find out more:

Pot lashes out at kettle

Under medieval insolvency laws, inquiries into bank failure could use torture and hostage taking to get answers. With the loss of traditional values, today’s investigators can only ask questions and seize documents.

Still, they do produce some startling revelations. Speaking to the US Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission yesterday, Dick Fuld, head of Lehman Brothers when it collapsed, said: “Deregulation of the financial industry and lack of government control helped us to make substantial profits in the years leading up to the crisis, so naturally we only have ourselves to blame for the mistakes and mismanagement that led to our bankruptcy”.

Ha ha, only kidding. In fact, he blamed poor decision-making by, wait for it: the Fed. Here’s what he actually said according to the New York Times: “Lehman was forced into bankruptcy not because it neglected to act responsibly or seek solutions to the crisis, but because of a decision, based on flawed information, not to provide Lehman with the support given to each of its competitors and other nonfinancial firms in the ensuing days”.

So, nothing to do with overleveraging, bad bets or Repo 105, an accounting trick that classifies a loan as a sale, thereby reducing Lehman’s liabilities by $50 bn (but only on the balance sheet).

Governments, as we all know, had to step in to clean up the mess, and not just in the US. From October 2008 to May 2010, more than 1400 bonds backed by government guarantees were issued by around 200 banks from 17 countries, for an amount equivalent to more than a trillion dollars.

Aviram Levy of the Banca d’Italia and Sebastian Schich of the OECD’s Financial Affairs Division look at the consequences in an article for the OECD Journal. They show that the guarantees have been effective in resuming overall long-term funding for banks and reducing their default risk, but at least two major issues now have to be addressed.

First, relatively weak banks with strong governments backing them (“sovereign guarantors”) have been able to borrow more cheaply than strong banks with weak sovereign guarantors.

Second, extending the scheme into 2010 allows non-viable banks to take advantage of the continued availability of guarantees and postpone addressing their own weaknesses or, even worse, adopt excessive risks in a “gamble-for-redemption”.

You can’t legislate against the toxic combination of ignorance and arrogance that brought the financial system crashing down. But governments and taxpayers shouldn’t be seen as blood donors permanently on call to stop banks dying from self-inflicted wounds.

Useful links

OECD work on financial markets

OECD Insights: From Crisis to Recovery

Where is our water going?

Sunday sees the start of World Water Week and today’s post comes to us from Professor Andrew K. Dragun, an Economist with the Australian Rivers Institute at Griffith University in Brisbane Australia. He is currently editor of the International Journal of Water and the International Journal of Agricultural Resources Governance and Ecology.

Water is emerging as one of the most serious and controversial resource and environmental issues of the twenty first century. Fundamental water shortage, chronic environmental despoliation of water systems and irreversible debilitation of associated land and marine systems looms, while public expenditures on increasing and improving the water supply are increasingly unaffordable.

A great many of the world’s water “markets” are distorted as a consequence of inappropriate incentive–disincentive systems. The observations of Professor R.H Whitebeck, commenting in the Geographical Journal on early irrigation development in California in 1919, that irrigation development “… was occurring at too rapid a rate and at too high a price”, remain as poignant now as they were insightful nearly a hundred years ago. From the experience of the irrigation colonies of the Chaffey Brothers in Northern Victoria to the Central Arizona Project and, the failures of irrigation in the Central Asian republics, the lack of financial viability of irrigation in the absence of substantial public subsidy is a general rule – even in the paragon of efficient trickle irrigation and high cost irrigation water, Israel.

In many cases the drivers of water development have been political expediency and a desire to end food shortages in many poor countries, with little attention to the costs, the benefits and the prices of water.  The inevitable result of the irrigation-led revolution in water development and regulation, seen throughout much of the twentieth century, is that a huge amount of water is being wasted… (more…)