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Published: Saturday March 30, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday April 24, 2013 MYT 2:15:56 PM

Financial crises a result of governance failures

ROMAN emperor Julius Caesar was famously warned by a seer about the Ides of March, traditionally March 15.

On March 15 this year, banks in Cyprus were closed to allow politicians time to decide how to raise 5.8 billion euros so that the country could qualify for 10 billion euros in bailout funds from the rest of eurozone and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The solution suggested was to levy a tax on depositors, sparking a realisation that finally, the Europeans had decided to “bail-in” investors and depositors, rather than using public funds to “bail-out” everyone else.

The Cyprus crisis caused a stir in global financial markets, because it punctured expectations that the worst was over. Instead, it demonstrated another episode of muddling through.

Banks in Cyprus re-opened on Thursday with new capital controls on the amount depositors can take out. Larger depositors with over 100,000 euros would stand to lose up to 40% of their deposits. Of course, a significant portion of the deposits in Cyprus banks belong to Russians, who may suffer losses of 4 billion to 6 billion euros. For certain investors, this is the price of putting money in higher risk offshore financial centres. The price to Cyprus of operating as an offshore financial centre is likely to be a drop of GDP of more than 20% in the next couple of years.

The Cyprus outcome is not unexpected. If European governments are to be loaded with heavy debt burdens as a result of the crisis, they will be bound to start “taxing” offshore financial centres, where rich Europeans had been avoiding tax for years. If the eurozone banking union is to have any credibility, they will have to start controlling banking centres which operate largely on tax and regulatory arbitrage. Moreover, having banking assets seven to eight times GDP is no longer considered viable, whether for Cyprus or Iceland.

At the heart of such troubles lies the issue of governance. Financial crises are more governance failures than anything else.

Last week, The End of History philosopher and political scientist Francis Fukuyama published an important blog commentary on “What is governance?” This is the much-awaited part of his promised series on political governance, beginning with his 2011 book The Origins of Political Order. In that book, he looked at the three components of a modern political order a strong and capable state, the rule of law and accountability of the state to its citizens. Since the 2011 book stopped at the French Revolution, most readers would be curious to see how he handled the rise of China, which has a different political system from the West.

Fukuyama's new definition of governance is “a government's ability to make and enforce rules, and to deliver services, regardless of whether that government is democratic or not.” Notice that he has decided to remove any suggestion that democracy is automatically associated with good governance, appreciating that “an authoritarian regime can be well governed, just as a democracy can be mal-administered.”

Accordingly, he uses four approaches to evaluating the quality of governance: procedural measures, input measures, output measures and measures of bureaucratic autonomy. To put it into simple language governance should be measured according to how you govern (the processes); the efficiency of governance (how much tax or resources you need); the effectiveness (outcomes rather than objectives) and whether the bureaucracy is independent of politics or not (the autonomy question).

In dissecting governance into its different dimensions, Fukuyama has helped to clarify the methodology in thinking about the tradeoffs between the ability to have high discretion versus being bogged down by excessive rules, and high capacity to execute, versus low capacity to execute. Critics of that approach would argue that strong states with excessive discretion may not be sustainable. On the other hand, weak states with too many rules and no discretion may not be sustainable either.

Fukuyama is right to point out that the bureaucracy's interests may not be identical to those of the people. The bureaucracy is supposed to be agent of the people (the principal), but many bureaucracies serve their own interests, rather than the public to the extent that civil servants may be neither civil nor servants.

Indeed, the simplistic view that the state is deterministic versus the view of free market self-order misses the fundamental point that large bureaucracies also have self-order. Anyone familiar with working in large complex bureaucracies in China, India or the United States, with many layers of government, would recognise that it is not easy to implement policies from the centre. State or provincial governments have a mind of their own, with very different priorities from that of the centre.

Indeed, in the 21st century, many cities have become more effective instruments of state, and it is not surprising that effective mayors have become national leaders because they show a capacity to deliver close to the people.

The more interesting question about governance is: why are collective action traps so pervasive? In other words, it is understandable why ineffective and weak bureaucracies or political systems are unable to overcome gridlock in their systems, but it is common to see highly effective and capable bureaucracies also caught in gridlock.

These gridlocks are apparent in the resolution of the euro crisis, the stalemate in the Doha World Trade Organisation negotiations and the Durban climate change debates. In the first week of April, the Institute for New Economic Thinking, the Centre for International Governance Innovation and the Fung Global Institute will be hosting a major conference in Hong Kong on how creative and innovative thinking can open up new avenues of thinking on the solutions to global governance. As a respected member of the global economic community, Hong Kong should make its voice heard.

You can watch most of the podcasts on www.ineteconomics.org or www.fginstitute.org.

Tan Sri Andrew Sheng is president of the Fung Global Institute.

Tags / Keywords: News, Business, Business, Andre Sheng, Think Asian

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