Who Would Bail Out Switzerland’s Banks?

Richard Baldwin of VoxEU gives us a sneak preview of a new article by Jon Danielsson:

In this crisis, the strength of a bank’s balance sheet is of little consequence. What matters is the explicit or implicit guarantee provided by the state to the banks to back up their assets and provide liquidity. Therefore, the size of the state relative to the size of the banks becomes the crucial factor. If the banks become too big to save, their failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This seems right to me. And also very scary, because of one country: Switzerland.

UBS has a $2 trillion balance sheet; Credit Suisse has another trillion on top of that. Call it $3 trillion between the two of them, which is about ten times Switzerland’s GDP of $300 billion or so. Now that’s what I call too big to save. Oh, and did I mention? At the end of 2007, Credit Suisse was levered by more than 40 times; UBS was levered by more than 64 times. A 16% fall in UBS’s assets would wipe out not only all of its equity but 100% of Swiss GDP on top.

This could be the first make-or-break economic issue to face Barack Obama: if it came to it, would Treasury bail out UBS? I’m sure it would try to get European governments to pitch in too, and the Swiss, of course, to the extent that they can. But I’m sure I’m not the only person praying that UBS never comes close enough to the edge that we have to find out.

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