Location: Estonia

For a Better Budget Management of Infrastructure Investments

Aerial photo of buildings and roads representing infrastructure investments

Many developing countries rely on investment-to-GDP metrics as a sign of progress towards their development goals. Unfortunately, too often the focus on investment pushes aside the issues of adequately maintaining existing infrastructure. The result could be disastrous to human lives, health, and well-being. Lack of maintenance of existing infrastructure is a well-known problem, not only in developing economies but also in some developed countries. However, how much the government should plan to spend on maintenance over the lifetime of infrastructure assets is neither a simple nor straightforward question. In this policy brief, we examine the cases of two transition economies – Georgia and Estonia – and provide a more general discussion of the challenges and possible solutions to infrastructure maintenance issues. We argue that relevant research along with properly aligned incentives could help the countries overcome these problems and optimize infrastructure spending.


The efficiency of infrastructure investment has gotten quite some attention in the past years. A recent book by G. Schwartz et al. (2020) shows that countries waste about 1/3 (and some even more) of their infrastructure spending due to inefficiencies. With poor management, the major budgetary efforts undertaken to make room for infrastructure investments go to waste. The question of how much the country should plan to spend on maintenance over the lifetime of infrastructure assets is neither simple nor straightforward. In two recent ISET-PI blog posts, Y. Babych and L. Leruth (2020a, b) stress the importance of striking the right balance between new infrastructure investments and the rehabilitation and maintenance of existing infrastructure. Without this balance, the up-keep of public infrastructure could either be too expensive for the budget to handle, or, at the other extreme, would quickly deteriorate to the point where it is no longer operational and needs to be rebuilt from the ground up (which is the case in many developing countries, including Georgia, Armenia, Ukraine, and others). This policy brief focuses on the reasons why developing (and even some developed) countries tend to invest too little in public infrastructure maintenance and what can be done to solve this problem. We first examine the cases of Georgia and Estonia, two post-Soviet transition economies with different approaches to infrastructure maintenance financing. This analysis is then followed by a more general discussion about the infrastructure maintenance challenges and potential solutions.

Maintenance vs. Investment: the Cases of Georgia and Estonia

Developing countries tend to use investment (public or private) as a share of GDP to measure their economic progress and prospects. Georgia is one of the countries that has invested a lot in public infrastructure. Public investment grew sharply between 2003-2007 to 8% of GDP and settled at 6% of GDP after 2017 (PIMA GEO 2018).  The capital stock is about 90% of GDP. In comparison, in Estonia, another post-Soviet economy, public investment was about 4% of GPD, whereas the capital stock was 57% of GDP in 2015. Yet, the quality of Georgia’s public infrastructure is much lower than in Estonia (Georgia is in 69th place globally according to Global Competitiveness Index 2017-2018, while Estonia is in 32nd place).  The reason for this is quite simple:  management, especially the maintenance of public infrastructure. Both countries recently went through a Public Investment Management Assessment (PIMA), a comprehensive framework developed by the IMF to assess infrastructure governance. The results suggest that Georgia is much weaker than Estonia in planning, budgeting, and maintenance. (A complete summary of the assessment results can be found here).

Georgia’s case is far from unique. The country belongs to the vast majority of emerging economies that have not efficiently linked their medium- and long-term infrastructure plans within a sustainable fiscal framework. Moreover, infrastructure planning deficiencies spread way beyond the emerging markets: Allen et al. (2019) estimate that 56% of all world countries do not have a proper Public Investment Program.

Why is Infrastructure Maintenance a Challenge for Many Countries?

Even though maintenance, rehabilitation, and new investments are intrinsically linked, the practical process of integrating these three infrastructure components is complex. Blazey et al. (2019), for example, identify the following reasons:

  • Political economy reasons—governments will opt for a ribbon-cutting rather than maintaining existing assets;
  • Fiscal reasons—budget funding for operations and maintenance is prone to be cut when fiscal space is limited;
  • Institutional reasons—in many countries, separate agencies still prepare investment and current expenditure budgets;
  • Capacity reasons— up-to-date information on the state of assets may not be readily available.

A number of international studies (usually sectorial) point to the high cost of neglecting maintenance. A study on the upkeep of bridges and roads in the US shows that 1$ of deferred maintenance will cost over 4$ in future repairs. The same holds for airports. In Africa, the World Bank estimates that timely road expenditure of $12 billion spent in the 80s would have saved $45 billion in reconstruction costs during the next decade. It is not only rehabilitation costs that increase with poor maintenance: user costs can increase dramatically (Escobal and Ponce, 2003); health costs in terms of injuries or deaths; and ecological costs (the water lost daily because of leaks could satisfy the needs of 200 million people according to the World Bank, 2006).

Conceptually, however, the link between maintenance, rehabilitation, and new investments is simple to understand. Figure 1 below, adopted from Thi Hoai Le et al. (2019), clarifies this point. As discussed in Babych and Leruth (2020b), when planned maintenance activities (such as planned repair, upkeep, etc.) are insufficient, then the rate at which infrastructure is deteriorating will be high, and the unplanned maintenance costs will increase as well. This response would, in turn, result in a higher total cost. If the amount of planned maintenance activities is excessive, then the unplanned costs may be low, but the total cost is higher than optimal. In order to strike the optimal balance, there need to be just enough planned maintenance activities. 

Figure 1. Optimal zone of maintenance.

Source: Thi Hoai Le et al., (2019).

Conceptually simple maybe, but the devil(s) is (are) in the details. We have already listed above some of the reasons why integration is complex. Data availability is another issue raised by numerous Public Investment Management Assessments made by the IMF. The reporting standards are simply not built in a way that would allow for the compilation of maintenance and rehabilitation data (although aggregate estimates of investment data are available). In any case, the Government Finance Statistics Manual of the IMF (2014) does not separate maintenance expenditure, which is undoubtedly an area that requires further deepening.  More fundamentally perhaps, as pointed out long ago by Schick (1966), there is an additional issue relating to governance philosophy: “planning and budgeting have run separate tracks and have invited different perspectives, the one conservative and negativistic, the other innovative and expansionist …”. Finally, with governments looking for the ‘cheap’ route through public-private partnerships (PPPs) to finance infrastructure development, fiscal risks have increased in advanced and emerging economies in the early 2000s (IMF, 2008). To our knowledge, there have been no systematic assessments of PPP-related fiscal risks since IMF’s report in 2008, but as fiscal positions have deteriorated with the Covid-19 pandemic, PPP projects are likely even riskier today.

What Can Be Done to Improve Infrastructure Maintenance?

Leaving the data, PPPs, and inter-departmental culture issues aside, several considerations that emerge from a closer look at Figure 1 can feed the policy discussions. Let us first consider the notion of planned maintenance (the orange line). In principle, as a project is developed, the cost of maintenance is projected over its life cycle. If the infrastructure is maintained accordingly, its life span may even exceed the projections. At the time the project is conceived, a schedule of maintenance expenditure is also planned and integrated into the analysis. In the figure above, one would expect that these cost assumptions are located in the ‘optimal maintenance zone’ with a limited amount to be spent on unplanned maintenance later on. This level of planned maintenance should then be integrated as a ‘given’ in all subsequent budgets. Usually, as we have already mentioned, it is not.

If we now move to ‘unplanned’ maintenance (the line in blue), we are really referring to situations when infrastructure must be brought back to shape after months (or even years) of neglect. In some cases, this can no longer be labeled as maintenance, and it becomes rehabilitation. Reduce regular maintenance a bit more and the authorities must start over.

Finally, the continuity of the curves is misleading: it is wrong to say that things are necessarily smooth even in the optimal zone.

Let us look more closely at the leading causes and the ways to overcome the problems that arise when optimizing maintenance expenditure.

Setting benchmarks: One explanation for the shortage of maintenance planning outlined above is the lack of information on the practical implementation of such planning.  There are too few studies on maintenance expenditure for policymakers to set benchmarks and develop reliable estimates. The existing studies in this area tend to focus on OECD countries (where data availability is less of a constrain) and on the transportation sector (roads, rail, etc.) perhaps because the private sector is more often involved (see, for example, the American Society of Civil Engineers from 2017, that concluded that 9 percent of all bridges are structurally deficient). Some studies have looked at buildings (e.g., Batalovic et al., 2017 or the Ashrae database, 2021) and unsurprisingly concluded that the age of the construction and its height are significant variables to explain maintenance outlays. However, we are not aware of studies that would, for example, distinguish between different types of maintenance in order to limit overall costs. We are neither aware of studies investigating which organizational arrangements are the most efficient (as discussed by Allen et al., 2019). The bottom line is that there is not much to use as a benchmark, and an effort must be made to build reliable estimates.

Policy dialogue on maintenance is needed:  The abovementioned considerations of the consequences of delayed, unplanned, and sometimes unexpected maintenance bring us to our next point. Things break down when they are not maintained (and sometimes break down when they are maintained too), and such long-term aspects must be more present in the policy dialogue with developing countries. Clearly, delaying maintenance increases fiscal costs in the short- and longer-term (Blazey et al., 2019).

The smoothness of the curves in Figure 1 can be misleading because insufficient maintenance may suddenly trigger a major problem (a bridge or a dam can collapse, as it happened in Italy and in India recently,)  and this will entail high costs, even disasters involving in human lives. The major collapses of nuclear plants (as in Chornobyl, Ukraine, and more recently in Fukushima, Japan) are other examples of the same problem. In addition, studies estimate that poor maintenance of transmission lines could be one of the reasons for electricity blackouts (Yu and Pollitt, 2009). In fact, the lack of maintenance increases the speed at which the value of the existing capital of infrastructure is eroding. While politicians may well hope that this will not happen during their tenure, the probability of a failure increases as maintenance decreases.

On top of the above, inefficiency in maintenance expenditures can be aggravated by wrongly set incentives, both for domestic actors and foreign donors. Indeed, the latter play an important role in infrastructure investment in many developing countries. In Georgia, for example, 40% of infrastructural projects are funded by foreign donors. Setting the right incentives for both parties, as well as their interplay, are thus of immense importance.

Aligning the incentives: Incentives are against maintenance. As pointed out by Babych and Leruth (2020a), capital investment and rehabilitation look good on paper. Maintenance, on the other hand, is considered a current expenditure item in the Government Finance Statistics (GFS) (IMF, 2014). Spending more on maintenance will therefore not look good since 1) more maintenance will reduce government savings in the short term; 2) spending less on maintenance will increase the need for virtuous-looking investment expenditure in the medium and long term. Yet, in spite of the lack of clear benchmarks, donors can play an essential role by stressing the need to systematically integrate maintenance in the budget and in the Medium-Term Expenditure Framework (MTEF). To some extent, it is already the case. In Georgia, projects that are funded by donors tend to follow better appraisal procedures. However, ex-post audits are irregular – e.g., no individual projects audits were completed by State Audit Office during 2015-2017 (PIMA GEO, 2018). If donors could include these audits in their dialogue, it would clearly be helpful. Training subnational governments in proper maintenance management would be even more critical as capacities tend to be weaker than in the center.

Overcoming a potential moral hazard problem of donor involvement: Excessive donor involvement in new investments could also be counterproductive. Donors should carefully examine the need to build new infrastructure and first consider the possibility of performing some rehabilitation while holding the authorities accountable for the maintenance of existing ones. If the authorities are expecting a donor to eventually replace a piece of infrastructure that does not function, the incentives to maintain it are greatly reduced.


  • Developing economies, but also emerging ones like Georgia, as well as Armenia, Ukraine and others, would benefit from proper incentives and support from the international donors to integrate maintenance into the infrastructure planning framework;
  • This is especially important for local governments, who lack the financial and human capital resources to maintain local infrastructure properly, making regions outside of the capital city less attractive places to invest or live in;
  • Given the absence of transparent and comparable sources of information about the composition of maintenance expenditures – for example, the Government Finance Statistics (IMF), which does not distinguish between maintenance and rehabilitation expenditures, – donors could insist that governments compile these expenditures and report on them, at least for the major projects;
  • The culture of maintaining rather than rehabilitating or replacing is directly linked to the sustainable development goals and the circular economy concept. In light of their commitment to Agenda 2030, the international community and the national governments in countries like Georgia should consider prioritizing and implementing the set of reforms suggested in their respective PIMAs.


  • Allen, R., M. Betley, C. Renteria and A. Singh, “Integrating Infrastructure Planning and Budgeting,” in Schwartz et al. (2020), pp. 225-244 (2019).
  • American Society of Civil Engineers, Infrastructure Report Card, Reston, Va, (2017).
  • ASHRAE, Purpose of The Service Life and Maintenance Cost Database, available at., (2021).
  • Babych, Y., and L. Leruth, “Tbilisi: a Growing City with Growing Needs,” ISET-PI Blog available at, (2020a).
  • Babych, Y., and L. Leruth, “To Prevent, to Repair, or to Start Over: Should Georgia Put’ Maintenance’ Ahead of ‘Investment’ in Its Development Dictionary?,” ISET-PI Blog available at, (2020b).
  • Batalovic, M., K. SokolijaM. Hadzialic, and N. Batalovic, “Maintenance and Operation Costs Model for University Buildings,” Tehnicki Vjesnik, 23(2), pp. 589-598, (2017).
  • Blazey, A., F. Gonguet, and P. Stokoe, “Maintaining and Managing Public Infrastructure Assets,” in Schwartz et al. (2020), pp. 265-281 (2019).
  • Escobal, J. and C. Ponce, “The Benefits of Rural Roads: Enhancing Income Opportunities for the Rural Poor,” Working Paper 40, Grupo de Analysis Para el Desarrollo (GRADE), Lima, Peru, (2003).
  • IMF, “Fiscal Risks—Sources, Disclosure, and Management,” Fiscal Affairs Department, Washington DC,(2008).
  • IMF, GFS, Government Finance Statistics Manual, IMF, Washington DC, (2014).
  • PIMA EST, Republic of Estonia: Technical Assistance Report-Public Investment Management Assessment, IMF, Washington DC, (2019).
  • PIMA GEO, Republic of Georgia: Technical Assistance Report-Public Investment Management Assessment, IMF, Washington DC, (2018).
  • Rozenberg, J., and M. Fay, eds, “Beyond The Gap: How Countries Can Afford The Infrastructure They Need While Protecting The Planet,” Sustainable Infrastructure Series, The World Bank, Washington DC, (2019)
  • Schick, A., “The Road to PPB: The Stages of Budget Reform,” Public Administration Review, 26(4), pp. 243-258, (1966).
  • Schwartz, G., M. Fouad, T. Hansen, and G. Verdier, Well Spent : How Strong Infrastructure Governance Can End Waste in Public Investment, IMF, Washington DC, (2020).
  • Thi Hoai Le, A., N. Domingo, E. Rasheed, and K. Park, “Building Maintenance Cost Planning and Estimating: A Literature Review,” 34th Annual ARCOM Conference, Belfast, UK (2019).
  • World Bank, The Challenge of Reducing Non-Revenue Water in Developing Countries – How The Private Sector Can Help,” Water Supply and Sanitation Board Discussion Paper Series No 8, Washington DC, (2006).
  • Yu, W., and M. Pollitt, “Does Liberalization Cause More Electricity Blackouts?,” EPRG Working Paper 0827, Energy Policy Research Group, University of Cambridge, United Kingdom, (2009).

Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.

The Long Shadow of Transition: The State of Democracy in Eastern Europe

Dark hill on the right side of the image with a shadow of a man holding his bicycle on the right side

In many parts of Eastern Europe, the transition towards stronger political institutions and democratic deepening has been slow and uneven. Weak political checks and balances, corruption and authoritarianism have threatened democracy, economic and social development and adversely impacted peace and stability in Europe at large. This policy brief summarizes the insights from Development Day 2019, a full-day conference organized by SITE at the Stockholm School of Economics on November 12th. The presentations were centred around the current political and business climate in the Eastern European region, throwing light on new developments in the past few years, strides towards and away from democracy, and the challenges as well as possible policy solutions emanating from those.

The State of Democracy in the Region

From a regional perspective, Eastern Europe has seen mixed democratic success over the years with hybrid systems that combine some elements of democracy and autocracy. Based on the V-Dem liberal democracy index, ten transition countries that have joined the EU saw rapid early progress after transition. In comparison, the democratic development in twelve nations of the FSU still outside of the EU has been largely stagnant.

In recent years, however, democracy in some of those EU countries, such as Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Romania have been in decline. Poland, one of the region’s top performers in terms of GDP growth and life expectancy, has experienced a sharp decline in democracy since 2015. Backlashes have often occurred after elections in which corruption and economic mismanagement have led to the downfall of incumbent governments and a general distrust of the political system. Together with low voter turnout, this created fertile ground for more autocratic forces to gain power helped by demand for strong leadership.

An example from Ukraine illustrated the role of media, both traditional and social, for policy-making. In some countries of the region, traditional media is strictly state-controlled with obvious concerns for democracy. This is less the case in Ukraine, where also social media plays an important role in forming political opinions. The concern is that, as elsewhere, opinions that gain traction on social media may not be impartial or well informed, affecting public perception about policy-making. A recent case showing the popular reaction to an attack on the former governor of the Central Bank suggests that those implementing important reforms may not get due credit when biased and partial information dominates the political discourse on social media.

Another case is the South Caucasian region: Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. The political situation there has been characterized as a “government by day, government by night” dichotomy, implying that the real political power largely lies outside the official political institutions. In Georgia, the situation can be described as a competition between autocracy and democracy, with a feudalistic system in which powerful groups replace one another across time. As a result, trust in political institutions is low, as well as citizens’ political participation.

In the case of Azerbaijan, there is an elected presidency, but in reality, power has been passed on hereditarily, becoming a de facto patrimonial system. Lastly, in Armenia, the new government possesses democratic credentials, but the tensions with neighbouring Azerbaijan and Turkey have given increasing power to the military and important economic powers. Overall, democratisation in these countries has been hindered by a trend for powerful politicians to form parties around themselves and to retain power after the end of their mandates. Also, the historical focus on nation-building in these countries has led to a marked exclusion of minorities and a conflict of national identities.

The last country case in this part of the conference focused on the current political situation in Russia and on the likely outcomes after 2024. The social framework in Russia appears constellated by fears – a fear of a world war, of regime tightening and mass repressions, and of lawlessness – all of them on the rise. Similarly, the economy is suffering, in particular from low business activity, somewhat offset by a boost in social payments. Nonetheless, it was argued that it is not economic concerns, but rather political frustration, that has recently led citizens to take to the street. Despite this, survey data shows that trust in Putin is still over 60%, and that most people would vote for him again. However, survey data also points out that the most likely determinant of this trust is the lack of another reference figure, and that citizens are not averse to the idea of political change in itself. Lastly, Putin will most likely retain some political power after 2024, transiting “from father to grandfather of the nation”.

Voices from the civil society in the region also emphasized the importance of a free media and an active civil society to prevent the backsliding of democracy. With examples from Georgia and Ukraine, it was argued that maintaining the independence of the judiciary, as well as the public prosecutor’s office, can go a long way in building credibility both among citizens and the international community. The European Union can leverage the high trust and hopeful attitudes it benefits from in the region to push crucial reforms more strongly. For example, more than 70% of Georgians would vote for joining the EU if a referendum was held on the topic and the European Union is widely regarded as Georgia’s most important foreign supporter.

Weak Institutions and Business Development

The quality of political and legal institutions strongly affects the business environment, in particular with regards to the protection of property rights, rule of law, regulation and corruption. Research from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) highlights that the governance gap between Eastern Europe and Central Asia and most advanced economies is still large, even though progress in this area has actually been faster than for other emerging economies since the mid-‘90s. This is measured through enterprise surveys as well as individual surveys. In Albania, for instance, a perception of lower corruption was linked to a decrease in the intention to emigrate equivalent to earning 400$ more per month. Another point concerned the complexity of measuring the business environment and the benefits of firm-level surveys asking firms directly about their own actual experience of regular enforcement. For example, in countries such as Poland, Latvia and Romania the actual experience of business regulation measured via the EBRD’s Business Environment Enterprise Performance Survey, is far worse than one would expect from the World Bank’s well known Doing Business rating.

From the perspective of Swedish firms, trade between Sweden and the region has remained rather flat in the past years, as the complexity and risks of these markets especially discourage SMEs. Business Sweden explained that Swedish firms considering an expansion in these markets are concerned with issues of exchange rate stability, and the institutional-driven presence of unfair competition and of excessive bureaucracy. Moreover, inadequate infrastructure and the presence of bribery and corruption make everyday business operations risky and costly. It was generally emphasized that countries have to create a safe investment environment by reducing corruption, establishing a clear and well enacted regulatory environment, having dependable courts and strengthening domestic resource mobilization. Swedish aid can play a part, but there is a need to develop new ways of delivering aid to make it more effective.

An interesting example is Belarus, that has seen more economic and political stability than most neighbours, but at the same time a lack of both economic and political reforms towards market economy and democracy. Gradually the preference towards private ownership, as opposed to public, has increased in recent years and the country has seen a rising share of the private sector, even without specific privatization reforms. Nonetheless, international businesses are still reluctant to invest due to high taxes, a lack of access to finance as well as to a qualified workforce, but most importantly due to the weak legal system. An exception has been China, and Belarus has looked at the One Belt One Road Initiative as a promising bridge to the EU. Scandals connected with the two main Chinese-invested projects have damped the enthusiasm recently, though.

The economic and political risks of extensively relying on badly diversified energy sources, as is the case with natural gas imports from Russia in many transition states were also discussed. It was shown how some countries such as Ukraine, Poland and Lithuania have improved their energy security by either benefitting from reverse-flow technology and the EU’s bargaining power or building their own LNG terminals to diversify supply sources. However, either of these, as well as other energy security improving solutions are likely to come with an economic cost, though, that not all countries in the region can afford.

A Government Perspective

The main focus of this section was the Swedish government’s new inspiring foreign policy initiative, “Drive for Democracy”. Drawing from a definition of democracy by Kerstin Hesselgren, an early Swedish female parliamentarian, democracy enables countries to realize and utilize the forces of the individual and draw them into a life-giving, value-creating society. It was emphasized that the values of democracy are objectives by themselves (e.g. freedom of expression, respect for human rights) but also that democracy has important positive effects in other areas of human welfare. The Swedish government views democracy as the best foundation for a sustainable society, equality of opportunity and absence of gender or racial bias.

The “Drive for Democracy” specifically identifies Eastern Europe as one of the main frontiers between democracy and autocracy, and the Swedish government promotes human rights and stability through various bilateral programmes through the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, Sida, and multilateral initiatives within the EU, such as the Eastern Partnership. It was also emphasized that democracy is a continuous process that can always be improved, as indeed experienced by Sweden. Political rights were granted to women only in 1919 followed by convicts and prisoners in 1933 and to the Roma people only in 1950. Political and democratic rights are thus never once and for all given, and it is crucial that the dividends from democracy are carried forward to the younger generation.


In sum, the day illustrated clearly how democracy engages all segments of society, from the business sector to civil society, and the potential for but also challenges involved for democratic deepening in Eastern Europe. To get more information about the presentations during the day, please visit our website.

Participants at the Conference

  • PER OLSSON FRIDH, State Secretary, Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
  • ALEXANDER PLEKHANOV, Director for Transition Impact and Global Economics at EBRD.
  • CHLOÉ LE COQ, Associate Professor, SITE and Professor of Economics, University of Paris II Panthéon-Assas.
  • THOMAS DE WAAL, Senior Fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
  • NATALIIA SHAPOVAL, Vice President for Policy Research at Kyiv School of Economics.
  • ILONA SOLOGUB, Scientific Editor at VoxUkraine and Director for Policy Research at Kyiv School of Economics.
  • KETEVAN VASHAKIDZE, President at Europe Foundation, Georgia.
  • MARIA BISTER, Senior Policy Specialist, Sida.
  • HENRIK NORBERG, Deputy Director, Ministry for Foreign Affairs.
  • YLVA BERG, CEO and President, Business Sweden.
  • LARS ANELL, Ambassador and formerly Volvo’s Senior Vice President.
  • ERIK BERGLÖF, Professor in Practice and Director of the Institute of Global Affairs, London School of Economics and Political Science.
  • KATERYNA BORNUKOVA, Academic Director, BEROC, Minsk.
  • ANDREI KOLESNIKOV, Senior Fellow, Carnegie Moscow Center.

Gender Gaps in Wages and Wealth: Evidence from Estonia

20191118 Gender Gaps in Wages and Wealth FREE Network Policy Brief Image 01

This policy brief introduces two related papers examining two types of gender gaps in Estonia. First, it presents the work of Vahter and Masso (2019), who study the wage gender gaps in foreign-owned firms and compare this gap with the situation in domestic ones. Then it summarizes a paper of Meriküll, Kukk, and Rõõm (2019), who focus on the wealth gender gaps and highlight the role of entrepreneurship in this gap.

Gender inequality is not only a moral issue. An extensive literature has highlighted the cost of gender inequality in terms of economic (in)efficiency. Most of the academic work has, however, focused on either the US and Western Europe or developing countries. Research focusing on systematic gender disparities in Eastern Europe is rather scarce. Yet, there is much to be learned from this region. The purpose of the FROGEE (Forum for Research on Gender in Eastern Europe) project is to study several issues related to gender inequality in former socialist countries.

This policy brief summarizes two papers presented at the 2nd Baltic Economic Conference at the Stockholm School of Economics in Riga, on June 10-11, where a special session on gender economics was held with the support of the FROGEE project. The event, organized by the Baltic Economic Association (see balticecon.org), gathered more than 85 researchers from the Baltics and all over the world. These two papers focus on Estonia, one of the most successful economies among the transition countries, where however the gender wage gap is among the largest in the European Union.

Firm ownership and gender wage gap

An important source of wage inequality originates in firm-specific pay schemes (see for instance Card et al. 2016). Understanding the characteristics of firms associated with a gender pay gap is thus a necessary step to design relevant policy responses. In a paper entitled “The contribution of multinationals to wage inequality: foreign ownership and the gender pay gap”, Jaan Masso and Priit Vahter, both at the University of Tartu, compare the situation in foreign-owned firms with domestic ones. The fact that foreign-owned firms provide on average higher wages to their employees is well documented. However, the question of whether this premium differs between men and women remains largely overlooked.

A potential channel linking firm ownership and gender wage gap is the transfer of management practices from the home country of the investor to the affiliate. The great majority of FDI in Estonia originates from Finland and Sweden, two countries that regularly top international rankings on gender equality and that have set the fight against gender inequality as a top priority. Observing a lower level of gender wage gap in firms owned by Swedish and Finnish capital would suggest the existence of such a mechanism, even if there is evidence that Scandinavian countries do not stand out in a positive way when it comes to women in the top of the distribution (see for instance Boschini et al., 2018, and Bobilev et al., 2019).

On the other hand, Goldin (2014) has shown that a large part of the gender wage gap in the US can be explained by differences in job “commitment”: firms disproportionately reward workers willing to be available 24/7, more flexible regarding business trips, spending longer hours in the office, etc. Such workers happen to be more often men than women. Multinational firms may require such commitment and flexibility to a larger extent than domestic firms, due for instance to their higher exposure to international competition. This would imply a larger gender pay gap in foreign-owned firms compared to local firms.

To investigate this issue, Masso and Vahter (2019) rely on Estonian administrative data, providing information on the whole universe of workers and of firms in the country between 2006 and 2014. This matched employer-employee dataset allows to track the wage of individuals over the years, but also to compare wages both across and within firms. It thus becomes possible to estimate the gender wage gap at the firm level (controlling for relevant individual-level factors affecting wages, such as age and experience), and then to check whether this measure systematically differs between domestic and foreign-owned firms.

However, simply comparing the gender pay gap between these two types of firms could lead to spurious conclusions. Foreign-owned firms have on average different characteristics than domestic ones: they do not operate in the same sectors, they do not have the same size nor the same productivity. To overcome this issue, the authors rely on a matching method: for each foreign-owned firms, they match a domestic firm with similar (observable) characteristics.

They find that in domestic firms, women are on average paid 19% less than men, even after accounting for many other factors associated with wage. In foreign-owned companies, both men and women are better paid. However, both genders do not benefit from the same premium: men are paid roughly 15% more in foreign-owned firms, whereas the premium for women is only 5.4%. This difference implies an even larger gender wage gap in multinational firms. To illustrate the economic significance of these results, for a man and a woman earning a monthly wage of 1146 euros (the average gross wage in Estonia in 2016), the premium for switching from a domestic to a foreign-owned firm is respectively 171 and 62 euros. Further, they provide some evidence that lower “commitment” is associated with a stronger wage penalty in foreign-owned firms. All in all, these results suggest that there is not necessarily a relationship between a multinational wage policy (especially in its gender wage-gap dimension) and the gender norms prevailing in its country of incorporation.

Gender and wealth gap

The vast majority of academic papers studying gender inequality focuses on the wage gap. But gender inequality can affect other types of economic outcomes, such as labor force participation, unemployment duration, or wealth. The latter is of particular interest since wealth can greatly contribute to empowerment. Merike Kukk, Jaanika Meriküll and Tairi Rõõm, all at the Bank of Estonia, extend the literature with a paper entitled “What explains the Gender Gap in Wealth? Evidence from Administrative Data”. This paper is one of the first to study the gender wealth gap in a post-transition country. The literature on the gender wealth gap is rather scarce because of a lack of suitable data: wealth measures are often computed at the household level, while individual-level data is necessary for such a study.

The main aim of this paper is to depict a precise portrait of this phenomenon in Estonia. In particular, the authors do not simply estimate the overall wealth gap but investigate the magnitude of the gap across the wealth distribution. In other words, is there a difference between the poorest men and the poorest women? Or on the other side of the distribution, are the richest men more wealthy than the richest women?

For this purpose, Kukk, Meriküll and Rõõm combine administrative individual-level data on wealth with survey results. The administrative data are generally considered of much better quality than the other, but they do not provide a lot of additional information on individuals. On the other hand, survey data provide a wealth of information about individual characteristics. Merging allows getting the best of both worlds. Regarding the methodology, the authors use unconditional quantile regression to track gender differences at different deciles of the wealth distribution. They further decompose this “raw” gender gap into two components: the “explained” part, i.e., the part of the gap resulting in differences in characteristics between men and women (demographics, education, etc.), and the “unexplained” part.

This study estimates the raw, unconditional gender wealth gap in Estonia to be 45%, which is of similar magnitude as in Germany. Interestingly, this difference is essentially driven by differences in the top of the distribution: there is a large gap between the richest men and the richest women. This “raw” difference is however explained by a single variable: self-employment, as men are much more likely to have business assets than women. Once controlling for the entrepreneurship status, the wealth difference between the richest Estonians becomes insignificant. This suggests the need to support policies encouraging female entrepreneurship and to remove barriers particularly affecting women. For instance, the literature has previously pointed out that women have less access to external sources of capital than men (e.g., Aidis et al., 2007). Such distortions can ultimately result in a wealth gap at the top of the distribution, as documented by this paper.

In addition, the literature has proposed several mechanisms that could result in gender-specific patterns of wealth accumulation. The simplest channel is through the wage gap, as it can be seen as the accumulation of the wage gap over time (e.g. Blau and Kahn, 2000). The authors thus compare the gender gaps in wealth and income. They uncover a strong wage gap, with men earning significantly more than women starting at the 6th decile: the higher we go in the income distribution, the larger the wage gap. How to reconcile this finding with the absence of a wealth gap conditional on entrepreneurship status? A possible explanation suggested by the authors is that women simply accumulate wealth better than men do.


These two papers illustrate two different mechanisms explaining gender-specific economic outcomes. The larger wage gap observed in multinational companies can be explained by a stronger commitment penalty for women, mostly because of childcare. This asks for two potential policy interventions. First, the development of childcare could facilitate the reduction in the “commitment gap” that disrupts women’s careers. Second, institutions could support a more flexible repartition of childcare responsibilities. Note however that Estonia already has the longest duration of leave at full pay (85 weeks), and that this leave can be freely split between parents. As for the wealth gap at the top of the wealth distribution, it can to a large extent be explained by the entrepreneurship status. This difference could partly be explained by differences in preferences and risk-aversion, which would require long-run policies to be mitigated. But in the short run, there is room for specific policies supporting female entrepreneurship and removing barriers particularly affecting women, such as a tighter credit constraint.


  • Aidis, R., Welter, F., Smallbone, D., & Isakova, N. (2007). Female entrepreneurship in transition economies: the case of Lithuania and Ukraine. Feminist Economics13(2), 157-183.
  • Blau, F. D., & Kahn, L. M. (2000). Gender differences in pay.  Journal of Economic perspectives14(4), 75-99.
  • Bobilev, R., Boschini, A., & Roine, J. (2019). Women in the Top of the Income Distribution: What Can We Learn From LIS-Data?. Italian Economic Journal, 1-45.
  • Boschini, A., Gunnarsson, K., & Roine, J. (2018). Women in Top Incomes: Evidence from Sweden 1974-2013. IZA Discussion Paper No. 10979 .
  • Card, D., Cardoso, A. R., & Kline, P. (2015). Bargaining, sorting, and the gender wage gap: Quantifying the impact of firms on the relative pay of women. The Quarterly Journal of Economics131(2), 633-686.
  • Goldin, C. (2014). A grand gender convergence: Its last chapter. American Economic Review104(4), 1091-1119.
  • Meriküll, J., Kukk, M., & Rõõm, T. (2019). What explains the gender gap in wealth? Evidence from administrative data. Bank of Estonia WP No. 2019-04.
  • Vahter, P., & Masso, J. (2019). The contribution of multinationals to wage inequality: foreign ownership and the gender pay gap. Review of World Economics155(1), 105-148.

Liberal Democracy in Transition – The First 30 Years

20191027 Liberal Democracy in Transition FREE Network Policy Brief Image 07

This year marks 30 years since the first post-communist election in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall. Key events that started a dramatic transition process from totalitarian regimes towards liberal democracy in many countries. This brief presents stylized facts from this process together with some thoughts on how to get this process back on a positive track. In general, the transition countries that joined the EU are still far ahead of the other transition countries in terms of democratic development.

The recent decline in democratic indicators in some EU countries should be taken seriously as they involve reducing freedom of expression and removing constraints on the executive, but should also be discussed in light of the significant progress transition countries entering the EU have shown during the first 30 years of transition. The brief shows that changes in a democracy can happen fast and most often happen around elections, so getting voters engaged in the democratic process is crucially important. This requires politicians that engage the electorate and have an interest in preserving democratic institutions. An important question in the region is what the EU can do to promote this, given its overloaded political agenda. Perhaps it is time for a Greta for democracy to wake up the young and shake up the old.

This brief provides an overview of political developments in transition countries since the first post-communist elections in Poland and the fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago. It focuses on establishing stylized facts based on quantitative indices of democracy for a large set of transition countries rather than providing in-depth studies of a small number of countries. The aim of the brief is thus to find common patterns across countries that can inform today’s policy discussion on democracy in the region and inspire future studies of the forces driving democracy in individual transition countries.

The first issue to address is what data to use to establish stylized facts of democratic development in the region. By now, there are several interesting indicators that describe various aspects of democratic development, which are produced by different organizations, academic institutions and private data providers. In this brief, three commonly used and well-respected data providers will be compared in the initial section before we zoom in on more specific factors that make up one of these indices.

The big picture

The three indicators that we look at first are: political rights produced by Freedom House; polity 2 produced by the Polity IV project; and the liberal democracy index produced by the V-Dem project. Figures 1-3 show the unweighted average of these indicators for two groups of countries. The EU10 are the transition countries that became EU members in 2004 and 2007 and include Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia. The second group, FSU12, are the 12 countries that came out of the Soviet Union minus the three Baltic countries in the EU10 group, so the FSU12 group consists of Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.

Figure 1. Freedom House

Source: Freedom House and author’s calculations
Note: Scale inverted, 1 is best and 7 worst score

Figure 2. Polity IV project

Source: Polity IV project and author’s calculations
Note: Scale from -10 (fully autocratic) to 10 (fully democratic)

Figure 3. V-Dem

Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations
Note: Scale from 0 to 1 where higher is more democratic

All three indicators convey the message that the democratic transformation in the EU10 group was very rapid in the early years of transition and the indicators have remained at high levels since the mid-90s only to show some decline in the most recent years for two of the three indicators. The FSU12 set of countries have made much less progress in terms of democratic development and remain far behind the EU10 countries in this regard. Overall, there is little evidence at the aggregate level that the democratic gap between the EU10 and FSU12 groups is closing. While the average EU10 country is more or less a full-fledged democracy, the average FSU12 country is at the lower end of the spectrum for all three democracy measures.

The average indicators in Figures 1-3 obviously hide some interesting developments in individual countries and in the following analysis, we will take a closer look at the liberal democracy index at the country level. We will then investigate what sub-indices contribute to changes in the aggregate index in the countries that have experienced significant declines in their liberal democracy scores.

For the first part of the analysis, it is useful to break down the democratic development in two phases. The first phase is from the onset of transition (1989, 1991 or 1993 depending on the specific country) to the time of the global financial crisis in 2009 and the second phase is from 2009 to 2018 (the last data point).

Figure 4. Liberal democracy, the first phase

Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations

Figures 4 and 5 compare how the liberal democracy indicator changes from the first year of the period (measured on the horizontal axis) to the last year of the period (on the vertical axis). The smaller blue dots are the individual countries that make up the EU10 group while the red dots are the FSU12 countries. The 45-degree line indicates when there is no change between start and end years, while observations that lie below (above) the line indicate a deterioration (improvement) of the liberal democracy index in a specific country.

In the first phase of transition (Figure 4), all of the EU10 countries increased their liberal democracy scores and the average increase for the group was almost 0.5, going from 0.26 to 0.74. This was a result of many of the countries in the group making significant improvements without any countries deteriorating. The FSU12 group had a very different development with the average not changing at all since the few countries that improved (Georgia and Ukraine) were counterbalanced by a significant decline in Belarus and a more modest decline in Armenia.

Figure 5. Liberal democracy, the second phase

Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations

The very rapid improvement in the liberal democracy index in the EU10 countries in the first phase of transition came to a halt and also reversed in several countries in the second phase of transition. Of course, as they had improved so much in the first period, there was less room for further positive developments, but the rapid decline in some of the countries was still negative news. However, it does point towards that reform momentum was very strong in the EU accession process, but once a country had entered the union, the pressure for liberal democratic reforms has faded.

Overall, the EU10 average fell by 0.1 from 2009 to 2018. This was a result of declining scores in several countries. The particularly large declines in this period have been seen in Hungary (-0.28), Poland (-0.27), Bulgaria (-0.14), the Czech Republic (-0.14), and Romania (-0.12). Again, the average FSU12 score did not change much, although Ukraine (-0.2) put its early success in reverse and lost as much in this period as it had gained earlier.

Country developments

Since much of the current discussion centers on how democracy is being under attack, the figures name the countries that have seen significant declines in the liberal democracy score in the first or second phase of transition. Figures 6 and 7 show the time-series of the liberal democracy index in the countries with significant drops at some stage of the transition process.

Figure 6. FSU12 decliners

Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations

In many countries, the drop comes suddenly and sharply, with the first and most prominent example being Belarus. There, it only took three years to go from one of the highest ranked FSU12 countries to fall to one of the lowest liberal democracy scores. In Poland, Romania, Bulgaria and Armenia, the process was also very rapid and significant changes happened in 2-3 years.

Figure 7. EU10 decliners

Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations

In the Czech Republic and Hungary, the period of decline was much longer and in the case of Hungary, the drop was the most significant in the EU10 group. Ukraine stands out as more of an exception with a roller-coaster development in its liberal democracy score that first took it up the list and then back down to where it started. For those familiar with politics in these countries, it is easy to identify the elections and change in government that have occurred at the times the index has started to fall in all of these countries. In other words, the democratic declines have not started with coups but followed election outcomes where in most cases the incumbent leaders have been replaced by a new person or party.

How democracy came under attack

We will now take a closer look at what has been behind the instances of decline in the aggregate index by investigating how the sub-indices have developed in these countries. The sub-indices that build up the liberal democracy index are: freedom of expression and alternative sources of information; freedom of association; share of population with suffrage; clean elections; elected officials; equality before the law and individual liberty; judicial constraints on the executive; and legislative constraints on the executive (the structure is a bit more complex with mid-level indices, see V-Dem 2019a).

Table 1 shows how these indicators have changed in the time period the liberal democracy indicator has fallen significantly (with shorter versions of the longer names listed above but in the same order). The heat map of decline indicated by the different colours is constructed such that positive changes are marked with green, smaller declines are without colour, declines greater that 0.1 but smaller than 0.2 are in yellow and larger declines in red. Note that the liberal democracy index is not an average of the sub-indices but based on a more sophisticated aggregation technique (see V-Dem 2019b). Therefore, the Czech Republic and Bulgaria can have a greater fall in top-level liberal democracy index that what is indicated by the sub-indices.

Table 1. Changes in liberal democracy indicators at times of democratic decline

Source: V-Dem project and author’s calculations

For the countries with the largest changes in the liberal democracy index, it is clear that both freedom of expression and alternative sources of information have come under attack together with reduced judicial and legislative constraints on the executive. Among the EU10 countries, Hungary and Poland stand out in terms of reducing freedom of expression, while Romania has seen most of the decline coming from reducing constraints on the executive. Not surprisingly, Belarus stands out in terms of the overall decline in liberal democracy coming from reducing both freedom of expression and constraints on the executive in the most significant way.

On a more general level, the attack on democracy does differ between the countries, but in the cases where serious declines can be seen, the attack has been particularly focused on information aspects and constraints on the executive. At the same time, all countries let all people vote (suffrage always at 1) and let the one with the most votes get the job (elected officials).

Policy conclusions

This brief has provided some stylized facts on the first 30 years of liberal democracy in transition and some details on how democracy has come under attack in individual countries. It leaves open many questions that require further studies and some of these are indeed ongoing in this project and will be presented in future briefs and policy papers here.

Some observations have already been made here that can inform policy discussions on liberal democratic developments in the region. The first is that changes can happen very rapidly, both in terms of improvements but also in terms of dismantling important democratic institutions, including those that provide constraints on the executive or media that provides unbiased coverage before and after elections. What is also noteworthy is that these changes have almost always happened after an election where a new person or party has come to power, so the democratic system is used to introduce less democracy in this sense.

It is also interesting that in all of the countries, the most easily observed indicators of democracy such as suffrage and having the chief executive or legislature being appointed by elections are given the highest possible scores. In other words, even the most autocratic regime wants to look like a democracy; but as the old saying goes, “it is not who votes that is important, it is who counts”.

The regime changes at election times that have led to declining liberal democracy scores have also in many cases come as a result of the incumbents not doing a great job or voters not turning up to vote. It was enough for Lukashenko in Belarus to promise to deal with corruption and rampant inflation that was a result of the old guard’s mismanagement to turn Belarus into an autocracy. In Hungary, the change of regime came after the Socialist leader was caught on tape saying he had been lying to voters. While in Romania, only 39% voted in the 2016 election. And in Bulgaria, around half of the voters stayed at home in the presidential election the same year.

In sum, both incompetent and corrupt past leaders and disengaged or disillusioned voters are part of the decline in a liberal democracy that we have seen in recent years. It is clearly time for policy makers that are interested in preserving liberal democracy in the region and elsewhere to think hard about how democracy can be saved from illiberal democrats. Part of the answer clearly will have to do with how voters can be engaged in the democratic process and take part in elections. It also involves defending free independent media and the thinkers and doers that contribute to the liberal democracy that we cherish. The question is if the young generation will find a Greta for democracy that can kick-start a new transition to liberal democracy in the region and around the world.

For those readers that want to participate more actively in this discussion and have a chance to be in Stockholm on November 12, SITE is organizing a conference on this theme which is open to the public. For more information on the conference, please visit SITE’s website (see here).


  • Freedom house data downloaded on Oct 4, 2019, from https://freedomhouse.org/content/freedom-world-data-and-resources
  • Freedom house methodological note available at https://freedomhouse.org/report/methodology-freedom-world-2018
  • Polity IV project data downloaded on Oct 4, 2019, from http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscrdata.html
  • Polity IV project manual available at http://www.systemicpeace.org/inscr/p4manualv2018.pdf
  • V-Dem project data downloaded on Sept 24, 2019, from https://www.v-dem.net/en/data/data-version-9/
  • Coppedge, Michael, John Gerring, Carl Henrik Knutsen, Staffan I. Lindberg, Jan Teorell, David Altman, Michael Bernhard, M. Steven Fish, Adam Glynn, Allen Hicken, Anna Lührmann, Kyle L. Marquardt, Kelly McMann, Pamela Paxton, Daniel Pemstein, Brigitte Seim, Rachel Sigman, Svend-Erik Skaaning, Jeffrey Staton, Steven Wilson, Agnes Cornell, Lisa Gastaldi, Haakon Gjerløw, Nina Ilchenko, Joshua Krusell, Laura Maxwell, Valeriya Mechkova, Juraj Medzihorsky, Josefine Pernes, Johannes von Römer, Natalia Stepanova, Aksel Sundström, Eitan Tzelgov, Yi-ting Wang, Tore Wig, and Daniel Ziblatt. 2019a. “V-Dem [Country-Year/Country-Date] Dataset v9”, Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem)
  • Pemstein, Daniel, Kyle L. Marquardt, Eitan Tzelgov, Yi-ting Wang, Juraj Medzihorsky, Joshua Krusell, Farhad Miri, and Johannes von Römer. 2019b. “The V-Dem Measurement Model: Latent Variable Analysis for Cross-National and Cross-Temporal Expert-Coded Data”, V-Dem Working Paper No. 21. 4th edition. University of Gothenburg: Varieties of Democracy Institute.

Money Laundering: Regulatory or Political Capture?

20181210 Money Laundering Image 01

Danske Bank has recently been accused of having laundered more than 200 billion Euros through its Estonian branch. The size of the scandal has reinvigorated the discussion over lax enforcement by regulators and poor bank compliance with anti-money laundering laws. In this brief, we concisely review some recent cases of poor regulatory and political behaviour with respect to these matters, focusing in particular on the UK, whose financial system seems to have become a main hub for this type of financial misconduct.

A widespread phenomenon

The size of the recent money laundering scandal at Danske Bank, involving more than 200 billion Euros, has surprised many. Money laundering is a widespread issue in an increasingly complex world where financial transactions are many and instantaneous, while oversight slow and limited (Radu 2016). According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, an estimated $800 – $2 trillion is laundered every year (United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime). The source of laundered money is often from corruption, crime and drug cartels (as with the HSBC scandal, see below). Attempts to blow the whistle on these illegal transactions have gotten several people killed, especially in Russia (The Daily Beast, October 2018).

Malta’s Pilatus bank recently had its license revoked by the European Central Bank after its chairman was charged with money laundering (Reuters, October 2018). The investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb in October of 2017 in Malta (The Guardian, October 2017). She was leading the Panama Papers investigation into corruption in the country and had accused Pilatus bank of processing corrupt payments (The Guardian, November 2018). In Sweden, some banks have recently been criticized for insufficient actions against money laundering. Experts at the regulator recommended extensive sanctions, but upper management stopped them (Svenska Dagbladet, December 2018). In November, Deutsche Bank’s headquarters in Frankfurt were raided by prosecutors in a money laundering investigation (BBC, November 2018).

Back to Danske Bank. Its Estonian branch was recently accused of having laundered money, amounting to over 200 billion Euros of suspicious transfers (Financial Times, November 2018). In 2011 the Estonian branch accounted for 0.5% of Danske Bank’s assets, while generating 12% of its total profits before taxes. In 2013, 99% of the profits in the branch came from non-residents. Many of the non-resident customers are believed to be from Russia and other ex-soviet states (Forbes, September 2018). The alleged money laundering came to light due to the whistleblower Howard Wilkinson, who headed Danske Bank’s market trading unit in the Baltics from 2007 to 2014. Surprisingly, his anger over these transactions was not primarily aimed at top management in Copenhagen, or failure of rank and file employees to follow protocol in customer acquisition, but against the UK, who he claimed is “the worst of all” when it comes to combating money laundering (Financial Times, November 2018). In fact, the UK institutions seem to have been at the very heart of the scandal (ibid):

“Mr Wilkinson’s emails to Danske executives in 2013 and 2014 highlighted how UK entities were “the preferred vehicle for non-resident clients” at the heart of the scandal.”

In an address to European Union Lawmakers, he said (Reuters, November 2018):

“The role of the United Kingdom is an absolute disgrace. Limited liability partnerships and Scottish liability partnerships have been abused for absolutely years”.

Regulatory or political capture?

The increasingly central role that the UK appears to be playing as a hub for financial crime is perhaps not new or surprising. The UK has indeed come to be widely recognized as one – though certainly not the only – main hub for these illegal transactions (see e.g. Radu 2016, p.15). The UK’s National Crime Agency estimates 93 billion GBP of tainted money is flowing into Britain annually (Financial Times, September 2018).

And according to the classic theory of regulatory capture (Stigler, 1970), it is to be expected that a large, wealthy and highly concentrated sector such as the UK financial industry, will be able to capture regulatory institutions and lead them to act more in its favour than in that of the (national or international) community. However, besides being a concentrated source of special interests, the financial sector also represents a large share of the UK economy. It could be the case, therefore, that the capture goes all the way up to the political system and the government (as in Becker 1983, and Laffont, 1996). So, is it the alleged crime-friendly environment in the UK financial system linked more to problems of regulatory capture, or to deeper political capture?

Already in 2004 there were worrying signs of possibly deep political capture.  At the time, Paul Moore, a senior risk manager at Halifax Bank of Scotland (HBOS), raised concerns about the bank’s risk taking and was subsequently fired by the executive James Crosby. Crosby then proceeded to become Deputy Chairman at the Financial Services Authority (FSA). HBOS then collapsed during the financial crisis of 2008 and merged with Lloyds bank, leading to one of the most concentrated banking systems in the world (the top 5 banks have 85% of the UK banking market). Many took this to substantiate Moore’s claim that the bank had been taking excessive risks. During Prime Minister’s question time in the House of Commons, David Cameron commented on then Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s decision to appoint Crosby to the FSA:

“Sir James Crosby, the man who ran HBOS and whom the Prime Minister singled out to regulate our banks and to advise our Government, has resigned over allegations that he sacked the whistleblower who knew that his bank was taking unacceptable risks.” (cited in Dewing and Russell 2016, p.165)

A suggestive episode directly involving politicians and money laundering is the case of HSBC, with headquarters in London. HSBC avoided criminal prosecution in the US and entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with the DOJ in 2012 (Department of Justice, December 2012). HSBC was found to have violated U.S. Anti-Money Laundering and Sanctions Laws by laundering billions of dollars linked to Mexican drug cartels, groups in Iran and Syria, and groups linked to terrorism. While HSBC apparently had systems to flag suspicious transactions, employees were told to disregard red flags (Garrett 2014, p.201). The case led to a 2016 House Committee report entitled “too big to jail” that was extensively used against the Democrats by the Trump presidential campaign (Committee on Financial Services, 2016).

The report states that on the 10th of September 2012 UK Chancellor George Osborne (the UK’s chief financial minister) wrote a letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke (with a copy transmitted to then Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner). In the letter, Chancellor Osborne insinuated that the U.S. was unfairly targeting UK banks by seeking settlements that were higher than comparable settlements with U.S. banks. He also worried about what criminal sanctions against HSBC would imply for financial stability. Criminal charges could also lead to a revoked license, making the bank unable to do business in the US (Financial Times, July 2016). HSBC was eventually ordered to pay a 1.9 billion dollar fine, while another whistleblower claims that the money laundering still went on (Huffington Post, August 2013).

The FSA also appeared much more concerned about criminal sanctions against HSBC than with money laundering for the bloodiest drug cartel in history (estimated to be responsible for several tenths of thousands of murders). In fact, the house committee report states that “The FSA’s Involvement in the U.S. Government’s HSBC Investigations and Enforcement Actions Appears to Have Hampered the U.S. Government’s Investigations and Influenced DOJ’s Decision Not to Prosecute HSBC” (p.24).

Things have not improved more recently. In 2013 the FSA was split up into the Financial Conduct Authority and the Prudential Regulation Authority (FCA & PRA). In 2014 the FCA & PRA came out with a note requested by the British parliament on whether financial incentives for whistleblowers should be introduced in the UK. These financial incentives, or reward programs, are used extensively in the US in tax, procurement, and securities. The FCA & PRA came out strongly against rewards in their seven-page note, yet do not cite a single piece of evidence (PRA and FCA, 2014). Most importantly, the note contains important factual misstatements about available evidence on their effectiveness that were easy to check at the time of the report (Nyreröd & Spagnolo 2017, National Whistleblower Center 2018). Nor was the note amended when one of us repeatedly communicated the mistakes to the agencies. This suggests persistent and deep regulatory capture. Consistent with this interpretation is the sanctioning behavior of UK regulators.

A blatant recent example is the ridiculous fine against CEO of Barclays Bank Jes Staley. He ordered his security team to unveil the identity of an uncomfortable whistleblower, going so far as to request video footage of the person who bought the postage for the letter. Yet, the FCA & PRA decided to just fine him £642 000 – a small fraction of his pay package that year (Reuters, May 2018). When Moore was asked about the fine he replied that “it is a very clear sign to whistleblowers not to bother” (Reuters, April 2018).


Is this regulatory capture, or political capture? The impressive list of consistent cases of regulatory slack and of political complacency suggests both, at least in the case of the UK. But the problem of regulatory capture in the case of financial crimes goes way beyond the somewhat extreme case of the UK. In all jurisdictions financial misbehavior has recently only led to settlements between regulators and the infringing financial institution, with settlement payments way too low to generate (financial stability concerns, and) deterrence effects. Banking regulators appear mainly concerned about banks’ health and profitability, so that large financial institutions have not only become too big to fail, but also too big to jail, and now even too big to fine, at least to the appropriate extent (Spagnolo 2015). All this even though the financial crime has been that actively supporting through money laundering criminal organizations that killed tenths of thousands of innocent people.


Disclaimer: Opinions expressed in policy briefs and other publications are those of the authors; they do not necessarily reflect those of the FREE Network and its research institutes.