Business Standard

Hugo Dixon: Not banking on union

A centralised regulatory system for banks in Europe is no solution to the euro crisis

Hugo Dixon
Related News

Does Europe need a “banking union” to shore up its struggling monetary union? And is it going to get one?

These questions are raised by the increasingly lively debate over how to break the link between troubled states in the euro zone periphery and their equally troubled banks. In some countries, such as Ireland, the lenders have made so many bad loans that they have had to be bailed out — in turn, dragging down their governments. In Greece and Italy, banks have gorged on so many government bonds that they have been damaged by their state’s deteriorating creditworthiness. And in Spain, the current focus of the euro crisis, a bit of both has been happening: banks made too many bad loans and then bought too many government bonds.

One proposed solution to this incestuous relationship, advocated among others by the International Monetary Fund, involves creating a centralised Europe-wide system for regulating banks and, if necessary, closing them down and paying off their depositors. The idea is that the region’s lenders would be viewed as European banks rather than Spanish, Greek or Italian ones. If they got into trouble, they wouldn’t infect their governments; and vice versa. That would make the whole euro crisis easier to manage.

While the idea carries much theoretical appeal, such a fully-fledged isn’t realistic. The incestuous embrace between governments and banks may be unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean politicians entirely dislike it. National oversight of lenders gives politicians all sorts of ways of meddling in their economies. And this is not just in the troubled countries. Relatively healthy states such as Germany and France would be loath to surrender the power to boss around banks to some supra-national authority.

Citizens in rich states wouldn’t like the idea of having to bail out banks that had gone on a binge in a completely different part of Europe, either. What’s more, even if a centralised banking body was created, would it really have the clout to tell the big boys what to do?

A further difficulty concerns whether such a banking union should stretch across the euro zone or the entire European Union, which includes the United Kingdom, home to the region’s largest financial centre. Britain would argue that it shouldn’t be roped into a system that is designed to shore up the single currency it is not part of. On the other hand, if the euro countries went ahead on their own, the single market in financial services would fragment.

Quite apart from the politics, a banking union wouldn’t actually solve all the problems. In particular, it would do nothing to stop banks owning too much government debt. Indeed, in the last few months, Spanish and Italian lenders have bought even more of this debt — using cheap money from the (ECB). This has helped finance their governments through a rough patch but at the cost of tying the banks’ fate even more closely to that of their countries. Over time, governments ought to be weaned off reliance on their local banks. But, realistically, this isn’t going to happen fast.

Does this mean that a European banking union is a totally dead idea? Not quite. It may be possible to cherry-pick bits of it. The most important part would be to create a Europe-wide “resolution” regime. The basic idea is that such a regime would allow insolvent banks to go bust in a controlled fashion. If shareholders haven’t put in enough capital, bondholders have to be “bailed in”. Only if bondholders also haven’t put in enough capital do deposit guarantee schemes — and possibly taxpayers — have to be activated to make sure savers are repaid. With such a framework, governments such as Ireland’s wouldn’t in future be infected by their lenders’ problems.

At present, many European countries lack such a resolution regime; those that do exist don’t collaborate effectively with one another. What’s more, until recently the ECB was hostile to the idea that bank bondholders should suffer any losses. It prevented Dublin from bailing in bondholders, fearing that this would trigger contagion.

The mood, though, is changing. The European Commission is planning to publish plans for an EU-wide resolution regime in June. Even the ECB has started lending its support to such a scheme. The devil, of course, will be in the detail. But there finally seems to be momentum behind this proposal.

A second idea that could be cherry-picked is to reinforce Europe’s deposit guarantee schemes. At the moment, every country has its own. The problem is that depositors in weak countries, especially Greece, don’t have confidence that their national schemes have enough money to pay out. So savers have been taking their cash abroad.

It is too much to expect that Germany, Europe’s paymaster, would agree to a euro-wide deposit insurance scheme. But what about some sort of reinsurance scheme? Nicolas Veron from the Bruegel think tank argues that the European Stability Mechanism, the euro zone’s soon-to-be-created bailout fund, could provide national schemes with a backstop.

Europe is not ready for banking union any more than it is ready for political union. But such ideas show there are practical ways of limiting the unhealthy nexus between lenders and their governments. Europe should grasp them.


 

The author is Editor, Reuters Breakingviews

Read more on:   
|

Hugo Dixon: Not banking on union

A centralised regulatory system for banks in Europe is no solution to the euro crisis

These questions are raised by the increasingly lively debate over how to break the link between troubled states in the euro zone periphery and their equally troubled banks. In some countries, such as Ireland, the lenders have made so many bad loans that they have had to be bailed out — in turn, dragging down their governments.

Does Europe need a “banking union” to shore up its struggling monetary union? And is it going to get one?

These questions are raised by the increasingly lively debate over how to break the link between troubled states in the euro zone periphery and their equally troubled banks. In some countries, such as Ireland, the lenders have made so many bad loans that they have had to be bailed out — in turn, dragging down their governments. In Greece and Italy, banks have gorged on so many government bonds that they have been damaged by their state’s deteriorating creditworthiness. And in Spain, the current focus of the euro crisis, a bit of both has been happening: banks made too many bad loans and then bought too many government bonds.

One proposed solution to this incestuous relationship, advocated among others by the International Monetary Fund, involves creating a centralised Europe-wide system for regulating banks and, if necessary, closing them down and paying off their depositors. The idea is that the region’s lenders would be viewed as European banks rather than Spanish, Greek or Italian ones. If they got into trouble, they wouldn’t infect their governments; and vice versa. That would make the whole euro crisis easier to manage.

While the idea carries much theoretical appeal, such a fully-fledged isn’t realistic. The incestuous embrace between governments and banks may be unhealthy, but that doesn’t mean politicians entirely dislike it. National oversight of lenders gives politicians all sorts of ways of meddling in their economies. And this is not just in the troubled countries. Relatively healthy states such as Germany and France would be loath to surrender the power to boss around banks to some supra-national authority.

Citizens in rich states wouldn’t like the idea of having to bail out banks that had gone on a binge in a completely different part of Europe, either. What’s more, even if a centralised banking body was created, would it really have the clout to tell the big boys what to do?

A further difficulty concerns whether such a banking union should stretch across the euro zone or the entire European Union, which includes the United Kingdom, home to the region’s largest financial centre. Britain would argue that it shouldn’t be roped into a system that is designed to shore up the single currency it is not part of. On the other hand, if the euro countries went ahead on their own, the single market in financial services would fragment.

Quite apart from the politics, a banking union wouldn’t actually solve all the problems. In particular, it would do nothing to stop banks owning too much government debt. Indeed, in the last few months, Spanish and Italian lenders have bought even more of this debt — using cheap money from the (ECB). This has helped finance their governments through a rough patch but at the cost of tying the banks’ fate even more closely to that of their countries. Over time, governments ought to be weaned off reliance on their local banks. But, realistically, this isn’t going to happen fast.

Does this mean that a European banking union is a totally dead idea? Not quite. It may be possible to cherry-pick bits of it. The most important part would be to create a Europe-wide “resolution” regime. The basic idea is that such a regime would allow insolvent banks to go bust in a controlled fashion. If shareholders haven’t put in enough capital, bondholders have to be “bailed in”. Only if bondholders also haven’t put in enough capital do deposit guarantee schemes — and possibly taxpayers — have to be activated to make sure savers are repaid. With such a framework, governments such as Ireland’s wouldn’t in future be infected by their lenders’ problems.

At present, many European countries lack such a resolution regime; those that do exist don’t collaborate effectively with one another. What’s more, until recently the ECB was hostile to the idea that bank bondholders should suffer any losses. It prevented Dublin from bailing in bondholders, fearing that this would trigger contagion.

The mood, though, is changing. The European Commission is planning to publish plans for an EU-wide resolution regime in June. Even the ECB has started lending its support to such a scheme. The devil, of course, will be in the detail. But there finally seems to be momentum behind this proposal.

A second idea that could be cherry-picked is to reinforce Europe’s deposit guarantee schemes. At the moment, every country has its own. The problem is that depositors in weak countries, especially Greece, don’t have confidence that their national schemes have enough money to pay out. So savers have been taking their cash abroad.

It is too much to expect that Germany, Europe’s paymaster, would agree to a euro-wide deposit insurance scheme. But what about some sort of reinsurance scheme? Nicolas Veron from the Bruegel think tank argues that the European Stability Mechanism, the euro zone’s soon-to-be-created bailout fund, could provide national schemes with a backstop.

Europe is not ready for banking union any more than it is ready for political union. But such ideas show there are practical ways of limiting the unhealthy nexus between lenders and their governments. Europe should grasp them.


 

The author is Editor, Reuters Breakingviews

image

Read More

Sunil Sethi: Off-key and off-queue

Does bureaucracy ever give up? Not really. Do public-private partnerships take off in delivering essential services? Not if the public partner ends ...

Recommended for you

Most Popular Columns

T N Ninan

T N Ninan: Don't subsidise, build
T N Ninan

When there is an enormous shortage of public hospitals, when state expenditure on health care is abysmally low by any international yardstick, tax money should be used to set up public hospitals

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan: Consumer politics comes to the internet
T C A Srinivasa-Raghavan

In purely economic and legal terms, net neutrality is a flawed idea. Its politics is based on user greed

Jaimini Bhagwati

Jaimini Bhagwati: Effective economic diplomacy
Jaimini Bhagwati

We need a systematic approach for selecting and training officers to promote foreign trade and investment, and facilitate scientific-technological tie-ups

Columnists

Pratip Kar

Pratip Kar: Companies Act 2013 and internal financial controls
Pratip Kar

Implementation will be weakened if we fail to define terms used in the Act clearly and precisely

Dipayan Mitra

Dipayan Mitra: One bill to rule them all
Dipayan Mitra

A "One Bill" policy means that all financial transactions across India for trade of goods and services are billed through one universal billing ...

Gopalkrishna Gandhi

He stood out, he spoke up
Gopalkrishna Gandhi

Exploitation of the charisma of the great dead is not the monopoly of one party alone; it is a national political pastime. Dr Ambedkar's name ...

Back to Top