Monthly Archives: June 2013

Peter Spiegel

Merkel speaks at the post-EU summit press conference where she chided Anglo Irish bankers

The explosive disclosure of audio tapes capturing phone conversations of executives at the failed Anglo Irish Bank, which appear to show a strategy to win government bailout money by exaggerating the bank’s financial health, have up until now largely been a domestic political scandal confined to Ireland.

But revelations that one executive, the then-head of the bank’s capital markets operations, sang the Nazi-era version of the German national anthem when he learned the bank had won funding from Germany brought a stern rebuke from Angela Merkel early Thursday morning after Irish Times Berlin correspondent Derek Scally asked her about it at a post-EU summit press conference.

“I cannot but express my contempt at this,” Merkel said. Here are her complete remarks on the topic:

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James Fontanella-Khan

Today’s EU summit is getting under way but Brussels’ blogger Joshua Chaffin and Peter Spiegel discuss how most of the big deals have been cut on the sidelines of the big event.

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Peter Spiegel

EU leaders have been arriving at the summit. In a little Brussels Blog attempt at innovation, James Fontanella-Khan and Peter Spiegel did a two-way Twitter chat on the goings on:


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After two sets of late-night negotiations that stretched into early morning, EU finance ministers finally reached a deal Thursday on new bail-out rules for European banks. A quick primer:

Is the deal a big step towards a banking union? It is definitely progress. But this is no leap towards centralisation. The bank bailout blueprint was proposed even before a eurozone banking union was endorsed by EU leaders last year. It is more a political pre-condition for deeper financial integration. The reform frames the powers of EU national authorities in handling bank failures and applies to euro and non-euro countries.

The impetus primarily came from the global regulatory response to the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008. These reforms are supposed to answer the “too big to fail” question, readying the defences for the next crisis and introducing powers to make creditors shoulder the costs of bank collapse, rather than taxpayers. It just turned out the reforms were shaped in the middle of a European banking crisis, rather than in the wake of the US one.

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EU financial services chief Michel Barnier takes questions on the bank bail-in debate Wednesday

Call it the Cinderella rule: complex bank reforms cannot be agreed in Brussels until after midnight. So it will be this evening as ministers reconvene to negotiate laws on how to shut down failing banks, a deal that eluded them in the early hours of Saturday morning. (Though it should be noted negotiators for the Irish government, holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, are telling interlocutors they hope to be at the pub before midnight.)

The talks don’t start in earnest until after 7pm but a compromise text is circulating. It is the opening shot from the Irish to break the impasse. Officials are more optimistic about a deal this time. Fellow Brussels Blogger Peter Spiegel has written extensively on the context of the negotiations already, so this blog offers a short summary of the main changes for those who have followed the talks:

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Peter Spiegel

Greek prime minister Antonis Samaras, centre, holds a cabinet meeting this week.

Just how off track is Greece’s €172bn second bailout? When the FT reported that a new €3bn-€4bn financing gap had opened up in the programme, EU and International Monetary Fund officials went out of their way to insist there wasn’t a gap at all.

“There is no financial gap. The programme is fully financed for at least another year, so there is no problem, on the premise that we reach a final agreement on the review in July,” said Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who chairs the eurogroup.

IMF spokesman Gerry Rice weighed in with a written statement: “If the review is concluded by the end of July 2013, as expected, no financing problems will arise because the program is financed till end-July 2014.”

Notice the caveats, however. Both Dijsselbleom and Rice say there won’t be a shortfall – as long as the IMF is able to distribute its next €1.8bn aid tranche before the end of July. Why? Because of the new financing gap, which means the Greek programme essentially runs out of money in July 2014. The IMF must have certainty that Greece is fully financed for 12 months or it can’t release its cash, so after July, it must suspend its payments. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Noonan addresses reporters outside the finance ministers' meeting in Luxembourg Friday

When EU finance ministers reconvene on Wednesday for a last-ditch attempt to strike a deal on bank bailout rules after they couldn’t get one in the early morning hours Saturday, it won’t be the first time fights over Europe’s “banking union” have gone to the eleventh hour before a major EU summit.

The last major decision – how many banks would be overseen by a new single supervisor based at the European Central Bank – also took one failed finance ministers’ meeting late last year before they reached a deal on the eve of a summit.

But EU leaders are sounding a bit more cautious this time than last December, since the issues at hand – who will pay for bank bailouts – are far more politically sensitive than last time around. They involve both power and money. Last time, it was just power.

To get an idea of where things lie after the Friday night/Saturday morning 18-hour marathon, we’ve posted this three-page proposal tabled by Michael Noonan, the Irish finance minister who chaired the meeting as holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, near the end of the debate. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Viviane Reding announces her plan for female quotas on corporate boards in November

Remember EU commissioner Viviane Reding’s effort last year to get the EU to adopt 40 per cent quotas for women on corporate boards? Well, last night, in the words of one EU diplomat, it may have finally become “brain dead”.

At a meeting of employment ministers from all 27 EU members Thursday night in Luxembourg, a group of ten northern and eastern countries – including Germany, Britain, Sweden and the Netherlands – submitted a statement saying they would block the plan. Combined, diplomats said, the countries had more than enough votes to prevent it from ever seeing the light of day again. Read more

The Brussels Blog team will be trying something new on Wednesday: a Twitter interview. Brussels bureau chief Peter Spiegel will be tweeting with the outgoing US ambassador to the EU, William Kennard, at 4pm Brussels time/3pm London time, asking questions from the account associated with this blog, @FTBrussels, with the ambassador answering from his official account, @USAmbEURead more

Peter Spiegel

Would Ireland's Anglo-Irish Bank, whose rescue forced Dublin into a bailout, been covered?

Remember a year ago when eurozone leaders promised to “break the vicious circle” between banks and sovereign governments by allowing the eurozone’s €500bn rescue fund to bailout struggling banks instead of leaving the task to cash-strapped national treasuries?

At the time, financial markets cheered the deal because it appeared countries that were either forced into sovereign bailouts because of their faltering financial sector (like Ireland) or were near the bailout precipice (like Spain) could get significant relief by handing over responsibility for shoring up teetering banks to Brussels instead.

But gradually, as the so-called “direct recapitalisation” programme has been developed, that “break” has come to look less convincing. Indeed, Olli Rehn, the EU’s economic commissioner, now refers to “diluting” the link between banks and sovereigns instead of “breaking”.

The clearest sign that all sorts of sovereign strings will come attached to a direct recap from the €500bn European Stability Mechanism is a draft paper issued by the eurogroup’s secretariat outlining how the “instrument” will work. It was prepared last week ahead of this Thursday’s eurogroup meeting, and we got our hands on it – and posted it hereRead more

Pity the Lithuanians. When assuming the EU rotating presidency next month they will inherit the mother of all regulatory backlogs, especially when it comes to the financial sector. It is an impossible and thankless task, a numbingly complex pile of half-negotiated, often paralysed and always contentious directives and regulations, which the European Commission is still adding to with some gusto.

There are going to be around 25 financial services files for the Lithuanians to shepherd through, either in negotiations between member states, or directly with the European parliament. The poor Lithuanian officials strong-armed to work the files will have to become instant experts. Most of the proposals will require countless long meetings with member state or parliamentary negotiators; some will need ministerial input and some sacrificial political blood.

The demands could dwarf the resources and time available. After March 2014, the parliament essentially shuts shop for European-wide elections, so the Lithuanian presidency, which runs through the end of this year, is pivotal. Some countries only have one or two financial services attachés covering the bulk of files. Getting MEPs together for talks is like herding cats. Getting them to agree is even harder, especially in this pre-election environment. A lot of the initiatives will not make it through; their fate is then in the hands of the next leaders of the EU’s parliament, commission and council. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Actor Brad Pitt is interviewed at last week's Paris premiere of his new film "World War Z"

When EU and US officials launched new talks on a transatlantic trade deal earlier this year – an issue of such import that President Barack Obama announced it in his February State of the Union address – many thought the most contentious issues would be agricultural, like US exports of beef with synthetic hormones.

But even before the talks have formally begun, an altogether different issue has threatened to derail the deal: France’s insistence that the so-called “cultural exception” – the ability of European governments to establish quotas and subsidise their home-grown film and music industries – be completely off the table.

The US has insisted on no “carve outs” before the talks even begin, and EU officials worry that if cultural issues are put aside pre-emptively, it will give the Obama administration fodder to respond in kind with an issue that may be sensitive for a wider number of countries – like agriculture.

In an effort to bridge the gap, the Irish presidency last week circulated a new draft of the mandate that will be given to the European Commission in the trade talks which contains new language assuring France that, while audiovisual issues will not be excluded, there will be clear red lines in the EU’s negotiating position. Brussels Blog got its hands on the 12-page document, which is marked “trade-sensitive” across every page and “EU restricted” at top, and posted it hereRead more

A European watchdog in Paris is going to snatch regulatory control of Libor from the British — or so the European Commission is proposing. It is the stuff of nightmares for the UK Treasury. The political land-grab is the most striking element of a broader shake-up to restore faith in the largely unregulated and, in some cases, shockingly amateur business of compiling benchmarks for everything from heating oil and coal to mortgage rates.

What is the Commission up to? The crux of the draft proposal, which we obtained and wrote about in today’s paper, is ending self-regulation for thousands of indices. All benchmarks must be authorised by a regulator, but there is a sliding scale of regulatory intrusiveness. In the naughty corner are Libor and Euribor, inter-bank lending benchmarks deemed important enough to require direct supervision by the European Securities and Markets Authority, an EU watchdog in Paris. Brussels argues the users, contributors and fallout from problems are EU-wide, so therefore deserve EU oversight.

Is this a bit heavily handed? The stakes are high. The benchmark industry generates around €2bn in revenue but the Commission estimates the size of related markets approach €1,000,000bn. Given many benchmarks have never been touched by law, there is a risk that the voluntary contributors may simply decide the legal risks aren’t worth it. When it comes to Euribor and Libor, the Commission’s answer is to give Esma powers to compel banks to submit transaction data or complete questionnaires on prices or bids. But contributions to the less important benchmarks won’t be mandatory.

Hadn’t these benchmarks already been reformed? Global regulators have launched a big clean up in the wake of the Libor scandal. While its rules to tighten governance go further than expected, the Commission vision, especially when it comes to methodologies, is largely aligned with the guidance from Iosco, the umbrella group of financial regulators. So for instance, Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner in charge of the proposal, stops short of requiring benchmarks to be based purely on transactions and allows a hybrid methodology where necessary, which uses survey results to estimate prices. The UK, of course, also launched its own big Libor reform project led by Martin Wheatley, the UK financial regulator. The Commission sides with most of his substantial findings but decides it should all be overseen from Esma in Paris rather than London.

Could they have done more to annoy London? Probably not, at least in terms of the governance. The Treasury will see this as another Brussels masterplan to centralise power and will probably rue the decision not to sue when Esma was made regulator for credit rating agencies (they almost did to show this went beyond the EU treaties). The real sting though will be the fact that it comes so soon after the UK’s own clean-up. What does it say about the Commission’s faith in the proud UK regulators? On top of that, the Commission opted for the European financial watchdog in Paris to do the job, rather than the European Banking Authority in London, which was at least politically a bit more palatable. For now though the official response from London is relaxed; they are confident of their arguments, have shown they are able to reform Libor, know this isn’t a London problem and not too worried about the power all going to Paris.

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After months of deliberation and some not-so-private sparring with Berlin, the European Commission has pretty much anointed who it wants to be the all-powerful bank bailout and clean-up authority for Europe’s banking union: the European Commission.

This (somewhat predictable) conclusion to its internal policymaking journey is outlined in a paper, seen by the Financial Times, which was distributed to commissioners ahead of their weekly college debate on Wednesday.

There is no sign of Brussels bowing to pressure from Berlin. At the heart of the Commission’s proposed system is a powerful central authority, which has access to a single bailout fund and the clout to shut down a bank even against the wishes of its home state’s government. Brussels wants it operating by 2015.

What about those German concerns that this would breach the EU treaties? Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner responsible for financial issues, concedes in the paper that “only an EU institution” has the legal authority to take important decisions with European effect. Given there is no legal basis to give the European Central Bank this role, the Commission concludes that the only option is to anoint itself as the top resolution authority. Read more