Financial services

Jim Brunsden

By Arthur Beesley in London

Europe is transfixed these days by Brexit, terrorism, migrants and the populist advance. But the riddle of Greece remains.

A damning new report by the IMF’s in-house inspectorate finds fault on several grounds with the fund’s approach to the country. This is backwards-looking exercise, which takes stock of bailouts for Greece, Ireland and Portugal. Yet there are clear implications for the next phase of the long battle to restore fiscal stability in Athens.

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Matteo Renzi is politically cornered. Troubled banks – or more precisely Monte dei Paschi di Siena - have left the Italian premier facing a problem with no good answers.

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Jim Brunsden

As everyone who has played the famous video game knows, Super Mario is not always super. Temporarily able to boost his size and powers, he is nevertheless, for much of the time, just regular Mario.

What to make then of ECB president Mario Draghi? The eurozone crisis has seen the ECB repeatedly expand its operations in its bid to stimulate the euro area economy. As Mr Draghi has repeatedly said, these “extraordinary measures” were meant to provide a temporary breathing space for governments. Instead, politicians have proved all too willing to let the ECB permanently shoulder the load.

In a hearing before the European Parliament yesterday, Mr Draghi cut a frustrated figure as he set out the steps nations need to take to finish building their “incomplete” and “still fragile” monetary union, and to make their economies more competitive. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Nearly six months after knuckling down to work on the next stage of overhauling EU bank rules, finance ministers will meet in Luxembourg on Friday to acknowledge that they aren’t where they want to be.

Rather than being able to hail progress in the next steps of the euro area’s ambitious “Banking Union” reform programme, instead they have to tackle fundamental splits over how to take the project forward. If they can.

The divisions are laid bare in a package of documents prepared by the Netherlands, which holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and which is trying to chart a course for future negotiations before handing the reins over to Slovakia at the end of the month.

To pick through the splits, the FT Brussels blog has posted an annotated copy of the main Dutch document here (just click on the parts highlighted yellow:)

At the centre of the ruckus is the Commission’s proposal for the euro area to create a centralised system to guarantee bank depositors, known as the EDIS.

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Jim Brunsden

History is full of great projects left half finished – the Sagrada Família cathedral in Barcelona, the Beach Boys’ Smile album, the last Tintin book … could the euro area’s banking union join them?

Forged at the height of the debt crisis as a way to restore trust in the financial sector, the banking union remains very much a work in progress, and it’s increasingly unclear whether its architects are all working off the same plans.

While the European Central Bank is firmly installed as the currency bloc’s banking supervisor (something examined in-depth in this new study by Bruegel,) and new rules on handling financial crises are on the statute books, discussions are becoming bogged down over the banking union’s third pillar – a centralized scheme for guaranteeing bank deposits. That plan, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin while strongly supported by the ECB and governments in southern Europe.

The row between national capitals over EDIS is only part of a larger, and extremely complex negotiation – one that is hampering efforts by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, to sign off his country’s EU’s presidency by getting a deal on a banking union workplan. The split is likely to be a topic of discussion among policymakers at today’s Brussels Economic ForumRead more

Jim Brunsden

In countless zombie movies there is the classic moment where a member of the dwindling band of survivors is cornered and desperately opens fire on the oncoming tide of walking dead. Despite firing off round after round, to the despair of our hero, the enemies keep approaching until the fateful click of his empty gun that tells him the game is up.

It’s a predicament not unlike that of German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble as he fights a rearguard action to ward off Brussels plans for a common eurozone scheme to guarantee bank deposits.

The idea, known as EDIS, is loathed in Berlin on the grounds that it could force Germany to help cover the costs of bank failures elsewhere in Europe. At the same time, perhaps unsurprisingly, it is lauded in Southern Europe as a guarantee that capitals will be helped to cope with financial crises.

So far, Mr Schäuble has thrown all kinds of obstacles at the proposal, which was unveiled by the European Commission late last year. He has insisted on a tough programme to close loopholes in existing regulations which he says must be fulfilled before EDIS is even considered. He has also questioned the very legal foundations of the plan – saying parts of it have budgetary implications for nations that go beyond what is allowed under the EU treaties.

Despite all this, discussions on the text have rumbled on for months in the EU’s Council of Ministers.

Now, however, Germany is seeking to hit Brussels where it really hurts: with its own rules of procedure.

In a joint paper with Finland, obtained by the FT, Germany seeks to hoist the European Commission up by its institutional petard, accusing it of failing to respect “requirements under primary law and the Better Regulation principles” by not carrying out a full “impact assessment” before presenting the EDIS plan in November.

It’s the Brussels equivalent of trying to take down Al Capone for tax evasion. But hey, it worked.

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Jim Brunsden

Britain: 2016

Should an extraterrestrial land on Earth tomorrow and decide to base his decision on where to live solely on economic forecasts provided by the European Commission, there’s a fair chance they’d pick the UK.

In country-specific recommendations published yesterday for almost all EU countries, Britain comes out looking pretty good, with a “dynamic” economy, “strong” household balance sheets and a banking sector whose resilience “continues to improve.” Even the risks to the economic outlook are presented as being contained, or mitigated by the government’s “wide-ranging” reform agenda.

All well and good. The only perplexing thing is, how does this fit with the altogether less peppy assessment that the EU Commission made this time last year? What could be happening to change their view? Read more

Jim Brunsden

Meeting room in the Dutch maritime museum where finance ministers will gather on Friday

Coming to terms with painful truths can take a long time, and the EU’s struggle to acknowledge an original sin built into its banking regulations is a case in point.

It’s a problem that dates back decades, and that finance ministers are going to tentatively grapple with at an informal meeting in Amsterdam this week. It centres on the regulatory treatment of sovereign debt, and we’ve got our hands on the options paper prepared for ministers by the Dutch presidency and posted it here.

While the subject may sound arcane, it’s extremely politically charged. The latest ructions over how to treat bank holdings in government debt are fanning the already hot flames of discord between Rome and Berlin, with Brussels as ever squeezed uncomfortably in the middle.

So what’s the problem? The EU has highly detailed legislation covering different aspects of banks’ activities, in order to ensure that institutions have enough financial reserves to cope with the risks that they are taking with their investments.

The rules cover everything from mortgage lending to complex trading in derivatives, but they have one glaring loophole, namely that many of the normal requirements, such as capital rules and exposure limits, don’t apply to banks’ purchases of European governments’ own debt. Read more

Peter Spiegel

This is Tuesday’s edition of our daily Brussels Briefing. To receive it every morning in your email in-box, sign up here.

Italian banks appear to be in trouble. Again. With €360bn in non-performing loans – by far the largest pile in the eurozone, and behind only Greece and Cyprus as a percentage of all outstanding loans – the market has been selling off Italy’s financial sector since the start of the year to where it’s now down about a third of its value since January. But their troubles have become acute again because of the struggles of one mid-sized bank, Banca Popolare di Vicenza, to raise the €1.8bn in capital the European Central Bank has demanded.

The share sale by Vicenza is being underwritten by UniCredit, Italy’s only systemically important bank, but last week UniCredit sought government assistance out of fear Vicenza’s shares wouldn’t be bought by nervous investors – and UniCredit itself would be left holding the bag. That, in turn, raised questions about UniCredit’s own balance sheet, where it already lags behind many of its peers in terms of financial health.

The Italian government isn’t in a place to help, however. First of all, it doesn’t have any money to throw at the problem; its national debt is already nearly 140 per cent of economic output, the highest in the eurozone outside of Greece, and there’s not a billion or two around to spare. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, if Rome did intervene, it would have to follow the EU’s new post-crisis banking rules, which require the government to force losses on private investors before any public money can be used to rescue a bank. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Mr Moscovici, right, chats with Mr Juncker. He will present the new tax measures next week.

Next week, the European Commission will take its latest step in its ongoing quest to move beyond the LuxLeaks corporate tax avoidance scandal that has periodically dogged President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Pierre Moscovici, the EU’s tax policy chief, is set to unveil a flurry of proposals aimed at tackling so-called base erosion and profit shifting: in other words the aggressive tactics used by multinationals to shrink their tax bills by as much as possible. This morning, we’ve done a story about the new proposals, which we obtained. But we’ve also now posted them here for others to read.

The so-called LuxLeaks revelations emerged shortly after Mr Juncker became commission president in November 2014, and dogged his early days in office. They documented how during his two decades as Luxembourg prime minister, up to 340 multinational companies, ranging from Ikea to Pepsi, funnelled profits through the tiny country to lower their tax bills to as little as 1 per cent.

The commission has embarked on a wave of regulatory changes to close loopholes, including making a renewed push for the longstanding EU goal of having a common consolidated corporate tax base for companies. It is also pursuing high profile competition cases against tax deals Luxembourg and others struck with multinationals such as Apple, Amazon and Fiat.

Most recently, the European Commission ordered Belgium to recoup about €700m from 35 multinational companies that have benefited from the country’s generous fiscal incentive scheme.

Mr Moscovici’s plans, which are outlined in a 13-page summary posted here, enshrine international agreements reached by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development into EU law, and in some cases go even further – notably when it comes to restricting the ability of companies to shift of profits from parent companies to lightly taxed subsidiaries. Read more

Jim Brunsden

Juncker, left, with Moscovici at Thursday's hearing, before he ducked out early

Ten months ago, amidst the recriminations of the LuxLeaks scandal, the prospect of Jean-Claude Juncker appearing before a European Parliament inquiry into whether the European Commission president acted improperly while Luxembourg’s premier may have seemed to promise high political theatre.

In the event, however, Juncker’s testimony on Thursday before MEPs probing hundreds of sweetheart tax deals handed down to multinational companies in Luxembourg during his 18-year tenure as the country’s prime minister was anything but.

It featured a round of applause for his opening statement, plenty of softball questions, and the sight of Juncker ducking out before the end, citing an overrunning timetable and other commitments. Pierre Moscovici, the political savvy EU commissioner in charge of tax policy, was left to field the second and last round of questions. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Cast your mind back to November.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the new European Commission president, was being pummeled by the European Parliament after a leak revealed widespread tax avoidance in Luxembourg while he was prime minister of the Grand Duchy.

Like Captain Renault in Casablanca, MEPs queued up during a failed vote of no confidence to declare themselves “shocked, shocked” that tax avoidance was going on in Luxembourg.

In a bid to quell the criticism, Mr Juncker said that a lack of tax harmonization within the EU was to blame. To combat this, the commission president said he would introduce legislation to force the automatic exchange of tax-rulings that affect companies based in other member states.

But, according to this leaked document from 2012, both the commission and member states have long been aware of the problem of cross-border tax-rulings – and had already looked into ensuring the automatic exchange of tax information.

The Code of Conduct Group, which looks at business taxation with the commission, came out with guidance in 2012 to encourage member states to “spontaneously exchange the relevant information” on cross border tax rulings. They then asked member states how feasible this was. Read more

Duncan Robinson

Lord Hill says that there will be no exceptions for member states who fail to jump into line on banker bonuses. Read more

It is safe to assume that there are parts of the UK Treasury already in a tremendous froth over this leaked opinion from the legal advisers to EU finance ministers.

Remember the only thing that would make George Osborne, the UK chancellor, hate the Financial Transaction Tax idea more than he already does would be its extension to currency exchange transactions. Even the European Commission didn’t go that far.

For that reason this opinion from the EU Council legal service will cause a stir, at least in Brussels. It contradicts the Commission’s own legal service (they are making a habit of this on the FTT) and says that there is no law in principle preventing a joint levy on foreign exchange. This effectively reopens a debate that makes London very nervous. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Wolfgang Schäuble, centre, last week with Jeroen Dijsselbloem, right, and Dutch aide Hans Vijlbrief

EU finance ministers start descending on Brussels this evening for what is expected to be at least two days of marathon negotiations over the second leg of the EU’s nascent banking union: a new agency to deal with failing banks and an accompanying rescue fund to recapitalise them or wind them down.

Senior EU officials have begun to worry that, despite this being the second such gathering in as many weeks, differences are still so significant that a deal may not get done by the time the ministers’ bosses – the EU’s presidents and prime ministers – arrive in Brussels Thursday for their own end-of-the-year summit.

But if it falls to them, officials say the heads of government are unlikely to make final decisions on the resolution system at their two-day summit – and would only set new political parameters for their finance ministers, who might be forced to come back to Brussels over the winter holiday. Joy to the world.

So just where are the differences? The Lithuanians, as holders of the EU’s rotating presidency, helpfully produced a 19-page note for all delegations heading into tonight’s start of the talks, which Brussels Blog got its hands on and posted here. A summary on its main points after the jump. Read more

Backstops? A safety net for banks in difficulty? Why the fuss? We have one already! That is the rough conclusion from finance ministers meeting in Luxembourg on Monday and Tuesday.

To provide some context, the apple of discord is whether Europe should pool more public funds to stand behind its banking system. Looming on the horizon is a stress test of banks next year that is supposed to restore faith in the financial system. It may uncover horrors that can’t be covered by contributions from private investors. If a bailout is needed, the open question is whether the bank’s sovereign will be able to fund it by borrowing from the market or from eurozone bailout funds without rekindling the sovereign debt crisis.

So what is the plan? Well there is no sign of new money. For the more optimistic finance ministers the ultimate, ultimate backstop — only to be used in exceptional circumstances — is apparently a “direct recapitalisation” from the European Stability Mechanism, the eurozone’s E500bn bailout fund.

The trouble is that there are a legion of hurdles to clear before using this instrument in practice — especially if it is to be used to cover any shortfall exposed next year. The rough rules on the use of the instrument were published in June. Many senior officials think it is so encumbered with conditions as to be almost pointless. If direct recap is the backstop, some finance ministers will be worriedly looking over their shoulder.


1. German veto: Any ESM decision to take a direct stake in a bank is subject to a German veto. Berlin is determined to ensure that even if this tool is theoretically “available”, it remains unused. Wolfgang Schäuble, Germany’s finance minister, even said on Tuesday that German law would need to be changed to use the direct recap instrument.

2. German veto: the Bundestag would have to vote through any direct recap. Germany’s centre-left Social Democratic Party, the most likely coalition partner for Chancellor Angela Merkel, is dead-set against direct recapitalisation of banks. It thinks the financial sector, not taxpayers, should foot the bill for bank failure. Read more

Peter Spiegel

In a June letter, Anastasiades called Bank of Cyprus his country's "mega-systemic bank".

After the upheaval of March’s prolonged fight over Cyprus’s €10bn bailout, much of the ensuing debate has focused on the island’s largest remaining financial institution, the Bank of Cyprus, which was saved from shuttering but faces an uncertain future.

The bank’s fate was highlighted in a letter from Cyprus’s president to EU leaders in June, where he argued that eurogroup finance ministers had not properly dealt with the “urgent need” to address the “severe liquidity strain” the bailout had placed on the country’s last “mega-systemic bank”.

“I stress the systemic importance of BoC, not only in terms of the banking system but also for the entire economy,” Nicos Anastasiades wrote at the time.

Well, the European Commission’s soon-to-be-released first review of the Cyprus programme, a draft of which was obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here, shows that the fate of the bank is still somewhat unresolved – and that the EU has decided to make Nicosia’s promise to live up to the original bailout terms a primary condition for easing onerous capital controls which still hamper economic activity. Read more

Politics in Brussels can verge on the absurd. As a case in point, we bring you the bizarre tale of how Greek Stalinists seemingly helped rescue European fund managers from a bonus cap, then deployed a form of Brussels magic that lets you vote against something, then for it.

Before we start, it is worth mentioning that this blog is partly intended as a way to fully lay out the evidence and address accusations that the FT launched a “sycophantic attack” on the Greek Communist party. Read more

Bank investors beware. Dazzling political fireworks will be launched in Brussels today that may distract you from the reform that really matters, at least over the next few years.

All the attention will naturally be on a bold move to create a powerful authority to wind up eurozone banks — a great leap forward for banking union that puts Germany’s red-lines to the test. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Barnier, standing at right, may be in for another tussle with Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble.

With Brussels gearing up for tomorrow’s much-anticipated unveiling of the European Commission’s proposal for a new EU agency to take over responsibility for bailing out and restructuring failing banks, we thought it was as good a time as any to post the outline of the plan presented to commissioners last month.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition of the FT, the Commission’s legislative proposal that is to be agreed at Wednesday’s meeting of the college is not much different from the eight-page blueprint (read it here) presented by Michel Barnier, the commissioner in charge of financial regulations, and José Manuel Barroso, the commission president.

Fellow Brussels Blogger Alex Barker has written extensively about the outline both for the FT and the Brussels Blog, but it will serve as a good comparison to what comes out tomorrow since the German government has made clear it is unhappy with key elements of the original outline – particularly its contention that a “network of national resolution authorities and funds” is “not sufficient”. Read more