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
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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
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
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
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
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
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.
TEN OBSTACLES TO A DIRECT RECAPITALISATION
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
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
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
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.
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:
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
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
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
Dijsselbloem, centre, at a press conference Monday announcing the €10bn Cyprus bailout.
The joint FT-Reuters interview with Dutch finance minister and eurogroup president Jeroen Dijsselbloem after the all-night talks to secure Cyprus’ €10bn bailout has caused a lot of discussion and debate. Dijsselbloem issued a statement after we published saying Cyprus is “a specific case with exceptional challenges” and that “no models or templates” will be used in the future.
To clarify what Dijsselbloem said, we’ve decided to post a transcript of the portion of the interview dealing with how the eurozone might deal with bank failures in the future in light of the Cyprus example.
The interview we conducted alongside Brussels bureau chief Luke Baker of Reuters lasted about 45 minutes, and the portion on bank resolution lasted for about 10 of those minutes. The interview started out with some Cyprus-specific questions – like how capital controls might work, whether Dijsselbloem had learned any lessons form the Cyprus experience – and then shifted to a discussion about whether north-south relations were hampering EU decision making.
That’s when Baker asked the first question about whether Cyprus set a precedent for future bank rescues:
Q: To what extent does the decision taken last night end up setting a template for bank resolution going forward?
A: What we should try to do and what we’ve done last night is what I call “pushing back the risks”. In times of crisis when a risk certainly turns up in a banking sector or an economy, you really have very little choice: you try to take that risk away, and you take it on the public debt. You say, “Okay, we’ll deal with it, give it to us.”
It is all about to start. EU finance ministers will for the first time debate bankers’ bonuses. Brussels may say it loves democracy, but the meeting is fixed so the most contentious discussion is off-camera, in secret. George Osborne, UK chancellor, will gingerly defend his position against the planned bonus cap in the public debate afterwards, but by then the outcome of the negotiation will be clear. Think of it more like a post-match interview. This is a short guide to what to expect:
Will Osborne be able to overturn the bonus cap? Without wanting to ruin the suspense, the answer is no. The main terms of the political deal — a 1:1 bonus-to-salary ratio, which can raise to 2:1 with a shareholder vote — is here to stay. The European parliament is wedded to it. And apart from Britain, every other country is willing to compromise. Read more