Financial services

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

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

Peter Spiegel

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.”

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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

Politicians the world over have huffed and puffed about excessive pay at banks since 2008. While remuneration curbs were put in place, nothing fundamentally challenged bank operations, or their ultimate flexibility to reward staff. The European Parliament has bucked that trend with the mother of all bonus clampdowns. Here are five key questions on the cap: how it works, how you can avoid it, whether it will really pass and what it means for Britain and the City.

1. How is the cap calculated and applied? Read more

The EU clampdown on bankers’ bonuses is nigh. The final talks (or so diplomats hope) have begun and the room is booked until midnight. The frantic politicking earlier today certainly indicates the deal is close. This blog includes some of the latest political intelligence and a few tentative predictions. But be warned: the Brussels blog would not wager its bonus on the outcome.

1) Britain is looking isolated. It is a complex picture, but the UK is running short of allies, especially on the terms of the cap on variable-fixed pay. Most member states are happy to compromise with the European parliament, which is leading the bonus charge. Berlin is showing no appetite for running to London’s rescue. Even Sweden, the UK’s main friend on financial issues, was relatively silent at a meeting yesterday. The Netherlands said it could even accept a tougher crackdown. Ireland want a deal this evening. Read more

Should bankers breathe a sigh of relief over the deadlock in EU talks last night on introducing a bonus cap?

The British are certainly happy to have a bit more time to achieve the improbable and turn opinion in Brussels against strict limits on bonuses that are double or triple fixed pay.

At the same time, the omens from parliament are looking no better for the City’s finest. Just look at the tone of this statement the MEPs spearheading the talks put out today:

We are ready to give the Council one more week for internal discussions. If – after ten months of negotiations – a viable compromise cannot be found on 27 February, we do not see any other possibility than to ask the plenary of the European Parliament to vote on its position.

The threat of a vote is mainly symbolic. But there is no sign of backing down. Indeed parliament is upping the ante. They are pressuring the EU member states — who are represented by the Irish presidency — to override the hold-outs to a deal. It is, in other words, a challenge to force the Brits into line or outvote them within the week. High stakes. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Outgoing Cypriot president Demetris Christofias addresses the European Parliament Tuesday.

In this morning’s dead-tree edition of the FT, fellow Brussels Bloggger Josh Chaffin has a report on Cypriot officials launching an offensive to convince other eurozone governments that it is no longer a haven for money laundering.

The effort has included summoning EU ambassadors in Nicosia to the Cypriot finance ministry, where they were given a 23-slide presentation detailing the country’s anit-money laundering efforts. As is our practice here at the Brussels Blog, we’ve decided to post a copy of the report hereRead more

Jonathan Faull, EU Commission's director general for internal market and services

Today’s instalment of the FT series on banking union turned to Britain and its troubled relations with the EU on financial services. We quoted Jonathan Faull in that piece, who runs the European Commission department overseeing the banking union plans.

He is British to boot and as close as it comes to a Brussels celebrity, so we thought it would be worth publishing our entire Q&A since he has some strong views about Britain’s role in the EU. Note the questions were partly intended to provoke; Faull characteristically kept his cool.

1. Are the views of Christian Noyer, the French central bank governor, compatible with the single market? Would the Commission stop the eurozone forcing most euro business to be within the euro area?

The EU’s financial services policy and legislation are for the whole single market, except for specific measures for the banking union being developed for the eurozone and volunteers among other EU countries. No banking union measures will discriminate against non-participating member states. The EU treaties are binding on all members and do not allow discrimination on grounds of location of business within the EU. What happens “naturally” as markets develop is another story. London has to compete!

2. Are there any genuine UK safeguards against the power of the banking union that would not fragment the single market? What are the dangers if the UK is not realistic in what it asks for? Read more

This issue has always been a potential dealbreaker: how will Germany’s politically powerful network of small public banks — or Sparkassen — sit under the bailiwick of a single bank supervisor? Until now we’ve mainly seen diplomatic shadow-boxing on the matter. But that fight is beginning in earnest.

As is the custom in Brussels, some ambiguous and unclear summit conclusions are helping spur things along. Chancellor Angela Merkel last week hailed a one particular sentence as a breakthrough for Germany: that the European Central Bank would “be able, in a differentiated way, to carry out direct supervision” over eurozone banks.

To her, that vague language was recognition that the Sparkassen would be treated differently — the ECB would concentrate on big banks and those that are facing troubles, and leave the rest to national authorities. Read more

Tomorrow will mark another milestone in the long meandering path towards a international financial transaction tax, otherwise known as the Tobin tax.

What exactly will happen? Well the European Commission, the EU’s executive arm, will approve a proposal that paves the way for an avande-garde of member states to agree their own Tobin regime. In EU jargon, it’s a proposal authorising “enhanced cooperation”.

Ironically the step forward will come in the shape of a legal admission of defeat, a formal acceptance that there is at present no consensus for a pan-EU levy, let alone enough for a global one.

It is largely a formality. But it means the 11 EU countries that want the levy will be one procedure closer to setting up their own Tobin tax. Such breakaway groups are considered a last resort under EU rules, so any enhanced cooperation must clear various legal hurdles, including proof that a pan-EU deal is impossible for now. Read more

Legal opinions from the top lawyer to EU ministers are not intended for mass circulation. They are usually virtually unquotable, often studiously ambiguous and always highly political. But the Council legal service’s take on the European Commission plan for a single bank supervisor is a classic.

The headline is that the Commission’s supervision blueprint — as announced in September — is illegal in key parts. More important, though, is the detail of the argument and the challenges it poses to finding a diplomatic solution before the end of the year.

Before diving into the argument and quoting key sections, it is worth sumarising and explaining some of the implications. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Germany's Schäuble, left, and France's Moscovici sent the Tobin letters out this morning.

First, it was going to be a global financial transactions tax – known among the cognoscenti as the Tobin tax – agreed by the Group of 20 major economies, but the US wouldn’t go along. Then it was going to be an EU-wide levy among all 27 members of the bloc, but the UK and several Nordics disagreed.

That got whittled down to the 17 eurozone members, but the Dutch and Irish didn’t want it. So, starting today, a final push to find nine EU members who will sign up to the Tobin tax was launched by France and Germany, who sent letters around this morning to all EU finance ministries looking for takers.

Under the EU’s arcane rules, if nine sign up, Paris and Berlin can move ahead with “enhanced cooperation” – essentially a tool that allows a small subset of countries to agree on common policies and still stay within the EU’s legal system. But it’s not certain they’ll find even nine, EU diplomats said.

According to copies of two letters obtained by Brussels Blog – one to the European Commission, the other to national capitals – co-signatories Pierre Moscovici, the French finance minister, and Wofgäng Schauble, his German counterpart, are trying to gain support by arguing the tax is the financial sector’s contribution to eurozone crisis response. Read more

Is it possible to have one supervisor for eurozone banks, while keeping 17 different paymasters for when things go wrong?

It is the big potential problem of phasing in a banking union – while prudential responsibility is centralized under one supervisor, the means to pay for bank failure isn’t. One cynical diplomat likened it to “telling all cars to suddenly change sides and drive on the left of the road – but leaving the lorries to drive on the right.”

Just think through what would happen in the case of a failed financial institution once the European Central Bank takes over supervision.

Under the Brussels banking union plan, the ECB will have the power to shut down the lender by removing its license to operate. But in practice it would require the authorisation of the bank national authority. As we know, some banks perform vital functions for the economy and are too big to fail. For the ECB to pull the plug, someone would have to be available to pay for winding it up or bailing it out. Read more

Planning for a European banking union is racing ahead, in spite of the considerable political obstacles. The vision is for two, five or even ten years in the future. But be in no doubt: the institutional turf war is already afoot.

It was on display today in the pages of the international press. Speaking to the FT Jose Manuel Barroso, the European commission president, laid out his vision of a banking union built on the foundations of existing EU institutions.

At the same time Christian Noyer, the governor of the Bank of France, made his pitch in the Wall Street Journal for eurozone central banks to provide “the backbone of the financial union”.

The clashing views highlight the great unanswered question of the banking union: if power over banks is centralised, who will be given control? Cui bono? These three scenarios lay down the broad templates for a union, and the institutions that would stand to win and lose depending on the outcome.

1. An EU banking union

Broadly as outlined by Barroso. A single supervisor, resolution regime and deposit guarantee fund serving all 27 member states. Should the UK refuse to take part — which it will — arrangements would be found to enable the other members to go forward. This union would cover countries outside and inside the single currency club, but remain within an EU framework.

Treaty change would not be necessary, at least according to the commission. Read more

Peter Spiegel

Madrid police stand guard outside Bankia, the troubled Spanish bank, during a protest Saturday.

In talking to senior officials about plans for a Spanish bailout for our story in today’s dead tree edition of the FT, several steered us to the seemingly overlooked bank recaptialisation guidelines for the eurozone’s €440bn rescue fund that were adopted last year.

Those six pages, available for all to see on the website of the rescue fund, the European Financial Stability Facility, make clear European leaders were contemplating exactly the situation Spain now finds itself in: having done the hard work on fiscal reform, but suffering from a teetering banking sector that needs to be recapitalised.

The important thing to note in the current context is that the EFSF guidelines, adopted after more than a year of fighting over whether the fund should be used for bank rescues at all, allow for a very thin layer of conditionality for bailout assistance if the aid goes to financial institutions – notably, it foresees no need for a full-scale “troika” mission of monitors poking around in national budget plans. That’s something the government of Mariano Rajoy has been demanding for weeks. Read more

Some issues to bear in mind when considering whether a European banking union is a realistic possibility. The difficulties highlighted are not impossible to overcome. But it would be a wrench.

1. Germans don’t like strong EU supervision of their banks. Berlin is fond of federal EU solutions. But it is even more keen on running its own banks. The political links — especially between the state and regional savings banks — are particularly strong in Germany. To date Berlin has proved one of the biggest opponents of giving serious clout to existing pan-EU regulators.

2. Germans really don’t like strong EU supervision of their banks. There is again some wishful thinking about Berlin shifting position. Angela Merkel did say she supported EU supervision. But there were important caveats. She referred to supervision of “systemically important banks” — which is likely to exclude the smaller Sparkassen banks and the 8 Landesbanks. To some analysts, this represents a giant loophole. She also did not explain what kind of supervision. Berlin may only support tweaks to the current system.

3. Germans don’t like underwriting foreign bank deposits. Another pillar of a banking union is common deposit insurance. To Berlin this proposal represents another ingenious scheme to pick the pocket of German taxpayers. A weaker proposal to force national deposit guarantee schemes to lend to each other in emergencies has been stuck for two years in the Brussels legislative pipeline. Most countries opposed it. German ministers say it could be considered, once there is a fiscal union across the eurozone. So don’t wait around.

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