European banks

German finance miniser Wolfgang Schäuble with Finland's Jutta Urpilainen at Monday's eurogroup

The German finance ministry is on the brink of an extraordinary achievement. Like many power shifts within the EU, it is happily hidden behind the most fiendish jargon. But if all goes to plan, Berlin is securing something rare and coveted in Brussels: the effective power to block future EU banking regulation.

Put another way, it is quietly resetting the ground rules of the single market in financial services without the need for treaty change or a referendum or a big speech. Take note David Cameron.

How has Berlin managed it? It is all concealed in the thicket of legal arguments over establishing Europe’s €55bn bank rescue fund via an intergovernmental agreement, rather than through the EU’s normal “community method”, where majority (or at least qualified majority) rules.

To translate: at German behest, the rules for pooling banking union rescue funds are laid out in a side-deal between governments, rather than under legislation agreed between EU member states and European parliament. Such intergovernmental pacts are allowed; remember the fiscal compact? But they are not supposed to change or impact the EU’s common rulebook, outlined in the EU treaties. Read more

Workers shutter a branch of Laiki Bank, which was closed under Cyprus' €10bn bailout last year

For those not following every twist and turn in the EU’s debate over how to bail out failing banks, it may come as a bit of a surprise that finance ministers are still fighting over who pays for a collapsed financial institution given the deal struck in December on this very issue.

But a three-page “issues note” sent to national capitals this week ahead of EU finance ministers’ meetings on Monday and Tuesday – obtained by Brussels Blog and posted here – makes clear that there are still a lot of unanswered questions about a new EU-wide bank rescue fund to pay for such bailouts. And it’s perhaps no surprise that most of the unanswered questions centre around one thing: money. Read more

ECB chief Mario Draghi, left, with eurogroup chair Jeroen Dijsselbloem at last night's meeting

Whenever it comes to eurozone backstops, it usually pays to be beware of fine print and Germans bearing gifts.

Eurozone finance ministers reached a tentative agreement in the early hours of this morning that is significant in this sense: it paves the way for a final deal on a common resolution system for the banking union.

In terms of substance, the big breakthrough is a commitment to establish a common backstop — by 2025 at the latest — that will provide taxpayer support to the bank resolution system, should its resources be overwhelmed in a crisis.

Germany was staunchly opposed so it represents an important concession to Italy, France and the European Commission. What it does not do, however, is detail what form that backstop should take — that is left open. And they have a decade to fight over what the commitment actually entails. 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

Are the Dutch attempting to lead a mutiny on bank reform? It is hard to tell whether the objections are serious enough to unravel the deal last week on the EU rules for handling a bank crisis. But something mildly rebellious is certainly afoot. And it could end in another golden-gloves showdown between Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, and his Swedish sparring partner Anders Borg.

At issue is the draft deal on the bank recovery and resolution directive (BRRD), which was agreed between negotiators for the European parliament and EU member states on Wednesday, brining to a close months of difficult talks. The reforms give all EU countries a rulebook at national level to handle a bank in trouble and, if necessary, bail-in creditors to help foot the bill.

The Dutch, however, are unimpressed. They think the draft agreement offers too much freedom to governments wanting bailout banks with public money, rather than impose losses on bondholders. And it looks like they have a significant number of allies. Read more

Sweden's Borg, centre, during last night's meeting, where he sparred with his Dutch counterpart

It’s become something of a routine in the EU’s ongoing effort to build a “banking union” that finance ministers try to come to a deal at their normal Brussels meetings – only to fail and call a special emergency session at the 11th hour before a crucial summit.

It happened last December when ministers held a last-minute emergency meeting to agree a new EU supervisor for all eurozone banks; it happened again in June to get to a deal on rules for how much creditors should lose when a bank fails. After yesterday’s 15-hour marathon on a new EU bank resolution authority, ministers will now have one last shot next Wednesday before the last EU summit of the year begins the next day.

The hold-up this time is a dispute over how a new EU-wide bank rescue fund should function. And if anyone is looking for evidence of how much work still needs to be done, consider these two documents which were circulated among finance ministers late last night – one here outlining an emergency backup to the fund and another here on a new treaty to set up the fund. Both are almost completely substance free, meaning a lot must be done before Wednesday. Read more

Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, during the marathon talks on Tuesday

EU finance ministers meeting late into the night are edging closer to a deal on a new European bank executioner. But as always in the eurozone crisis, ministers have become hung up on small but potential significant details. Officials say the differences are significant enough that a final deal will have to be delayed until next week.

Brussels Blog got its hand on “Terms of Reference” circulated by the Lithuanians, who hold the rotating EU presidency, around 6:30pm this evening that includes some details that are new – but have already raised objections in certain quarters. We’ve posted a copy of the 10-page document hereRead 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

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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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

Slovenian finance minister Cufer agreed to the outside banking audit just last week.

Last night, after everyone in Brussels had spent most of the day digesting the European Commission’s reports on all 27 EU countries’ budget plans, officials quietly posted far more interesting documents online: the “staff working papers” that underpin the policy recommendations issued earlier in the day.

According to Commission officials, this was done intentionally. They wanted reporters and national officials to focus on the recommendations and not the analysis behind them.

But starting this morning, Brussels Blog began combing through the working documents – which are much longer and more detailed than the Commission recommendations – starting with the country many consider the next eurozone bailout candidate: Slovenia. It makes for eye-opening reading. Read more

It may seem a moot point now that Cyprus’ financial system has, for all intents and purposes, collapsed in the wake of last month’s €10bn eurozone rescue that forced the island to impose capital controls on any large withdrawals from its banks.

But as part of the bailout deal, Nicosia agreed to allow international inspectors to rummage around its banks to investigate allegations of rampant money laundering that were once a major bone of contention in Berlin. The investigation was completed late last month.

Last week, a damning four-page summary of their findings written by the so-called “troika” of bailout lenders was obtained by Brussels Blog and other news organisations (we’re posting it here for the first time, since we only recently able to return to blogging after a hacker attack). The “confidential” troika summary paints a picture of lax enforcement and repeated breakdowns in anti-money laundering procedures.

This afternoon, the Cypriot central bank fired back, issuing its own two-page synopsis of the two reports – one by Deloitte, the other by Moneyval, the Council of Europe’s anti-money laundering monitoring body – which accused the troika of “drawing inferences where none exists in the original reports.” We’ve posted the Cypriot response hereRead more

Bratusek: "Slovenia can on its own without any supervision resolve its problems.”

Amid all the talk that Spain, France and the Netherlands will get waivers next week on tough EU budget rules, allowing them to breach yet again Brussels-mandated deficit ceilings, there are growing signals that one country may not get let off: Slovenia.

Although Slovenia has budget deficit problems similar to its western European counterparts, Brussels’ real concern is about its banking sector, which needs another infusion of taxpayer money to return it to health as non-performing loans continue to rise. Questions about the stability of its three largest banks, all state owned, has put a target on the small former Yugoslav republic as potentially the next eurozone country to need a bailout.

As a result, Slovenia’s demarche from EU economics chief Olli Rehn on Wednesday is likely to come from a place outside the eurozone’s budget deficit rules: new post-crisis enforcement powers Rehn has never used before, the awkwardly named “excessive imbalance procedure”. This authority allows the European Commission to poke around more deeply into a eurozone country’s entire economy – not just government fiscal policy – and demand reforms under threat of swingeing fines.

Alenka Bratusek, Slovenia’s recently-minted prime minister, isn’t too pleased with the prospect of being the first eurozone country to be subject to the EIP. In a meeting with a small group of reporters after Wednesday’s EU summit, Bratusek said officials in Brussels seem to think an EIP citation would help her. She says it won’t. Read more

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

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

Germany's Angela Merkel, left, and France's François Hollande at the EU summit in Brussels.

With the eurozone crisis response slowing to a crawl, Friday’s early-morning agreement setting a timetable for a new single eurozone bank supervisor is probably best judged with textual analysis, since the deal is so incremental it’s hard to really judge without a close look at the details.

The key change between the communiqué agreed in June and the one agreed Friday is the firming up of when, exactly, the new supervisor, to be run by the European Central Bank, will start and how long it will take to be phased in. The June deal was immensely vague on this point:

We ask the Council to consider these proposals as a matter of urgency by the end of 2012.

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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

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

Ireland's Enda Kenny, right, with German counterpart Angela Merkel at the EU summit.

It’s been a good week for Ireland.

Not only has last week’s EU summit deal on bank recaptalisation pushed benchmark borrowing rates down to pre-bailout levels (today they were trending down again, to 6.2 per cent, lower than even Spain’s). But it has also enabled Dublin to venture out on the open market for the first time in two years: tomorrow, it will sell €500m in 3-year bills. Small, but a highly-symbolic turning point nonetheless.

Despite the positive market reaction, there is a decent amount of debate in the hallways in Brussels about what, exactly, the deal means for Ireland. As a reminder, eurozone officials agreed to change the rules of future bank bailouts so that the €500bn eurozone rescue fund can inject cash right into struggling banks, something specifically intended for Spain’s upcoming €100bn EU bank rescue.

When Ireland was bailed out, all such money had to be funnelled through the state, meaning it added to Dublin’s ballooning national debt. During the late-night negotiations, Irish officials – aided by backing from the European Central Bank’s Jörg Asmussen and Klaus Regling, head of the bailout fund – were able to insert language saying Ireland would be considered for similar treatment.

Since Ireland has spent about €64bn on shoring up its collapsed banking system, and its overall debt level now stands at about €185bn, moving those debts off its books would surely be the “game changer” touted by Enda Kenny, the Irish prime minster. But how much of that debt could realistically be moved off Dublin’s books? Read more

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