European banks

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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People pass Bank of Greece in Athens last week

Jitters over whether Greece will be forced out of the euro have turned the focus of policymakers in recent days on whether Greece is on the precipice of a bank run.

It’s no mere academic exercise; a full-scale bank run would force the European Central Bank and eurozone lenders to either pump in more money – without a new government in place, and no assurances Athens would live up to the rescue terms – or pull the plug on Greece’s financial sector.

Since a banking sector without a central bank would essentially force Greece back to the barter system, there would be few options left then for Athens to begin printing its own currency again. Essentially, the drachma would return through the back door.

As we reported in today’s dead-tree edition, senior eurozone officials responsible for monitoring the currency area’s banking system said the rate of withdrawals thus far falls short of a panic. But the International Monetary Fund’s recent report on Greece makes it clear that a slow-motion bank run has been under way for more than two years, with close to 30 per cent of deposits being pulled out since the end of 2009. Read more

Belgium's finance minister Steven Vanackere talks to colleagues at the Copenhagen meeting.

Our front page story in tomorrow’s dead tree version of the FT includes lines from confidential analyses distributed to European Union finance ministers at their gathering in Copenhagen. As usual, we thought we’d offer a bit more from the documents here at the Brussels Blog.

Among the most interesting elements in the documents are discussions about Europe’s banks, which have seen a surge in confidence thanks to the European Central Bank’s €1tn in cheap loans, known as LTRO for long-term refinancing operations.

One of the analyses in particular – the three-page “Assessment of key risks and policy issues” prepared by the EU’s economic and policy committee – warns that there are new signs of instability in the European banking sector. Details after the jump… Read more

French president Nicolas Sarkozy arrives at the summit this morning.

The big European Union summit will be divided in two parts today, with all 27 EU leaders meeting in the morning before the session is narrowed to the 17 members of the eurozone in the afternoon.

The Brussels Blog has obtained a copy of the 12-page draft of the morning gathering’s communiqué, circulated to summiteers this morning, and unless things change at the meeting, it looks like there will be no final decision on the one thing the 27 had hoped to finish today – a plan to recapitalise Europe’s banks.

The draft “welcomes progress made” by EU finance ministers during their 10-hour meeting on Saturday, but says the work will not be officially signed off until another meeting on Wednesday – the first official acknowledgement that leaders from all 27 EU countries (and not just the eurozone) will have to meet again next week. Whether that meeting will be the heads of all 27 governments or just their finance ministers remains to be seen. Read more

At the Ambrosetti forum in northern Italy, Nouriel Roubini, the US-based economist, weighs in on the health of Europe’s banks and sides with IMF chief Christine Lagarde on the need for the sector to raise even more capital.

For anyone wondering why Europe’s leaders are so determined to avoid a restructuring of Greek sovereign debt, I recommend a remarkable piece of research published on Monday by Jacques Cailloux, the Royal Bank of Scotland’s chief European economist, and his colleagues.  (Unfortunately, it seems not to be easily available on the internet, so I’m providing links to news stories that refer to the report.)

The RBS economists estimate that the total amount of debt issued by public and private sector institutions in Greece, Portugal and Spain that is held by financial institutions outside these three countries is roughly €2,000bn.  This is a staggeringly large figure, equivalent to about 22 per cent of the eurozone’s gross domestic product.  It is far higher than previous published estimates.  It indicates that, if a Greek or Portuguese or Spanish debt default were allowed to take place, the global financial system could suffer terrible damage. Read more