ESRB

European economic policies will come under more scrutiny from this month when the European Central Bank takes the lead in a new financial police authority with whistle-blowing powers to prevent future crises.

The European systemic risk board (ESRB), chaired by Jean-Claude Trichet, ECB president, will have powers to issue warnings and recommendations when it sees threats to economies or financial systems. But it could have a tough time proving that such limited powers, wielded by European officials, can prevent financial market turmoil on the scale seen in the past three years. 

A small sigh of relief from London today. Bank of England governor Mervyn King is to be the vice-chair of the newly launched European Systemic Risk Board, established yesterday and whose inaugural meeting takes place January 20, 2011. Relief, because the appointment suggests eurozone concerns won’t dominate the Board, and that the UK’s banking-driven economy will be represented.

Relief, however, will be limited in some quarters. There is a relative lack of bankers and technical experts, who really understand the tricks of the banking trade. Even if there are ex-bankers among the various levels of hierachy and sub-committees, it is not the same as plugging the institution directly into the banking sector. This is not an oversight but part of the Act: “No member of the General Board (whether voting or on-voting) shall have a function in the financial industry.”

There are two Advisory Committees because “the composition of the ESRB will be very high level …[and] it can happen that the ESRB needs to draw on more specific competences than the ones usually available at the ECB.” The Technical committee comprises representatives nominated by central bankers and regulators – there will be about 60 of them. The Scientific committee, which should have 15 independent experts – though suggested categories are academics, trade unions and small businesses. 

Imagine that in January, you will become your country’s chief firefighter, but that the very best reports of smoke currently available are unreliable and intermittent. Scared?

Well, the European Systemic Risk Board is due to launch in January, and the ECB’s vice president has just pointed out that, on current data availability, the Board would struggle to do its job. That job, as a quick reminder, is to “assess and prevent potential risks to financial stability in the EU.” No small task, with markets febrile and bank bail-outs still in vogue.

The ECB has a fair bit of data already, but it is geared towards monetary policy rather than macro-prudential regulation. So, what’s missing?