Sunday, September 2, 2012
My one piece of advice for Mr Draghi
September 2, 2012
It has been the eurozone’s misfortune that governments become complacent the very minute the European Central Bank starts to act. We saw it last year when the ECB injected €1tn into the banking system, and when the crisis resolution process immediately stalled. You see it now in Spain, where Mariano Rajoy is refusing to make a formal application for a full rescue programme. The fall in bond spreads has taken the pressure away.
But nowhere is the onset of complacency more evident than in the ongoing discussion about a banking union. I always suspected that Germany would turn out to be the stumbling block. And I was not surprised to read Wolfgang Schäuble in the Financial Times on Friday arguing that the ECB cannot conceivably supervise 6,000 banks – which the European Commission will propose next week. Michel Barnier, finance commissioner, says it makes no sense to limit a system of bank supervision to the largest banks. Northern Rock, Dexia and Bankia would all have fallen outside the remit of a central European regulator. The largest eurozone banks are much less of a problem than the countless undercapitalised regional banks run by people with no understanding of the risks they are taking.
Germany’s public banks, savings banks and mutual banks are lobbying hard not to fall under a European system. Their business models rely on a friendly neighbourhood regulator looking the other way. If you imposed stringent controls on the German banking systems, the cosy relationship between industry and banks would be disturbed. The Germans see Mr Barnier’s proposal as an attack on their economic model.
If the German position prevails – and it may well do – the project of a banking union will have irrevocably failed. There will be something called a banking union, announced and celebrated. The EU will congratulate itself, but it will be largely irrelevant to the workings of the financial sector. The eurozone will remain a monetary union with nationally supervised and crisis-prone banks for the foreseeable future.