Wolfgang Munchau, who writes for the Financial Times and the blog EuroIntelligence, argues that the fact that EU member nations managed to survive their first series of bank failures does not mean it can afford to take the risk of defaulting to continued improvisation. Munchau comes out squarely in favor of a coordinated, funded rescue program.
From the Financial Times:
This has been a week of self-congratulation in Europe. We have saved a handful of banks. We have, in effect, started to cut interest rates. We even had a summit of European leaders that produced warm words of solidarity. It looks as though the Europeans have reached substantive agreement that no systemically important bank should ever be allowed to fail….The rescue of Fortis and Dexia last week, two large, but not too large, cross-border European banks, should be seen as a sign that our emergency procedures are working. Look, they say, we met quickly and decided what needed to be decided. It was fast and unbureaucratic. We do not need a European rescue fund, let alone any new institutional set-up to deal with this, they say. We can do it ourselves.
I agree that the few ad hoc rescues have worked. But do not fool yourself. They worked because they were the first wave of rescues and because they involved banks such as Fortis – of just the right size, based in just the right small- to medium-sized country where political leaders are sufficiently rational not to hold each other to ransom as midnight approaches on Sunday.
But what if this had been a bank with a name of a large European country, or an acronym that refers to a large European city, banks that are simultaneously too big to fail and too big to save? I shudder to think what would happen when Silvio Berlusconi, Angela Merkel, Lech Kaczynski and the next Austrian leader have to meet to discuss the future of a large cross-border European bank.
What worked for banking rescues numbers one to five may not work for rescues number six to 50 – the estimated number of systemically important banks in Europe. And that number does not include some banks we have already rescued, which politicians judged to be important for their domestic banking system, like Germany’s IKB Bank, but with no European relevance whatsoever. We have been squandering money.
Nor does it include the likes of Hypo Real Estate, which is not even a bank at all,….
The Europeans are of course right in their overall ambition not to allow systemically important banks to fail. They are also right in their scepticism about their ability to distinguish between illiquidity and insolvency during an emergency. But I fear we are still well short of a strategy. We might be lucky, and scrape through what could well become the most dangerous month of the crisis so far. If, for example, the credit default swap market were to blow up in the next couple of weeks – a non-trivial probability – we have no plan.
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, was therefore right when he appeared to back a €300bn rescue fund. Regular readers of this column will probably recall my somewhat constrained enthusiasm for his economic policies. But this had the makings of a good plan. He ended up distancing himself from it, when it became clear that Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, would not support it. But he was right and she was wrong. Of course, a European plan should not have been a copy of the bail-out that was finally adopted by Congress on Friday. The US plan failed to address the problem of an undercapitalised banking sector. That issue is even more important in Europe where many banks have an extremely weak capital base, with leverage ratios of 50 or more.
Europe does therefore not need any bail-out plan, but a plan that specifically addresses the capitalisation problem. Concretely, three things are needed: the first and most important is money. A sum of €300bn will not cover the EU in a worst-case scenario, but it is a sensible number to start with; secondly, you need a semi-permanent crisis committee empowered to take decisions; and finally you need a strategy to apply symmetrically and based on clear rules about when to recapitalise, and when not.
If you pursue a strategy of taking purely national decisions, you run the risk that at least one government will hit its own financial ceiling before this crisis is over, or that decisions have negative spillovers on the banking systems of other countries. Moreover, you end up with a beggar-thy-neighbour regulatory race, as we saw last week when Ireland and Greece unilaterally issued blanket guarantees for large parts of their banking sector. Last night, Germany was preparing a full deposit guarantee for its own banking system. Last but not least is the risk of violent political setback against a process that lacks transparency.
For Europe, this is more than just a banking crisis. Unlike in the US, it could develop into a monetary regime crisis. A systemic banking crisis is one of those few conceivable shocks with the potential to destroy Europe’s monetary union. The enthusiasm for creating a single currency was unfortunately never matched by an equal enthusiasm to provide the correspondingly effective institutions to handle financial crises. Most of the time, it does not matter. But it matters now. For that reason alone, the case for a European rescue plan is overwhelming.