I was in Brussels on Monday and attended the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee for its latest meeting with Mario Draghi. The main topic of the meeting was the ECB’s new job as supervisor of the euro area’s banks. I came away from the meeting very concerned about two issues: The effect of banking problems on sovereign debt and the credibility of the upcoming stress tests.
The Vicious Circle
The decision to allocate the ECB the task of single supervisor for banks stems from the June 2012 meeting of euro area leaders which declared “We affirm that it is imperative to break the vicious circle between banks and sovereigns.” It was also agreed at that meeting that the euro area’s bailout fund, the European Stabilisation Mechanism (ESM) could be used to recapitalize banks that were in difficulty. For many at the time (including me) this statement was an important positive step.
Because Europe’s leaders would not agree to money being provided to banks in other countries without assurances that these investments had solved problems and could guarantee a return for taxpayers, it became politically imperative that there be a pan-euro-area supervisor of banks that could be relied on to provide an independent assessment.
The ECB has been chosen to do this supervisory job and its first task will be to undertake an assessment next year of the health of the approximately 130 banks that it is to directly supervise. Details on the upcoming assessment process are sketchy at this point other than that it will contain an asset quality review, a balance sheet assessment and stress tests run in conjunction with the European Banking Authority.
MEPs at Monday’s meeting repeatedly questioned Mister Draghi about what would happen if a bank failed the upcoming assessment and needed a large injection of capital. One potential answer was that the proposed new Single Resolution Mechanism, effectively a form of European FDIC, would provide the funds. However, this mechanism won’t come in to place until 2015 and when it does it won’t have any money: As with the FDIC, it is to be funded over time via contributions to banks. In the future, the Resolution Fund could borrow from the ESM but it is unclear if this could ever actually happen and highly unlikely that plans will change to see the Resolution Fund swing into action next year.
Instead, Mister Draghi repeatedly emphasized that “national backstops” were the key mechanism for dealing with banks that needed more funds (see reporting here and here.) This shows how little progress has been made in breaking the vicious circle referred to in last year’s summit statement.
The euro area’s leaders have agreed to a grand plan under which at some point in the fairly distant future, the cost of dealing with bank failures won’t fall directly on the taxpayers unfortunate enough to reside in the same country as the bank. However, for now, Draghi’s comments ensure that national taxpayers remain first in the firing line when banks fail. In this sense, the current vicious circle that actually prompted the June 2012 summit has gone from something that it is “imperative” to remove to something that is effectively official European policy.
Credibility of Stress Tests
The continued reliance on “national backstops” seems likely to affect the credibility of the upcoming stress tests. ECB officials have repeatedly criticised the previous stress tests undertaken by the European Banking Authority for their lack of credibility. Implicit behind this criticism is the assumption that the ECB tests will be tougher, with more negative valuations for bank loans in arrears or other distressed assets.
Draghi’s statements about national backstops, however, undermine the credibility of the new exercise before it has even started. He insisted on Monday that it is realistic for national backstops to be used to sort out banking problems, even in countries like Spain or Greece. Given the perceived size of banking problems in these countries as well as existing levels of public debt, this is effectively an early signal that the new stress tests will not uncover many problems.
The balance sheet assessments will feature many outside advisors who will provide technical expertise in coming up with figures for capital shortfalls. This is a lucrative business and consultants who wish to be re-hired have an incentive to give the answer the client wants. Draghi waxed lyrically on Monday about how
One of the outcomes we expect from these tests is to dispel this fog that lies over bank balance sheets in the euro area
and expressed confidence that the condition of Europe’s banks was improving. This happy message will be taken on board by the outside consultants.
The hiring of Oliver Wyman as the ECB’s own consultant doesn’t do much to boost the credibility of the upcoming assessments. Leaving aside their infamous award to Anglo Irish Bank as the world’s best bank in 2006, this firm carried out stress tests on Spanish banks last year coming up with a €60 billion recapitalisation figure that few consider credible. (For comparison, the Irish state coughed up €64 billion for its banks — Ireland is a lot smaller than Spain and Spanish house prices are still falling.)
Of course, it’s also possible that the bank assessments will be realistically tough and, where public funds cannot be used, the ESM could be called on to provide money for recapitalization. However, the €60 billion currently earmarked for potential use by ESM is a small figure relative to the size of Europe’s bad bank assets and, even then, it seems unlikely that Germany, Finland and the Netherlands will budge from their position that ESM cannot be used to replace losses on “legacy assets.”
A final scenario consistent with the possibility of tough stress tests is that, where national governments don’t have the funds, there will be significant bail-in of bank creditors with bondholders and possibly depositors losing out. Given the chaotic implementation of the Cyprus bail-in and the lack of progress on resolution authority, I seriously doubt that the European institutions have the capacity to execute a simultaneous multi-country programme of bank bail-ins while maintaining financial stability.
That leaves the path of least resistance: Weak stress tests that see the vast majority of banks pass and the problems with bank assets continue to be largely ignored. With so many new institutions in place, perhaps a gentle run-through was the best that could have been expected from this exercise in any case, with more serious tests reserved for down the road when the banks are in better condition and disagreements about resolution have been settled.
In the meantime, Europe’s weak banks are likely to continue in their zombie state, squeezing credit to firms and households and holding back the recovery that Europe so desperately needs.