Europe’s heads of state or government have launched a new conversation about reforming the financial structures of the European Union in order to prevent another economic and financial crisis like the one that consumed the last decade. They have a number of ambitious proposals on the table — to complete the European Banking Union, to strengthen the European Stability Mechanism, and to enhance political accountability at the European level. Not all of these proposals are sure to be adopted, and progress is likely to be incremental. The goal of ensuring financial market stability is nevertheless apparent.
Earlier this week, French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech outlining his proposals to reform the European Union. And there were a lot of proposals in that speech. Surprisingly, though, not many of them focused on the euro area or on the process of European macroeconomic governance. Macron talked about creating some kind of common budget and naming a European Minister of Finance, but he did not touch on the major issues sketched in European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the Union address or the letter of intent and reflection papers that the Commission has produced as well.
The Italian government passed a series of decrees yesterday to allow Intesa San Paolo to buy the healthy assets of two small banks from the Veneto region – Banca popolare di Vicenza and Veneto Banca. The state will move the distressed assets into a ‘bad bank’ for orderly liquidation. This action closes a chapter on the Italian banking crisis that started in late 2015 when regulators made it clear that the two small Veneto banks needed more capital. Over the intervening period, investors threw good money after bad as the banks continued to haemorrhage deposits and mount up non-performing loans. The government did not want to step in because it did not want to impose losses on large depositors or junior bond holders. Ultimately, though, the situation for the two institutions was unsustainable. Now we know what the solution looks like. The question is what we learned from the process. The short answer is that Europe’s banking union is still dangerously incomplete.
As we approach another round of talks on the third Greek bailout package, I thought it would be appropriate to share two thoughts on the importance of debt forgiveness and on Europe’s preparedness in case this all goes wrong. My basic line is that debt-forgiveness is the only pragmatic choice. I also worry that Europe is not as prepared for the alternative as it should be.
Oxford University Press has published two new books on the political economy of the euro area that should be required reading. One, by C. Randall Henning, explains why the International Monetary Fund has become a central actor in the stabilization of the euro area; another, by Waltraud Schelkle, sheds new light on what the single currency has to offer both in its current form and looking to the future. My reviews of both books are below.
This is a talk I gave on 21 June at the European Political Strategy Center, which is the in-house think tank of the European Commission. The audience was very generous in listening to my presentation. The point I tried to make is that the capital markets union is an important project, but we should be careful to ensure that policymakers supplement the efforts to make capital markets more efficient with efforts to make them more resilient. This is an argument that I have made before and yet it is probably worth repeating. Given the dynamics behind Europe’s economic and financial crisis, there is simply too much at stake.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share some thoughts about the relevance of U.S. experience for Europe’s capital markets union. My argument is that U.S. experience is relevant both in terms of its successes and in terms of its mistakes. The most important lesson I draw from the United States is about the importance of managing or channeling the flight to quality when financial markets come under duress. In jargon, my specific concern is when a sudden increase in liquidity preference translates into a spontaneous return of home bias. In plainer language, what interests me is how we handle situations where investors decide to place priority on protecting the value of their assets.
When the Council of Economics and Finance Ministers (ECOFIN) meets informally on Friday, 22 April, one issue on the table will be the reduction of bank exposure to the sovereign debt of their home governments. This issue was laid out in a note from the Dutch Presidency that was leaked on Wednesday. The response of the Italian government in particular was immediate and strongly negative. Italian banks are heavily exposed to Italian sovereign debt and any attempt to reduce that exposure would impose unacceptable costs on an already fragile Italian financial system. To some degree this is the case for other peripheral countries as well. The Dutch Presidency note argues that Europe’s banking union needs to be strengthened with some kind of European Deposit Insurance Scheme (EDIS) and ‘a common backstop for the Single Resolution Fund (SRF)’. Before the Dutch Presidency can flesh out its position on these key support mechanisms, however, it needs to tackle the ‘bank-sovereign nexus’ so that ‘risk sharing and risk reduction go together’. Intellectually, this is a coherent argument.
The European Central Bank (ECB) announced a raft of policy measures on Thursday, March 10, intended to give a further boost to euro area economic performance. Most of these measures were unconventional and yet still precedented. The ECB lowered its main policy rates, accelerated the pace of its asset purchases, and widened the pool of assets eligible to be included in its purchasing program. It also renewed its program for targeted loans to banks that extend credit to the non-financial sector. The only new element was the rate of interest that the banks would pay to access credit that they could lend for investment. The question is whether that new wrinkle will make much of a difference. As is often the case, the answer depends less on the mechanics of monetary policy than on the magic of market ‘confidence’.
The deal reached between British Prime Minister David Cameron and his colleagues on the European Council last week was supposed to transform the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union on four dimensions – economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. Three of these issues are largely symbolic. No declaration or agreement is going to ensure ‘better regulation’ either in Brussels or in Westminster; British sovereignty was never seriously under threat from the vague aspiration to achieve an ‘ever closer union’; and while immigration is a vital issue, few experts on cross-border labour imagine it turns on access to ‘in-work benefits’ or can be deterred by the indexation of child support. By contrast, economic governance is a vital national interest both for the British people and for the City of London. The question is whether Cameron has managed to improve that aspect of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe.
Europe’s Orphan: The Future of the Euro and the Politics of Debt. By Martin Sandbu. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. 313 pp. $29.95. ISBN: 978-0-691-16830-2 (cloth).
The euro did not cause Europe’s economic crisis; policymakers did. By focusing too much attention on debt, by demanding that existing obligations be met in full (and creditors made whole), and by doing so against a backdrop of coordinated macroeconomic tightening, Europe’s policymakers ensured that the downturn in European macroeconomic performance would be deep, long, and destructive. These same policymakers only narrowly avoided disaster when they began to loosen monetary policy and to accept the need for some debt restructuring. Nevertheless, these efforts did not come soon enough, they were no comprehensive enough, and they were not applied consistently enough to prevent Europe from coming to the edge of disaster as elite macroeconomic ideology finally collided with the requirements for democratic legitimacy in Greece (and Germany) during the summer of 2015. This is the diagnosis Martin Sandbu offers to explain what went wrong.