European banking regulation: When there’s strength in union

By Céline AntoninSandrine Levasseur and Vincent Touzé

At a time when America, under the impulse of its new president Donald Trump, is preparing to put an end to the banking regulation adopted in 2010 by the Obama administration [1], Europe is entering a third year of the Banking Union (Antonin et al., 2017) and is readying to introduce new prudential regulations.

What is the Banking Union?

Since November 2014, the Banking Union has established a unified framework that generally aims to strengthen the financial stability of the euro zone [2]. It has three specific objectives:

  • To guarantee the robustness and resilience of the banks;
  • To avoid the need to use public funds to bail out failing banks;
  • To harmonize regulations and ensure better regulation and public supervision.

This Union is the culmination of lengthy efforts at regulatory coordination following the establishment of the free movement of capital in Article 67 of the Treaty of Rome (1957): “During the transitional period and to the extent necessary to ensure the proper functioning of the common market, Member States shall progressively abolish between themselves all restrictions on the movement of capital belonging to persons resident in Member States and any discrimination based on the nationality or the place of residence of the parties or on the place where such capital is invested.”

The Banking Union was born out of the crisis. While the Single European Act of 1986 and the 1988 EU Directive allowed the free movement of capital to take effect in 1990, the financial crisis of 2008 revealed a weakness in Europe’s lack of coordination in the banking sphere.

Indeed, the lessons of the financial crisis are threefold:

  • A poorly regulated banking and financial system (the American case) can be dangerous for the proper functioning of the real economy, in the country but also beyond;
  • Regulation and supervision that is limited to a national perspective (the case of European countries) is not effective in a context where capital movements are globalized and numerous financial transactions are conducted outside a country’s borders;
  • The banking and sovereign debt crises are linked (Antonin and Touzé, 2013b): on the one hand, bailing out banks by using public funds increases the public deficit, which weakens the State, while the problematic sustainability of the public debt weakens the banks that hold these debt securities in their own funds.

The Banking Union provides a legal and institutional framework for the European banking sector, based on three pillars:

(1) The European Central Bank (ECB) is the sole supervisor of the major banking groups;

(2) A centralized system for the regulation of bank failures includes a common bailout fund (the Single Resolution Fund) and prohibits the use of national public funding;

(3) By 2024, and subject to the definitive agreement of all the members of the Banking Union, a common fund must ensure that bank deposits held by European households are guaranteed for up to 100,000 euros, with deposits guaranteed by each State from 2010.

The Banking Union is not fully completed. The adoption of the third pillar is lagging behind due to the difficulties being experienced by the banks in Greece and Italy, which have not been entirely resolved due to the continuing risk of default on existing loans. The European deposit guarantee “will have to wait until sufficient progress has been made to reduce and harmonize banking risks” (Antonin et al., 2017).

Towards stronger regulation and greater financial stability

The Banking Union has come into existence alongside the new Basel III prudential regulations that have been adopted by all Europe’s banks since 2014 following a European directive and regulation. The Basel III regulations require banks to maintain a higher level of capital and liquidity by 2019.

The establishment of the Banking Union coupled with the ECB’s highly accommodative monetary policy has helped to put an end to the crises in sovereign debt and the European banking sector. The ECB’s massive asset purchase programme is helping to improve the balance sheet structure of indebted sectors, which is reducing the risk of a bank default. Today, the Member States, business and households are borrowing at historically low interest rates.

The establishment of a stable, efficient European banking and financial space requires further steps to regulate both a unified European capital market and the banks’ financial activities (Antonin et al., 2014).

The main objective of a union of the capital markets is to provide a common regulatory framework to facilitate the financing of European companies by the markets and to channel the abundant savings in the euro area towards long-term investments. This would allow for a more coherent and potentially more demanding level of regulation of the issue of financial securities (equities, bonds, securitization operations).

The Banking Union could also be strengthened by drawing on the 2014 Barnier proposal for a high level of separation of deposit and speculative activities. The ECB’s unique supervisory role (pillar 1) enables it to ensure that speculative activities don’t disrupt normal business. This supervisory role could be extended to embrace all financial activities, including the infamous credit system of “shadow banking” that parallels conventional lending. The separation of activities also strengthens the credibility of the common bail-out funds (pillar 2) and guarantee funds (pillar 3). Indeed, it is becoming more difficult for banks to be too big, which reduces the risk of bankruptcies that are costly for savers (internal bailout and limits on common funds).

Defending a European model of banking and financial stability

At a time when the United States is currently abandoning the more stringent regulation of its banks in an effort to boost their short-term profitability, Europe’s Banking Union is a remarkable defensive tool for preserving and strengthening the development of its banks while demanding that they maintain a high level of financial security.

While the US courts are not hesitating to impose heavy fines on European banks [3], and China’s major banks now occupy four out of the top five positions in global finance (Leplâtre and Grandin de l’Eprevier, 2016), a coordinated approach has become crucial for defending and maintaining a stable and efficient European banking model. In this field, a disunited Europe could seem weak even while its surplus savings make it a global financial power. The crisis has of course hurt many European economies, but we must guard against the short-term temptations of an autarkic withdrawal: a European country that isolates itself becomes easy prey in the face of a changing global banking system.

 

Bibliography

Antonin C. and V. Touzé (2013a), “The law on the separation of banking activities: Political symbol or new economic paradigm?”, OFCE Blog, 26 February 2013. http://www.ofce.sciences-po.fr/blog/the-law-on-the-separation-of-banking-activities-political-symbol-or-new-economic-paradigm/

Antonin C. and V. Touzé (2013b) « Banques européennes : un retour de la confiance à pérenniser » [“Europe’s banks: Sustaining a return of confidence”], Les notes de l’OFCE, No. 37, December, pp.1‑9. http://www.ofce.sciences-po.fr/pdf/notes/2013/note37.pdf

Antonin C., H. Sterdyniak and V. Touzé (2014), “Regulating the financial activities of Europe’s banks: A fourth pillar for the Banking Union”, OFCE Blog, 3 February 2014. http://www.ofce.sciences-po.fr/blog/regulating-financial-activities-europes-banks-fouth-pillar-banking-union/

Antonin C., S. Levasseur and V. Touzé (2017), « Les deux premières années de l’Union bancaire » [“The first two years of the Banking Union”], in L’économie européenne 2017 (edited by J. Creel), Repère.

Leplâtre S. and J. Grandin de l’Eprevier (2016), « Les banques chinoises trustent les premières places de la finance mondiale » [“China’s banks monopolize the leading positions in global finance”], Le Monde, 29 June 2016. http://www.lemonde.fr/economie/article/2016/06/29/les-banques-chinoises-trustent-les-premieres-places-de-la-finance-mondiale_4960155_3234.html#R1zGPo7VG46YVzQ5.99

 

 

[1] The Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act adopts the Volcker rule “which prohibits banks from ‘playing’ with depositors’ money, which led to a virtual ban on the proprietary speculative activities of banking entities as well as on investments in hedge funds and private equity funds” (Antonin and Touzé, 2013a).

[2] The Banking Union is compulsory for euro area countries and optional for the other countries.

[3] Recent events have shown that US justice can prove to be extremely severe as large fines are imposed on European banks: 8.9 billion dollars for BNP Paribas in 2014, and 5.3 billion for Credit Suisse and 7.2 billion for Deutsche Bank in 2016.

 

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