Europe’s Banks

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My visit to Europe resulted in many interesting conversations. There was a stark contrast between the complex regulatory vision of formal presentations and papers, and the lunch and coffee discussion reflecting experience of people involved in actually regulating banks. They seemed to be quite frustrated by the state of things. Disclaimer: this is all completely unverified gossip, and remembered through a fog of jet lag. If commenters have better facts, I’m hungry to hear them.

Risk weights are ungodly complex, and not many people actually understand them, or the layers of buffers and how they are applied.

Risk weights are suspiciously low. Big banks are allowed to use their own models, calibrated on 10 years of data. That means the data have, now, 10 years of stable growth and very low default. Look, say the banks, our investments are nearly risk free.

“Micro” regulators who look at the specifics of an individual bank are prone to offset the “systemic” and “macro-prudential” efforts. Look, say the banks, we have to fulfill all these macro-prudential rules, give us a break. Regulators do.

The financial regulatory community has been preoccupied with writing reports about one thing after another. Meanwhile, the elephant remains in the room:  Italy may default or leave the euro.

Italian banks remain stuffed with Italian government bonds. I learned some new words for this: a “doom loop.” If the government defaults, the banks go with it.  Some smaller foreign banks still have large investments in Italian bonds. Another new word: “Moral suasion,” governments encouraging banks to buy a lot of their bonds.  I imagine the Godfather had more colorful words for it. On the other hand, Italian banks are reportedly happy for the moment, since as long as Italy doesn’t actually default, they make a bundle from high interest rates. Government debt is still treated with low or no risk weights.


In case it isn’t obvious here’s the problem. A sovereign default is bad enough. But if the banks are stuffed with government debt, then a sovereign default brings down the banking system. Depositors lose their shirts, and the banks, who know how to distinguish good from bad borrowers, are shut down. A calamity becomes a catastrophe. And an economy with failing banks will be bringing in a lot less tax revenue and more likely to default.  Government debt in a currency union without banking union is a singularly bad investment, because as currently construed governments give deposit insurance (explicit or implicit).

All this is obvious to anyone looking at it, and leads to a big sigh about “political pressure.” 10 years on, and Europe can’t quite bring itself to say that sovereign debts are risky. Understandably. This is a club of equals, and it’s awfully hard to say that some debts are better than others.

But this elephant has been careening around the room for 10 years. There was a Greek crisis which should have gotten some attention!

Some want a full banking union, breaking local bank regulation and allowing large transnational  banks to operate fully, breaking the doom loop. Some want full fiscal union to go with monetary union. The current model, pressure from the rest of Europe for governments not to borrow so much, and thus to never face a potential sovereign default, has clearly failed.

In my view, monetary union without fiscal union works fine, so long as we all understand that governments can default, and their debt should be treated just as risky (and sometimes junk) corporate debt on bank balance sheets. And, of course, if capital requirements were doubled, tripled, or more, so that banks could sail through a sovereign default, the problem would solve itself.

It occurs to me that simply removing risky local government debt from banks would go a long way to solving the problem. Defaultable government debt should be held via floating-NAV mutual funds, not via bank accounts.

Additionally, there is a big kerfuffle going on that Italy’s central bank owes Germany’s a lot of money.   Italians see this coming, and there is a lot of capital flight out of Italy. When an Italian writes a check from an Italian bank to buy an apartment in Germany, the money flows from Italian bank to Italian central bank, to German central bank, to German bank. Except the Italian central bank essentially makes a promise to pay rather than actually paying. Italy is basically expanding government debt in this way. I don’t totally understand it, nor did most people I talked to about it, and there is a wide disagreement whether this is another debt or just an accounting glitch. Still, that most people at a financial regulation conference know this is a big problem and nobody is quite sure what it means is telling.

With this background of lunchtime and coffee conversations, the written products of the financial regulation community have a surreal quality. The illusion of technocratic competence is always present in bank regulation discussions, but even more stark with this backdrop.

Look for example at the website of the Finanical Stability Board and the issues it thinks are important. As one example, the summary of FSB priorities for the Argentine G20 Presidency. It starts well enough, “Vigilant monitoring to identify, assess and address new and emerging risks.” But what’s the number one such risk? You would think, in honor of the Argentine presidency, with Italy the number one topic of conversation at lunch, and with who knows who owes who what in China, it would be “sovereign risk.” Nope. Crypto-assets is number 1: “The FSB will identify metrics for enhanced monitoring of the financial stability risks posed by crypto-assets and update the G20 as appropriate.” Then,
Disciplined completion of the G20’s outstanding financial reform priorities….During the course of the year the deliverables to the G20 will include the following areas: the correspondent banking Action Plan including improving the access of remittance providers to banking services; a toolkit for firms and supervisors on the use governance frameworks to reduce misconduct in the financial sector; leverage measures for investment funds to support resilient market-based finance; guidance on financial resources available to support central counterparty (CCP) resolution to deliver resilient and resolvable CCPs; a cyber security lexicon to support consistency in the work of the FSB, standard-setting bodies, authorities and private sector participants; and the private sector-led Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures’ report on voluntary implementation of its recommendations to highlight good practice and foster wider adoption.  
Sovereign risk is not mentioned once in this document. And I did not find it anywhere on the FSB website.

If you read between the lines, there is a very worthy reaction to this tendency to produce complex hot air that changes with each presidency:
Pivoting to policy evaluation to ensure the reform programme is efficient, coherent and effective. The FSB is increasingly pivoting away from design of new policy initiatives towards dynamic implementation and rigorous evaluation of the effects of the agreed G20 reforms.