Opinion

Hugo Dixon

Mario Draghi’s poisoned banking chalice

Hugo Dixon
Feb 4, 2013 10:01 UTC

When euro zone governments agreed last year to give the European Central Bank the power to supervise its banks, that looked like another victory for its president Mario Draghi. It is more like a poisoned chalice.

The ECB will certainly get a chunk of extra power. But it will also be blamed when banks run into trouble, as they inevitably will. Draghi himself is experiencing this first hand following the scandal at Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), which has had to be rescued by the Italian state. He has been lambasted for failing to supervise the country’s third largest bank properly when he ran the Bank of Italy – although the criticism seems overdone and has often been fuelled by his political opponents back in Rome.

The potential reputational risks for the ECB from banking snarl-ups on its watch are probably even bigger than they are for national central banks. This is because it doesn’t yet have the full set of tools to do the job properly. Moreover, a huge amount is at stake since the ECB is the euro zone’s most credible institution. If its reputation gets tarnished because of perceived supervisory failures, that could rub off on its ability to conduct monetary policy or manage crises effectively.

The Bank of Italy rejects the notion that it was guilty of supervisory lapses with MPS. It pointed out in a seven-page document last week the host of regulatory actions it had taken since it first became worried about the bank in the second half of 2009.

The bottom line is that MPS did not blow up – something which could have triggered a new euro panic. The Bank of Italy deserves some credit for avoiding such a calamity. It did eventually force the Sienese bank to strengthen its weak liquidity and capital buffers as well as push for the management to quit.

MPS saga not just a local affair

Hugo Dixon
Jan 28, 2013 10:14 UTC

The Monte dei Paschi di Siena saga is not just an Italian affair. Revelations that complex financial transactions used by the country’s third largest bank had the effect of hiding losses are causing a political storm in Italy.

With a general election only weeks away, Silvio Berlusconi looks like being the main winner from the political spat. The former prime minister’s camp has attacked Pierluigi Bersani’s Democratic Party, which is leading in the opinion polls, for being close to Monte dei Paschi (MPS). It has also criticised Mario Monti, the current prime minister, who agreed to increase MPS’s bailout to 3.9 billion euros.

The scandal won’t be enough to get Berlusconi back as prime minister. But it could prevent a Bersani-Monti coalition from running the country with a solid majority in both houses of parliament. If so, fears about Italian political risk could return to haunt the markets.

Dos and Don’ts of EU banking union

Hugo Dixon
Dec 10, 2012 10:44 UTC

Conventional wisdom has it that the euro zone needs a banking union to solve its crisis. This is wrong. Not only are there alternatives to an integrated regulatory structure for the zone’s 6,000 banks; centralisation will undermine national sovereignty.

“Create a banking union” became a rallying cry earlier in the year when it looked like the euro was going to explode. Advocates of a single banking authority said it would break the “doom loop” which tied troubled banks to troubled governments. European Union governments will this week continue their attempt to agree on a single supervisor, the first stage of a banking union.

There are two parts to the doom loop: when banks go bust, their governments bail them out, adding to their own debts; and when governments become over-indebted, the nation’s banks are usually big lenders, so the banks get sucked into the sovereign debt vortex.

Euro zone doesn’t need Disziplin union

Hugo Dixon
Oct 22, 2012 08:59 UTC

European leaders nudged forward plans for a fiscal union with discipline as its leitmotif at last week’s summit. But such a “Disziplin union” is neither desirable nor necessary. It may not even be politically feasible.

The consensus among the euro zone political elite is that fiscal union is needed to complete the crisis-ridden monetary union. There are two rival views of what this should consist of: a panoply of rules to prevent and punish irresponsible behaviour; or financial payments to help weaker economies. The former view, espoused by Germany, is in the ascendant. It involves lots of sticks but not many carrots.

The summiteers’ main achievement was to give further impetus to the idea that the European Central Bank should act as the zone’s central banking supervisor from the start of next year after Berlin dropped its insistence that its own savings banks should be excluded from the regime. That was an important political concession. It’s also conceivable that the new supervisor will be better able to clean the cesspits in parts of the euro zone than the current often-conflicted national supervisors.

Banks should learn to say “Just Go”

Hugo Dixon
Sep 24, 2012 08:44 UTC

Shortly after last year’s bonus round I was having lunch with the boss of an investment firm. He told me how he heard a handful of staff had been grumbling about what, by most people’s standards, were still extraordinary pay packages. He called them into his office and told them that, since they were unhappy, they should “Just Go”.

Most of them packed their things and left the firm. But the next day one came back and said he had been misunderstood. My interlocutor said he hadn’t misunderstood him at all. The employee clearly felt he was worth more than he was paid. He should take his luck and go elsewhere as he clearly didn’t have his heart in his current job. He should “Just Go”. And he duly did.

These words “Just Go” stuck in my mind because financial services bosses use them far too rarely. My lunch companion was perhaps an exception because his family is a big shareholder in his firm. Most other bosses are stewards for shareholders – and normally not terribly good stewards at that.

Can EU defend supranational interests?

Hugo Dixon
Sep 17, 2012 09:56 UTC

European integration tends to advance first with squabbling then with fudge. Every country has its national interest to defend. Some politicians appreciate the need to create a strong bloc that can compete effectively with the United States, China and other powers. But that imperative typically plays second fiddle to more parochial concerns with the result that time is lost and suboptimal solutions are chosen.

Amidst the europhoria unleashed by the European Central Bank’s bond-buying plan, it is easy to miss the immense challenges posed by two complex dossiers that have just landed on leaders’ desks: the proposed EADS/BAE merger; and a planned single banking supervisor.

Look first at the plan to create a defence and aerospace giant to rival America’s Boeing. This has been under discussion since at least 1997 when the UK’s Tony Blair, France’s Jacques Chirac and Germany’s Helmut Kohl called on the industry to unify in the face of U.S. competition. London, Paris and Berlin are the key players in this game because they have the major assets.

How to clean the banking cesspit

Hugo Dixon
Aug 6, 2012 08:29 UTC

Five years after the credit crunch erupted in August 2007, banking still looks like an industry running amok. Scandals keep tumbling out of the closet: an alleged ring of banks including Barclays that attempted to rig interest rates; money laundering by HSBC; insider tips passed by Nomura to its clients; and terrible risk management by JPMorgan, where traders have so far lost $5.8 billion.

True, some of these scandals date from the rip-roaring days of the bubble. And the industry is now being reformed. But the public is growing impatient with the slow pace of change, especially as recession bites in large parts of the industrialised world. Some observers therefore want to clear out the entire old guard. The idea is that only new teams can clean the cesspit. There are also increasing calls to break up banks into supposedly low-risk retail banks and casino-style investment banks. Even Sandy Weill, the man who created Citigroup, now advocates splitting up financial conglomerates.

Something must be done. The financial industry has made a mockery of capitalism. Despite endless bailouts, bankers are still paid far too much. Profits are privatised, while losses get socialised.

Who will watch the Bank of England?

Hugo Dixon
Jul 16, 2012 08:19 UTC

A year ago Rupert Murdoch was probably the most powerful unelected person operating in Britain. The media baron could seemingly choose prime ministers. Then came the phone hacking and police bribery scandal, after which politicians sought to distance themselves from him.

The title of most powerful unelected Briton now probably belongs to Mervyn King, the governor of the Bank of England. Witness the way he dispatched Barclays’ chief executive Bob Diamond two weeks ago in connection with the Libor rate-rigging scandal. Whoever succeeds King next year will have even greater powers. After all, responsibility for financial stability and banking supervision is about to be added to the central bank’s main task of running monetary policy. It’s vital for democracy that this authority is exercised effectively, transparently and fairly.

Who will be King’s successor when he steps down? And how will the new governor be made accountable? These questions have been brought into sharp relief by the Libor scandal. The front runner for King’s job has seen his chances knocked, while doubts have been raised about the central bank’s effectiveness and transparency.

The perils of an indispensable boss

Hugo Dixon
Jul 9, 2012 09:59 UTC

Was Bob Diamond really irreplaceable? Barclays’ board operated for 15 years on the assumption that he was. As a result, the UK bank’s chief executive became more powerful – and ever harder to replace. Now that he has been kicked out in the wake of the Libor rate-rigging scandal, Barclays is struggling to find new leadership.

This is an object lesson for all companies, not just banks. Think of two other UK-listed groups which have recently provoked shareholder anger over their bosses’ high pay packages: WPP, the advertising giant; and miner Xstrata. In both cases, the boards paid their chief executives so much because they thought they were indispensable.

Barclays is now in a mess. Not only has Diamond quit, his chairman, Marcus Agius, has also said he will resign. Both men ultimately had to go: Diamond had come to epitomise the worst of the City of London’s greed, while Agius seemed unable to hold his chief executive in check. Neither man responded to requests for comment.

Euro banking union won’t come fast

Hugo Dixon
Jun 18, 2012 08:58 UTC

Some European policymakers are talking about a “banking union” for the euro zone as if it was around the corner. Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, for example, told the Financial Times last week that such a union – which would involve euro-wide supervision, bailouts and deposit insurance for the banking industry – could be achieved next year.

But this is not remotely likely. Parts of the zone’s banking industry are so rotten that taxpayers elsewhere can’t reasonably be asked to bear the burden of bailing them out. A massive cleanup is required first. The crisis in Greece, Spain and other countries may provide the impetus. But even then, as Germany suggests, banking union should proceed in stages.

The appeal of a euro zone banking union is understandable. Governments and lenders are currently roped together in what has been dubbed the sovereign-bank doom loop. Weak banks – for example those in Spain, Ireland and Cyprus – can drag down their governments when they need a bailout. Equally, weak governments, such as Greece’s, can drag down their banks when those are stuffed with their own sovereigns’ bonds. By shifting responsibility for bailouts to the euro zone as a whole, the loop could be cut. Or, at least, that is the hope.