Opinion

Hugo Dixon

ECB faces severest stress test

Hugo Dixon
Feb 24, 2014 10:25 UTC

A lot is riding on the cleanup of euro zone lenders being overseen by the European Central Bank. The progress so far is encouraging. But clarity is needed on a few points to ensure that lenders really do get a good scrubbing and are therefore able to support the zone’s fragile economic recovery.

The ECB is in the midst of a so-called comprehensive assessment of euro zone banks. This has two elements: an “asset quality review” (AQR) to determine whether the loans and other assets held on their balance sheets are valued properly; and a “stress test” to check whether they could withstand a severe economic downturn.

To pass the test, banks are supposed to have a “common equity Tier 1 capital ratio,” a measure of balance-sheet strength, of 8 percent in the baseline scenario; and a ratio of 5.5 percent in the adverse scenario. The whole exercise is supposed to be finished by October before the ECB officially takes over from national authorities in November as lead supervisor for the zone’s banks.

The hope is that investors will at last have confidence that the numbers in bank balance sheets are accurate, so they can lend to banks more freely. Banks would also lend to each other. With the money markets functioning normally again, banks would have more confidence to lend to companies and consumers, giving a boost to economic activity.

That is what happened when the United States put its banks through severe stress tests five years ago. Unfortunately, the euro zone put its lenders through a series of sham tests. They gave clean bills of health to Irish, Spanish and Cypriot banks which virtually blew up soon after.

QE is the way for the ECB to go

Hugo Dixon
Feb 5, 2014 10:35 UTC

The European Central Bank needs to start taking the risks of deflation more seriously. This danger should be top of its agenda when its governing council convenes for its monthly meeting this week.

The ECB’s line is that it does not see deflation on the horizon. True, the inflation rate has been below the target of close to but below 2 percent for over a year. The flash estimate for January was a mere 0.7 percent. But this still amounts to rising prices – not deflation’s actually falling prices.

True, too, that the ECB itself expects inflation to be below target for at least the next two years. But it doesn’t think the euro zone is close to repeating the experience of Japan which has suffered 20 years of flat prices.

Bernanke deserves 6 out of 10

Hugo Dixon
Jan 27, 2014 09:58 UTC

How should the world outside America view Ben Bernanke’s legacy? Should it lambast the U.S. Federal Reserve chairman, who retires later this week after an eight-year stint, for failing to predict the financial crisis and being slow to react when it hit? Or should it laud him for pulling out the stops to save the financial system and pep up the U.S. economy after Lehman Brothers went bust in 2008? Or should non-Americans be worried that the process of unwinding Bernanke’s unprecedented money-printing policy will deliver a bad case of whiplash?

The answers to the last three questions are “yes, yes and yes.”

Bernanke’s culpability for the global financial crisis is not nearly as great as that of his predecessor, Alan Greenspan. It was, after all, Greenspan who ignored the dangers of financial deregulation, while being ever-too-ready to respond to any sign of market trouble by dropping interest rates – a policy that encouraged banks and investors to run up excessive risks with borrowed money.

By the time Bernanke took over in February 2006, the global credit bubble – and, in particular, the U.S. subprime housing bubble – was already well inflated. There was no way of avoiding trouble. However, the new Fed chairman could have mitigated the damage if he had had more foresight – say, by pushing for tighter regulation of the financial system.

The City has huge scope to expand

Hugo Dixon
Oct 28, 2013 10:14 UTC

Finance has rightly been in the sin bin for the last six years. And the cleanup job isn’t finished. But Mark Carney, the new Bank of England governor, is correct to stress how a large and expanding City of London is good for Britain, Europe and the world – provided it is properly organised.

Carney’s comments, in a speech last week, will seem heretical to many – maybe even to his predecessor, Mervyn King, who showed a barely disguised disdain for financiers. Would it really be healthy, for example, for the balance sheets of British banks to reach nine times GDP, double the current ratio – as Carney projected they could by 2050?

British public will have some big questions about the potential resurgence of finance. Will taxpayers be asked to swoop in again to bail out bust banks? If a rescue is needed, would the government have the wherewithal to support a gigantic sector? Is it wise for the UK to put so many of its eggs in the finance basket?

Cyprus leaves banking union up in air

Hugo Dixon
Apr 1, 2013 21:08 UTC

The Cypriot catastrophe shows just how far away the euro zone is from creating its much-touted “banking union”. There was no euro zone supervision of Cyprus’ big banks, no transnational approach to put them into controlled bankruptcy, no common deposit insurance and no flow of bank rescue funds from abroad.

Instead, there was weak supervision by the Central Bank of Cyprus and a mad scramble to carve up the banks’ assets on national lines. Nicosia was left to shoulder the whole cost of protecting small depositors and the euro zone said that none of its bailout cash could be injected into the troubled banks.

Optimists hope the fiasco will provide the euro zone with the impetus to complete its banking union. But it is equally possible that core countries such as Germany, Finland and the Netherlands will become even more reluctant to absorb the liabilities of bust peripheral banks.