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.
The snag is that banks and their governments are entangled in a tight incestuous relationship. Some of Spain’s cajas, for example, made dubious loans to their directors, as well as financing politicians’ pet projects. And the ex-chairman of Bankia, which has required the mother of all bailouts, was a former finance minister. Conflicts of interest have also been rife in Ireland, Cyprus and Greece. Even supposedly virtuous Germany has suffered from incompetent Landesbanken, controlled by regional governments, whose boards are filled with political appointees.
Bank boards were often useless or worse. But the national supervisors who should have spotted the problems were not much better. And Europe’s initial attempts at cross-border banking supervision have been pathetic. A European-wide stress test in 2010 didn’t even bother to examine Anglo Irish, a cesspit of bad property loans which virtually bankrupted Dublin. Another test in July 2011 concluded that Spain’s banks were only 1.6 billion euros short of capital. Then another last October bumped the number up to 26 billion euros – but didn’t stress the lenders’ property loans. Finally, last weekend’s bailout came up with a hopefully more realistic figure: up to 100 billion euros.