Blog Post

With Cyprus, Europe risks being too tough on banking moral hazard

Europe has long been far too tolerant of moral hazard in its banking system. But with the Cyprus plan, the pendulum may now be swinging too far in the opposite direction.

By: Date: April 2, 2013 Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance

Europe has long been far too tolerant of moral hazard in its banking system. But with the Cyprus plan, the pendulum may now be swinging too far in the opposite direction.

This danger was made clear when Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch president of the eurogroup of finance ministers, rocked financial markets on Monday by hinting at a new doctrine that would put the full burden of future bank restructuring on creditors and depositors rather than taxpayers. In his words, “where you take on the risks you must deal with them, and if you can’t deal with them then you shouldn’t have taken them on”. This hardline stance echoes the memorable advice of Andrew Mellon, US Treasury secretary in the early 1930s, as reported by then President Herbert Hoover: “Liquidate labour, liquidate stocks, liquidate farmers, liquidate real estate… It will purge the rottenness out of the system… People will work harder, live a more moral life.”

In July 2007, the opposite position was enunciated by Jochen Sanio, then Germany’s top financial supervisor. As IKB, a medium-sized German bank, revealed massive subprime-related losses, he argued that not bailing it out would trigger “the worst financial crisis since 1931” – an intentionally frightening reference. EU countries have since then implemented the “Sanio doctrine” by scrupulously reimbursing all creditors, including junior ones, of almost all failed banks with few and rather small exceptions in Denmark, Ireland and the UK. That this consistent dismissal of moral hazard originated in a German decision is ironic in light of later events.

Then change has come, gradually. In Deauville in October 2010, Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and President Nicolas Sarkozy of France announced that holders of euro area sovereign debt could face losses, but soon afterwards Ireland was still forbidden from “burning” senior bank bondholders. However, policy makers slowly realised that guaranteeing all bank liabilities reinforced a damaging “doom loop” between banks and sovereigns. In July last year, Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, noted that “the question of burden sharing with senior bond holders is evolving at the European level”. Spain’s bank restructurings later that year imposed losses on many subordinated creditors. Earlier this year Ireland negotiated a deal that involved a loss for some senior bank bondholders. A largely silent revolution was instilling more market discipline into the financing of Europe’s banks.

This gradual shift was welcome. But in Cyprus it accelerated out of control, all the way to full “Mellon doctrine”. The island’s two biggest banks are now being liquidated, even though the process is administrative rather than judicial, with no government financial assistance. In an echo of Deauville, European leaders signalled on March 16 that deposits were no longer safe, after which the German finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble confirmed that deposit guarantees were “only as good as a state’s solvency”. This move annihilated trust in Cypriot banks and made the imposition of capital controls inevitable.

Just as the Sanio doctrine was made unsustainable by moral hazard and fiscal constraints, the Mellon doctrine is made unsustainable by the reality of systemic risk – today as in the 1930s. In fairness to Mr Dijsselbloem, he acknowledged that governments may not impose full financial discipline “in times of crisis”, but then implied that we are in no such times right now: a heroic claim. Governments have a responsibility to protect their citizens from catastrophic meltdowns. This is why a chastened US government had to bail out AIG, the insurance group, a day after letting Lehman Brothers go bankrupt.

As the US learnt the hard way, predictability is essential in such matters but also difficult to attain. Europe must now chart a path between untenable Sanio and unrealistic Mellon.

The trade-off is not only between moral hazard and systemic fragility, but also between national fiscal responsibility and European integration. The eurogroup’s new insistence that “all insured depositors in all banks will be fully protected” may or may not be seen as a form of “deposit reinsurance”, meaning that a deposit guarantee can indeed be stronger than a member state’s own solvency. But this declaration will have little impact on depositors’ behaviour unless a European backing of national deposit guarantee systems is made explicit.

Similarly, the insistence on orderly bank restructurings in an integrated market calls for a centralised process, which should be in place before the ECB conducts a comprehensive balance sheet assessment of all 150-odd banks transferred under its direct supervisory authority, a deadline now planned around mid-2014. The clock is ticking.

This article was first published in The Financial Times.


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint. Anyone is free to republish and/or quote this post without prior consent. Please provide a full reference, clearly stating Bruegel and the relevant author as the source, and include a prominent hyperlink to the original post.


Warning: Invalid argument supplied for foreach() in /home/bruegelo/public_html/wp-content/themes/bruegel/content.php on line 449
View comments
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Something Putin and Juncker appear to agree on – the euro.

“It is absurd that Europe pays for 80% of its energy import bill – worth €300 billion a year – in US dollars when only roughly 2% of our energy imports come from the United States,” said President Juncker in his state of the union speech.* Europe’s largest supplier of energy – Russia, who accounts for a third of that bill – couldn’t agree more. Russia’s offer to switch to euros in trade with the EU will likely be costly to implement, but the US switch towards unilateralism is forcing its long-standing partners to question the dollar’s global dominance.

By: Elina Ribakova Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 25, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Backstage: Brexit consequences for EU’s ICT policy

Bruegel senior fellow Scott Marcus welcomes former European Regulators Group chairman Kip Meek to explore the consequences of Brexit for ICT policy-making in Europe

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 25, 2018
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

Policy Brief

One size does not fit all: European integration by differentiation

The need for reform of the EU is increasingly urgent. The authors of this policy brief suggest a new governance model, combining a bare-bones EU with a 'Europe of clubs'. Such reform would offer scope for broad membership without stalling the process of integration for those that wish to pursue it.

By: Maria Demertzis, Jean Pisani-Ferry, André Sapir, Thomas Wieser and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 19, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Crypto assets: is a regulatory framework needed?

The economic potential and risks of crypto assets: is a regulatory framework needed?

Speakers: Thierry Philipponnat and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: France Stratégie, 20 avenue de Ségur, 75007 Paris Date: September 19, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Structural reforms in Europe: policy lessons from the crisis

When are structural reform efforts successful in fostering productivity and growth when and why do they fail?

Speakers: Ana Fontoura Gouveia, Paolo Manasse, Klaus Masuch and Alessio Terzi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: September 18, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Blog Post

Reforming the EU fiscal framework

Researchers have often highlighted the problematic nature of the currently very complex EU fiscal framework. Here we review economists’ views on how it should be changed.

By: Silvia Merler Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 17, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Upcoming Event

Oct
23
12:30

Europe: Back to the future of a political project

This event will feature a discussion on different ideas for reforming European Governance.

Speakers: Ulrike Guerot, Adriaan Schout and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read article More by this author

Podcast

Podcast

Director’s Cut: Europe’s migration policy challenge

Immigration is one of the most contentious policy matters currently facing the EU. In this Director’s Cut of ‘The Sound of Economics’ Bruegel director Guntram Wolff welcomes Ana Palacio, member of the Spanish council of state and former foreign affairs minister, as well as Bruegel visiting fellow Elina Ribakova for a constructive discussion as to which approaches will yield the best results.

By: The Sound of Economics Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance, Global Economics & Governance Date: September 14, 2018
Read article More on this topic

Blog Post

The economic case for an expenditure rule in Europe

Proposals for reforming the euro area back on the agenda. An overhaul of the European fiscal rules should be on high on this agenda, because the current fiscal framework has not worked well. This column proposes substituting the numerous and complex present rules with a new, simple rule focused on limiting annual growth rate of expenditures.

By: Zsolt Darvas, Philippe Martin and Xavier Ragot Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 13, 2018
Read article Download PDF More on this topic

External Publication

The EU’s Multiannual Financial Framework and some implications for CESEE countries

Bruegel scholars Zsolt Darvas and Guntram Wolff contributed to the September 2018 edition of the OeNB's Focus on European Economic Integration.

By: Zsolt Darvas and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 12, 2018
Read about event More on this topic

Past Event

Past Event

Reforming Europe's fiscal framework

This event will discuss reforming Europe's fiscal framework in order to make it less complex and more effective.

Speakers: Zsolt Darvas, Lars Feld, Philippe Martin, Lucio Pench and Beatrice Pierluigi Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: September 12, 2018
Read article More on this topic More by this author

Opinion

Should central European EU members join the euro zone?

Eurozone membership (or the use of a fixed exchange rate) was not a factor determining economic success in Central Europe. There were both good and bad macroeconomic performances in both the flexible and the fixed exchange rate regimes of Central European countries. The implication is that Central European “outs” could be economically successful both with and without the euro, yet the EU is not only about economic benefits.

By: Zsolt Darvas Topic: European Macroeconomics & Governance Date: September 11, 2018
Load more posts