Can Europe take care of its own financial crisis?

Daniel Gros 12 October 2008



The title of the press release from the emergency Euro area summit is already muddled – “A concerted European action plan of the euro area countries”. The outcome of this extraordinary summit was neither an action plan, nor was its contents really specific to the euro area countries.

The limited results of two emergency summits in Europe show how much more difficult it is to manage a banking crisis in an area in which there is no fiscal solidarity and even limited regulatory convergence. One cannot just translate the lessons from past crises, almost all of which were at the national level, to formulate a European response to the current financial turmoil.

One general lesson from past crises is that it is imperative to avoid a generalised bank run. Hence it was certainly useful for the euro area summit to state the obvious. European governments will not let any systemically important bank fail. This is not news, but its restatement should still contribute to reduce the sense of panic prevailing in financial markets.

The real issue in Europe had always been the question of burden sharing i.e. who pays for the losses at a trans-national bank. The case of Fortis does not constitute a good precedent, as this issue was not really settled. Moreover, the different pieces of Fortis had not yet been tightly integrated, so it was still relatively easy to cut the bank into three parts operating (now independently) in the three Benelux countries. This is one way in which the current situation is different from national banking crisis. 

While stopping the panic was the immediate priority, the real question is whether Europe can now avoid a credit crunch, i.e. a sharp slow down in bank lending. A credit crunch would lead to a large loss of output, but this seems unavoidable as banks will now feel that they first have to rebuild their capital and their liquidity before they can extend new credit. 

This issue is particularly acute for the inter-bank market, and its urgency is by now understood by all policy-makers. The inter-bank market has become dysfunctional almost everywhere. This market is important because it channels funds from banks that collect more deposits than they can usefully lend out to banks that have more credit-worthy customers than deposits. If this distribution mechanism does not work, banks with few deposits must cut lending (making the second problem much worse).

How to revive the inter-bank market?

How to revive the inter-bank market? The crisis has now become so acute that banks refuse to lend short even if they have the funding. Eurozone banks prefer to deposit surplus funds at the ECB’s low yielding deposit facility rather than to lend to other banks. The ECB has de facto become the clearing house for the collateralised inter-bank market in the euro area. This part of Europe is working. However, the normal, unsecured, inter-bank market remains frozen.

Breaking the negative feedback: The need for European cooperation

This issue needs to be tackled, but no country can achieve it on its own since the bulk of the inter-bank market is spans national borders. This is another difference between national banking crises and the current situation in the euro area. What is needed is a coordinated approach, as proposed by the UK – but at the euro area level. The ‘action plan’ of the euro area countries emphasises this point, but it seems to be headed in the wrong direction.

Experience has shown that under present circumstances any additional funds pumped into banks will be hoarded rather being lent onward in the inter-bank market. The reason is quite simple: banks refuse to lend to other banks even if their counterpart appears to be safe because in a world in which other banks do not lend even to safe banks, even safe banks can become illiquid very quickly. This negative feedback loop must be broken. 

Even with the vague government guarantee now extended by most governments to all systemically important institutions, banks will still remain reluctant to lend to each other even if all banks in Europe might now be “government-sponsored entities” as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac used to be called in the US. Most inter-bank lending in Europe is cross-border and a guarantee by a foreign government is never perceived as good as a guarantee by the own government. This is yet another difference between a national bank crisis and the problems of the euro area. 

Moreover, even if the blanket guarantee for banks in Europe were perceived as rock-solid, the key point remains that banks all over the world now place an extremely high premium on liquidity. This implies that banks are likely to hoard the additional liquidity they can obtain through the debt they can issue with a government guarantee. The experience of Japan has shown that even pumping enormous amounts of liquidity in the banking system may not be sufficient to get credit flowing again.

A different approach would have been much better. Each government should guarantee its own banks reimbursement of inter-bank loans, including cross-border loans, if they are to a bank from another country that participates in this scheme. Thus this guarantee scheme would apply to the asset side of banks’ balance sheets. This is an important difference from the current thinking to guarantee the liabilities of banks. Guaranteeing their liabilities makes funding easier, but as argued above, is no guarantee that credit actually increases.

The guarantee for inter-bank lending proposed here would presumably be valid for a limited time and governments could charge appropriate fees (as would also be the case in the guarantee of banks’ liabilities contained in the euro area approach). But given current levels of the cost of protection against counterparty default in the banking system, this fee could be substantial enough to provide a comfortable insurance premium for the protection of tax payers without choking off the market.

The objection of (national) finance ministers will of course be that this exposes them to a risk that originates potentially in another jurisdiction. In reality this risk will be quite limited because the euro area leaders also decided to shore up their large banks and prevent bank failures. 

Moreover, losses from housing related activities seem relatively minor in Europe (except Spain and Ireland). This implies that the key issue in Europe is not how to make up massive losses, but how to resolve a coordination problem which has led to the disappearance of the vital inter-bank market.

Missed opportunity

Euro area countries had the chance to agree on a specific action for the euro inter-bank market. They got one important technical detail wrong. In principle, this should be easy to correct. But in reality this will be very difficult, as all national leaders now have to implement the common approach at home. Once one or two countries have started implementation, it will be extremely difficult to change tack as these countries will naturally not take it kindly if they have to go back to their national parliaments. Once a general principle has been set, it becomes extremely difficult to change. In a national context the direction of action can be changed much more quickly to adapt to quickly changing circumstances. Witness the UK (or Germany) where a national administration performed a complete U-turn in a very short time. 

One should thus be cautious in applying the lessons from previous crises to the European context. Certain issues are specific to Europe and certain solutions, which might be desirable, are not politically feasible in an area that adopted a common currency hoping that the absence of fiscal solidarity would not be tested by the markets.



Topics:  Financial markets

Director of the Centre for European Policy Studies, Brussels


CEPR Policy Research