The difficulty of being a monetary/banking policymaker in Europe: Balancing European and nationalistic interests

Ms Sabine Lautenschläger of ECB in this interview speaks about the state of banking developments and regulation in Euroarea. The interview talks about other things such as lack of women representation in central banking, stronger state of US banks and so on.

But what was most interesting is the way she balances her answers. The interviewer asks her a country specific question but she just replies for the Euroarea as a whole:

Non-performing loans are another problem. There are in fact new rules for reducing them. Compared with the ECB’s earlier plans, the compromise appears very half-hearted.

Objection. The rules are definitely not half-hearted. Uniform expectations have been specified for future non-performing loans (NPLs) and each bank will receive clear and ambitious supervisory targets for the stock of existing NPLs. We need to bear in mind that the starting level of NPL stock differs across banks.

Nevertheless, a single currency area needs uniform rules.

That’s exactly what there is now. We have found a yardstick for all loans which become non-performing. And not only for newly arranged loans, but also for existing loans which will cease to be serviced in the future. I considered that to be very important because it prevents institutions from deferring too many loan loss provisions.

You don’t seem to be really satisfied with the outcome.

I think the concept is good. However, in some respects I would have liked to be somewhat more ambitious.

Have the plans failed because of Italy?

The agreement now reached is a decision taken by the ECB’s Supervisory Board, in which 25 supervisors find a common position. The outcome is a very good package, all in all.

Institutions with long transition periods could be treated leniently.

Don’t worry, we are tough. It’s not our job as supervisor to prevent banks from leaving the market. In other words, we aren’t here to ensure the survival of each bank. We are here to react promptly to risks. And also to recognise when a bank is indeed no longer viable and has to be resolved.

How can it be then that a bank such as Monte dei Paschi is still viable as far as the ECB is concerned?

I cannot talk about individual institutions. In principle of course, banks hit by a crisis should also be given a new chance to become viable through appropriate measures, such as a capital injection or a change in the business model.

Are national champions still important?

I would like to see more euro area champions.

Companies in Germany have good credit lines, but banks hardly earn anything from their lending activities.

Competition is indeed fierce. Too much competition can also bring disadvantages.

What can we do about that?

Supervisors have to work with the existing banking market. Consolidation is primarily a matter for the market. What’s more, customers need to realise that they have to pay for good services.

Banks of some of the individual countries are posing problems for the entire union and pushing them into standardisation. But as a policymaker you just can’t single out any one such member. Such is the dilemma for them.

Further she is not sure whether more women on board would have helped in the banking crisis:

15 September marks the tenth anniversary of the collapse of the US investment bank Lehman Brothers. You were then the chief banking supervisor at the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin). Do you remember that day?

Yes, I can remember it vividly. I was in the BaFin that weekend and participated in the crisis calls with the international supervisors. I saw at first hand how things came to a head that weekend. In the night from Sunday to Monday, the US colleagues decided not to rescue Lehman. Three of us were holding the fort at the BaFin that night.

Were you immediately aware of the magnitude of what was happening?

We knew that the collapse of such a bank would not leave the financial world unscathed. Nonetheless, we all underestimated the severity of the fallout. Nobody foresaw a crisis of confidence that would bring whole markets to a standstill.

Would Lehman still be possible today?

I would never say that there will never be another crisis. But there’s no doubt that institutions and supervisors are now better prepared. Banks hold much more capital and liquidity. Their risk management and corporate governance are better too, albeit not yet good enough at every institution.

One theory has it that the financial crisis would not have unfolded as it did if more women had been on the banks’ boards. Is there some truth in that?

I don’t know about that – but there is good reason to believe that mixed teams come up with better results. Unfortunately, women are still under-represented at board level.

Not in supervision though.

There have always been more women in supervision. But I would resist any attempt to attribute certain behaviours solely to gender. People at the top need to have qualities such as assertiveness and decisiveness – that goes for men and women. And that applies in supervision too.

I think that is a balanced view. One obviously needs top quality people whether men and women at these positions. Having said that, there is little doubt that most banks and central banks are merely old boys club pushing into silo and uniform thinking.

She discusses the view that American banks are better off than European banks post-crisis:

How do you react to the criticism that supervision has become too strong – and is partly why European banks are so weak compared with their US peers.

Do you think that’s true?

The profitable US banks are in any case leaving European banks further behind.

I find that idea quite amusing. Conversely, it means that the weaker the supervision, the stronger the banks. The truth is that strict supervision leads to strong banks. Institutions become more resilient when supervisors require them to hold adequate capital to cover their risks and insist on sufficient liquidity and better risk management.

The US institutions received comprehensive state aid during the crisis. And now the United States is even rolling back regulation. Both of these represent a disadvantage for domestic banks.

Up to now, the US authorities have generally only revoked rules that went beyond international standards. But you do have a point. It’s important that large international institutions meet the same standards, particularly in trading. That is why we need to have the new Basel rules implemented in all major financial centres. Moreover, let’s not forget that the United States managed to quickly return to a growth path. That has of course been of great benefit to the US banking system too. We were much slower in that regard, also in tackling structural problems.

Nice overall interview…

One Response to “The difficulty of being a monetary/banking policymaker in Europe: Balancing European and nationalistic interests”

  1. EugenR Says:

    You wrote:
    Would Lehman still be possible today?

    I would never say that there will never be another crisis. But there’s no doubt that institutions and supervisors are now better prepared. Banks hold much more capital and liquidity. Their risk management and corporate governance are better too, albeit not yet good enough at every institution.

    What about the new system of cirporate theft, issuing corporate bonds not to finance new investments, but dividends and high management rewards?

    https://rodeneugen.wordpress.com/2018/08/18/new-way-to-finance-dividends/

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