The EU Ministers for Finance and Economic Affairs met in Luxembourg at the beginning of the week to debate the future of financial supervision in Europe and the current economic situation.
How European should future financial supervision be?

The starting point of the ministers’ debate was a Communication of the Commission on Financial Market Supervision, which was adopted on 27th May. The strengthening of the European dimension of financial supervision shall help to avoid disagreement between national supervisory authorities. The financial crisis has shown clearly what had long been criticized by experts: large banks within the European internal market have long been active across national borders; the supervision over these banks, however, is still largely regulated at national level. If disagreements arise between national supervisory authorities in times of acute crisis there is no effectively mediating authority, which would be in a position to make decisions. This became clear at the example of the Fortis Bank and its Belgian and French supervisory authorities.

The Commission Communication, which is based on the so-called Larosière Report, recommends setting up a “European Council for System Risks” at the European Central Bank, which is supposed to supervise the risks for the entire financial system. This was widely agreed by the ministers.

More controversial was the reorganisation of financial supervision in Europe for banks, insurances and securities dealers, which has been outlined in the Communication of the Commission. Here the Commission proposes three European agencies, with their own personnel and budget, which are supposed to work closely with the national supervisory authorities. Which powers, however, these agencies should have, if the supervisory authorities in the Member States were split over certain matters, remained a controversial issue with all ministers. Great Britain, with the support of a few new Member States, came out in favour of weaker competences (and of the City of London), whilst the majority of ministers would prefer that the agencies in exceptional cases that involved dispute or disagreement could also overrule the national authorities. The heads of state and government must now try at the European Council on 18th and 19th June to find a compromise for this question. Afterwards the Commission has to present concrete draft proposals by the autumn; the intention is to have the new European System of Financial Supervision in place during the course of 2010.

Banks under stress: how resilient are they and should the public know?

Another discussion point were the banks. According to an internal report about recent aid measures, the Member States have so far supported the banking sector with government aid of Euro 3,700 billion; this accounts to over 30 percent of the annual gross domestic product of the EU. Did these aids have the desired impact? In order to find out, the finance ministers had decided at one of their last meetings to carry out a so-called “Bank Stress Test”, as it had been done by the Americans some time before. These involve simulations to establish how healthy the banks would be if confronted with economic stress. The ECOFIN, however, disputed whether the test should also be carried out for individual banks, as demanded by the Economics Commissioner Almunia and the International Monetary Fund, or whether it should only apply to the majority of the banks within the EU and whether the results should be published or not. Germany’s finance minister Steinbrück came out vehemently against a stress test for individual banks and against the publication of results.

Saving during the crisis or softening the Maastricht criteria?

The general economic situation was of course also an important discussion point. The participants agreed that the crisis in the national labour markets had only just begun and that the collapse of the economy in the past 6 months had been alarming. The result: the Member States had to take a lot of cash out of the till in order to cushion the consequences of the crisis and the majority of them is now confronted with record deficits. According to the EU Treaty, however, the budgets of the Euro States may not exceed the value of 3 percent of the gross domestic product. If they do so nevertheless, they will be threatened with a yellow card from Brussels. And this is what currently up to 13 Member States can expect. A dilemma, as it does not any make economical sense to start saving (at the expense of the workforce) during the crisis. France made an attempt to suggest a compromise: the EU should distinguish between the “normal” structural deficit and the “crisis deficit” (that includes the expenditure for coping with the crisis). The budget hardliners from Germany, however, immediately threw this proposal out again. In the meantime, Sweden has announced that she would apply herself seriously to this issue during her coming Presidency, which starts in July.

Further information:

Council conclusions on strengthening EU financial supervision

Press Release on the results of the ECOFIN

Communication of the Commission: European Financial Supervision

Report of the de Larosière Group