Monday, July 30, 2012

Euro Collapse or European Banking Union

The implementation of the Basel III banking reforms in Europe has spanned two financial crises. And the European legislation is haunted by two specters: a possible collapse of the Euro; and -- in the alternative -- a blind leap into a European banking union.

The first crisis of course was the 2007 global financial meltdown that led to significant bank failures and costly bank bailouts. The Basel III reforms were designed to prevent a re-occurrence of this kind of banking crisis through various new mandates and disciplines. The Basel III response was negotiated within the Group of 20, where Europe had a substantial presence and an important influence. Based on the past record of enthusiastic adoption of Basel norms by Europe, one might have expected the passage of Europe's CRD IV legislative package to be largely a technical exercise. It has not proven to be one.

This is due in part to the timing. The complex European legislative process -- extending well over a year -- coincided with the outbreak of the second severe crisis, one more specifically centered on Europe. This second -- and ongoing -- crisis is the sovereign debt crisis (or the Euro crisis). Initially involving Greece, the sovereign debt crisis has spread to Italy and Spain, sharply raising borrowing costs of these seriously indebted countries and miring their respective populations into social misery.

Monday, July 16, 2012

Bank Capital Reform in the Shadow of the Euro Crisis

European banking reform continues to develop alongside of - and perhaps in spite of - the ongoing Euro crisis. A significant EU reform package - involving a new directive (Capital Requirements Directive IV, or CRD IV) and a new regulation (Capital Requirements Regulation, or CRR) - is making its way through the EU legislative institutions. These reforms are driven in large part by Europe's undertakings within the global Basel system: Europe has committed to implement much of the most recent Basel package of reforms (known as Basel III) by January 2013.

One of the chief requirements of the Basel III reforms is to increase both the quantity and quality of the 'regulatory capital' banks must hold. This capital is intended to operate as a financial shock absorber in the event of large losses - assuring a bank's continued solvency and sparing shareholders (and - in a worse case - taxpayers) pain. Basel III is a system of minimum standards - countries are expected to comply with Basel III's requirements but are free to impose higher standards. And several countries (Switzerland, for example) have determined to require their banks to maintain even more regulatory capital than what Basel III demands.

The combination of common minimum standards and regulatory flexibility is familiar to the EU Member States: it is a feature of most EU-level regulation, known as "harmonization". But in its most recent drafts of CRD IV and CRR, the EU proposals called for "maximum harmonization," a design where the Basel III minimum standards serve to fix mandatory standards for the implementing EU Member States. Basel III requires that national regulators impose a minimum capital requirement for so-called Tier 1 capital ratio of 6 percent. By its terms, the Basel III framework permits countries to impose higher Tier 1 capital ratio requirements. But to permit each EU Member State to impose its own Tier 1 capital ratio requirement (so long as it exceeds the Basel III minimum) would introduce competitive and operational stresses within the somewhat unified European banking market. These concerns in turn have motivated EU officials to prefer "maximum harmonization" whereby all EU Member States would enact identical Tier 1 capital ratio obligations.