Tuesday, December 18, 2012

ECB's new role as eurozone bank regulator

Early Thursday morning (December 13) eurozone finance ministers agreed to take a first step toward establishment of a banking union. The agreement will grant supervisory powers to the European Central Bank (ECB) - at least with regard to the 200 or so largest banks headquartered in the eurozone. Large European banks located outside the eurozone (chiefly UK banks) will continue to answer to national authorities. With the accretion of these new powers and responsibilities, the ECB will come to resemble the Federal Reserve which functions as both as a monetary authority and as the chief regulator of large banks operating in the United States.

The political accord reflects a compromise between the competing visions of France and Germany. France had desired a complete transfer of bank supervision to the ECB, effectively extinguishing national regulation. Under this approach all banks located within the eurozone would become 'European' in character. Germany resisted; Germany has been desirous of sheltering its politically powerful regional banks from European control. A reported late-night compromise between France and Germany has resulted in a mixed system - with the eurozone's 200 largest banks falling under the authority of the ECB and the remaining 5,800 or so smaller banks (including virtually all of Germany's regional banks) continuing under the oversight of national regulators.

Still the eurozone finds itself a good distance away from a true banking union. As conventionally understood, a banking union involves three features: common and centralized supervision, a common deposit insurance scheme and a centralized mechanism for taking over insolvent banks. The current decision achieves at best only the first element. Moreover, the EU summit determined to postpone action on the remaining items - deposit insurance and insolvency scheme - for at least six months. These missing features involve politically touchy sharing of financial burdens.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Wired for Culture: Origins of the Human Social Mind by Mark Pagel

Mark Pagel addresses the conundrum posed by variegated cultures. Culture -- what we have that monkey's don't (according to a witty formula quoted by Pagel) -- both unites us and divides us. In Wired for Culture, Pagel attempts an evolutionary account for the existence of cultures. His inquiries commence with the mad multiplicity of languages. Language is the prime instrument of cultural transmission and the strongest marker of cultural identity. Yet the intra-group facilitation of communication provided by distinct languages are foreclosed to outsiders. Our languages seal us off from one another.

Human adaptability to the widest range of niches offers only a partial explanation for the multitude of cultures. New Guinea sports more than 800 different languages within a very small territory -- here mutual unintelligibility seems to be the point. Language operates both to permit and prevent understanding; both these characteristics are necessary. The value of a closed system of communication has long been recognized. Tradesmen, criminals and academics use argot to separate themselves and to keep secrets.

Pagel makes an evolutionary case for the multiplicity of languages; language serves as an identifier of group membership. This is culture's darker role: defining group boundaries. Pagel sees language and other cultural institutions functioning to set limits for altruism. Humans are social -- but only to a degree. We are a species that engages in magnificent cooperation -- yet are capable of inflicting harm on a scale not found in any other species.