Business

Will there be mass bailout of European banks?

  • 5 October 2011
  • From the section Business
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There are some European regulators and politicians who regard the downgrade of Italy and the woes of the Franco-Belgian bank Dexia as positive events (oh yes) - because they hope that these serious but containable shocks will speed eurozone governments into taking credible, evasive action ahead of more devastating shocks.

And there were signs from yesterday's Ecofin meeting that European finance ministers increasingly recognise the need to strengthen European banks, so that the banks can better absorb losses on loans to European nations with excessive debts.

It would be the bucket of sand to chuck on the fires raging in European banking markets, as Europe's sovereign debt crisis continues its metamorphosis into a pernicious banking crisis.

Olli Rehn, the European commissioner for economic affairs, told the Financial Times that "capital positions of European banks must be reinforced" and he talked of a "concerted coordinated approach".

But there is a problem. In July, most European banks - including Dexia - were given a clean bill of health in comprehensive stress tests.

So it is not clear how European ministers would force the banks perceived by creditors and investors to be weak - especially those in France and Italy - to raise expensive new capital.

A new round of more rigorous stress tests could take time that the eurozone just doesn't have - and it would make a mockery of those very recent stress tests, which would be harmful for the credibility of European regulators.

For what it's worth, what British regulators tell me they would like to see is the kind of so-called TARP rescue programme that worked pretty well in the US in the autumn 2008 - where massive amounts of capital were injected by the US government into almost every US bank, very much on a precautionary basis.

The attraction of that approach for budget-stretched eurozone members would be that the US ended up making a fat profit on its bank rescue programme, from the gains it made on selling bank stakes when some kind of equanimity returned to markets.

So will there be a eurozone TARP?

Well the revised European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) has a mandate to engage in such rescues - or at least it will do, when the parliaments of all eurozone members ratify changes to the EFSF's modus operandi.

What is less clear is whether the EFSF has enough money for the job, given the other calls on its €440bn of firepower, and whether eurozone leaders have the collective will to use the EFSF for a mass programme of bank bailouts.