Business World

Friday 27 April 2018

Bondholders and big savers forced to take hit if banks fail in new bid to beat more bailouts

European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier is in charge of writing the new law.
European Commissioner for Internal Market and Services Michel Barnier is in charge of writing the new law.

John O'Donnell

IT seems European finance ministers have learned a few things from Ireland's bailouts.

Bondholders and large depositors in any failing European bank will face losses from the start of 2016, European Union negotiators agreed yesterday in a deal to spare taxpayers from further bailouts.

The law, if approved by EU ministers, will make losses for senior bondholders and large savers a permanent feature of the bloc's response to banking crises and mark another milestone in the reform of an industry that triggered economic turmoil.

The rules that senior bondholders and savers with more than €100,000 should suffer in the same way as shareholders did during the financial crisis had originally been pencilled in for 2018. It signals a hardening of approach and follows in the vein of the tough treatment earlier this year of big depositors in Cyprus. That country's bailout broke a taboo that savers should be spared when a bank is in trouble.

The agreement to accelerate the introduction of the regime by two years to January 1 2016 was reached between MEPs from the European Parliament and negotiators representing EU countries. It will now go to EU ministers for approval next week.

Michel Barnier, the European commissioner in charge of writing the law, said it was a "big step" to ensure that "taxpayers are no longer in the front line to pay for banks' mistakes".

If given the green light, it will lay down clear rules for closing a bank in any of the 28 countries in the EU, ensuring that it is not only shareholders and governments who have to foot the bill. It provides an important building block for a wider reform, dubbed banking union, in the smaller 17-member euro zone, which will see the European Central Bank police the sector in tandem with a new agency to shut weak lenders.

The prospect of the new law, which officials had long postponed for fear that it would exacerbate investor nerves and bank borrowing, has yet to curb enthusiasm for bank bonds. Nor has it prompted large savers to move their cash to safe havens.

British MEP Sharon Bowles, who was involved in the talks, played down any such threat. "I think it's not as mind-blowing as it was when it was first dreamed up," she said. "Everyone knows it has been coming." But there is a lot of money potentially at stake and economists fear that some investors may take fright at the earlier rules.

Banks across the 17 countries in the eurozone have €860bn of unsecured bonds, with German banks accounting for almost €200bn of that.

Germany pushed for their earlier introduction so that the law would be in place in time to hit banks exposed as weak by European Central Bank tests next year. An early start date also has the backing of the ECB, which is uneasy over banks' reliance on their own financial support.

But many European Union countries, including struggling Portugal, are nervous that the early introduction could rattle fragile markets, reviving memories of the debt crisis and the controversial Cyprus rescue.

At a meeting of finance ministers earlier in the week, many spoke out against suggestions to accelerate.

Having such 'bail-in' rules in place early will mean that it may not fall solely to governments to pay for the repair of banks that the ECB finds weak after health checks late next year.

Some exceptions to the rule are, however, allowed. Sven Giegold, a lawmaker in the parliament, criticised one such clause that he said could allow a country to assist a struggling bank without first pushing losses on bondholders and other creditors.

But in reality, the size of banks' potential liabilities has long overtaken governments' ability to save them.

ECB data shows that eurozone banks have issued more than €3.8trn of home loans -- more than a third of the bloc's output and one-and-a-half times the German economy.

This helps explain why Germany, the eurozone's biggest economy and the country most likely to be called on to bear the brunt of bank clean-up costs, wanted the tough rules early.

Irish Independent

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