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Colm McCarthy: Only Europe-wide action can help tackle debt crisis

The referendum result is a relief rather than an achievement. A No vote would have made a bad situation worse. The Government needs to move on quickly in exploiting whatever opportunity has been created to reduce the burden of bank-related debt imposed on the Irish Exchequer.

The misfortune of Spain presents an opening, since an Irish-style response to the Spanish banking crisis is clearly unwise. The banking crisis in Spain needs a European solution and the European leadership appears to understand that Spain cannot be cut adrift to embrace unknown, and unknowable, liabilities for the debts of mismanaged banks. Ireland was SETF (Small Enough To Fail) but thankfully Spain and Italy cannot be dismissed as peripheral. It is a shocking state of affairs when European countries can see the misfortune of others as a welcome development, but this is the sad reality, which has been fashioned in pursuit of the single currency project.

The European Union is not structured in a way that encourages decisive management of crises. The intergovernmental nature of the union and the inevitable reversion to national political priorities when crisis strikes create a predisposition to muddle, delay and half-measures.

These features have been prominently on display since the eurozone banking and sovereign debt crises erupted in 2008 and have seen both sets of problems intensify.

One of the unambiguous lessons of history is that the costs of financial crises magnify when the policy response is too slow.

There have, however, been some potentially promising developments in the weeks leading up to the Irish referendum, which received little public attention here, drowned out by the torrent of referendum babble.

The president of the European Central Bank, Mario Draghi, made an important speech at the European Parliament on Thursday. He described the existing eurozone structure as 'unsustainable', and called for the creation of a banking union to underwrite the failing currency union.

The currency union has clearly lost the confidence of the markets and, more importantly, of the public, as evidenced by continuing deposit flight in several countries. Draghi is to be congratulated on his candour, a sharp contrast to the waffle and evasions of his predecessor, Jean-Claude Trichet.

Draghi's remarks come in the wake of a series of speeches from ECB executive board members, drawing attention to the need for centralised bank supervision and resolution, the absence of which helped to propel this country into a blind alley back in October 2010.

The ECB's behaviour on that occasion, insisting that a sovereign unable itself to borrow should repay unguaranteed and unsecured holders of bonds issued by insolvent and closed banks, will come in time to be seen as an appalling misjudgement.

Without helping the bank bond market in any discernible way, this ECB policy choice helped to undermine confidence in eurozone sovereign debt across the board. This discretionary action by Trichet's ECB was resisted at the time by IMF officials, whose judgement has been thoroughly vindicated by subsequent events.

The popular narrative that the sovereign debt problems derive from fiscal excess may be a reasonable characterisation in the case of Greece, but Ireland and Spain ran budget surpluses through the pre-crisis period, and had among the lowest debt ratios in the eurozone in 2007.

It has taken far too long for European decision-makers, in particular ECB officials, to acknowledge that this is mainly a banking crisis. Regional banking crises are to be expected in a currency union. They have been a recurring feature in the United States but are dealt with at federal level, without bankrupting individual states.

The failure to anticipate regional banking crises in Europe and the subsequent decision of Trichet's ECB to prohibit haircuts for unsecured senior bank debt has turned banking crises into sovereign debt crises, weakening banks that hold sovereign bond portfolios and inserting a new short-circuit into Europe's financial system. A circuit breaker in the form of bank resolution would have been the better option.

ECB executive council member Peter Praet, speaking in Milan on May 25 last, concluded that "more is needed for the euro area to break the link between fiscal imbalances, financial fragmentation and financial instability. Europe needs to move towards a financial union, with a single euro area authority responsible for the supervision and resolution of large and complex cross-border banks. This authority should also be responsible for a euro area deposit insurance scheme.

"With bank resolution and deposit insurance funded primarily by private sector contributions, taxpayers would be shielded from picking up the bill for future banking crises. Essentially, I envision an authority similar to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the United States".

Two other Executive Council members, Jorg Asmussen and Benoit Coure, have expressed similar sentiments in recent speeches. The EU Commission has also been working on bank resolution proposals, according to newspaper leaks, and a definitive document is due to be released later in June. EU Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso has also stressed the desirability of a banking union.

Whether Europe's single currency needs a fiscal union, for which there is little political support, is unclear, but a currency union unaccompanied by a banking union is inherently unstable ('unsustainable', in the admirably concise judgement of ECB president Mario Draghi).

With free capital movement, no perceived currency risk, freedom of establishment for banks and a worldwide liquidity bubble, it is clear that bank balance sheets expanded far too rapidly in several countries, including Ireland, through the pre-crisis decade.

The delegation of bank supervision to national authorities and the imposition on them of the no-bank-bondholder-left-behind policy is, Greece excepted, the principal source of the sovereign debt crisis.

It is also a moral hazard machine, removing market discipline from banks in countries still solvent and capable of spawning further crises in the years ahead.

The solution is not a Europe-wide bank rescue fund, which could make the moral hazard problem worse, through substituting more credible backstops for the next round of banking excess. The solution is the restoration of market discipline through exposing bank bondholders to the risk of loss.

Europe's single financial market has been sundered through deposit flight and nation-by-nation re-matching of assets and liabilities. This is no longer a monetary union in any meaningful sense -- no country has departed the euro but it has already ceased to be a trusted common currency.

Further financial dis-integration can be avoided only if bank deposits in all eurozone countries are seen as equally secure, which means a Europe-wide deposit insurance scheme, ideally funded through risk-reflective and fair premiums.

Banks, including those deemed too big to fail, should be required to carry substantial bond liabilities, which can be bailed-in should the banks get into trouble. If this means more expensive funding for banks, so be it. This is hardly an unintended consequence.

The common currency introduced in 1999 was poorly designed, and the failure to build a banking union to accompany the single currency was the principal weakness. It is enormously important that both the EU Commission and the ECB are now persuaded that the monetary union project is incomplete pending new structures to deal with this omission.

It is Ireland's misfortune to have been the first casualty of this design failure, largely our own fault of course, but no country should face punishment to the point of national insolvency for the sins of bank mismanagement and poor bank supervision.

It is too late to lament Ireland's decision to join the eurozone in the first place. There is no option of painless exit, as Greece may be about to discover.

Countries not already in the eurozone are thinking twice about joining and those who stayed out are silently thankful for the foresight of their politicians. The best outcome for those already in the common currency is that the design flaws are admitted and remedied, sooner rather than later. The referendum result is welcome but the flood of admissions that the common currency needs to be re-designed is far more significant.

Creating a Europe-wide deposit insurance scheme on the hoof is challenging and there are numerous difficult issues to be addressed in the design of a new bank supervision and resolution regime.

One tough question for policymakers is whether a banking union can be confined to the eurozone or must embrace the full European Union. The banking union cannot, however, be long-fingered until things get back to normal. Its absence is at the heart of the current crisis.

Sunday Independent