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End of stress tests creates the space to tackle Europe's real political problems


Thinkstock Images

Thinkstock Images

Thinkstock Images

IT takes about two years for an elephant to bring a baby to full-term - and about the same time for the European Central Bank to create a credible test of the continent's lenders.

This in not the only way in which the ECB resembles an elephant; the bank is also slow moving, grey and ungainly. Still, once they get going, both ECB and elephant can be both powerful and fierce; those tusks are not just for show.

The general consensus in recent weeks has been that the stress tests were both comprehensive and dispassionate and should perform their basic function, which is to dispel the uncertainty surrounding the European banking sector.

The higher-than-expected number of banks which failed the tests yesterday is only likely to strengthen the prevailing view in the weeks ahead.

We have also learned quite a lot about the continent's banking system. Lenders overseas, like their Irish counterparts, were unable to accept the extent of bad loans and their consequent losses.

The ECB calculates that the banks overvalued assets by a collective €48bn, as well as having €136bn in non-performing exposures.

The changes in classification of non-performing loans is important because the ECB will soon take over the regulation and ultimate responsibility for bad loans in these banks.

Despite these failures, the good news is that the vast majority of Europe's big banks have now been given a clean bill of health, along with our own.

It may be obvious now, but it is worth saying that few of us would have forecast two years ago that any Irish bank would pass any sort of test at all. The domestic banking sector is on the mend.

The clean bill of health now gives the ECB the camouflage it needs to proceed further along the road to money printing and into other unorthodox areas of monetary policy.

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That, in turn, should help banks to boost lending to business and individuals.

So what comes next?

The entire European banking sector has been frozen for some time as we waited for the results of these tests. The mere fact that the tests are largely over will allow many banks to get on with whatever it is that they want to do.

In the case of the Irish banks, the conclusion of the stress tests means that Finance Minister Michael Noonan is free to sell off a big chunk of Allied Irish Banks on the stock exchange and recoup some of the bailout costs before the general election.

Over at Ulster Bank, the lender's Scottish owners (which includes the British government) are now free to decide once and for all whether to hive off Ulster Bank and sell it or keep the bank inside the embrace of Royal Bank of Scotland.

At present, only Bank of Ireland is really listed on the stock exchange in a way that allows people to buy and sell shares.

AIB and Permanent TSB are controlled by the Irish Government at arm's length while Ulster Bank is controlled by the British equivalent.

The end of the stress tests will almost certainly herald an end to inaction. That's good news.

Elsewhere in Europe, we are likely to see consolidation.

Italy's banking sector is certain to witness several bank mergers after the poor showing in that country. Germany's banks did much better, but we may also see consolidation in a market where there are still hundreds of small banks.

The stress tests alone are unlikely to solve Europe's problems, but a quick rebound in Europe's banking sector could coincide with the beginning of the end for a rather worrying period in recent European history.

Yesterday was also the day that war-weary Ukrainians voted in elections.

Early indications were that they voted to install a pro-Western parliament in Kiev to strengthen President Petro Poroshenko's efforts to end separatist conflict in the east.

The war has knocked economic growth in Germany and other Baltic states in Europe. A resolution - which will probably include an admission that Crimea belongs to Russia - will go some way to restoring stability.

An end to the stress tests and the Ukraine issue could allow Europe's leaders to focus on the biggest problem facing the continent right now; the economic collapse of Germany and France as well as Italy which slipped into recession the other day.

Europe's elites face a crisis of legitimacy that grows shriller with every passing week. Here we see the election of anti-water charge and pro-turf cutting candidates as well as the rise of Sinn Fein.

Elsewhere we see the rise of equally peculiar parties with few coherent polices beyond a hatred of the establishment.

Regional elections in the east German state of Thuringia yesterday appear to have brought Germany's far-left Die Linke party to power. The party is heir to the communist-era Socialist Unity Party (SED) and it would be the first time it took charge of a regional government since the fall of Communism 25 years ago.

The conclusion of the stress tests offers some hope that banks will feel comfortable enough to begin lending again while our political leaders can begin to deal with the other deep problems facing our continent.