EU okays new financial supervision deal
European Union nations agreed to create new financial oversight institu-tions Tuesday, hoping to prevent a repeat of the government debt crisis that nearly left Greece bankrupt and brought the European banking system to its knees.
The union's 27 finance ministers failed to find common ground, however, on the introduction of a levy on banks or on a new tax on financial trading.
The ministerial group - called Ecofin - decided to establish a new supervisory board over the financial industry and demand a more transparent sharing of government budgetary information - a move prompted by the dubious accounting practices in Greece over the last few years.
The systemic risk board will be chaired by European Central Bank president Jean-Claude Trichet out of Frankfurt. It still needs the formal backing of the European Parliament, but that is expected later this month.
This shows the willingness of European countries to "put behind national interests for the sake of Europe," said Wolfgang Schaeuble, Germany's finance minister.
Belgium's finance minister, Didier Reynders, who chaired the meeting, said stricter supervision was one of the most important lessons from the government-debt crisis and insisted the deal was necessary now to make sure the new risk board begins work at the start of 2011.
The ministers also approved a second instalment of emergency loans - worth €9 billion (US$11.5 billion) - for Greece after the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund praised the country for the efforts it has made since the massive €110 billion (US$140 billion) bailout plan was agreed in May.
No common ground
Yet common ground could not be found on the introduction of new banking taxes.
Although many countries in the EU have decided to impose a levy on bank profits, there is no Europe-wide agreement about what to do with the proceeds.
Germany wants the revenues to be put in a rescue fund to pay for future banking bailouts while Britain wants to use the money for its own budgetary needs.
"I made it clear ... that we did not support proposals for a European resolution fund," said British Finance Minister George Osborne.
The transactions tax, which has been backed by non-governmental organisations, trade unions and politicians, does not look like it's going to get the broad backing within Europe's capitals, even though French President Nicolas Sarkozy said it's going to be a priority when France takes the chair of the Group of 20 countries next year.
Osborne said the problem with the trading tax is the same as it has been since Nobel Laureate James Tobin first proposed it in 1970s - if it's not introduced everywhere, then firms will just move their dealmaking elsewhere to avoid paying the tax.
"I suspect that transaction taxes will be discussed for many decades to come," said Osborne.
Proponents of the measures had claimed they would curb excessive risk-taking and place the financial burden of any rescue package on financial institutions themselves instead of the taxpayer.
During the financial crisis, governments across the EU provided financial institutions public support worth an astonishing 16.5 per cent of the union's total worth.
Tuesday's Ecofin meeting took place in a less feverish atmosphere than most recent gatherings, when the ministers faced the real prospect of Greece's potential bankruptcy. Only May's massive €110 billion bailout of the country by its 15 partners in the eurozone and the IMF and a near US$1 trillion rescue package to support other embattled eurozone economies helped ease concerns.
Worries about the European economy and its ability to deal with large amounts of government debt have eased further by a recent run of better-than-expected data, progress by Greece in strengthening its bailed-out finances and the results of stress tests on 91 of the EU's banks.
Though the most apocalyptic scenarios discussed a few months ago, such as the collapse of the euro currency, have been put on the back burner, market jitters remain.
A report in the Wall Street Journal that the summer's stress tests into 91 EU banks understated some lenders' holdings of potentially risky government debt, spooked markets Tuesday - the euro was trading over a cent lower on the day at US$1.2750.
Investors know that the government-debt crisis could flare up again, particularly as the 16 eurozone governments are set to issue more debt this month than they did in August.
Eurozone governments have bond repayments of euro80 billion (US$103 billion) in September, with around €30 billion (US$38 billion) due from Italy alone - and the results of the debt sales will reveal what bond investors think of government finances.
"There are growing concerns about a potential 'Round 2' in the eurozone debt crisis as banks and some eurozone governments face a heavy funding schedule," warned Neil MacKinnon, global macro strategist at VTB Capital.