In his assessment of a new report published on banking reform within the EU, Martin Wolf starts off with an arresting statistic. In 2010, he writes, US banks had assets worth 8.6 trillion Euros. Banks in the EU had assets worth 42.9 trillion Euros. For the US, those assets represented 80% of GDP; in the EU, they represented 350% of GDP. The EU’s banking sector, claims Wolf, is too big to fail and “too big to save”.
Wolf’s fact raises interesting questions. Can we say that in Europe the expansion of the financial sector has been so significant that it dwarfs developments in the US and gives us an explanation for Europe’s current sovereign debt crisis? Explanations of the Eurozone crisis have in recent months increasingly focused on governance issues tied to the Eurozone itself and to poor economic performance of many Eurozone economies. Is the implication that the crisis is a European affair?
A useful place to look in order to answer these questions is the report that Wolf cites, put together by a group of experts and led by Errki Liikanen, governor of Finland’s central bank. Most of the coverage of the report has been about its recommendations: ones that are not so different from those of the Vickers report in the UK (see here for a comment on Vickers). However, the report itself gives a detailed account of the crisis and of the transformations in the European banking sector.
In general, it implies that whilst there is variation, there is no “European exception”. The origins of the crisis lie in the collapse in the sub-prime mortgage market in the United States, which put a number of lending institutions into serious difficulty. This localized crisis quickly fed through an internationalized financial system to affect non-US institutions. Many European banks were left with very bad loans on their books: the German bank, Deutsche Industriebank IKB, was one of the first to be bailed out by the Bundesbank. As early as August 2007, the interbank lending market in Europe dried up altogether: the ECB had to step in with an injection of 95 billion Euros. In December of the same year, it injected a further 300 billion. At issue here is the generalized dependence of US and European financial institutions on what turned out to be very bad loans.
On the size of the assets of European banks, compared to other parts of the world, the report also has a lot of good information. The report notes that the EU banking sector is very large when compared with other countries and regions, as the figures above make clear. However, it notes that this reflects the fact that bank intermediation plays a bigger role in Europe than elsewhere. What this means is that banks are the principal source of private sector financing in Europe in contrast to the US for example. Banks in Europe also have mortgages on their balance sheets, whereas in the US Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac soak up these mortgages and are government-sponsored institutions. The staggering difference in the assets of banks in Europe and the US is not automatically a sign of different trends in financialisation but points also to some more long-standing differences in the nature of private sector financing. The report also notes that the restructuring of the banking sector which occurred in the US post-Lehman, in particular the collapse of small and medium-sized banks, has not occurred in Europe. The level of total assets has thus remained constant, propped up by ECB and national government intervention in Europe. Here there is a marked difference between Europe and the US: interventions in Europe have prevented restructuring, in the US they were a conduit for change.
There is no particular European story to the growth of the financial sector in Europe. Some specific features of bank intermediation have interacted with more generic features of financialisation that we can observe in Europe and elsewhere. What is less clear from the report itself is whether the growth of the financial sector has been the result of changes within the non-financial sector, a freer regulatory environment or simply the working out of a speculative frenzy within financial institutions aiming to make more money in the short term, with little regard for longer term consequences. The recommendations of the report suggests it believes that the latter two factors are the most important.