Time to clean up the Banks

Gabriele Steinhauser at WSJ writes:

A group of key crisis managers believes cleaning up weak banks is the only way to get Europe’s economy to grow again, after superlow interest rates and large-scale liquidity injections from the ECB have failed to produce the desired results. These officials see continued doubts over the health of many lenders as the main reason banks are reluctant to lend to companies, especially in the continent’s weaker countries.

“We’ve been stuck in this rubbish for five years, because we’ve been doing everything to prevent the banks from being recapitalized properly and the stress tests from being stringent enough,” said a senior EU official. “If we don’t do this, we will stay in this trap until 2020.”

The time has come to clear up the mess from the GFC and strengthen bank balance sheets — not only in Europe — so that a similar financial crisis is unlikely to ever happen again. Moves are also afoot in the US where Senators Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and David Vitter (R-La.) are working on a bipartisan bill to end too-big-to-fail banks. The bill does not attempt to break up big banks but focuses on improving bank capital ratios. Risk-weighted capital ratios as suggested by Basel III disguise banks’ true leverage and encourage risk-taking. Australian banks are particularly exposed to low risk-weighting of residential mortgages. Eliminating risk-weighting would force banks to strengthen their underlying capital base and discourage risk concentration in low risk-weighted areas.

The biggest obstacle to change, however, is the banks who benefit from an implicit taxpayer-funded guarantee in the event of failure. Being able to rely on a bailout enables them them to take bigger bets than their balance sheets would otherwise allow. Columbia University’s Charles Calomiris points out that the banks are able to get away with this because they are supported by populist democratic governments who trade off banking instability in return for political (and financial) support.

Read more at New Drive for Tougher Testing of European Banks – WSJ.com.