April 17, 2014
An interesting story has been developing over the past couple of weeks and has been flying under the radar somewhat, though Alex Barker over at the FT has covered this story very well, here, here and here.
The issue is that the Bank of England has found wording in the details of the EU’s Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (the bank bail-in plans) which could prohibit governments from protecting central banks against losses when they provide emergency lending to banks in a crisis. Quite a surprising find given that the final text has just been passed (the error was found with only weeks to spare).
This is the Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA), which we have covered here and here. As a recap, this is the lending which a central bank takes on in a crisis and offers to banks at less favourable rates if they have no other choice to avoid a liquidity crisis. As might be expected it was used heavily by the UK and many eurozone countries during the crisis.
Essentially, the concern is that it could expose the BoE to greater risk since it will not have the backing of the UK treasury when extending liquidity assistance, which is risky and can be very large when a financial sector the size of the UK’s is in crisis.
In fact the story now seems to have run through its full lifecycle:
- The BoE located the problem and alerted the European Parliament (EP) and other member states, while requesting to reopen the text of the legislation to amend the wording.
- The EP accepted and even published a revised text to take account of the concerns – see article 27 (2).
- In the end, however, the move was formally vetoed by the Netherlands, Finland and the Czech Republic due to concerns that reopening the text would lead to a raft of other demands, notably by France, Italy, Sweden and Portugal who were seeking further assurances that they could issue guarantees for bank bonds without requiring bank bail-ins first.
This may potentially be a very big deal – but there could also be ways around it. Ultimately, ELA can still be extended it just cannot have a blanket guarantee from the government. The central bank balance sheet should be strong enough to deal with this, although if losses were taken it could become an issue – would bail-ins be required, say, before the central bank was recapitalised? Furthermore, this doesn’t just impact the UK, ELA was heavily used in the eurozone and is arguably more important for the eurozone than the UK since the ECB still struggles to act as a real lender of last resort.
- That the deal isn’t now re-opened despite an obvious flaw in the legislation is symptomatic of EU law – the constant fear of reopening deals or reassessing them due to uncertainty over what countries might begin to demand. This too often used as an argument against reform, when in fact it should be one in favour of reform. It highlights the need for a broader overhaul of the legislative approach and the need for a clearer structure and mechanism to reassess legislation. All too often this fear paralyses the process of improving or changing the EU.
- That said, looking at the revised EP text, there do seem to be a huge amount of changes (the text in bold and italics). This seems to highlight some severe concerns with the original agreement and again brings home concerns over the level of uncertainty – what is a precautionary recapitalisation? – that continues to dog the agreement.
- The alliances that built up on this issue are also interesting and somewhat unusual. The UK had the support of the European Parliament and even France and Italy, although they seemingly wanted to reopen the text for other reasons. However, Netherlands and the Czech Republic were firmly against, while Germany was very hesitant. The UK should take comfort in this. On this particular issue, the divide wasn’t eurozone versus non-eurozone – that potential divide remains one of the biggest liabilities in the UK-EU relations, particularly in financial services.
Most importantly though, how in the world did finance ministries and central banks – including the Treasury and BoE effectively – miss a provision which governs fundamental central bank actions? Admittedly, we didn’t spot it either and it is a very technical clause but these are exactly the types of things that central banks should be on the look out for. It certainly raises some serious questions about the level of oversight and analysis of EU legislation both at the EU and national level. How did everyone miss this the first time around? If the central banks weren’t involved earlier, should they be on important financial legislation such as this?