Banks in the northern eurozone have capital ratios that are, on average, less than half of the capital ratios of banks in the eurozone’s periphery. The authors explain this by the fact that northern eurozone banks profit from the financial solidity of their governments and follow business strategies aimed at issuing too much subsidised debt. In doing so, they weaken their balance sheets and become more fragile – less able to withstand future shocks. Paradoxically, financially strong governments breed fragile banks. The opposite occurs in countries with financially weak governments. In these countries banks are forced to strengthen themselves because they are unable to rely on their governments. As a result they have significantly more capital and reserves than banks in the northern eurozone.
More than in the south, the governments of northern Europe should stand up and force the banks to issue more equity. This should go much further than what is foreseen in the Basel III accord. If the experience of the southern eurozone countries is any guide, banks in the north of the eurozone should at least double the capital and the reserves as a percentage of their balance sheets. Failure to do so risks destroying the financial solidity of the northern European governments when, in the future, negative shocks force these governments to come to the rescue of their undercapitalised banks.
The new responsibilities entrusted to the European Central Bank as the single supervisor in the eurozone create a unique opportunity for that institution to change the regulatory and supervisory culture in the eurozone – one that has allowed the large banks to continue living dangerously, with insufficient capital.
Paul De Grauwe is Associate Senior Research Fellow at CEPS and Professor at the London School of Economics. Yuemei Ji is a Lecturer in International Economics and the Political Economy of European Integration at University College London.