Brooke Masters: On-site supervisors a good start for ECB

brookemastersBanking union is the flavour of the month. Faced with investors who doubt the ability of some eurozone sovereigns to make good on their debts, the 17 members of the single currency have agreed to work together to channel aid directly to troubled lenders. But the deal is conditioned on the creation of a single banking supervisor, empowered to crack down on risky banks, no matter where they are located.

Setting up an impartial expert to oversee the banks could well be a key step toward restoring trust. Freed from local political concerns, a central supervisor might well have a clearer view of the problems and the fortitude to take the almost certainly unpleasant decisions needed to solve them.

But well-informed banking supervisors can’t be summoned with the wave of a wand, and key eurozone finance ministers this week repeated calls for something to be put in place by the end of the year. Given that tight deadline, the options are pretty limited. The fledgling European Banking Authority, which opened its doors just over 18 months ago, currently sets standards but it has no legal authority to supervise banks. Its mandate to create a stable and level playing field throughout the single market also runs counter to taking on a specific eurozone role.

The European Central Bank is seen by many as the only operator with the credibility and resources to crack down hard on recalcitrant lenders. The current plan is for the ECB – or some offshoot – to take charge of the bigger, cross-border institutions while smaller banks would continue to be supervised locally. That arrangement – which parallels the UK plan to hand supervision back to the Bank of England next year – raises concerns about an overly powerful central bank trying to do too many jobs at once. It also contains a problematic fudge. Small banks can be dangerous too. Witness the woes of the Spanish regional savings banks and the 2007 depositor run on Northern Rock, a middle-sized UK lender.

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