ECB's Draghi: Europe's banking reform must include agency to wind down busted banks

FRANKFURT – European Central Bank President Mario Draghi said it was “imperative” that Europe’s leaders create a new agency with powers to restructure busted banks in order to help the region leave its economic and financial crisis behind it once and for all.

In the text of a speech to be delivered in London Thursday, Draghi said the new agency would keep troubled banks from burdening governments through bailout costs — thereby cutting the vicious link that has helped drive Europe’s three-year crisis over too much debt.

The agency, dubbed the single resolution mechanism, would be able to force banks creditors and shareholders to take losses first when a bank goes under — instead of getting the money from taxpayers. European leaders have made a start on strengthening their banking system by agreeing to put the ECB in charge of supervising banks. But they have not yet agreed on how to proceed with the resolution mechanism.

Together with a Europe-wide deposit guarantee scheme, these three measures would form the European Union’s banking union — a key part of the 27-country bloc’s strategy to combat its financial crisis.

Putting the ECB in charge of banking supervision was a first step that “will pave the way towards severing the link between banks and their respective sovereigns,” Draghi said in the text of the speech to be given at the Guildhall in the City of London.

“But to sever this link completely, it is also imperative to create a single resolution mechanism.”

Fears about banks have helped drive Europe’s crisis over too much debt. Spending huge amounts of money to rescue banks can pile more debt on governments, something they feel forced to do because banks are essential to keep the economy going. Banks in turn can find it hard to raise funds if markets think they will suffer losses on government bonds they hold.

Individual countries’ banking regulators are considered to be too reluctant to act forcefully to halt problems with their home banks, and can face added problems when a bank’s activities cross national borders. That has led to calls for a centralized EU approach that would take the financial burden and much of the regulatory responsibility, especially for big banks, away from national officials.

When it becomes Europe’s banking supervisor, the ECB will have the power to yank banks’ licenses. But the job of taking action over a failed bank would remain with the resolution agency. It could write off what the bank owes to its creditors, known as a bail-in, or convert those debts into shares in a restructured bank, for instance. That would find money to get the bank’s lending activity going again without tapping the public treasury and making taxpayers pay.

The idea has run into resistance from Germany, the eurozone’s biggest economy. Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble has said such a central resolution authority would require changes in the basic treaty governing the EU in order to have a safe legal basis. That could take years.

Schaeuble has proposed having creating a network among national authorities to deal with the issue in the interim. Germany, the chief financial backer of rescue loans for indebted governments, appears reluctant to rush into setting up a resolution agency because of concern that its taxpayers or banks would have to contribute to cleaning up messes in other countries.

Still, Germany is increasingly isolated with most other EU countries pushing for more rapid implementation. Countries hardest-hit by the crisis like Greece, Portugal and Spain see the full implementation of the banking union as a way to stabilize their economies.

Draghi did not talk about a timetable, but one of his colleagues at the ECB went further in a speech earlier Thursday. Benoit Coeure, a member of the bank’s six-member executive committee, said in the text of a speech in Copenhagen that a resolution agency needed to be in place when the ECB takes over banking supervision, probably next year.

Coeure said the resolution agency would need its own pot of money to finance bank restructuring, but that would be raised ahead of time by a levy on banks, not from taxpayers.

He said the recent experience in bailing out eurozone member Cyprus showed the need for clear rules and powers on winding up banks. The legislature in Cyprus had to hastily pass legislation allowing restructuring of its troubled banks. That turmoil unsettled markets and has weighed on business optimism, adding to the burdens on the eurozone economy as it struggles to leave recession return to growth.

“Any solution which does not imply an outright bailout seems to take creditors and markets by surprise. This will need to change,” Coeure said. “I would say that after the events of Cyprus, markets should be convinced that Europe is serious and committed to bailing in and thus ending the bailout culture.”


AP staff writer Juergen Baetz contributed to this report from Berlin.