ECB Shouldn’t Meddle in EU Bank Aid Rules, Lawmakers Say

European Union lawmakers said the European Central Bank shouldn’t try to influence how losses are imposed on creditors at banks that must resort to public funds in the aftermath of a health check this year.

ECB Vice President Vitor Constancio said on May 12 that “it may be adequate” to invoke exceptions to EU state-aid rules for some banks shown to have capital shortfalls in the central bank’s Comprehensive Assessment. That would allow public money to be injected without enforced losses on shareholders and junior bondholders.

“What the ECB is asking for is a new wave of banking recapitalizations by the state, which is from my perspective scandalous,” Sven Giegold, a German member of the European Parliament, said by phone. Interest rates charged by investors to buy bank debt are “so low at the moment, there’s no reason why banks can’t find the money on the markets,” he said.

ECB President Mario Draghi last year called on Joaquin Almunia, European commissioner in charge of antitrust policy, to avoid an ‘‘improperly strict’’ interpretation of the bloc’s state-aid rules in cases of banks shown by the ECB’s asset-quality review and stress test to need more capital.

An overly zealous application of the bail-in rules “may well destroy the very confidence in the euro-area banks which we all intend to restore,” Draghi said in a July 30 letter to Almunia.

In his Sept. 3 reply to Draghi, Almunia said regulators may “deviate” from imposing creditor losses in “exceptional circumstances,” subject to case-by-case review. The law allows exceptions “where financial stability is at risk” or the amount of state aid needed is “small compared to the size of the bank’s balance sheet.”

‘Financial Stability’

Draghi said in November that he was “satisfied” by the commission’s explanation, “whereby the state-aid rules should be applied with a view to safeguarding financial stability and also the level playing field.”

Sharon Bowles, chairwoman of the parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee, said the decision to invoke such exceptions is made by the commission’s competition department, “and it is vital that they do not weaken their principles.”

“I do hope that the speeches of Constancio recently in Vienna and Madrid on this are an acknowledgment that the Commission has proper guidelines for itself, and not an attempt to say that the ECB is in any way the determinant of what counts as financial stability or disproportionate,” Bowles said by e-mail.

Creditor Losses

According to commission data, EU nations supplied around 592 billion euros ($812 billion) in asset relief and recapitalization support for their banks in 2008-2012.

In a bid to prevent any repeat of such taxpayer rescues, the EU this year approved tougher rules on creditor losses at failing banks. That legislation, called the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive, will add senior unsecured debt holders to the firing line for losses starting in 2016.

Until then, EU state-aid rules will apply. They normally require that shareholders and junior creditors take a hit before public support is provided.

“The ECB has two objectives, it wants to get out the state-aid rules and it wants to get out of the triggering of resolution, and neither of these are justified,” Giegold said. “The market economy has to come into play and that time is now.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.