Monday, 6 October 2008

Merkel Goes it Alone?

The British media is reeling today from the surprise announcement from Angela Merkel yesterday that Germany would institute a full private bank savings guarantee, a decision which seemed to directly contradict what Merkel committed to on Saturday at the emergency summit in Paris. Though the leaders seemed to jointly criticize Ireland's decision last week to unilaterally guarantee all the money in its private banks without consulting the EU, Merkel has gone ahead and done exactly that for Germany the next day. It would now appear the question of whether there will be a cohesive EU-level response to the economic crisis is back on the table, and Saturday's meeting has been rendered irrelevent.

There is still great confusion over whether Merkel was just making a vague political commitment or an actual change i policy, but the news has thrown European governments for a loop. The fear in the UK is that if other EU countries are allowed to guarantee the full savings in private bank accounts (whereas the UK only guarantees 50,000 pounds - raised from 35,000 last week), it will mark an unfair competitive advantage for them and UK consumers will rush to move their money into foreign banks. Germany's decision has embolden other EU countries to do the same thing. Denmark shortly followed suit, and Greece has also stepped in to guarantee ts banks. Today Iceland is considering the same thing, and the Spanish government just announced that if there is no joint EU action, it will also act unilaterally to guarantee Spanish banks.

Given that Germany is Europe's largest economy, the decision by Merkel means that it is inevitable that all European countries will have to guarnatee the entire amount of its citizens' savings in private banks. Given that reality, many in the UK today were concluding that the only solution is a pan-European bailout fund. Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg told the Independent today that he supports a pan-European system of deposit guarantees. But how will British and German taxpayers feel about the idea of using their money to bail out Italian or Greek banks? They probably wouldn't be too enthused. But considering the fact that it is the Northern European banks that are collapsing at the moment, perhaps now is not the time for geographic snobbery.

Incidentally, there is increasing chatter that the current crisis could be exactly the bad medicine Europe needs to get its act together and put realy momentum behind the unification project, convincing EU citizens of the real, practical need for a stronger EU that can deal with such emergencies. In today's Brussels Blog, the Financial Times quotes one EU diplomat as saying today that the current emergency could have the same effect as the 1992 crisis in the European exchange mechanism has in, in the long run, consolidating support behind a single European currency. Similarly, the FT points out, it took the 9/11 terrorist attacks to prompt EU leaders into agreeing, at a summit just three months later, on the principle of a European arrest warrant.

The collapse of a big cross-border European financial institution could be just around the corner, and if this were to occur, no serious economist would be able to argue that rescuing the company is the responsibility of only the country in which that company happens to have its headquarters. But so far European national governments have been very resistant to the idea of creating a pan-European regulatory system.

European finance ministers are meeting tonight, and from the turmoil today it's clear that the market is hungry for some signal of a cohesive coordinated EU response. But with each country appearing to be unilaterally going forward and doing its own thing, it seems unlikely any such strong signal will emerge.

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