Blog post

A banking union for growth

Publishing date
12 June 2012

A new concept has recently emerged in the policy discussion as a solution to the euro area’s woes: a banking union. It appears that discussions on a banking union will now be on top of the agenda of the next European summit. So are politicians now talking about how to rescue banks instead of how to generate growth and increase jobs as was initially planned? In fact, there is no contradiction here. One of the important reasons for low growth in Europe is the uncertainly about the euro’s future and that is intrinsically linked with the idea of a banking union. Here is why.

Let us start with the idea of a banking union. The rationale for a banking union is rather straightforward. EMU was constructed on the basis of two pillars: a monetary and a fiscal one. It has no financial component. Recent developments have exposed further weaknesses. First, the previously integrated euro-area financial market has entered a process of fragmentation. Banks were European in quiet times, but have become national in crisis times as they depend on national governments for being bailed out, if needed. Furthermore, they have been encouraged by national authorities to cut cross-border lending.

The absence of a banking union has thus created huge uncertainty and even a break-up of the euro area is now discussed. This uncertainty has severe negative consequences on growth, jobs and investment. In fact, international investors are increasingly starting to drop their European investments. Domestic investors reduce their investment in the fear of a fragmentation of the euro area and certainly reduce exposure to the South of Europe where investment is most urgently needed. Creating a European banking union is therefore one of the key factors for a successful overcoming of the crisis and for generating growth. So what would a banking union consist of and what would it imply?

A banking union would assign to the European level the responsibility for deposit insurance, bank supervision, and crisis resolution. This is not an easy move. Deposit insurances have been put in place to prevent a bank run on banks. By protecting depositors, depositors will keep their savings at the bank. This increases the stability of the banking system and thereby helps promoting growth. For a deposit insurance to be effective there needs to be a commitment by the governments to stand behind it. In Europe, this would imply a joint commitment by European governments to step in and protect depositors throughout the euro area. This is a major political step to take as it could result in large payments from some countries to others.

Second, a banking union would centralize the supervision of banks throughout Europe. This is the necessary counterpart to the creation of a common deposit insurance as well as to a common resolution system. In fact, mutualising risk also means that one has to centralise control over risk as otherwise every country would have a large incentive to supervise banks only lightly and impose the losses on tax payers of other countries. A creation of a common supervisory authority is thus needed.

Third, a common resolution authority needs to be created. When a bank becomes insolvent, an orderly process to manage this insolvency is needed. Ideally, this process should minimize the costs to the tax payer while at the same time ensuring the stability of the financial system and preserving the most important functions exercised by the bank. This requires strong political authority and technical expertise. The cross-border nature of banking in Europe also implies that a European authority can exercise this function in the most efficient way.

The path towards a common European banking union is certainly difficult. At the same time, it has become clear that a more centralized approach to banking is necessary if Europe wants to recover stability and resilience. In turn, this stability is one of the most important factors needed for more growth in Europe. Focussing on the banking problems is certainly the best thing European leaders can do for growth and jobs at their next summit.

About the authors

  • Guntram B. Wolff

    Guntram Wolff was the Director of Bruegel. Over his career, he has contributed to research on European political economy and governance, fiscal, monetary and financial policy, climate change and geoeconomics. Under his leadership, Bruegel has been regularly ranked among the top global think tanks and has grown in influence and impact with a team of now almost 40 recognized scholars and around 65 total staff. Bruegel is also recognized for its outstanding transparency.

    A recognized thought leader and academic, he regularly testifies at the European Finance Ministers' ECOFIN meeting, the European Parliament, the German Parliament (Bundestag) and the French Parliament (Assemblée Nationale). From 2012-16, he was a member of the French prime minister's Conseil d'Analyse Economique. In 2018, then IMF managing director Christine Lagarde appointed him to the external advisory group on surveillance to review the Fund’s priorities. In 2021, he was appointed to the G20 high level independent panel on pandemic prevention, preparedness and response. He is also a professor (part-time) at the Solvay Brussels School of Université Libre de Bruxelles, where he teaches economics of European integration.

    He joined Bruegel from the European Commission, where he worked on the macroeconomics of the euro area and the reform of euro area governance. Prior to joining the Commission, he was coordinating the research team on fiscal policy at Deutsche Bundesbank. He also worked as an external adviser to the International Monetary Fund.

    He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Bonn and studied in Bonn, Toulouse, Pittsburgh and Passau. He taught economics at the University of Pittsburgh and at Université libre de Bruxelles. He has published numerous papers in leading academic journals. His columns and policy work are published and cited in leading international media and policy outlets. Guntram is fluent in German, English, French and has good notions of Bulgarian and Spanish.

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Working paper

Greeniums in sovereign bond markets

In this paper, we analyse whether green sovereign bonds are systematically priced differently to conventional sovereign bonds in the secondary markets

Monika Grzegorczyk and Guntram B. Wolff