News Column

EU Nations Split on How to Oversee Banks

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Finance ministers from the 27 European Union nations diverged over a timetable for bringing banks under a new regulatory plan.

European Union finance ministers were expected on Tuesday to seek ways to overcome differences over how to regulate European banks after a sharp and public disagreement about making Greece's debts sustainable into the next decade.

A plan to establish a single banking supervisor under the aegis of the European Central Bank for the 6,000 lenders in the euro area was on the agenda for a second day of talks that had concentrated Monday on the Greek situation, which still threatens to derail the euro zone after dragging on for more than two years.

The creation of the banking supervisor is seen as a main step to breaking the so-called doom loop between lenders and governments that has brought a number of economies in Europe, including Spain's, to the brink.

Germany made the creation of the single supervisor a prerequisite for states to tap a newly created European bailout fund and use the money to recapitalize their banks directly.

But Luc Freiden, the finance minister for Luxembourg, said Tuesday that the system still could be months away.

"We shouldn't be fixed to dates," Mr. Freiden said. "If it takes three months longer, it's no problem."

The European Commission has said a unified system of regulation could be up and running next year. Germany is among countries that have urged caution, saying that rushing the system would risk creating new loopholes. Britain and Sweden say much work still needs to be done to ensure the system does not discriminate against countries that remain outside of the euro area.

"We cannot see a compromise with only the current modalities on the table," Anders Borg, the Swedish finance minister, said Tuesday. "The E.C.B. could be the supervisor but then we need to consider a treaty change," he said. "Either you must change the treaty so it's clear that every member is treated equitably, or you need to move it outside of the E.C.B."

Finance ministers were also expected to discuss increasing capital requirements for banks and how to more closely monitor the draft budgets of E.U. members and correct excessive deficits.

In a sign that fixing the Greek economy and the euro would continue to be a rancorous process even after three years of crisis, Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister of Luxembourg, and Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the International Monetary Fund, drew strikingly different conclusions late Monday about how long it should take to bring the towering Greek debt under control.

The disagreement is a hugely sensitive matter for Greece's biggest creditors in the euro area and for Germany in particular. The government in Berlin wants to avoid the political fallout from paying higher costs associated with meeting a target set by the I.M.F. for cutting Greek debt to 120 percent of gross domestic product by 2020.

Wolfgang Schauble, the German finance minister, said Tuesday that meeting the I.M.F. target was "possibly a little too ambitious" given the worsening economy across Europe.

Mr. Schauble also said Greek creditors would be able to find ways to help the country meet the higher costs of delaying some of its previously agreed targets to 2016, without handing over more money.

"There are no considerations to top up the program," Mr. Schauble said, referring to giving additional support for Greece. "In the end it will be all about guarantees, not transfer for Greece."

Creditors could agree instead to "take some measures to reduce interest rates that will have an immediate effect on the budget" in Greece to ensure that "problems will be solved within the financial framework of the second program," Mr. Schauble said.

A draft copy of a report by the troika of international lenders - - the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- that was circulating at the meeting said the bill for allowing Greece the additional time would be EUR 32.6 billion, or $41 billion.

Helping Greece through 2014 would require EUR 15 billion partly to make up for lower-than-expected proceeds from privatizations, according to the draft report.

An additional EUR 17.6 billion would be needed for 2015-16 because Greece was expected to be servicing more debt than previously forecast and because the country may be unable to tap capital markets, the draft report said.

The latest stages of the Greek rescue still are moving step by step after promised changes went off track in recent months, partly as a result of two elections in three months earlier this year.

Late Monday, ministers put off until at least Nov. 20 any decision to give Greece a long-delayed payment worth $40 billion so international officials and national parliaments could continue to assess the measures Athens agreed to as a condition of two bailout packages totaling EUR 240 billion.

Obstacles to releasing that money remain, and even when ministers do give the green light for disbursement, the decision still is subject to approval by a number of national parliaments.

Mr. Juncker said checking that those parliamentary approvals had been given could require finance ministers to hold a teleconference or meet in person at the end of the month in addition to their Nov. 20 meeting.

The French finance minister, Pierre Moscovici, said Tuesday that the loan installment should be paid by the end of the month.

Failure to disburse the pending installment to Greece could result in a chaotic exit from the euro and threaten the currency. But euro zone officials had insisted that there would be no problems on Friday when EUR 5 billion of debt comes due for the Greek state.

On Tuesday, the Greek government sold short-term bills worth more than EUR 4 billion, with further sales expected over the next few days.

The disagreement that burst into the open on Monday over Greece's debt sustainability is another factor that could delay the disbursement.

The previous night, Mr. Juncker said that Greece should now be given until 2022 to cut its debt to 120 percent of its gross domestic product.

But Ms. Lagarde immediately met that assertion with incredulity, saying there was an urgent need to take steps sooner to ensure the country's high external financing needs would be viable in the future.

"The appropriate timetable is 120 percent by 2020," said Ms. Lagarde, who shook her head and rolled her eyes at Mr. Juncker's comments. "We clearly have different views," she said, adding that keeping to that goal was vital "so that that country can be back on its feet and reaccess the private market in due course."

Speaking later in the news conference, Mr. Juncker insisted that his comment "was not a joke."

Ms. Lagarde also was more cautious in her praise of progress made by the Greek authorities than other euro area officials, including Mr. Juncker.

"From the I.M.F.'s point of view, it's critical that all chapters of the book be not only opened but closed satisfactorily -- that means the fiscal commitments, the structural reforms, the financing and the debt sustainability analysis, which we will clearly come back to with additional work to be done in coming days," Ms. Lagarde said.

Markets were slightly lower at midday in Europe, with the Euro Stoxx 50, a barometer of euro zone blue chips, down 0.4 percent, and the FTSE 100 in Britain down 0.7 percent. The euro was at $1.2716, little changed from $1.2710 on Monday in New York.

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