September 22, 2023

Political Economy: E.U. Has Unfinished Business in Fixing Finance

After seven years of crisis, much progress has been made in fixing the financial system. There was, for example, a landmark E.U. deal last week to make creditors rather than taxpayers foot the bill for busted banks. But there is a huge job still to do.

In the years running up to the crisis, the financial system ran amok on both sides of the Atlantic. Among the long litany of problems was a clutch of distorted incentives, which encouraged banks to take excessive risks by rewarding success but not punishing failure. Those heads-I-win-tails-you-lose incentives skewed the behavior of individuals, banks and the entire system.

A crackdown on bankers’ pay is starting to deal with individual risk-taking. Compensation can be recovered from those in finance whose bets ultimately turn sour. There are also plans, mainly in Europe, to pay a chunk of bankers’ compensation in “bail-in bonds” — which will get wiped out or turned into lowly valued shares if a bank fails. That should get bankers to pay more attention to risk.

Creditors are also being given an incentive to make sure their banks do not run excess risks. That is one reason why the E.U. deal reached last week, requiring creditor bail-ins, not government bailouts, is so important. Creditors will pay attention, too.

The work is not complete, though, because it is highly undesirable to bail in depositors, as was done in Cyprus this year. It is far better to require all banks to hold a minimum amount of capital that has been specifically earmarked for bail-in. That way, creditors will know what to expect up front.

At a systemwide level, the main one-way bet was caused by Alan Greenspan’s habit (while he ran the U.S. Federal Reserve) of riding to the rescue of markets when they tumbled but doing nothing to prick emerging bubbles. There is now general agreement that central banks need to lean against the credit cycle — not just by raising interest rates but also by requiring banks to hold more capital when credit is flowing too freely (something that is not, admittedly, a problem at present).

The old rules of the game did not just encourage one-way bets. They also incentivized banks, companies and, in some cases, individuals to take on too much debt. Here the main culprit is the widespread practice of allowing companies to deduct interest payments before calculating the profits that should be taxed. Unfortunately, hardly anybody is attempting to change that massive distortion.

Then there was a batch of problems connected with how banks were regulated: Lenders were required to hold too little capital as a cushion in case their loans went bad; they were allowed to finance themselves too much with hot money, which ran away at the first sign of trouble, leaving them high and dry; and they were allowed to be so mind-numbingly complex that nobody, not even their managers, could understand them.

Again, there has been some progress. Banks are being required to have fatter capital cushions, with the biggest ones having even fatter cushions because of the chaos they would cause if they failed. But the system for calculating how much capital is required is flawed.

Different types of loans are weighted according to riskiness, which is good. But banks have a lot of freedom to decide those risk weights themselves, which makes a mockery of the system.

Banks are also being weaned off hot money. For example, one feature of last week’s E.U. deal is a requirement for banks to pay into industrywide bailout funds. The amount they pay will depend on the riskiness of their funding structures.

Moves are even afoot to cut back on banks’ complexity. Here the most promising initiative is the requirement for banks to write “living wills” — documents that will determine how they can be packed off to the slaughterhouse if they get into trouble without creating havoc in the financial system.

Such living wills could start a healthy dialogue between banks and their regulators over how to go about restructuring so the lenders are less complex. The initial versions of the wills will not be fit for their purpose. But if regulators are tough enough to keep sending them back until they are workable, much good can be done.

The final problems are mainly, though not exclusively, related to the euro zone. Here, inadequate progress has been made to force zombie banks to face their problems, with the result that they are suffocating the economy. Meanwhile, the financial system is too dependent on banks rather than capital markets for channeling funds from savers to investment.

There is finally a glimmer of hope that the European Central Bank will force a proper cleanup of euro zone banks in advance of taking responsibility in mid-2014 for supervising them. It is virtually criminal that this was not done in 2009 when the United States did its cleanup — a failure that is partly responsible for the agonizingly long euro crisis. Still, better late than never.

Unfortunately, little has yet been done to build healthy European capital markets. Indeed, some ideas that have emerged from Brussels — such as a financial transaction tax and a plan to cap fund managers’ bonuses — seem more designed to throttle markets than to encourage them.

After seven years of crisis, it is extraordinary that the job of fixing finance is not complete. But policy makers must not stop until they finish the job.

Hugo Dixon is editor at large of Reuters News.

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DealBook: Lenovo to Buy Medion, a German PC Maker

Yang Yuanqing, chief executive of Lenovo.Jerome Favre/Bloomberg NewsYang Yuanqing, Lenovo’s chief executive.

6:28 p.m. | Updated

Lenovo, the Chinese computer maker that bought I.B.M.’s PC division six years ago, said Wednesday that it planned to take control of a German consumer electronics manufacturer, Medion, in a deal valuing the company at $909 million.

Lenovo said the acquisition would double its share of the German PC market, where it would become the third-largest player after Acer and Hewlett-Packard. The deal, expected to close in the third quarter, would be the first time a Chinese company has bought a well-known German brand like Medion, which supplies computers and other devices to the discount chain Aldi.

Yang Yuanqing, chief executive of Lenovo, said the company planned to combine “this ‘front end’ with Lenovo’s ‘back end’ manufacturing capability and supply chain” in a push further into Europe.

The move will give Lenovo 14 percent of the German PC market and about half that share for the PC market in Western Europe, the company said. It resembles Lenovo’s landmark 2005 deal in America, when it bought the ThinkPad PC division of I.B.M. for $1.75 billion.

Gerd Brachmann, chairman of Medion, agreed to sell two-thirds of his 60 percent stake in the company. He will be paid in cash for 80 percent of the shares he is selling and receive 20 percent in Lenovo shares. That would give him about 1 percent of Lenovo, the world’s fourth-largest PC maker after H.P., Dell and Acer.

Both the Lenovo and Medion boards have approved the deal. Lenovo said the acquisition was contingent on an additional 15 percent of Medion shares being tendered by investors other than Mr. Brachmann. The transaction, subject to regulatory approval, will be financed with Lenovo’s cash reserves.

Shares of Medion rose 1.95 euros, or almost 18 percent, to close at Lenovo’s offering price of 13 euros ($18.69).

Founded in 1983 by Mr. Brachmann, Medion is based in Essen, Germany, and employs about 990 people. It reported net income of 4 million euros for the first quarter, up from 3 million euros for the comparable period a year earlier, but sales declined to 371 million euros in the first quarter this year from 411 million euros in the period a year earlier.

Lenovo hired Barclays Capital as its financial adviser. The company last week reported sales of $21.6 billion for the year ended March 31.

The largest shareholder in Lenovo’s parent company, Legend Holdings, is the Chinese Academy of Sciences, a government research institute. An employee group and the conglomerate China Oceanwide also hold major stakes.

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