EU ministers seek answers on bank taxes, rating agencies

ECOFIN council 30 sept 2010.jpg

European Union finance ministers met today (1 October) in a fresh attempt to agree a common approach on taxing banks as well as to grill credit rating agencies about how they arrive at their ratings.

Three years since the onset of a banking and economic crisis, European Union member states are still struggling to agree on reforms to regain control over the financial sector.

The bloc recently created three new watchdogs to police the industry, but its 27 member states remain at loggerheads over how to charge banks an extra levy for the costs of crises.

They are also divided about imposing tight controls on credit ratings agencies, whose downgrades rattled markets during the eurozone crisis.

"I agree it would be a good idea to have a banking levy, but I am against a transaction tax," said Slovak Finance Minister Ivan Miklos ahead of the discussions.

Most ministers share his view, but they disagree over what should be done with the income from such a levy.

Germany and Britain have been among the first in Europe to introduce a modest levy on banks. Berlin would also like a tax on financial transactions, such as trading of company shares.

France is in favour of both, although it would only support a transaction tax if the international community were to follow, which is seen as unlikely. Jean-Claude Trichet, president of the European Central Bank, has warned against such a scheme.

The three countries also disagree over what should be done with the money from a straight levy on bank profits. Germany is using revenue from its levy for an emergency fund, while France and Britain want it for the public purse.

Today, Austrian Finance Minister Josef Proell said he would push again on the issue of a transaction tax, but cautioned that no agreement was to be expected.

Berating the agencies

Polish Finance Minister Jacek Rostowski threw cold water on the idea of fining credit ratings agencies if their decisions are inappropriately harsh, something suggested by Belgian Finance Minister Didier Reynders earlier this week.

"For me, it's a completely abstract idea," said Rostowski. "Should we also fine ratings agencies if their ratings are too optimistic?"

The attendance of ratings agencies at the meeting, as well as that of Michel Barnier, the European commissioner in charge of financial reform, underlined a strengthening political resolve to explore new ways to control the sector.

European finance ministers are acutely sensitive to the danger of further downgrades, such as one recently threatened by Standard & Poor's for Ireland, as the cost of supporting its banking sector rises. Earlier this week, Spain received a downgrade to its rating.

Representatives of the three big agencies – Standard & Poor's, Moody's and Fitch – were summoned to the meeting to defend the way they take decisions.

Many in the room have found it hard to forgive an S&P decision to demote Greece to junk status, aggravating their attempts to mount a rescue package for Athens and win back confidence in the euro currency.

(EURACTIV with Reuters)

A bank levy is intended to avoid forcing taxpayers to fund bailouts in any future bank crisis.

EU finance ministers last year called on the European Commission to come up with innovative proposals to ensure that the financial sector contributes towards its own bailouts and helps plug national fiscal deficits.

Plans for a bank levy have been underway in Britain and Germany since G20 talks in 2009 and 2010 unsuccessfully tried to forge a multilateral agreement on charging banks a fee to pay for their own rescues.

Given the lack of global and European consensus on how to prevent another financial crisis of this magnitude, countries have ploughed ahead with their own proposals.

Germany, Britain and France are the main proponents of a bank levy and Sweden is the first European country to have had a levy-backed bailout fund up and running (since 2009).

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