The collapse in early October of Franco-Belgian bank Dexia, a large Northern European institution whose demise necessitated a state rescue, shattered European confidence. Now, Europeans are discussing their banking sector. A meeting of eurozone ministers Oct. 21 is largely dedicated to the topic, as is the Oct. 23 summit of EU heads of government. Yet European governments continue to consider the banking sector largely only within the context of the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.
This is exemplified in Europeans’ handling of the Greek situation. The primary reason Greece has not defaulted on its nearly 400-billion euro sovereign debt is that the rest of the EuroZone is not forcing Greece to fully implement its agreed-upon austerity measures. Withholding bailout funds as punishment would trigger an immediate default and a cascade of disastrous effects across Europe. Loudly condemning Greek inaction while still slipping Athens bailout checks keeps that aspect of Europe’s crisis in a holding pattern. In the European mind — especially the Northern European mind— a handful of small countries that made poor decisions are responsible for the European debt crisis, and while the ensuing crisis may spread to the banks as a consequence, the banks themselves would be fine if only the sovereigns could get their acts together.
This is an incorrect assumption. If anything, Europe’s banks are as damaged as the governments that regulate them.
When evaluating a problem of such magnitude, one might as well begin with the problem as the Europeans see it — namely, that their banks’ biggest problem is rooted in their sovereign debt exposure.