The 15th of September marks the fifth anniversary of the most spectacular bankruptcy in the financial crisis of 2007 – 2008. On that day, renowned Wall Street investment bank Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy due to disastrous investments in US real estate through financial products. At the time, European leaders made bold promises to reform financial regulation in the EU “to respond to crises, but also to avoid them in the future”, Commission President Barroso said. Five years on, the results are woefully insufficient.
This article is signed by the following organisations: Action from Ireland, European Federation of Public Services Unions (EPSU), Transnational Institute War on Want (UK), Citizen Debt Audit Platform (Spain), FairFin (Belgium), ATTAC-Finland, Zukunftskonvent, Lost in Europe, Food & Water Europe, Tax Justice Network, transform!italia, ATTAC Norway, Kairos, Europe Ecologistas en Acción (Spain), Jubilee Debt Campaign (UK), World Economy, Ecology & Development – WEED (Germany), Both Ends (NL), CADTM Europe, ATTAC Poland, World Development Movement (UK), Friends of the Earth Flanders and Brussels, ATTAC Vlaanderen, Friends of the Earth Ireland, ATTAC Spain, ATTAC France, ATTAC Austria, CNE-CSC Belgium, ATTAC-Ireland, ATTAC Hellas, ATTAC Iceland, Auditoria a Cidadada Divida Publica – IAC (Port.), Banktrack, Fondazione Culturale Responsabilità Etica (Italy), Veblen Institute for Economic Reforms (F), European Anti-Poverty Network, Les Amis de la Terre (F), European ATTAC Network, Corporate Europe Observatory, Friends of the Earth Europe, ATTAC Germany.
The financial crisis led to a devastating economic crisis in Europe. Unemployment in the EU has increased steadily to a record level of nearly 26 million – a staggering 10.7% of the labour force with youth unemployment much higher. It also set the euro crisis in motion which has resulted in painful austerity measures in almost all EU countries and hundreds of billions of euros in expensive bailouts of banks that made bad loans in the first place. Having paid such a high price, European citizens have every right to demand effective action from politicians to protect us from a repeat of this meltdown. But after five years of financial ‘reform’ in the EU, the return on our investment is woefully inadequate.
The evidence is clear: European banks continue to be under-capitalised, and EU banking regulation continues to allow banks – such as Deutsche Bank and Barclays – to borrow even more than Lehman Brothers did before it crashed[i]; derivatives markets continue to grow and now stand at a value much higher than five years ago[ii]; few toxic financial instruments have been banned, not even the complicated securities that played a key role in the crisis.
One key reason for this failure is the success of the financial lobby to keep effective regulation at bay. The financial industry is spending millions to influence decision makers, and scaremongering is their standard argument: they claim that regulating finance would be costly to society in terms of unemployment. However, this is an absurd argument if one looks at the costs of the crisis in 2008, regarding bank bail outs and millions of people losing their jobs.
Financial corporations have enjoyed uninterrupted privileged access to decision makers, for instance in the debate on new rules on banking and on derivatives. As pointed out repeatedly by the Alliance for Lobbying Transparency and Ethics Regulation in the EU (ALTER-EU) and others, advisory groups of the Commission and the Council were, and are still, dominated by representatives from big financial corporations. A group recently set up to advice the EU on measures to stop tax evasion is full with representatives of the same accountancy industry that is so instrumental in advising companies how they can minimise their tax payments.
In order to start a genuine reform of the financial sector, a number of first steps are needed:
- A new, democratic approach to financial reform, including effective measures to curb the influence of the financial lobby in Brussels, by overhauling finance industry led advisory groups and closing the revolving door between government and the finance industry;
- An immediate and structural revamp of the reform agenda of the financial sector to ensure this dreadful bitter financial and economic crisis leads to strong regulation and democratic control of the financial sector so that it is at the service of society and finances social and environmentally sound activities. The urgent first steps to that end include the introduction of a genuine Financial Transaction Tax (FTT), higher financial buffers for banks, the break-up of banks that are too big to fail, reduction of the importance of the financial sector in the economy, ending speculative activities such as speculation in food;
- Swift and effective measures to stop tax evasion. According to the Commissions own figures, this would bring 1.000 billion euro a year, which would be more than enough to cover for the current austerity measures.
- Introduce measures that would make those in the financial sector responsible for scandals, misleading of clients, fraud and criminal activities personally liable. It is not acceptable that, in case of scandals such as Libor or HSBC’s involvement in money laundering, banks make a financial settlement while the ones responsible walk away without punishment. Banks should never be ‘too big to jail’.
The five years of financial reform turned out to be a major disappointment. To citizens and citizens groups, that means regulation of the financial sector has to be on the political agenda for years to come, including at the European elections next year, to ensure the reforms that would make a real difference are introduced.
[i] The new international rules on banking regulation has a new rule; that of the leverage ratio. The leverage ratio measures the proportion of the assets of a bank to its loans. Internationally this is set at a very unambitious level (3 percent) in the Basel Accords – unambitious because 3 percent is actually worse than the ratio of Lehman Brothers shortly before the bank collapsed in September 2008. The EU rules are even less ambitious in that there is not fixed leverage ratio yet. Capital Requirements Regulation, part seven on leverage.