Review of World Economics

, Volume 155, Issue 1, pp 23–33 | Cite as

Macroprudential policy in a currency union

  • Claudia M. Buch
  • Benjamin WeigertEmail author
Original Paper


The past 20 years in Europe have seen large swings in real and financial markets, and sudden stops of capital flows have exposed the fault lines of the European financial architecture. While the pre-crisis financial architecture centered around mechanisms to contain borrowing by the public-sector, this paper argues that incentives for the private sector to engage in excessive borrowing had not been taken into account adequately. Macroprudential policy is a core element of the post-crisis reform agenda, and it plays a particularly important role in the European monetary union.


Monetary union EMU Macroprudential policy Monetary policy 

JEL Classification


1 The issue

Per capita incomes and levels of productivity in the euro area show a greater degree of dispersion than comparable figures across the US states.1 Does this imply that the euro area as a currency union is inherently flawed? Not necessarily: For a currency union to be sustainable, convergence of per capita incomes is not required. Yet, borrowing needs of the private and the public sector must be at sustainable levels, and they must be aligned with income (Wissenschaftlicher Beirat BMWi 2011).

Debt sustainability matters in a currency union of otherwise sovereign states, just as it does in a system of flexible exchange rates. If debt and income are not aligned, flexible exchange rates adjust, and they can overshoot. Exchange rate misalignment, twin crises, or sudden stop episodes are not confined to systems of flexible exchange rates. Yet, sudden stops within the euro area as a reaction to debt sustainability concerns were not on the radar of policy makers before the crisis.

The institutional design of the euro area acknowledges the decisive role of sustainable debt levels. The Stability and Growth Pact aims at preventing the build-up of unsustainable public debt levels. Prior to the crisis, it lacked at least two essential elements. First, it focused on the role of public debt levels only, thus overlooking that unsustainable levels of debt can also build up in the private sector. Second, no mechanisms were in place on how to deal with crisis situations.

As levels of private debt became unsustainable in some countries, solutions had to be found ad hoc, and governments intervened to bail out private creditors.2 Implicit government guarantees for the financial sector eventually became explicit. The result has been an increase in public debt and a downward spiral of adverse macroeconomic conditions, a sovereign crisis, and a banking crisis (Shambaugh 2012; Schmidt and Weigert 2013).

Against this background, post crisis reforms of the European institutional framework have two objectives. The first is to reduce the probability of future crises. The stability and growth pact has been reformed. The statistical system of reporting fiscal information has been overhauled. Reformed banking regulations, in line with the reforms agreed upon at the G20 level, aim at enhancing the resilience of the financial system. The Banking Union strengthens European supervision of banks under the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM).

The second objective has been to improve crisis resolution mechanisms. This includes the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), the introduction of Collective Action Clauses in government bonds, and explicit resolution mechanisms for banks with the Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive (BRRD) and the Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM).

In this paper, we argue that macroprudential policy is a core element of the post crisis reform agenda, and that it plays a particularly important role in the European monetary union which lacks a single sovereign. Focusing on the sustainability of public debt is not enough—mechanisms are needed to safeguard the stability of the financial system. Mechanisms are needed in order to ensure that private credit is sustainable and that the failure to service debt does not pose a threat to the stability of the financial system. Macroprudential policy has exactly that objective: Preventing the build-up of systemic risk, i.e. the risk of destabilizing negative externalities in the financial system, and preventing excessive leverage of the private sector. Macroprudential policy takes a macroeconomic perspective on financial sector health and on resilience. It thus complements monetary policy and microprudential supervision.

While close cross-border coordination of macroprudential policy is needed in a currency union, effective macroprudential policy starts at the national level. Many policies that can affect the stability of financial markets are under the responsibility of domestic policymakers. This includes policies affecting structural weaknesses of financial systems such as high levels of non-performing loans or overcapacities in the banking sector. But the political economy of financial sector reforms can also lead to policy inaction at the domestic level. Strong European institutions are, therefore, needed to overcome inaction bias and to address cross-border spillovers. Generally, establishing mechanisms to contain financial stability risks requires communication, commitment of policy-makers, and an informed public dialogue.

2 Trends in private and public sector debt

2.1 Trends in leverage

Reducing debt to sustainable levels has been a key goal of post-crisis financial sector reforms. Nevertheless, progress with deleveraging has been slow. Levels of government debt relative to GDP have increased globally (Fig. 1). Europe has not decoupled from these trends. The rise in the public debt ratios is the result of outright rescues of financial institutions, increased fiscal spending, and/or a decline in underlying growth dynamics. To a considerable degree, it reflects the fact that, during the crisis, risks were shifted from the private to the public sector. Implicit guarantees of the public for the private sector eventually turned into explicit rescue programs.
Fig. 1

Public debt (% of GDP). Public sector comprises central, state and local governments, and social security funds (without public enterprises). Debt is obtained as the sum of the following liability categories (as applicable): currency and deposits, loans, and debt securities. Vertical line separates the pre-crisis period (up to 2007) from the crisis period (as of 2008)

Source: Own presentation, based on BIS (2018)

Patterns of adjustment of private sector debt have differed across countries and sectors (Fig. 2), mirroring the increase in private sector lending prior to the crisis: While debt relative to GDP boomed prior to 2008 in some countries, it declined in others. To a large extent, private credit has been channeled through the banking system, including loans from non-residents. These high volumes of foreign borrowing have contributed to a misallocation of credit and to the spillover of shocks.
Fig. 2

Private sector debt (% of GDP). Private sector comprises non-financial corporations (both private-owned and public-owned), households and non-profit institutions serving households. Vertical line separates the pre-crisis period (up to 2007) from the crisis period (as of 2008)

Source: Own presentation, based on BIS (2018)

Given the importance of banks as intermediaries of private sector credit in Europe, leverage of banks is a major factor contributing to the stability of financial markets. Highly leveraged financial institutions have weaker buffers against shocks and may react to shocks in a pro-cyclical manner. While higher capital in the financial sector does not necessarily reduce the probability of crises occurring, it yet limits the real and fiscal costs of crises (Jorda et al. 2017). Leverage of banks increased during the crisis because losses materialized and wiped out part of the banks’ capital buffers. In countries with high rates of loan growth before the crisis, non-performing loans surged. Post-crisis, leverage has decreased as a result of higher regulatory capital requirements and market pressure. This increases the resilience of banks with regard to future shocks. At the same time, banks often remain more highly leveraged than they have been in historical perspective (Aikman et al. 2018).

2.2 Cross-border capital flows

During the crisis, many countries in Europe experienced a “sudden stop” of cross-border capital flows, necessitating adjustment on domestic factor and product markets to restore external equilibria (Buch et al. 2016). Cross-border capital flows channeled through the banking system have been particularly affected; flows of equity capital and in particular foreign direct investment have been more resilient (Buch et al. 2015). Generally, the degree of cross-border risk sharing remains limited in Europe, and the integration of bank retail markets has not progressed much in the post-crisis period (ECB 2017a, b).

In contrast to debt contracts, equity contracts feature “automatic” risk-sharing mechanisms: investors benefit from positive, upside risks but they can also lose their investments if a negative shock hits. In Europe, reliance on debt finance has fallen post crisis (ECB 2017a). But equity markets in general and venture capital markets in particular remain underdeveloped. Opportunities for cross-border risk-sharing are insufficiently exploited. The Capital Markets Union is a project which addresses constraints on the cross-border movement of (equity) capital; it can allow for more market-based risk-sharing in Europe, and can help to alleviate constraints that currently hamper reallocation in the real and financial sectors and prevent growth dynamics from being set into motion.

3 Post-crisis reforms

3.1 The current setting3

With post crisis reforms and the establishment of the banking union, the institutional set-up of the European and euro area financial sector changed fundamentally in three regards.

First, banking supervision of euro area banks was assigned to the Single Supervisory Mechanism (SSM) within the ECB. The SSM directly supervises systemically important banks of all member countries, while the supervision of less systemically important banks has been delegated to national supervisors.

Second, restructuring and resolution of ailing euro area banks now falls into the remit of the Single Resolution Mechanism (SRM) which can resort to a Single Resolution Fund (SRF) to finance resolution measures. The SRF is funded by a bank levy that varies with bank risk. The SRM addresses the too-big-to-fail subsidy. Its objective is to ensure that losses of failing banks are borne by creditors, not the tax payer. Exit of these banks shall be possible without putting financial stability at risk.

Third, macroprudential policy is a new policy area, which is a shared responsibility between the national and the European level. Almost every member state has a national Financial Stability Council, which is responsible for the implementation of macroprudential policy domestically. Surveillance of European wide financial stability risks is the task of the European Systemic Risk Board (ESRB), an EU body, which can also issue warnings and recommendations addressed to the EU as a whole or to Member States, the European Commission, the European supervisory authorities or national authorities. Importantly, with the creation of the Banking Union, the ECB assumes macroprudential responsibilities in the banking sector alongside national authorities. Unlike national authorities, the ECB can only tighten but not relax national macroprudential measures—for example, to counteract a possible inaction bias at the national level.

In terms of cross-border policy coordination of macroprudential policies, Europe is thus more advanced than other world regions.4 In Europe, policy coordination is particularly important for two reasons. On the one hand, within the Single Market, and absent exchange rate risks, there is a high degree of financial integration, and banks are active across borders (ECB 2017a). On the other hand, national financial markets retain a strong national flavor, not least given the responsibility of national policymakers for core policies affecting financial institutions and markets. Also, different types of financial systems coexist in Europe (ECB 2017b), which affects the vulnerabilities with regard to risks to financial stability.

3.2 First lessons learned5

The new institutions already had to deal with first cases of bank failures (Table 1). In the case of the Spanish Banco Popular Español, the Single Resolution Board (SRB) acknowledged a (European) public interest and applied the “sale of business” resolution tool, bailing in junior creditors and selling the bank to Santander. In the case of two regional Italian banks, the SRB did not acknowledge any European public interest. Both banks were then wound down under Italian national insolvency legislation. As public funds were used in the process of winding down the two banks, the European Commission had to approve the injection of taxpayer’s money for compliance with European state aid rules in the banking sector. According to the European Commission's communication how these rules will be applied (European Commission 2013), (bail-in) requirements to ensure private sector burden sharing before using public funds are not as strict as under the BRRD. These differences in the legal frameworks led some commentators to question the credibility of BRRD and the SRB (Merler 2018).
Table 1

Examples of bank resolution cases and bail in procedures in European banks

Source: Deutsche Bundesbank (2017)


Banca Monte dei Paschi

Banco Popular Espanol

Venetian banks (Veneto Banca/Banca Populare di Vicenza)


No resolution, precautionary recapitalisation by Italian government1

European Commission approves State aid on 4 July 2017

Resolution in framework of EU law

Single Resolution Board (SRB) identifies “public interest”

Application of the sale of business tool2

Insolvency under national law

SRB does not identify any “public interest” in resolution under EU law3

Liquidation following Italian decree of 25 June 2017

Date of ECB of decision and justification

28 June 2017: Confirmation of solvency: fulfilment of minimum capital requirements under Pillar I as at 31 March 2017

6 June 2017: Failing or likely to fail (FOLTF) due to liquidity position4

23 June 2017: FOLFT due to capital position5

Use of government funds

Italy grants State aid amounting to €5.4 bn in order to close capital shortfall resulting from the adverse scenario of the stress test in 2016


Following approval by the European Commission, Italy grants State aid up to €17 bn in the interest of financial stability in the region

Bail-in of creditors

Write-down of capital instruments

Conversion of subordinated debt into equity

€4.3 bn in total6

Write-down of shares

Conversion and write-down of additional tier 1 (AT1) instruments in the amount of €1.3 bn

Conversion of tier 2 (T2) instruments into shares in the amount of €0.68 bn7

Write-down of capital instruments

Conversion of subordinated debt into equity8

1 Pursuant to Article 18 (4) letter (d) of the SRM Regulation/Article 32 (4) letter (d) of the BRRD. 2 Pursuant to Article 22 (2) letter (a) of the SRM Regulation/Article 37 (3) letter (a) of the BRRD. 3 Within the meaning of Article 18 (5) of the SRM Regulation/Article 32 (5) of the BRRD 4 Pursuant to Article 18 (4) letter (c) of the SRM Regulation/Article 32 (4) letter (c) of the BRRD. 5 Pursuant to Article 18 (4) letter (c) of the SRM Regulation/Article 32 (4) letter (b) of the BRRD. 6 According to EU State aid rules; European Commission’s Banking Communication 2013 Section 3.1.2 (burden-sharing). 7 Pursuant to Article 21 of the SRM Regulation/Article 59 of the BRRD in conjunction with Article 15 of the SRM Regulation/Article 47 of the BRRD. 8 According to EU State aid rules, European Commission’s Banking Communication 2013 Section 3.1.2 (burden-sharing)

Deutsche Bundesbank

Changing patterns in the pricing of risk can provide indications on the effects of the new resolution frameworks. Abbassi et al. (2018) perform an event study of the evolution of bank CDS prices and stock returns in the context of bank resolution cases in Italy and Spain. Abnormal returns of (highly liquid) CDSs of European senior bank bonds declined right after winding down Banco Popular Español (Fig. 3). Descriptive statistics show no strong impact following the decision to subject the Italian banks to the national insolvency procedure. This could be interpreted as a lack of credibility of the new resolution mechanism. However, an alternative interpretation is equally plausible: markets might have been reassured that the bail-in of senior bond holders has not been required in most resolution cases as the bail-in of junior bonds already sufficed.

As regards the evolution of cumulated abnormal returns of European bank stocks, there has been no discernable reaction following the Spanish case while abnormal returns increased following the Italian cases. In Spain, bank stocks reacted negatively to the resolution of Banco Popular.
Fig. 3

Cumulated abnormal returns. The results of an event study looking at the evolution of CDS spreads and stock returns following the bank resolution cases in Spain and Italy. Abnormal returns are defined as the difference between the actual return and its (constant) historical average. The horizontal line at event time 0 denotes time of the bail-in event in Spain (June 6 2017) while the horizontal line at event time 13 denotes the bail-in event in Italy (June 23 2017). The analysis of CDS spreads covers 36 European banks (from Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain) for which CDS market prices are available. The number of banks is slightly lower for the analysis of stock returns as some banks are not publicly listed

Source: Calculations by Abbassi et al. (2018) based on data from Bloomberg and Markit

Event studies and descriptive statistics do not provide explanations for these observations. Testing whether markets perceive the SRM and the resolution tools as being credible requires a deeper analysis, accounting for confounding factors, and explaining heterogeneity across banks.

Generally though, these examples show that institution building needs time. A structured process of learning from the application of the new rules is needed in order to improve the framework where needed.6 For example, the decision that these banks have reached their point of non-viability—the “failing or likely to fail (FOLTF)” decision7—could possibly have been taken at an earlier stage. Moreover, there remain inconsistencies between the European resolution framework, European state aid rules, and national insolvency laws, which could be addressed. Finally, measures are needed to avoid risks from direct contagion in the banking system which may result from a bail-in of creditors: International rules limit the cross-holdings of bail-in liabilities within the financial sector when calculating Total Loss Absorbing Capacity (TLAC) (FSB 2015). Limits on cross holdings are useful to prevent spill over from the bail-in of bank creditors to other parts of the banking sector. For European banks, there are no restrictions of cross holdings of bail-in liabilities according to the Minimum Requirement for own Funds and Eligible Liabilities (MREL).8

4 Outlook and priorities for macroprudential policy

The past 20 years in Europe have seen large swings on real and financial markets. High growth rates prior to the financial crisis have, in many countries, been fueled by excessive credit growth. Sudden stops of capital flows have exposed the fault lines of the European financial architecture. The pre-crisis financial architecture has centered around mechanisms to contain public-sector borrowing. Incentives to engage in excessive private sector borrowing and—as the flipside—excessive lending have not been taken into account adequately. Mechanisms to manage financial crises were insufficient.

A lot has happened since the crisis. The crisis affected countries in Europe differently, and post crisis adjustment of the real economy has differed. Structural reforms triggered by the reversal of capital flows gradually contributed to better align financial liabilities with underlying fundamentals. Countries most affected by the crisis have reformed markets for goods and labor. Gaps in the institutional framework have been closed with new financial regulation, new institutions in charge of supervising the financial sector, and explicit crisis resolution mechanisms being put into place. Macroprudential policy has been introduced as a new policy field at the domestic level while, at the same time, being closely coordinated across European countries.

Post-crisis reforms include regimes for the recovery and resolution of financial institutions, increased capital buffers that allow institutions to better withstand adverse shocks, and improvements in systems for surveillance of risks in the banking and in the non-bank sectors. These reforms contribute to the resilience of the financial sector and mitigate negative contagion effects.

Despite these achievements, levels of debt remain high. Structural deficiencies in both, the financial and the real sectors remain prevalent. The challenge is to ensure sufficient dynamics that promote growth without threatening financial stability.

Against this background, we see the following priorities for macroprudential policy going forward.

First, many of the trends that affect the financial services industry such as globalization, the rate and nature of technological change, and global macroeconomic developments cannot be influenced directly by national policymakers. It is thus important to ensure that the playing field provides sufficient flexibility for financial sector firms to adjust to exogenous trends, to enable structural change, and to deal with legacy issues. Policies for dealing with non-performing loans facilitate an improved allocation of resources. Insolvency regulation plays an important role in this regard, as does the functioning of the secondary market for assets. In case financial institutions do not meet regulatory requirements, resolution mechanisms need to be applied.

Second, application of the new policies and institutions will provide evidence on their effectiveness and potential need for adjustments. Inefficient procedures at the European level may frustrate experience with the new framework. Some of these issues are currently being addressed by the EU Commission’s macroprudential review.9 Some notification procedures can, for example, be streamlined without sacrificing the objectives of reforms. Also, first applications of the resolution mechanisms indicate room for improvement. At the same time, any modification of the existing framework should be preceeded by a structured impact assessment, which takes social costs and benefits into account.10

Third, macroprudential policy is—at its core—a national responsibility. Domestic policy decisions thus play an important role for the stability of national and, ultimately, European financial systems. In some countries, a key challenge is to deal with non-performing loans on banks’ balance sheets, in other countries, overcapacities in banking systems generate incentives for excessive risk taking. The results may be increased exposure to aggregate risk and limited success with reducing implicit government guarantees.

Effective macroprudential policy is particularly important in a currency union where the degree of financial integration is high and where risks can spill over across borders. This requires strong support at the national level. Domestic policymakers need to engage in a constructive dialogue on the design, objectives, and implementation of macroprudential policy. Communication with domestic stakeholders is an important element of effective macroprudential policy, which goes beyond the activation of designated macroprudential policy instruments.11 Communication needs to be accompanied by teaching, training, and the development of intuitive narratives (Buch 2018). Communication is particularly important when lack of memory of the financial crisis can lead to overconfidence and the belief that “this time will be different” (Reinhart and Rogoff 2009).


  1. 1.

    While dispersion of real GDP per capita in the euro area hardly changed before the crisis, it has increased markedly after 2007, mainly reflecting the severe recessions in the countries most affected by the crisis. More recently, the increase of real income dispersion seems to have come to a halt (Gros 2018).

  2. 2.

    See Lane (2012) for a comprehensive account of the European sovereign debt crisis.

  3. 3.

    This section gives a very broad overview of institutional changes in Europe. For details, see Deutsche Bundesbank (2012, 2014).

  4. 4.

    For an overview, see the BIS–FSB–IMF report on macroprudential policy frameworks (BIS, FSB, IMF 2016).

  5. 5.

    For details, see Deutsche Bundesbank (2017). The European experience with bank resolution is also discussed in Hellwig (2017, 2018).

  6. 6.

    For details, see Deutsche Bundesbank (2017).

  7. 7.

    For an explanation, see EBA (2015).

  8. 8.

    See Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2016/1450 of May 23, 2016.

  9. 9.
  10. 10.

    The Financial Stability Board has published a framework for the evaluation of the post-crisis financial sector reforms

  11. 11.

    On the importance of communication for macroprudential policy, see Committee for the Global Financial System (CGFS 2016).


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Copyright information

© Kiel Institute 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Deutsche BundesbankFrankfurtGermany

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