Da Financial Times del 31/03/2005
Originale su http://news.ft.com/cms/s/bffd7474-a182-11d9-95e5-00000e2511c8.html

The challenge of financial integration

For those who have been despairing at the lack of integration in European financial markets, this has been a good week. First came the announcement that Europe's banks have agreed on a roadmap to a single payment system by 2008. This was followed by the news of takeover bids for two Italian banks: by BBVA, Spain's second largest bank, for Banca Nazionale del Lavoro of Italy, and by ABN Amro, the Dutch bank, for Banca Antonveneta.

Takeover bids in this sector are good news because the eurozone badly needs them to achieve the dual goals of market integration and consolidation. In the banking sector the eurozone consists of 12 mercantilist states, each one jealously guarding its regulatory framework. Italy is among the more protectionist. Antonio Fazio, governor of the Banca d'Italia, the central bank, has the right to block any banking merger. He has a record of opposing foreign takeovers. Now he has to decide on two bids at the same time.

It would be a mistake to veto these deals. This would be seen as a signal that Italy is not ready to open its financial markets to foreign investors. The lack of an integrated financial market is one of the biggest gaps in the economic infrastructure of the European Union, considering that the single market is part of its raison d'être. For the 12-nation eurozone, a single financial market is even more essential. Without it, it cannot succeed.

But the biggest casualty of a veto would be Italy itself. It is a country with an underdeveloped financial sector. Even simple financial products, such as mortgages, are heavily regulated. Furthermore, the Parmalat affair and the way the authorities have been handling it have damaged the reputation of Italy's financial market.

As one of the weakest economies in the eurozone, Italy can ill afford an antediluvian banking sector. For the eurozone, and for Italy in particular, deregulation of the financial sector could bring about enormous benefits in terms of economic growth and employment. The gap in productivity growth rates between the eurozone and the US is due to only a small number of sectors. Among those, the financial sector is one of the most important.

The sector also matters because of huge spillover effects to other industries. Especially at a time when many industries are going through a period of restructuring due to globalisation, an efficient financial sector fulfils the role of reallocating capital efficiently.

The good news is that the banks themselves are at least pushing in this direction. Not every cross-border takeover deal will work out. Banking regulators also have an obligation to focus on the financial stability of their national systems. But without cross-border takeovers, the consolidation of Europe's banking sector is not going to happen. Whatever their commercial merits may be, this week's two bids suggest that the process of market integration and consolidation may have finally started.

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