European Union launches clampdown on shadow banking

Wed Sep 4, 2013 9:14am EDT
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By John O'Donnell and Huw Jones

BRUSSELS/LONDON (Reuters) - Special funds used by big companies to park billions of euros of cash face stricter rules to make them safer, the European Commission said on Wednesday, taking a first step to reform unregulated finance known as shadow banking.

The draft law, criticized by industry as too harsh but by Germany as not strict enough, will regulate the euro money market funds sector, demanding some funds set aside cash buffers to avoid a panic should many investors withdraw money at once.

This would lower what EU financial services chief Michel Barnier said was a risk to the financial system from the trillion euro sector, but users of the funds warn that demanding funds hoard more for a rainy day would make them too expensive.

The changes are part of efforts to shine a light on shadow banking, a 24-trillion-euro industry in Europe - half the world's total - that comprises money market funds, some hedge funds, and firms involved in securities lending and repurchase markets.

Such groups borrow and lend, just like banks do, but because they are not banks they often fall outside the remit of regulation, which is why they are considered to be in the "shadow" of traditional finance.

In the European Union, money market funds are mainly based in France, Ireland and Luxembourg and are heavily used by companies in Germany, Britain and elsewhere.

For companies, they are an alternative home for short-term cash so that they can spread their reserves rather than leaving them with one bank. Unlike banks, the funds have no access to support from central banks such as the European Central Bank if things go wrong.

But the vast unchartered territory unnerves regulators in part because the sector is closely intertwined with banks, who often sponsor the funds as well as relying on them for finance themselves.   Continued...

Workers walk past the Bank of England in the City of London August 7, 2013. REUTERS/Toby Melville