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The man who’ll do triage on Europe’s banks

Ignazio Angeloni, who heads the European Central Bank’s financial stability division
Martin Leissl | Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ignazio Angeloni, who heads the European Central Bank’s financial stability division

All Ignazio Angeloni has to do is figure out Europe's banking system.

Mr. Angeloni, 59, heads the European Central Bank's financial stability division, giving him a lead role in a task about to begin: examining the books of the 130 or so largest banks in the 17 members of the European Union who use the euro. It will be financial triage aimed at determining which banks are sound and which are not.

Good luck with that.

(Read more: ECB sets tests to strengthen Europe's banks)

Over the last few years, the world's financial institutions have become black boxes, so opaquely complex that they are little understood by regulators or their own executives. Lehman Brothers vanished in a puff of financial wizardry gone wrong. JPMorgan Chase was humbled when it lost control of its own traders in London. And European regulators gave the French-Belgian banking giant Dexia a clean bill of health in 2011 after a supposed "stress test," only to see it collapse subsequently.

This week, Mr. Angeloni and other central bankers are expected to announce new details of the review process. The undertaking, at the behest of the European Union, is meant to place the big banks of Europe more directly under the supervision of the European Central Bank, instead of the current patchwork of national regulators.

At stake is the world's confidence in Europe's banking system. If the effort fails, it could undermine Europe's fragile economic recovery and the credibility of the European unity project.

"You have to supervise what banks do," Mr. Angeloni said, during a recent interview at the central bank's headquarters here. "You cannot leave them alone, because if you do, they can become dangerous."

The banks of Europe, of course, are particularly treacherous. The ones in Greece were crippled by their government's toxic debt. Those in Cyprus were "bailed in" by their own depositors. Spain's have sucked in billions of euros in aid to make up for bad loans. And several banks across Europe have become wards of the state.

(Read more: Cyprus on track but bank concerns remain: IMF)

So can anyone really make sense of it all?

"Nothing will be perfect, right?" Mr. Angeloni said. "There will be mistakes, there will be things that are not uncovered fully. The goal is to make as much progress as possible."

James Chappell, a banking analyst at Berenberg, called the banking review exercise "incredibly important."

"Ultimately, for a banking union you need to have a credible supervisor, and investors want to have trust in banks' balance sheets, and that's what's been lacking and continues to lack now," Mr. Chappell said. "What the market has to believe is that the process has been credible."

From the window of Mr. Angeloni's downtown office, the future headquarters of the European Central Bank can be seen rising on Frankfurt's horizon. The grand skyscraper, bracketed by cranes, is a testament to the central bank's growing role as a world power.

The unwieldiness of some banks is a symptom of technological advances that have led to nano-speed trading and the use of complex computer algorithms that guide investment decisions, Mr. Angeloni said. While he expressed doubts about the usefulness of splitting the investment and retail arms of banks, as many on both sides of the Atlantic have advocated, he still suggested that some banks had grown too complex for their own good, or for society's. Perhaps ominously for the banks, the silver-colored cuff links on his monogrammed shirt were shaped like bears.

"The C.E.O.'s, they look superhuman, but, in fact, very often they don't know what's going on, and they don't understand because it is very, very complicated," Mr. Angeloni said.

"The algorithms that govern the movements of asset prices are very difficult to understand for any C.E.O.," he added. "In the end, the C.E.O., the people at the top, have to concentrate on the politics, right? If you are in that mind frame, it's very difficult to concentrate on the nitty-gritty technical details. So there is a growing gap between the people who work at the bottom and understand the little things, and the people on the top."

More from the New York Times:

E.C.B.Vows Thorough Review of Banks at Risk
Shutdown Will Hinder True Gauge of U.S. Economy
Considering the Fairness of JPMorgan's Deal

Mr. Angeloni is a global citizen. Born in postwar Milan, Italy, he studied economics at Bocconi University in Milan with Mario Monti, the respected technocrat who led Italy's previous government. At the University of Pennsylvania, where Mr. Angeloni received his doctorate, he studied macroeconomics under Robert J. Shiller. "He gave me an 'A,' " Mr. Angeloni joked last Tuesday, the morning after his former professor was named a winner of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science.

But Mr. Angeloni's career has ranged beyond traditional economic research, to include diplomatic work for the Italian Treasury, where he also led the state-run export credit agency. He quotes Kant and Pirandello in his published works.

Now Mr. Angeloni is one of the more multifaceted lieutenants of Mario Draghi, the president of the European Central Bank. The immediate task is to prepare for the inception of a quasi-independent supervisory branch of the central bank, which will have its own chairman.

The first step is reviewing the financial health of the biggest banks of Europe. The central bank must do so in the next 12 months, while creating a supervisory wing staffed by a thousand new employees.

(Read more: Stressful times for Europe's banks)

"People come to us and ask, 'How can you do it? You have to recruit many supervisors, you don't have many resources,' " he said. "That's not true."

The central bank has the advantage of drawing on the aid and experience of national regulators that have long been at work in member states, he said.

"What makes it difficult is that it is very fragmented," he said. "It is diversified in different countries, and they are not used to working together, so it's a huge organizational effort, and it's also a huge political effort in the sense of convincing everybody to converge to common styles of supervision."

The review process will have three parts, he said. The first will be to make a broad assessment of a bank's risk profile. The second is the so-called asset quality review, reviewing the logbooks of each bank and assessing whether loans and other assets are performing as advertised.

The third is a stress test, in which several models are created to simulate what would happen if the bank were exposed to a variety of economic shocks. It is a job that was fumbled by other European regulators, most notably in the case of Dexia.

For the supervisory process to be truly useful, specialists say it must be accompanied by a so-called single resolution mechanism — a system for winding down failing banks in an orderly way, to avoid market upheavals. Regulators hope an independent body to oversee such work will be in place by 2015, but almost every detail of the banking overhaul effort has been mired in political wrangling among the member states.

"The stakes are the recovery and well functioning of Europe and the euro," Mr. Angeloni said. "Europe has this project for several decades, to not only live in peace — that's already an important thing in itself — but also to make its economic model function and potentially — why not? — be also exported elsewhere. And it's a good economic model, because the quality of life in Europe is very high in many ways."

The question, he said, was, "Can you make this economic and social model, which to some extent is a luxury, can you make it compatible with the increasing pressure of competition from emerging markets and from elsewhere?"

"You have to make the system work, you have to reform it a little bit, and what we are doing is part of this reform," he said, adding, "Building a federation is a long process."

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