Global Policy Forum

Bank Bashing

Around the world, hundreds of thousands have taken to the streets to protest against the global banking system. Engaged in their own dispute with the banks, some European politicians have welcomed the demonstrators’ message. Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel from Germany, for example, expressed the need to separate investment banking from commercial banking. In the same spirit, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso demanded legal consequences for rogue bankers. These statements are welcomed, but must be taken with a grain of salt. The continued presence of protestors has the power to transform these statements from opportunistic rhetoric into concrete action.   


October 10, 2011

Hundreds of thousands took to the streets in Europe and around the world this weekend to protest against the global banking system. Politicians in Europe, engaged in their own dispute with the banks, stood firmly on the side of the demonstrators.

The numbers were far from overwhelming. Some 20,000 people on the streets of Lisbon, around 10,000 in front of the Reichstag in Berlin, a few thousand each in London's banking district and in Rome's city center. Five-thousand rallied in front of the European Central Bank in Frankfurt.

Taken together, though, the hundreds of anti-bank protests held in over 80 countries around the world on Saturday -- an outgrowth of the Occupy Wall Street movement in the United States -- have been difficult to ignore. And an increasing number of politicians have launched efforts to tap into the anti-bank anger.

German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative Christian Democrats, vowed in a Sunday evening television interview that he was taking the protests "very seriously" and said that banks need to submit to "clear controls and transparency for all parts of the banking business."

On the eve of the protests, center-left Social Democrat leader Sigmar Gabriel told SPIEGEL that "we have to force the banks back into their role as servants to the real economy. The correct move would be to split investment banking off from commercial banking. Every mid-sized company which needs a loan will soon run into difficulties because banks are threatened with bankruptcy as a result of bad bets on the investment banking side."

'A Right to Be Furious'

Even the business-friendly Free Democrats, Merkel's junior coalition partners, got into the act. Former Economics Minister Rainer Brüderle told the mass-circulation tabloid Bild that "it is the same for banks as it is for countries: If they don't do their homework then we will have to take them by the hand."

But it wasn't just politicians in Germany who were jumping on the anti-bank bandwagon this weekend. Future head of the European Central Bank Mario Draghi said that "the young people have a right to be furious." British Foreign Secretary Willian Hague told BBC television that "it is true that ... in the banking system a lot has gone wrong."

And speaking to the French paper Le Parisien, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso even went so far as to demand legal consequences for rogue bankers. "We have seen abusive behavior and some of this caused the current crisis," Barroso said. "Those who violate the rules will face criminal penalties. This will be a first in European legislation and a strong signal."

The protests themselves, of course, were the most immediate trigger for the wave of anti-bank sentiment coming out of European capitals this weekend. While most were peaceful, there were some isolated incidents of violence in several cities, first and foremost in Rome where hundreds of hooligans hijacked the mass march in the Italian capital city, breaking windows and burning cars -- and injuring 135 people. Chicago too saw mass arrests of violence-prone protesters.

Camping at the ECB

Beyond the protests, though, Europe is also deeply engaged in efforts both to prop up the common currency and, with Greece seemingly headed for insolvency, to prevent its largest financial institutions from toppling. Indeed, many anticipate that European Union leaders will announce a debt haircut for Greece of up to 50 percent or greater at a major European Union summit scheduled for this weekend on Oct. 23.

Barroso last week indicated that the plan may also include a forced recapitalization of European banks to help them deal with the hefty write-downs which may result. But several leading European bankers, Deutsche Bank head Josef Ackermann most prominent among them, have blasted the plan. "Deutsche Bank will do everything in its power to avoid a forced capitalization," Ackermann said last week. He added that he doubted whether European politicians were able to solve the ongoing currency and debt crisis.

Responses in Berlin were far from understanding. Indeed, from the perspective of European leaders, the timing of this weekend's protests -- and their message casting banks as the bad guys -- could not have been better.

And it looks as though the protests might continue throughout the week. In emulation of the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York, which inspired this weekend's wave of worldwide marches, dozens of demonstrators in Hamburg camped out on Sunday night in front of HSH Nordbank. In Frankfurt, dozens more pitched their tents at the European Central Bank. They have vowed to stay -- and have announced additional protests this weekend.


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