Interview with Jean-Claude Trichet, President of the ECB, and Il Sole 24 Ore, conducted by Beda Romano, on 31 August 2011, published 2 September 2011
1. A compatriot of yours, Jacques Delors, the former president of the European Commission, has said in recent days that the euro area is “on the brink of the abyss”. It’s a very pessimistic view, undoubtedly coloured by a sense of disappointment. Do you share it?
I have great admiration for Jacques Delors. But let me sum up some of my present observations. First, we have a credible single currency which over the last 12 years has kept its value in terms of price stability in a remarkable way in comparison with the previous national currencies in the last 50 years. The solidity of the currency itself is not disputed and our fellow citizens all over Europe are calling on us to continue preserving price stability. Second, the euro area, taken as a whole, is in a better position from a fiscal standpoint than other economies. In 2011, the public finance deficit of the euro area should be around 4.5% of GDP, while in the United States or Japan it will be about 10% of GDP. But we had a very serious weakness in terms of economic and fiscal governance inside the euro area which has been revealed by the global crisis.
2. Well-informed politicians are not hesitating to talk about a possible break-up of the euro area. The weaknesses cannot be denied.
The weaknesses have to be corrected. Loose fiscal policies and insufficient attention to competitive indicators have not been surveyed rigorously and corrected in time. Individually and collectively the European countries have to correct the present situation. Individually by adjusting their domestic policies – as all the advanced economies, including the US and Japan are called on to do – and collectively by considerably reinforcing their mutual surveillance and their governance.
3. On the subject of governance, there’s a discussion in various quarters about the possibility of creating European bonds. Former Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has proposed the creation of a fund guaranteed by the gold reserves of countries that would issue bonds to buy back national debt and make new investments.
At this stage, we have the EFSF bonds, which are bonds with a European signature. The main message of the ECB Governing Council to governments is to implement rapidly, fully, comprehensively the decisions taken by the European heads of state and government on 21 July.
4. Are you talking about the decisions taken by the European Council in July, the ratification of which in some countries, such as Germany, is proceeding very slowly?
I will not mention any particular country. All 17 countries are called upon to implement all the decisions taken by the heads of state and government. This comprehensive and quick implementation is important, including for the confidence of our fellow citizens.
5. So the idea of European bonds doesn’t attract you? Some people are convinced that in the current circumstances we need to consider the most innovative and ambitious solutions.
As I already said, it’s important to note that the EFSF is financed through the issuance of bonds guaranteed by the European states. The Governing Council of the ECB considers that it is important that individual countries feel responsible for their own fiscal policies. At the same time, the Council judges it as essential that peer surveillance is conducted in the most rigorous way. Since the inception of the euro, we have called for a major strengthening of collegial governance. And long before the crisis, in 2004 and 2005, we defended the Stability and Growth Pact when it was attacked by the big countries of the euro area. The European Council, Commission and Parliament are working on the development of six draft secondary legislation texts to reinforce supervision of economic, fiscal and competitiveness policies. We are in the final stages of negotiations and I urge the parties to reach an agreement as quickly as possible.
6. A few weeks ago, in Aachen on the occasion of the Charlemagne Prize, you launched the idea of a finance minister for Europe. How realistic is this proposal? When do you think Europe can become a fully fledged federation?
I said that not for tomorrow but perhaps for the day after tomorrow the European Union could be a confederation of a new type, not unlike the United States of America, but with a government of the confederation, including a finance minister. But this depends on our people. The people of Europe will decide what will be the future of their history.
7. Over the past ten years, the ECB has succeeded in maintaining price stability in the euro area. But low inflation has not been enough to avoid the turbulence of these years. In your view, is it enough to monitor inflation? Doesn’t the crisis perhaps show that, in addition to looking at the euro area as a whole, the ECB should also take greater account than it did in the recent past of economic developments in individual countries?
First of all, as you know, the Treaty requires us to maintain price stability in the euro area as a whole, not to monitor the economic policies of different countries. This is the task of the Eurogroup and of the Commission according to the Treaty. And we have delivered price stability, which was our Treaty responsibility. But since the inception of the euro we have constantly asked the governments individually and collectively to live up to their responsibilities. As I said, we fought to defend the Stability and Growth Pact in 2005 when three main euro area countries wanted to water it down. And since then we have been giving the Eurogroup detailed information on the evolution of the competitiveness of member states and we are calling for rigorous monitoring of fiscal and economic policies.
8. In your opinion then, national governments are to blame for the current situation. Let’s talk about Italy. From your perspective, how do you judge the country’s efforts in the eight years of your presidency?
The Italian economy has tremendous potential given the quality of its human resources and its corporate culture. And yet economic growth has been disappointing. For this reason, I believe in particular that structural reforms are necessary to increase the growth potential of an economy held back by too many obstacles – and they prevent it from achieving its full potential.
9. Italy has been the subject of intense market turmoil this summer. In this regard, how do you view the recent package of austerity measures proposed by the Italian government?
These measures decided by the government in its announcement on 5 August are of extreme importance to rapidly reduce public finance deficits and enhance the flexibility of the Italian economy. It is therefore of the essence that the overall goal in terms of the public finance improvement that was announced be fully confirmed and substantiated. This is decisive to consolidate and reinforce the quality and the credibility of the Italian strategy and of the Italian signature.
10. And what about structural reforms? The serious situation in Italy, like the dramatic drifting in Greece, might it not be linked to an obsolete economic structure, not only to the high public debt?
My message is clear: it is essential that all those measures that allow full exploitation of Italy’s medium and long-term economic potential are introduced. Today there is a huge potential that is not tapped as it should be.
11. The message that you sent to the Italian government in early August to urge it to take further restructuring measures has sparked controversy in Italy. Why this unusual decision?
The view of the Governing Council was that the market turmoil at the beginning of the month required a message to be sent to the Italian government. We were seeing a progressive weakening of investor confidence and we felt it would be useful to share with the Italian authorities our thoughts on the most appropriate measures to help restore market confidence.
12. Some commentators have claimed that there was a quid pro quo: new consolidation measures in exchange for a launch of bond purchases in order to lower Italian bond yields.
No. There was no negotiation. We sent our message based upon our analysis of the reasons for the market disruption. We analysed the decision taken by the government. Our decision to activate our Securities Markets Programme (SMP) is designed to help restore a better transmission of our monetary policy.
13. And yet, the purchase of government bonds was probably your most painful and controversial decision in recent years at the helm of the ECB …
Even in normal times all our decisions are very difficult. It is not by chance that you preserve price stability for 332 million fellow citizens over almost 13 years as we have done. Now we are experiencing a global crisis – the worst since the Second World War. And in these exceptionally demanding circumstances we had to take non-standard measures for monetary policy reasons. In particular, the decision to supply liquidity in full allotment mode and to purchase securities.
14. But the decision to buy bonds was particularly delicate because of criticism in Germany, worried by any form of debt monetisation, and because it exposed divisions in the Governing Council. Your detractors level an unfair accusation against you: they claim that you will be remembered as the President who caused the bank to lose its independence.
I have just returned from the European Parliament and I can tell you that our decisions were commented on favourably by the members of Parliament, as all journalists could see. Having said that, the Governing Council acts very prudently, also in the use of non-standard measures, so as not to endanger the credibility and solidity of the ECB and of the Eurosystem. Bear in mind that since the crisis erupted in August 2007, our balance sheet has increased by around 77%, while the Federal Reserve’s has risen by 226%, and that of the Bank of England by 200%. In other words, the crisis has caused us to take a number of non-standard steps, but we took them cautiously and always with a view to ensuring a better transmission of monetary policy. Everybody knows as well that we are fiercely independent. The Governing Council has proved its independence through all its decisions and also through its firm and explicit messages to governments on all occasions.
15. President Trichet, you will leave at the end of October after eight years as the head of the ECB. Mario Draghi, the governor of the Banca d’Italia, will replace you. How has the bank that you will pass on to him changed in recent years? Do you have any tips to give him?
Mario Draghi has been a wise and strong member of the Governing Council for many years. He knows the institution extremely well and, of course, was a party to all the decisions we have taken. What matters is the permanence of the institution. I am certain that Mario Draghi will ensure the institution's continuity and credibility over the long term.
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Digital collaboration: Shaping the Future of Finance
By Ryan Lester, Senior Director of Customer Experience Technologies at LogMeIn
With heightened economic uncertainty and increased customer expectation becoming the norm in the banking industry, it is understandable that the sector is struggling to keep afloat. Due to its precarious nature, banking institutions are trying their best to ensure they remain relevant in the competitive landscape and guarantee that their customers continue to be a priority.
When it comes to the first half of this year, the pandemic has shown how easy it is for industries to fail. Customers and companies alike had to get used to the new normal, as physical locations started to close. The banking industry felt this first hand, as banks were made to restructure how their business ran, with restricted opening hours and a wider push to motivate people to use online banking.
While some had already embraced digital options prior to the pandemic, this proved to be a stark contrast to the elderly population, who frequently visited branches to access their finances. Moving forward, banks have to adopt new methods to ensure customers get the most out of our their accounts, without their experience suffering.
Heightened Customer Expectations
When the pandemic reached its peak, people were encouraged to use online banking, as telephone contact was under strain with long waiting times and pressure mounting on contact centre agents. According to Fidelity National Information Services (FIS), which works with 50 of the world’s largest banks, there was a 200% jump in new mobile banking registrations in early April, while mobile banking traffic rose 85%.
With branches remaining closed, customers were continuously being urged to limit the amount of calls they made to the most urgent cases and consider whether they could solve their answers through mobile online banking or checking the company website. Although already being adopted in pockets of the industry, this was a real catalyst that spurred banks to up their game on digital channels and with self-service tools.
Banks are challenged with precariously balancing customer needs with the cost of personalised support. With the demographic of customers changing over the last few years, customers are becoming increasingly younger and more comfortable with technology. Influenced by the “Amazon Effect”, their expectations have raised to an all-time high, placing record strain on the sector
Customer experience isn’t just about support anymore, it’s about serving your customer at every point in the journey. Companies have an opportunity to elevate the experience they provide by moving beyond one-and-done interactions to create continuous engagements with their customers. It is starting to become a primary competitive differentiator in the market and one that doesn’t have a lot of variation. Deploying AI chatbot technology will be able to strategically help banks improve customer experience and raise the level of support that agents provide.
Digital collaboration: Working around the Clock
The benefits of adopting digital channels and self-service tools are second to none. By implementing chatbots, fuelled by conversational AI, banks will be able to help serve a wide range of customer queries and ensure they are protected from fraud and scams.
Conversational AI is exactly what it sounds like: a computer programme that engages in a conversation with a human. When it comes to service delivery, conversational AI can be deployed across multiple channels to engage with customers in ways that effectively address evolving customer needs. At a time defined by COVID-19, self-service tools such a conversational chatbots can work around the clock to solve customer queries in a concise and timely way. Of course, self-service tools won’t completely replace human agents in the banking industry, but they will help companies re-distribute customer traffic and workflows in ways that enhance customer experience. Self-service tools fuelled by conversational AI can also improve employee experience because service employees can handle fewer, but higher-level service tasks that chatbots might escalate to them.
Adopting new tools to help facilitate consistent and concise answers and help maintain customer experience is on the forefront of many industry minds. Banks such as the Natwest Group have seen this first-hand and are testament to the benefits that a good digital experience can provide. Simon Johnson, Capability Consultant, Digital at NatWest Group highlights NatWest’s use of digital tools during lockdown, “Over the last few months, we’ve learnt how to use digital tools to help our employees remotely. From a banking perspective, there have been a lot of changes including base rates, waive fees and the best ways of contacting our vulnerable customers, ensuring we keep them protected from frauds and scams.
“By introducing our Bold360 chatbot interface, Ella, we’ve been able to get relevant information out quickly, apply the best practice and ensure that our customer journeys are being developed correctly. Due to the volume of questions, some of our customers were finding themselves waiting longer than usual. So digital channels become essential to helping reduce the wait time. Using Bold360, we were able to mitigate issues and answer questions in a more timely way through our chatbot.
“Moving forward, as we open more digital services, we are analysing our data to see if customer will return back to their usual way of banking, now that they’ve seen what a good digital experience can provide. Either way, with Ella, we are ready.”
Chatbots and Humans: The Best Option for Customer Service
Over the last year, banking institutions have recognised the power that digital collaboration can have to their success. Delivering exceptional customer service and support is key for any business wanting to stay competitive in today’s market and banks are especially challenged with precariously balancing customer needs with the cost of personalised support. Leveraging the right technology, such as AI-powered chatbots, will enable the banking industry to provide better support and a more robust customer experience in the long term. Other institutions must follow suit, or risk becoming obsolete.
A sleeping digital giant wakes? 4 key trends accelerating payments transformation in the US
By Lauren Jones, International Payments Ambassador, Icon Solutions
The US payments industry is undoubtedly ripe for change. Before the unprecedented shock of COVID-19, digitization and payments transformation initiatives had been organic, piecemeal and predominately the preserve of the largest banks.
Now, increasing pressure means that financial institutions of all sizes are working to define a digital strategy to unlock new opportunities, drive business value, and stay competitive. But beyond the immediate impact of COVID, what underlying trends are accelerating digitization in the US?
- Real-time payments – the stimulus for change
Real-time payments have been met with a degree of caution by US financial institutions. Risking traditional profit generators in return for potential revenues down the line is a gamble many have not been willing to take. But immediate payments are coming to the US whether banks like it or not.
Major payments infrastructure providers, including NACHA and The Clearing House (TCH), have moved to encourage immediate payment adoption in recent years. But the Fed, frustrated with a slow rate of progress, has announced that it is pressing ahead with the implementation of its FedNow system (despite significant industry objection). Although the Fed’s true intentions are open to interpretation and this may just be a play to accelerate private initiatives, it is a clear signal that they mean business.
This means holdouts risk their own ‘Kodak’ moment if they miss the huge opportunities in front of them by fixating on traditional revenue streams. Banks are in a position to support innovation across entire industries such as healthcare, which could be released from the constraints of paper-based bureaucracy and slow, expensive transactions.
Another opportunity that can be unlocked via instant payments is ISO 20022 (used in the TCH RTP system). It is the future of payments messaging standards and can greatly enhance various payments processes through increased data-carrying capabilities. More importantly given the current climate, citizens reliant on federal or state support can benefit from RTPs combined with additional data to immediately access emergency funds.
- The kids are growing up
The US is getting older. Consumers who were 10 when the iPhone first launched are now 23. This means we are seeing a ramp-up of digitally native Gen Z consumers (roughly those born between 1995 and 2010) accessing banking services.
Demographics are an inexact science and not perfect predictors (there are technophobe college students and 100-year-old Instagram influencers), but we can detect noticeable trends.
Younger customers don’t usually choose a bank because there is an ATM in their neighbourhood, a slightly better interest rate or an advert in the newspaper. Rather, a strong digital presence, personalised tools, rewards and experiences, and the trusted recommendations of friends and family, will have a more significant impact on customer acquisition.
Banks must look at the effect this will have on their longer-term digitalization strategy and be able to segment what this emerging customer base might want and how they will interact in years to come.
- Checkmate? Evolving corporate requirements
Corporate treasurers are people and their experience of seamless, immediate payments in their personal lives shapes expectations in the workplace. Although check usage for business-to-business (B2B) transactions is still the norm in the US and barriers remain, corporates are increasingly demanding the ability to transact in a real-time, omnichannel environment, 24×7.
The benefits are clear. Corporate treasurers stand to enjoy enhanced liquidity management and transparency, greater control over payments and enhanced data for reconciliation purposes. And for consumers, alternative digital payment options such as buy now pay later promote choice and flexibility.
- Increasing competition
A significant consequence of emerging consumer and business demand for digital offerings is the increase in competition from fintechs, technology giants and other third-parties. Traditionally, incumbent banks have enjoyed the advantage of consumer trust to offset more limited innovation. But as consumers become more comfortable entrusting their financial transactions to non-banks, banks must differentiate and digitize to remain competitive.
Data is where the technology giants excel, and their ability to personalise experiences and emotionally connect with their users is unprecedented. Banks need to learn from the positive aspects of this model to better understand their users and deliver meaningful, useful products and services.
For data to become the cornerstone of a banks’ customer relationship and take services to the next level, breaking the channel silos and extracting value from a comprehensive dataset will be decisive. But with only 18% of banks reporting that they are in the process of shifting from a transactional revenue model to a data-driven revenue model, this work has some way to go.
Taking customer propositions to the next level
Customers now expect services that work for them, not their banks. All banks, no matter the footprint, need to move quickly to offer a broad digital service platform that adds value to both the customer and the bank.
By defining a robust payments transformation strategy, banks of all sizes can remain fiercely competitive by rapidly lowering costs, unlocking revenues and promoting innovation
Return to Work Doesn’t Mean Business as Usual When it Comes to Travel and Expense
By Rob Harrison, MD UK & Ireland, SAP Concur
The last few months have been an exercise in adaptability for businesses across the UK. With the sudden mandate to work from home, company processes that were ingrained in employees’ day-to-day routines were either put on hold or turned upside down. The new office normal now includes virtual meetings, conversing through instant messaging instead of in the hallway, and the redefining of “business casual” attire.
Many of the processes that have undergone changes fall into the category of travel and expense. With most business travel on hold and the nature of expenses changing, finance managers have had to adjust policies and practices to accommodate the new world of work. Recent SAP Concur research found that 72% of businesses have seen changes in the levels and types of expenses submitted, but only 24% have changed their policies to support this. Examples of travel and expense related changes that were made at the beginning of work from home mandates include:
- A halt to business travel and its associated expenses.
- Temporarily ending expensed meals for business lunches, dinners, or in-office meetings.
- Increase in office expenses like monitors and chairs as employees furnish their home offices.
- New expenses to consider like Internet and cell phone bills for employees who must work from home.
Now, as companies begin thinking about return to work plans, finance managers are discovering it’s not simply business as usual again. SAP Concur research found that many expect finance will return to normal quicker than general workplace practices, but vast majority see the process taking up to 12 months. New policies and processes need to be put in place to accommodate travel restrictions and changes in expenses. While finance managers need to stay flexible as the business environment continues to evolve, spend control and compliance should still be a high priority.
Here are a few questions that can help finance managers prepare for return to work while keeping control and compliance top of mind:
- What will travel look like for the company? Finance managers must work with travel and HR counterparts to determine the need for employee travel, if at all, and how to keep employees safe. At SAP Concur, we surveyed 500 UK business travellers and found that health and safety is now seen as more than twice as important than their business goals being met on trips (34% versus 16%. Clear guidelines should be developed, even if they are temporary or evolving, so it’s clear who can travel, when they can travel, and how they can travel. Duty of care plans should also be re-evaluated and businesses should ensure they know at all times where employees are traveling for business and how they can communicate with them in the event of an emergency.
- Who needs to approve travel and expenses? While it may be temporary, businesses may have to implement a more stringent approval policy for travel and other expenses. Due to health concerns related to travel and the need to conserve cash flow, business leaders like CFOs may want to have final approval over all travel and expenses until the situation stabilises. To help ensure new approval processes don’t cause delays and inefficiencies, finance managers should implement an automated solution that streamlines the process and allows business leaders to review and approve travel requests, expenses, and invoices right from their phones. According to SAP Concur research, 11% of UK businesses implemented some automation of financial processes in response to COVID-19. This is definitely set to increase post-pandemic.
What types of expenses are within policy? Prior to social distancing, employees may have been allowed to take clients out to dinner. In-person team meetings held during the lunch hour, may have included expensed lunches. As employees return to work, finance managers need to determine if these activities and expenses will be allowed again. Clear guidelines must be put in place and expense policies need to be updated to reflect any changes.
- What happens to home office items that were purchased? While new office equipment may have been purchased for employees’ home offices, they remain the business’s property and what to do with them as employees return to work needs to be determined. Perhaps employees will continue to work from home a few days a week and need to keep the equipment to ensure productivity. However, if a full return to work is expected, finance managers have options that can maximise their asset investment and possibly save the company money, like replacing old office equipment with the new purchases, reselling to a used office furniture company, or donating to a non-profit.
- How can cost control be ensured? For many businesses, cash flow will be tight for the foreseeable future. Spend needs to be managed to help ensure recovery and stability. An important aspect of controlling costs is having full visibility of expenses throughout the company. Implementing an automated spend management solution that integrates expense and invoice management brings together a business’s spend, giving finance managers an understanding of where they can save, where to renegotiate, and where to redirect budgets based on plans and priorities.
Once finance managers have asked themselves the questions above and determined how they want to approach travel and expense procedures, it’s vital they create guidelines and communicate clearly to employees. Compliance can only be ensured if employees have a clear understanding of what has and has not changed with travel and expense policies and what’s expected as they return to work.
Digital collaboration: Shaping the Future of Finance
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