Other changes are specifically European. Since universal banking has historically prevailed in continental Europe, the change from an institution-based to a market-based financial system is particularly significant in this part of the world. Similarly, the development of financial conglomerates is more pronounced in Europe than in the United States or Japan. Typical of continental Europe are also the labour market rigidities that make the restructuring of banks so difficult and slow.
Surveying and accompanying a profound transformation of the financial industry would be a difficult task for any central bank. For the Eurosystem it will represent a daunting challenge because it will put to the test an unprecedented articulation of the policy functions that are called for. Let me briefly explain this assertion.
To a large extent the factors of change are technology determined, hence independent of the euro and even not specifically European. Technology is the driving force of the transformation in banking and finance that modifies the traditional deposit loan structure of banks. Technology also reshapes dramatically the back office and the communication with customers, thus producing massive over-branching and over-staffing in traditional banks. Also the globalisation of finance comes primarily from the combination of data processing and telecommunications.
The third challenge consists in accompanying and surveying the rapid changes the European financial institutions and markets are undergoing, and will continue to undergo over the coming years, partly - but not exclusively - as a consequence of the euro.
Finally, there are changes induced by the euro. The removal of currency specificity as a cause of national segmentation of the financial industry is causing a convulsive shake-up of both institutions and markets. Since the beginning of this year, about ten banks ranking near the top of their respective national lists have concluded or started merger operations in France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Norway. In most European countries stock exchanges and other organised markets, which were legally and structurally organised as providers of a public service, have been transformed into profit-driven private institutions and are now in a process of rapid concentration. In the coming two or three years the number of banks will shrink, the largest banks will become much larger, few financial centres and market networks will replace the present one-country one-centre configuration.
In any national system the central bank would actively monitor and even guide the course of such a transformation. It would do so along with the various agencies responsible for financial supervision and competition policy, and with an involvement of the executive power itself. Although largely determined by business decisions, these developments indeed involve the public interest in various ways.
On the whole, however, it is part of the central banker's role to make the day-by-day decisions that, in the end, constitute monetary policy. This responsibility can be neither transferred to, nor challenged by, policy makers responsible for other areas. Last week, the Eurosystem has made, for the first time in its life, an affirmative monetary policy decision by lowering its official rates. In this way, the Eurosystem has acted in line with its monetary policy strategy and made a significant contribution towards an economic environment in which the considerable growth potential of the euro area can be exploited in full. It is now the responsibility of other sectors of economic policy making to do their part by strictly adhering to the Stability and Growth Pact and implementing decisive structural reforms.