Aside from general provisions regarding conflicts of interest, professional secrecy and insider-trading, the ECB has no specific power or duty to authorise, restrict or reject proposed revolving door moves by departing staff. Instead, the ECB's rules only require departing staff to “inform their immediate superior of any prospective employment that could cause or could be perceived as causing a conflict of interest.”
A minute of the ECB's Executive board meeting held on 15 October 2013 (and released to CEO under access to documents) shows that the board agreed to the President's proposal to “discharge [Thimann] by the end of this week from all duties that require access to monetary policy related or any other market sensitive inside information … so as to avoid any perceived conflicts of interest … [Thimann] would still carry out tasks not related to the current policy situation also to allow a smooth transition”.
The ECB is one of the EU's most important institutions. It is responsible for setting interest rates and monetary policy for the euro zone. Thimann first joined the European Central Bank in 1998 and held a wide range of positions including adviser to ECB President Jean-Claude Trichet from 2008 to 2011. From November 2011, he was counsellor to ECB President Mario Draghi and coordinator of the counsel to the ECB’s executive board. Source: http://www.axa.com/lib/en/library/pr/group/2013/14705.aspx
It seems clear that Thimann had the ear of Mario Draghi. In January 2013, Reuters reported that: “Draghi has found an ally in German Christian Thimann, his chief adviser or "consigliere". Draghi talks to Thimann daily, has promoted him, and uses him to help sharpen views and plans. The two men share adjacent offices on the 35th floor of the Eurotower, and right from the start met regularly to forge a plan to give investors a clearer vision of Europe's economic future. They brainstormed ideas before Draghi crystallized his plan: a "fiscal compact".”
Mario Draghi thanked Thimann for his "outstanding" contribution to the central bank, saying: "Throughout several years he advised the president and the executive board with high professional competence and integrity. We wish him all the best in his future challenges".
The AXA Group is a major corporation in the fields of insurance and investment, with 160,000 employees and a turnover of billions. As such, it has a strong interest in the work and future direction of the ECB.
On Thimann's appointment to AXA (announced on 30 September 2013), Henri de Castries, Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of AXA said: “I am particularly proud and delighted to welcome Christian Thimann within AXA … Christian will … help strategically steer the Group towards the next phase of its development. AXA will benefit from his great experience of public affairs and his strong international exposure”.
When contacted for this article, Mr Thimann told CEO: “The ECB has established rules that protect against possible conflicts of interest for current and former employees. These rules were fully respected, including that of timely information of discussions with a prospective employer. I was discharged of duties related to monetary policy and remain subject to the professional secrecy obligation that covers all privileged information, even now after having left the ECB.”
Yet, CEO believes that the ECB's rules are very weak. It has no specific power or duty to authorise, restrict or reject proposed revolving door moves by departing staff. The rules for staff can be found here: http://www.ecb.europa.eu/ecb/legal/pdf/c_04020110209en00130017.pdf and http://www.ecb.europa.eu/ecb/legal/pdf/c_32620121026en.pdf
Mr Thimann also told us that: “In fact, central banking and the insurance industry are quite distant. This is for two main reasons. First, insurance groups are not counterparties to monetary policy operations ... Second, as regards supervision, the relationship between central banks and the insurance industry is generally more distant than with banks. For the ECB, there is no such relationship.”
By contrast, CEO considers that the world of insurance today is about far more than simply dealing with individual customers and administering transfers back and forth. AXA is in the business of complicated financial instruments, including derivatives and this includes instruments for which the development of the interest rate is key. And in Europe, the ECB has an important say on interest rates.
The full response from Mr Thimann can be read here.
In 2012, CEO launched a complaint with the European Ombudsman regarding Mario Draghi's membership of the Group of 30, a banking lobby group. In a disappointing conclusion, the Ombudsman encouraged the ECB to improve its communication with citizens, but overall endorsed the justifications put forward by the Bank in defence of Draghi’s membership of the G30.
Reforms are currently underway to the ECB's conflict of interest rules, but only to those rules which apply to individuals with a supervisory function at the ECB. Staff will not be affected by the rule changes.
“It is not difficult to see why the recruitment of the top adviser to the President of the European Central Bank is a great coup for AXA. All organisations operating in the financial sector will have an interest in understanding the dynamics within the ECB and their impact on interest rates and monetary policy."
“What is shocking is that the ECB has put so few measures in place to prevent the risk of conflicts of interest in revolving doors cases like this. The ECB urgently needs to create some comprehensive revolving door rules which should include the requirement to assess proposed new jobs and the power to apply a substantial cooling-off period or ban in serious cases where the risk of a conflict of interest could be high.”