Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Bank Run Deposit Insurance Doesn't Protect Against

A slow motion run on banks in Greece, Spain and other distressed Euro bloc nations has been taking place ever since the sovereign debt crisis blew up two years ago. Recent news reports indicate it has accelerated, particularly in Greece. The top 1% and others in distressed nations have been moving money to banking havens such as Switzerland and Luxembourg, and stable nations like Germany and the UK.

Depositors have two reasons to flee banks in troubled countries. One, those holding deposits exceeding the 100,000 Euro limit on deposit insurance in the Euro bloc have much to lose if their local bank collapses. Two, depositors in any nation that potentially may depart the Euro bloc confront the risk of compelled conversion of their deposits into a new, depreciated currency. Greece presents a vivid example of the latter problem. Conversion back to the drachma could sharply reduce the value of Greek bank deposits. There is no deposit insurance that protects against losses sustained when one's home nation drops out of the Euro zone and adopts a depreciated national currency. Some Greeks have been withdrawing Euros from ATMs (presumably to pad their mattresses). Others have been moving Euros electronically to safe haven nations.

The capital mobility created by the adoption of the Euro facilitates such bank runs. Since the Euro bloc, by definition, eliminates the problems of currency conversion, moving funds from one Euro bloc nation to another is easier than in the bad old days of national currencies. The upside of increased capital mobility is that money was supposed to go where it could earn the highest return, which was thought to promote economic efficiency and greater overall prosperity. The downside is that capital can more readily flee ugly situations, even if it's needed to help finance a nation's way out of ugliness.

The European Central Bank might be able to stop the burgeoning bank runs. The core mission of central banks is to promote depositor confidence. The ECB seems to have been lending many billions of Euros to Greek and Spanish banks. But it won't print money, and that limits its options if the run quickens. The Euro bloc, a 21st Century financial innovation, may have laid the foundation for an old-fashioned 19th Century financial panic. Time will tell.

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