Monday, March 18, 2013

Cyprus, Bank Runs, and the Metallic Flick-Click of a Switchblade.

Wolfgang M√ľnchau, in his column in the Financial Times today, paraphrases Sir Mervyn King, the Governor of the Bank of England. Normally, not a big deal.

Today it's about Cyprus. Also not usually a big deal.

However, the paraphrase today is about bank runs, and specifically, how the European Union has now created the potential for one in Cyprus.  I've tracked down the actual quote.
"These things are very fragile. Once the run starts it was then rational for other people to join in"
Because the quote suggests that a run is rational for depositors, and because of the potential for a Cypriot run to cause the same to occur in Spain or Italy, this is the banking-finance-economics equivalent of the metallic flick-click of a switchblade in a dark alley. 

What did the EU do to cause this? The EU is bailing out the Cypriot banks via a "stability levy" of 9.9% on deposits larger than €100,000. There are strong arguments this is a good idea; deposit insurance's protection is typically not unlimited, and bank deposits over a certain sum begin to look more like investments, where socialized risk has substantial downsides -- namely moral hazard.  

The EU didn't stop there -- they also imposed a 6.75% levy on deposits smaller than €100,000. That was dumb. Banks provide payment services, and bank accounts are indispensable to businesses and individuals. By undermining the security of those smaller accounts, the EU risks destroying the Cypriot economy -- and has sent a message that other customers throughout Europe are not protected against the same.  And the thing is, for smaller banking customers, certainly in Cyprus, and maybe throughout the EU, taking their money out of their accounts is now rational. The design of deposit insurance should make that argument wrong, always.  

Since 2008, Atlantic civilization has faced the dismal truth that while standard economics has offered good answers, political leaders — and all too many economists — chose to forget or ignore what they should have known. This isn't my awesome, unique idea -- it's Paul Krugman's.  And he's right, once again.