Abolish deposit insurance, please

This crises has taken its toll on livelihoods of many people. But it’s also making otherwise reasonable and balanced investors lose the plot and move from investing to preaching.

I have found myself in a surprising situation lately – I inadvertently became the only person on my twitter feed who does not condemn Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Now, I like being controversial like the next man (anyone who ever tried to talk to me about Hungary can testify that) but this time around I have had to endure more abuses than normally.

I am sure many of you still have in mind “the Cyprus debacle”. If not, please start with an excellent piece from Joseph Cotterill entitled “A stupid idea whose time had to come” and work your way through links. The title of Joe’s piece has stuck in my mind ever since and I finally have a few moments to explain why.

To be sure, I do not contest the fact that the EU outdid itself and managed to make their communication even muddier than usual. But this is now behind us and we should focus on the essence rather than on the way the package was announced. I may have mentioned that in the old days I was quite involved in Iceland’s banking crisis of 2008. And I have always claimed that – despite a few minor hiccups on the way – letting the big banks default and closing the capital account was the right thing to do. I think there are many similarities between Iceland and Cyprus and that’s why I believe that bailing-in the (foreign to a large extent) depositors was the correct course of action. I mean of course the final solution, not the initial idea of not sparing smaller deposits, which was plain ridiculous. Yet, ever since the announcement I had to argue with people who were throwing all sort of populist arguments and who went into great length in finding ways to insult Jeroen Dijsselbloem. Jeroen Dijsselbloem who is a politician trying – like all of them – to get reelected and who understands that top priority in a support package for any country must include ways to prevent citizens of core European nations from revolting.

But instead of spending time explaining why I think the Cyprus solution was a correct one*, I thought I would touch on a somewhat more medium term issue, which is deposit insurance. This is because I think the debate in Europe whether to centralise the deposit insurance scheme or keep it on the national level is a wrong kind of discussion. I think that we should begin to discuss whether one of the lessons from the crisis shouldn’t be to cancel deposit insurance altogether.

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Deposit insurance was introduced in the US in 1933 (earlier it was created in Czechoslovakia). The idea was to restore faith in the financial system and get banks to lend more. This was the idea whose time had to come. And it wasn’t stupid at the time but rather necessary. Since then a lot of things have changed, though. For starters, the world has seen a remarkable ascent of investment banks, which have benefited quite a bit from deposit insurance. This was at times coupled by quite a bit of recklessness in the way banks’ balance sheets were used and this is now widely recognised. Perhaps all-too widely.

Think about it – we just witnessed a full-blown bank holiday in a country which is relatively small but which was in the spotlight for at least a fortnight. During that time I even recall one of the macro tourists hedge fund guys who said that the best thing to do at the moment was to put live cameras in front of banks in Milan and Madrid because “the end is nigh”. Of course none of that happened and we probably need to entertain the idea that people in the street are not completely dumb, as difficult as it may sound…

But why didn’t we have a run on other European banks? I think most of the Europeans understood that the bail-in in Cyprus was due to the fact that there was a lot of foreign and most probably dirty money there. Heck, even the average person in Cyprus seems to have comprehended that problems at Laiki were pretty specific to Laiki. True, the capital account remains shut and it will probably stay like that for a while but it’s really not a big deal in the greater scheme of things.

When I first tweeted about the idea of abolishing deposit insurance, the replies I received pointed out that it could topple the whole financial system. There is some truth in it. After all, if the deposit insurance was to be abolished as of tomorrow, many people would probably go to ATMs “just in case”. But let’s try and work out the logistics of the issue. First of all, most European countries guarantee deposits up to €100k in full. This seems to be working even though there are quite a few governments who could not possibly meet this obligation if required, just like Cyprus. So it’s one of those barrier-type option hedging products that stops working precisely when you need it. Another question is why 100k? It’s a round number and nothing else, because the average deposit is way below that level. And if that’s the case then would it change much if we reduced the limit to 99,999.99€? With the exception of the holier-than-thou folk in the media who would immolate over the concept, probably not much.

Let’s take it a step further. What if Europe announced the following:

  1. As of January 1, 2014, all the countries within the Eurozone will be jointly responsible for insuring any deposit up to 100,000€.
  2. Starting from January 1, 2015 the limit will go down by 10,000€ every year until it goes down to zero on January 1, 2024, after which no deposit will be guaranteed by any Member State.
  3. (repetition) Governments and national central banks of Member States will irrevocably guarantee the insurance with their full faith and credit until January 1, 2024.

I would argue that the average person in the street would probably be interested to browse through front pages of various newspapers which would be “shocked and dismayed” but since they don’t have anything close to 100,000€, they would probably only calculate when their savings could potentially become vulnerable. What would be far more interesting is the reaction of banks. After all, even in core countries like Germany, the Netherlands or France “some banks are better than others”. There’s no need to point them out – they are perfectly aware of their own situation. After such a change in the system they would know they have several years to build up the sufficient capital buffer and to improve their books or else… In other words, Europe wouldn’t place those institutions under an imminent threat of a rapid deposit withdrawal but would send a strong signal that the clock is (slowly) ticking. Sure, there would probably be some turbulence in the cost of bank funding but I don’t believe that would be fatal. Simultaneously, the banks would have to voluntarily cut their riskiest and most balance sheet consuming operations in trading. No need for financial transaction tax, bonus caps or short-sale bans.

I know that what I described may sound a bit like science fiction but we have just gone through something that was seemingly unthinkable only a few months ago, i.e. haircutting desposits and shutting the capital account within the Eurozone. And guess what – not much has happened. So instead of throwing calumnies at Jeroen Dijsselbloem consider that if we stop here then it will mean that we (Europe) have just sent a signal to people that they can keep money in however crappy bank they want as long as it’s less than 100,000€. Alternatively, we could give the banks’ customers and the banks themselves a friendly nudge with a not-too-close deadline and let the market forces work their magic. Remember, systemic ain’t what it used to be. Let’s take advantage of that.

* By the way, don’t even try to assume that I think every single country in trouble should be dealt with in the same way as Cyprus.

Systemic ain’t what it used to be

I remember that in the first days after the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers, many believed that the collateral damage would not be terrible. I distinctly recall asset managers who were still eager to discuss idiosyncratic factors in some emerging markets. Not that I was so much smarter back then – after all, I did not send an email entitled “SELL EVERYTHING”. Of course shortly afterwards came an avalanche and dominoes started falling. All of a sudden everything appeared systemic, even things you wouldn’t normally care about.

Just to give you a few examples from my turf:

  • Iceland was relevant because of huge assets of local banks outside of the country (aka Icesaave);
  • Hungary (and CEE in general) was key for survival of Austrian and Italian banks;
  • Latvia threatened the stability of the banking system in Sweden;
  • Ukraine was a big risk for French banks;
  • The Middle East… well, it’s always considered to be a tail risk anyway.

One could extend this list quite a bit.

Considering the fragility of the financial system back then, any of those factors could’ve spiralled out of control. Therefore we had various programmes, such as the Vienna Initiative which were aimed at ring fencing potential fallout. When that initial phase of panic ended (with the London Summit) we had a brief period of calmness followed by the mighty Eurocrisis.

This one has been very similar to the initial “Lehman” stage. First came Greece, which initially was considered to be not that relevant. That was the case until roundabout the PSI Summit of 2011, which – perhaps inadvertently – wreaked havoc in the system. There was also Ireland with its “bad bank” ideas and the Iberia with all sorts of problems. And then, again, everything became systemic and potentially fatal. The culmination of it all was in my opinion when a) the market went after Italy and b) people wanted the Bund to start trading with a credit premium (search Bloomberg headlines towards the end of 2011 if you want to see that actually was the case).

Like with the Lehman, many people missed the Eurocrisis trade and began making up for that by creating more or less far-fetched implications. I described this mechanism in one of my previous posts about Slovenia. But does anyone really care about Greece or Ireland anymore? I know there’s punting going through in GGBs and some when-in-trouble-double funds made a killing buying Irish bonds but in terms of global significance this is barely relevant. Similarly, we shouldn’t really care about Cyprus, although some people are trying to persuade us it’s yet another reason to buy gold bitcoins and hide.

In this vein, I was actually pretty impressed with recent comments from Jeroen Dijsselbloem. He is right and he knows he can take a bit of a gamble by speaking his mind: not everything is systemic. And if something is then, well, we have the Draghi Doctrine.

Granted, Europe is pretty screwed economically and this won’t change anytime soon but this is a completely different set of issues than forecasting the total annihilation of the financial system. The two most important measures of stress, i.e. the cross-currency basis between EUR and USD as well as the BOR-OIS spread are telling us that we should change the way of looking at European affairs. And maybe this is the answer to a tweet from Joe Weisenthal asking why on Earth is the euro so stable. The euro has plenty of reasons to fall and I have been suggesting short EUR/EM positions lately but systemic just ain’t what it used to be.

But you start to follow the money…

Attention, there are three words generally considered to be offensive used in the following post.

You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the fuck it’s gonna take you

– Det. Lester Freamon

This is a pretty famous quote from The Wire that’s been echoing in my head since last weekend, i.e. after the Cyprus crisis grabbed all the headlines. But unfortunately, unlike in the case of Detective Freamon, it wasn’t because I admired the meticulous and hard work people have been putting into trying to figure out the broad consequences.

Sure, the blogosphere’s reaction last weekend was marvelous and in my opinion helped to stabilise markets this week, but alas it’s not really an event in the eurozone if you can’t draw some explosive (and most of the time daft) parallels. Before we get to those I’d like to say a few words about origins of such a situation.

Haircut of depositors in Cyprus took the market by surprise. And by market I mean investors and traders but also the caste of research professionals whose job is to… well… try and forecast such events. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with being caught off guard from time to time and it’s the reaction to such a surprise that matters. The natural instinct of people who had not predicted what happened in Cyprus is to play it down and suggest to fade any adverse market reaction. The twisted logic here is “had it really been so important, I would’ve surely seen it coming and since I didn’t then it must be unimportant“. I’m sure there’s a name for such a behaviour in psychology but I can’t be bothered to search. In my opinion, this is the most common reaction.

If this first – let’s call it – line of defense fails and the person in question finally acknowledges that the surprising event could turn out to be quite important then another mechanism kicks in: they try and look for potential spillovers. The thinking is more or less that “ok, I may have dropped the ball here but have a look at those cascade effects that the market is missing“. I have been quite appalled to see that happening throughout the most of this week.

It usually starts with some pretty straightforward conclusions. In the case of Cyprus, people began assuming that we will inevitably have a run on the island’s banks and that it could lead to similar developments in Portugal, Spain, Italy or even Ireland. Right, because that’s what the Irish people do…

The next step in this “following the money” process was to figure out whose deposits will be cut in Cyprus. The answer to that seems to be “Russian” (although I would caution against making such a generalisation). This would look something like this…

You guys, let’s try and see how this affects Russia. Oh, here’s one: VTB is one of the most important Russian banks and it also has a subsidiary in Cyprus. Sell, Mortimer, sell! What? VTB bonds have sold off? Well then why don’t we sell bonds issued by VEB. It’s a big state-owned bank and while it has really nothing to do with Cyprus, there’s only a one letter difference to VTB so it’ll do. Oh, and did I just say it’s state owned? Mate, where’s your bid in 50m Russia30s?

Let’s move on. Cyprus is a small, country with problems in the banking system. Those problems partly stem from the immense inflow of dirty money in the past. After the Cypriot financial system reopens whatever is left of it will inevitably flee. What if it goes to Latvia, which is already a popular short-break destination for the Russians and which will soon enter the eurozone itself? (…unfortunately the person explaining to me what would happen next lost me completely and so I can’t follow this particular money trail to the end). By the way, the Latvian authorities had to start swearing that they wouldn’t end up like Cyprus. There’s no smoke without fire, anyone?

And finally, my very recent favourite…

There must be a small country in the eurozone, which has some problems with its banks and which we could sell. Hang on, what’s this little thing east of Italy that no one really knows about but occasionally makes some noises in the media? Slovenia! OMG, this is so exciting! Banks in Slovenia have NPLs reaching 20%? Some of them did not meet the ECB stress tests? The government recently collapsed and there’s a risk of an early election? I guess we’ve found a retirement trade. And don’t bother me with details that assets of the Slovenian banking system are only around 135% to GDP or that the total government financing needs for this year are projected by the IMF at 7.7% of GDP (slightly below Germany, Austria or Finland). Who cares that if the IMF’s forecasts are to be believed then Slovenia will meet both fiscal Maastricht criteria next year as it still has debt to GDP below 60%. And also, I’ve never believed in this cyclically-adjusted primary surplus mumbo jumbo…

Right, and when you’re done selling Slovenia, maybe we should look into Slovakia – there’s gotta be some connection!

I have started with a quote by Lester Freamon and I will end with one. Fifth series, episode three (entitled “Not for attribution”):

Shit like this actually goes through your fucking brain?