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.