FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Think Your Money is Safe in an Insured Bank Account? Think Again

When Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem told reporters on March 13, 2013, that the Cyprus deposit confiscation scheme would be the template for future European bank bailouts, the statement caused so much furor that he had to retract it. But the “bail in” of depositor funds is now being made official EU policy. On June 26, 2013, The New York Times reported that EU ministers have agreed on a plan that shifts the responsibility for bank losses from governments to bank investors, creditors and uninsured depositors.

Insured deposits (those under €100,000, or about $130,000) will allegedly be “fully protected.” But protected by whom? The national insurance funds designed to protect them are inadequate to cover another system-wide banking crisis, and the court of the European Free Trade Association ruled in the case of Iceland that the insurance funds were not intended to cover that sort of systemic collapse.

Shifting the burden of a major bank collapse from the blameless taxpayer to the blameless depositor is another case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, while the real perpetrators carry on with their risky, speculative banking schemes.

Shuffling the Deck Chairs on the Titanic

Although the bail-in template did not hit the news until it was imposed on Cyprus in March 2013, it is a global model that goes back to a directive from the Financial Stability Board (an arm of the Bank for International Settlements) dated October 2011, endorsed at the G20 summit in December 2011. In 2009, the G20 nations agreed to be regulated by the Financial Stability Board; and bail-in policies have now been established for the US, UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Canada, among other countries. (See earlier articles here and here.)

The EU bail-in plan, which still needs the approval of the European Parliament, would allow European leaders to dodge something they evidently regret having signed, the agreement known as the European Stability Mechanism (ESM). Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who played a leading role in imposing the deposit confiscation plan on Cyprus, said on March 13 that “the aim is for the ESM never to have to be used.”

Passed with little publicity in January 2012, the ESM imposes an open-ended debt on EU member governments, putting taxpayers on the hook for whatever the ESM’s overseers demand. Two days before its ratification on July 1, 2012, the agreement was modified to make the permanent bailout fund cover the bailout of private banks. It was a bankers’ dream – a permanent, mandated bailout of private banks by governments.  But EU governments are now balking at that heavy commitment.

In Cyprus, the confiscation of depositor funds was not only approved but mandated by the EU, along with the European Central Bank (ECB) and the IMF. They told the Cypriots that deposits below €100,000 in two major bankrupt banks would be subject to a 6.75 percent levy or “haircut,” while those over €100,000 would be hit with a 9.99 percent “fine.” When the Cyprus national legislature overwhelming rejected the levy, the insured deposits under €100,000 were spared; but it was at the expense of the uninsured deposits, which took a much larger hit, estimated at about 60 percent of the deposited funds.

The Elusive Promise of Deposit Insurance

While the insured depositors escaped in Cyprus, they might not fare so well in a bank collapse of the sort seen in 2008-09. As Anne Sibert, Professor of Economics at the University of London, observed in an April 2nd article on VOX:

Even though it wasn’t adopted, the extraordinary proposal that small depositors should lose a part of their savings – a proposal that had the approval of the Eurogroup, ECB and IMF policymakers – raises the question: Is there any credible protection for small-bank depositors in Europe?

She noted that members of the European Economic Area (EEA) – which includes the EU, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland – are required to set up deposit-insurance schemes covering most depositors up to €100,000, and that these schemes are supposed to be funded with premiums from the individual country’s banks.  But the enforceability of the EEA insurance mandate came into question when the Icelandic bank Icesave failed in 2008. The matter was taken to the court of the European Free Trade Association, which said that Iceland did not breach EEA directives on deposit guarantees by not compensating U.K. and Dutch depositors holding Icesave accounts. The reason: “The court accepted Iceland’s argument that the EU directive was never meant to deal with the collapse of an entire banking system.” Sibert comments:

[T]he precedents set in Cyprus and Iceland show that deposit insurance is only a legal commitment for small bank failures. In systemic crises, these are more political than legal commitments, so the solvency of the insuring government matters.

The EU can mandate that governments arrange for deposit insurance, but if funding is inadequate to cover a systemic collapse, taxpayers will again be on the hook; and if they are unwilling or unable to cover the losses (as occurred in Cyprus and Iceland), we’re back to the unprotected deposits and routine bank failures and bank runs of the 19th century.

In the US, deposit insurance faces similar funding problems. As of June 30, 2011, the FDIC deposit insurance fund had a balance of only $3.9 billion to provide loss protection on $6.54 trillion of insured deposits. That means every $10,000 in deposits was protected by only $6 in reserves. The FDIC fund could borrow from the Treasury, but the Dodd-Frank Act (Section 716) now bans taxpayer bailouts of most speculative derivatives activities; and these would be the likely trigger of a 2008-style collapse.

Derivatives claims have “super-priority” in bankruptcy, meaning they take before all other claims. In the event of a major derivatives bust at JPMorgan Chase or Bank of America, both of which hold derivatives with notional values exceeding $70 trillion, the collateral is liable to be gone before either the FDIC or the other “secured” depositors (including state and local governments) get to the front of the line. (See here and here.)

Who Should Pay?

Who should bear the loss in the event of systemic collapse? The choices currently on the table are limited to taxpayers and bank creditors, including the largest class of creditor, the depositors. Imposing the losses on the profligate banks themselves would be more equitable , but if they have gambled away the money, they simply won’t have the funds. The rules need to be changed so that they cannot gamble the money away.

One possibility for achieving this is area-wide regulation. Sibert writes:

 [I]t is unreasonable to expect the area as a whole to bail out a particular country’s banks unless it can also supervise that country’s banks. This is problematic for the EEA or even the EU, but it may be possible – at least in the Eurozone – when and if [a] single supervisory mechanism comes into being.

A single regulatory agency for all Eurozone banks is being negotiated; but even if it were agreed to, the US experience with the Dodd-Frank regulations imposed on US banks shows that regulation alone is inadequate to curb bank speculation and prevent systemic risk. In a July 2012 article in The New York Times titled “Wall Street Is Too Big to Regulate,” Gar Alperovitz observed:

With high-paid lobbyists contesting every proposed regulation, it is increasingly clear that big banks can never be effectively controlled as private businesses.  If an enterprise (or five of them) is so large and so concentrated that competition and regulation are impossible, the most market-friendly step is to nationalize its functions.

The Nationalization Option

Nationalization of bankrupt, systemically-important banks is not a new idea. It was done very successfully, for example, in Norway and Sweden in the 1990s. But having the government clean up the books and then sell the bank back to the private sector is an inadequate solution. Economist Michael Hudson maintains:

Real nationalization occurs when governments act in the public interest to take over private property. . . . Nationalizing the banks along these lines would mean that the government would supply the nation’s credit needs. The Treasury would become the source of new money, replacing commercial bank credit. Presumably this credit would be lent out for economically and socially productive purposes, not merely to inflate asset prices while loading down households and business with debt as has occurred under today’s commercial bank lending policies.

Anne Sibert proposes another solution along those lines. Rather than imposing losses on either the taxpayers or the depositors, they could be absorbed by the central bank, which would have the power to simply write them off. As lender of last resort, the central bank (the ECB or the Federal Reserve) can create money with computer entries, without drawing it from elsewhere or paying it back to anyone.

That solution would allow the depositors to keep their deposits and would save the taxpayers from having to pay for a banking crisis they did not create. But there would remain the problem of “moral hazard” – the temptation of banks to take even greater risks when they know they can dodge responsibility for them. That problem could be avoided, however, by making the banks public utilities, mandated to operate in the public interest. And if they had been public utilities in the first place, the problems of bail-outs, bail-ins, and banking crises might have been averted altogether.

ELLEN BROWN is an attorney and president of the Public Banking Institute.  In Web of Debt, her latest of eleven books, she shows how a private banking oligarchy has usurped the power to create money from the people themselves, and how we the people can get it back. Brown’s latest book is The Public Bank Solution. Her websites are http://WebofDebt.comhttp://EllenBrown.com, and http://PublicBankingInstitute.org. 

More articles by:

Ellen Brown is an attorney, founder of the Public Banking Institute, and author of twelve books including the best-selling Web of Debt. Her latest book, The Public Bank Solution, explores successful public banking models historically and globally. Her 300+ blog articles are at EllenBrown.com.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
August 16, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Uncle Sam was Born Lethal
Jennifer Matsui
La Danse Mossad: Robert Maxwell and Jeffrey Epstein
Rob Urie
Neoliberalism and Environmental Calamity
Stuart A. Newman
The Biotech-Industrial Complex Gets Ready to Define What is Human
Nick Alexandrov
Prevention Through Deterrence: The Strategy Shared by the El Paso Shooter and the U.S. Border Patrol
Jeffrey St. Clair
The First Dambuster: a Coyote Tale
Eric Draitser
“Bernie is Trump” (and other Corporate Media Bullsh*t)
Nick Pemberton
Is White Supremacism a Mental Illness?
Jim Kavanagh
Dead Man’s Hand: The Impeachment Gambit
Andrew Levine
Have They No Decency?
David Yearsley
Kind of Blue at 60
Ramzy Baroud
Manifestos of Hate: What White Terrorists Have in Common
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The War on Nature
Martha Rosenberg
Catch and Hang Live Chickens for Slaughter: $11 an Hour Possible!
Neve Gordon
It’s No Wonder the Military likes Violent Video Games, They Can Help Train Civilians to Become Warriors
Yoav Litvin
Israel Fears a Visit by Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib
Susan Miller
That Debacle at the Border is Genocide
Ralph Nader
With the Boeing 737 MAX Grounded, Top Boeing Bosses Must Testify Before Congress Now
Victor Grossman
Warnings, Ancient and Modern
Meena Miriam Yust - Arshad Khan
The Microplastic Threat
Kavitha Muralidharan
‘Today We Seek Those Fish in Discovery Channel’
Louis Proyect
The Vanity Cinema of Quentin Tarantino
Bob Scofield
Tit For Tat: Baltimore Takes Another Hit, This Time From Uruguay
Nozomi Hayase
The Prosecution of Julian Assange Affects Us All
Ron Jacobs
People’s Music for the Soul
John Feffer
Is America Crazy?
Jonathan Power
Russia and China are Growing Closer Again
John W. Whitehead
Who Inflicts the Most Gun Violence in America? The U.S. Government and Its Police Forces
Justin Vest
ICE: You’re Not Welcome in the South
Jill Richardson
Race is a Social Construct, But It Still Matters
Dean Baker
The NYT Gets the Story on Automation and Inequality Completely Wrong
Nino Pagliccia
Venezuela Retains Political Control After New US Coercive Measures
Gary Leupp
MSNBC and the Next Election: Racism is the Issue (and Don’t Talk about Socialism)
R. G. Davis
Paul Krassner: Investigative Satirist
Negin Owliaei
Red State Rip Off: Cutting Worker Pay by $1.5 Billion
Christopher Brauchli
The Side of Trump We Rarely See
Curtis Johnson
The Unbroken Line: From Slavery to the El Paso Shooting
Jesse Jackson
End Endless War and Bring Peace to Korea
Adolf Alzuphar
Diary: What About a New City Center?
Tracey L. Rogers
Candidates Need a Moral Vision
Nicky Reid
I Was a Red Flag Kid
John Kendall Hawkins
The Sixties Victory Lap in an Empty Arena
Stephen Cooper
Tony Chin’s Unstoppable, Historic Career in Music
Charles R. Larson
Review: Bruno Latour’s Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climatic Regime
Elizabeth Keyes
Haiku Fighting
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail