Danger in bank accounts

The thinking behind GoldMoney’s business model was that there might come a time when prudent savers would want to protect themselves from the twin risks of a global banking crisis and a loss of purchasing power of paper currencies. The first of these two risks is now upon us, and it is important that everyone with savings to protect is aware of what is happening to banks and their bank accounts. By the time this is fully understood by the media it may be too late to act.

It has been obvious for some time that banks in many jurisdictions are insolvent and that they are simply too big for governments to rescue. Furthermore, while some governments feel they have a reasonable chance of muddling through, they are all aware that a crisis in one major nation, such as Spain or Italy would most probably lead to a chain of defaults beyond anyone’s control. It should come as no surprise that central bankers have been considering how to deal with this problem and that they have resolved a solution.

That solution, as we saw clumsily applied in Cyprus, is for central banks to use creditors’ funds to rescue banks in difficulty, which includes uninsured deposits, instead of taxpayers’ money. What this means is that if you have deposits greater than the level guaranteed by your government, the unguaranteed portion (in the Eurozone, over €100,000) is free to be used to recapitalise the bank.

This is a major departure from past assumptions, that central banks would do their utmost to rescue banks without raiding any deposits. As many ordinary savers in Cyprus found to their cost, this is no longer true. The new approach has been agreed at the highest levels, at the Bank for International Settlements, the central bankers’ central bank. It has been a topic under consideration since the publication by the Financial Stability Board (a BIS committee) of a paper, Key Attributes of Effective Resolution Regimes for Financial Institutions in October 2011, which was endorsed at the Cannes G20 summit the following month. This was followed by a consultative document in November 2012, Recovery and Resolution Planning: Making the Key Attributes Requirements Operational. In this latter document it is stated in the introduction that “Reforms are now underway in many jurisdictions to align national resolution frameworks more closely with the Key Attributes (i.e. the October 2011 paper). In other words any changes to law have been or are being made.

This confirms that G20 members are ensuring that they can legally override the rights of creditors, including uninsured depositors. This outcome is not difficult to achieve when the alternative in almost all cases of bank failure is for uninsured deposits to be wiped out completely.

The status of deposits

It is commonly assumed that money on deposit belongs to the depositor. This is not true, because the depositor lends his money to the bank, so the money becomes the bank’s property and merely owes it to the depositor. The depositor is usually the most senior class of unsecured creditor. There are however three broad classes of deposit to consider:

  • Insured deposits, guaranteed by a government or government agency. These protect smaller deposits up to a limit set by government;
  • Uninsured deposits owed to non-monetary and non-financial institutions (non-MFIs); and
  • Wholesale deposits owed to monetary and financial institutions (MFIs).

The BIS proposals being enacted throughout the G20 allow for different treatment for these deposit classes in a bank rescue. The government or its agency is going to have to pay out for insured deposits anyway, so it makes sense for them to remain untouched. Wholesale deposits, which are not the focus of the BIS proposal, are unlikely to be touched except in the case of very small bank failures, because of the risks spreading to other banks and financial institutions. This leaves the full burden of depositor contributions to a bank rescue falling on the shoulders of uninsured non-MFIs. In other words any deposit in excess of the insured amount owned by individuals, companies, trusts, pension funds and other savings vehicles, and any segregated client accounts operated by a business such as lawyers and brokers acting as agents for its customers is likely to be raided where there is a risk of bank failure. Any business receiving payments into its bank account in excess of the insured limit is similarly at risk.

Anyone in this position is simply being negligent if he or she assumes deposits are safe. The smaller a bank’s uninsured non-MFI depositor base is relative to the other depositor classes the greater the amount these depositors will lose in a bank rescue. Therefore non-insured deposits are particularly vulnerable in retail and high street banks targeting small savers, such as mortgage and savings banks, as well as banks with a large element of wholesale funding.

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