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Next Up in Europe: Bank Runs?

So far, the European meltdown has been a relatively orderly affair.  Other than the occasional outbreak of (mostly) mild riots and the odd strike, Europe’s economies have imploded and its governments fallen in a stately and decorous decline.  Prices on financial markets have jumped around, output is down — sharply in some countries — and unemployment is up, but there has, so far, been no panic in the streets, no stockbrokers jumping from skyscrapers, no chaotic scenes of failure and distress.

That could change in the next phase.  The BBC is reporting that the next problem to emerge in Europe could be bank runs as panicky depositors try to get their funds out of weak banks, or out of countries who might leave the euro, converting depositors’ assets into liras, drachmae, pesetas and what have you.  That would be a prudent move; the costs of transferring money from a Greek to a German or even to an American bank are relatively small, and the benefits could be substantial.

A slow bank run (a bank walk?) is already underway.  Despite backing from the ECB that allows them to pay every obligation in full, Greek banks have seen their deposits drop by more than 20 percent since January 2010, the BBC report says. American banks and money managers are steadily moving money out of Europe, and European banks are taking their money out of other commercial banks and placing it in the presumably safer hands of the ECB.

Bank runs in modern financial system are not usually as dramatic or as dangerous as they were in the 1930s; investors no longer have to line up in the street to get money out; they are less dramatic because these days you can panic from home, sending your money around the world with a simple mouse click.  And these days bank runs are less common and contagious because deposit insurance programs (like FDIC in the US) provide government guarantees for deposits up to a certain amount.

The trouble in Europe is that guarantees by broke sovereigns aren’t particularly reassuring: how safe does a guarantee from the Greek government really make you?  How much confidence do you have that the Portuguese, Spanish and Italian governments can or will honor their commitments.  If public confidence continues to decline, we can expect more phenomena like bank runs to pop up.

As France and Germany play chicken, Europe moves deeper and deeper into black swan territory.  Anything can happen in conditions like these — and sooner or later strange things will.

At Via Meadia we continue to hope that Europe will find its way back toward a stable and sustainable monetary system; we continue to fear that it will not — and least not very quickly.  Just as the atom smasher at CERN produces rare and bizarre particles in the unusual conditions that occur in the particle accelerator, so the EU monetary crisis and policy impasse are producing the conditions in which rare economic phenomena emerge from the textbooks and appear in real life.

Interesting times indeed.

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  • Luke Lea

    The E.U. needs inflation desperately but has no way to produce it. No way I know about anyway. Can the ECB print money? Can we print it for them?

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