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European “Bank Walk” Turning into a Jog: Run Next?

Recent figures from Greece show an accelerating withdrawal of money from domestic banks; deposits are down 25 percent since September 2009, climaxing in a massive move in September and October as the prospects for a Greek exit from the euro increased.  As the Guardian notes, the withdrawals have several causes; in some cases, the recession is forcing Greeks to liquidate their savings.  But much of the money movement reflects well founded fears that a Greek withdrawal from the euro would mean that deposits in Greek banks would be forcibly converted from euros into drachmas — and nobody wants that. As the Guardian tells us:

The weekly Proto Thema publication reckons that some 500,000 Greeks have moved money abroad, with a record 1.2m bank transfers being made over the last 18 months.

An estimated €40bn, amounting to 17% of the country’s gross domestic product, is believed to have been withdrawn from the banking system over the past year.

Foreign banks with branches in Athens were facilitating the cash flight, the newspaper claimed, by encouraging Greek depositors to set up bank accounts abroad. The Swiss banking groups UBS and Credit Suisse had made it much easier for investors to open accounts in Geneva and Zurich by simplifying procedures.

The wonder is that anybody is keeping any money at all in Greek banks.  There is no good reason why an individual or company would want to put their assets in one of the dodgiest countries around where the banks are under threat, the government is desperate and an unstoppable financial crisis could break out at any moment.

Unfortunately, rational behavior by individual Greek citizens could wreck what is left of the economy.  A banking crisis in Greece would destroy what is left of the country’s finances.  Less dramatically, as banks lose deposits they have to cut back on their lending.  Since no sane foreign banks are extending new loans in Greece, domestic banks are the only source of funds for most Greek borrowers.  As credit dries up, the economic downturn will get worse.

Savers in Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Belgium, Spain and even France also have reasons to think about where they are parking their money.  Those countries may or may not experience meltdowns, but why take the risk?  In the age of the internet, the credit card and the ATM, you don’t really need to bank local in Europe — so why should you?

Recently I wrote about a “bank walk” as European and other investors move their assets into safer countries and safer banks.  This is beginning to look a little more like a “bank jog”; banks runs, when they come, come suddenly.  The conditions are increasingly favorable for bank runs in Europe; this financial crisis could turn very ugly very fast.

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  • Kenny

    That European ‘bank walk’ is now a jog and could well become a ‘bank run’ is due to numberous past decisions, the results of which are baked in the cake.

    Europe is like a guy for smoked two packs of cigarettes for the past 30 years. Now the doctor is delivering some bad news after reviewing the fellow’s x-ray chart.

    What has been done has been done. Much of the future is preordained.

    Our smoker has a chance, perhaps, by undergoing a terrible time of chemo and radiation treatments. Same way with Europe; it will have to endure strong medicine & pain if it is to survive.

    The trobuble is that Europe is in denial. Much of it seem to think it can keep smoking — maqybe switching to filtered cigarettes — and forgo the treatment.

    And what is the treatment. It includes 1) not adding to the unpayable mountain of debt but defaulting on it and 2) ending the 27 member EU.

  • Luke Lea

    In which case the ECB will be forced to become the lender of last resort. I believe it already has this authority.

  • Bob in VA

    Or you could find some nitwit, like Corzine at MF Global, to ride to the rescue!

  • MikeP

    “The wonder is that anybody is keeping any money at all in Greek banks.”
    The sad truth is that most people are deeply ignorant of the broader world. Americans are the typical target of the hick, backwords, unwordly stereotype, but its a condition that is truly global. Sure, an average Greek may have visited another country (a couple hours away at most) and may speak a second language, but that in no way provides the knowledge, skills, and global awareness to even consider moving their money to another country. It is so far outside their perspective, that when things truly hit the wall, it will be a profound shock to them. Panic will follow with associated bank runs and social collapse.

  • LL

    Everyone know that there is not enough money in banks, in EU in US or everywhere. It is the nature of the game that more money is in the streets than in the bank.
    So why people will want to brake the game? Everyone knows that have more to loose if there is a bank run.

  • Jacksonian Libertarian

    Bank runs with people screaming outside the bank are a thing of the past, before ATM’s, electronic banking, and FDIC Deposit insurance. The amount of cash I carry has declined over the years, I only keep an operating amount of cash in my bank accounts, and I think most other Americans and 1st worlders are doing the same. No doubt the Euro countries are all seeing cash seek less risky homes, but as the article says it is mostly to avoid being turned into drachmas or some other damaged currency, not because the bank has lost all their money. It maybe that the Banks holding the sovereign debt of the PIIGS will face large losses, but the small depositors with operating accounts with those banks will be protected by the Central bank if necessary.
    So, there will be no bank run with screaming people outside the bank.

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