After the Cyprus Bailout, Here's Where You Should Keep Your Savings Now

Email

Now that the dust has begun to settle in Cyprus, the battered principle of deposit insurance seems to be safe-for now at least.

In the big stare-down with the European Union the final Cyprus settlement did not zap the small depositors.

Instead it simply shifted the burden further up chain. The final deal increased the "haircut" on large depositors in the Bank of Cyprus and Laika Bank from an originally proposed 9.9% to an astounding 40%.

To me, that's highway robbery — even if the Russian Mafia has to bear a big share of the brunt.

As strange as it may seem, even the Russian Mafia has rights!

The lessons here are quite clear…

The Trouble with Banking These Days

In the aftermath, all that has been accomplished is that banking has been turned even further on its head.

Traditionally, the deal with banks is supposed to be simple: The lenders and the shareholders are supposed to take the risks, while the deposits remain safe and sound.

For deposits under $100,000 or the foreign equivalent, there's generally a local deposit insurance scheme for depositors to fall back on. (Pretty useless in Cyprus, since the banks were five times the size of the country.)

On the other hand, larger depositors are supposed to check the credit standing of the bank before they make their deposit, but with stockholders and bondholders beneath them, there really shouldn't be much risk.

Unfortunately, banks no longer carry enough capital to make them truly safe.

In the days before deposit insurance, banks had capital of at least 20-25% of their assets, and their loans were much less than their deposits. As a result, depositors could rely on a pretty fat cushion before their money was exposed to losses.

That's not to say you were ever 100% safe. In a global calamity like the 1930s, a third of U.S. banks failed. However, in normal times you were OK.

Today there is no such protection. Theoretically, depositors should be able to rely on bank regulators to ensure the institutions are sound. But in practice, regulators are useless.

With modern off-balance sheet games proliferating, they don't really understand the business. They are also prone to being "captured" by the banks they regulate. Consequently, banks are allowed to "risk-weight" their assets before calculating their capital.

The most egregious example of this is that government bonds are allowed a zero risk-weighting. That means banks can leverage themselves ad infinitum with Treasury and Agency bonds.

But as First Pennsylvania Bank demonstrated in 1980, it's perfectly possible to go bust with a portfolio consisting largely of T-bonds. All you have to do is borrow short-term, buy long-term fixed-rate bonds, and wait for interest rates to go up.

As a matter of governance, large depositors therefore need more influence.

They need seats on the bank's Board of Directors, representation with the regulators or ideally both. Bank leverage is a great danger to them, especially in small countries with large banking systems, and if they are taking that risk, they should have a voice in its management.

The Lesson for American Depositors

For Americans, the lesson is clear. You can probably rely on the deposit insurance system, although for safety you should always choose a medium-sized bank which doesn't play fancy investment banking games.

However, if you have more than $100,000 in short-term assets, you're better off in a money market fund, where at least you get the benefit of diversification.

And even though the banks are trying to make the money market funds "break the buck" by reporting fluctuating net asset values that will panic savers back into the banks (they hope), the truth is net asset values won't fluctuate much.

When push came to shove, even the Reserve Primary Fund, which went bust in 2008 owning tons of Lehman paper, paid 99 cents on the dollar. Meanwhile, in a solid money market fund you're far less reliant on the bizarre profit-chasing shenanigans at a single institution.

So, are there other banking systems with Cyprus's problem?…

Sure. Luxembourg, for example, is tiny and has bank assets many times its GDP. It is equally used as an offshore banking haven, though generally with a rather better class of depositor –Germans, not Russian Mafia types.

And for a country with both bank and sovereign debt problems, try Slovenia. Slovenia has a large state-owned bank, Ljubjanska banka, which is still a near- monopoly and has never been sorted out from its Communist past.

When the country became independent in 1991, I was an advisor to the then-government. Boris Pleskovic, the prime minister's chief of staff, and I both said Ljubjanska banka should be broken up. Indeed, I went on Slovenian television for a 90-minute panel on how it should be done (this was in prime time; the programming values of Slovenian TV were old-fashioned, to say the least!).

However the good guys lost the subsequent election, Ljubjanska banka was never broken up, it went on making big loans to politically-connected companies and the government itself ran deficits.

As a result, even though Slovenia is quite rich, its banking system and state finances are both a horrid mess.

So what's going on in Cyprus is just a taste of what's still to come. Now more than ever you have to be careful where you put your money-especially if you're in the Russian Mafia.

Related Story Links:

Join the conversation. Click here to jump to comments…

  1. Josef | March 29, 2013

    Martin,

    the article is very good except that this was not a Bail-Out in the definition from the regulators! It is a bail-in. And that means what exactly happened after Cyprus did not take the first "deal" perhaps orchestrated to make the bail-in possible. Why? Because the second "deal" did not need approval by parliament and got the "take it or leave" clause extortion term in it. So why I say that is because this bail-in has been approved by the Feds agency FDIC together with the Bank of England in 2008 and drawn as a post – regulation document. You can find it here Think Cyprus Confiscation Scheme Can't Happen Here? Think Again | Common Dreams http://www.commondreams.org/view/2013/03/28-5 Simply explained this is in the pipeline and Depositors be aware once you give the money to the Bank its not anymore yours. It is and will become property of the bank on the basis IOU. You become the third in line unsecured holder and Investor in the Bank. The first on line is the Senior and the Junior Debt Investor secured by its acquired assets of the Bank in the Future. If there is nothing like assets left at the bail-in than you are left with ZERO.

  2. Former Tank Company Commander | March 29, 2013

    Hello Martin,

    Thank you for your thoughts. I find them very helpful. I have been watching the FED and there are some indications that they will raise rates in later 2014 or 2015. Some of the FED watchers think they could go up by a percentage point or two. While this will have obvious implications for bonds and the market, what effect, if any, might it have on the Money Market Funds?

    Thank you for your time.

  3. H. Craig Bradley | March 30, 2013

    FDIC INSURANCE STILL COVERS UP TO $250,000/ Account

    The FDIC insurance program still insures individual deposits up to a $250,000/limit. The maximum was first increased during the 2008 financial crisis but later made permanent. So, why would anyone be limited to just $100,000 in deposits in American banks? Granted, FDIC is underfunded, but former FDIC Chairman, Shila Bair did get the bank premiums increased to shore-up FDIC a bit before she left.

    You can always open multiple accounts at different banks for diversification and deposit insurance purposes. Money market funds are still a good idea, but there are fewer of them because they have become unprofitable in the current low (0%) interest rate environment. A number of them have closed down ( Legg Mason) or merged with other funds. So, the system offers fewer options and therefore, less diversification than prior to the 2008 crisis . Overseas accounts in places like Singapore would do more to remove cash from the frailities of the U.S. Banking and Financial system and the long term devaluation of U.S.D., as well.

    As for the Mafia taking loses on their money deposited in Cyprus Banks or elsewhere, well, let them try take it out on the individual bank executives who stole their money (deposits). It would appear that the Mafia, Russian or otherwise, is "not the same old gray mare as it used to be"- or, they are unable to wack well protected Bank executives and don't know they are to blame for mismanaging their bank and its deposits to begin with.

  4. Janis | March 31, 2013

    I thought FDIC insurance is $250,000

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Some HTML is OK