Lesson From Cyprus: Watch Your Bank

Dave Johnson

There is a lesson from the Cyprus situation: If you are a large depositor you need to watch your back bank. You can’t just assume someone will bail out the banks — and you. The big banks have been able to keep governments from reigning them in, while getting governments to bail them out. That game is over.

From now on you have to take a look at the bank’s books and business practices and decide for yourself if your money is safe.

Right now it looks like large depositors in Cyprus’ banks are going to take a 30-40% “haircut” – meaning when the banks reopen 30-40% of their money will be gone. This is the “bailout” alternative to the banks failing and all of the money going away.

The Cyprus lesson is that deregulation and “keeping government from meddling with business” means it’s all on you now, on your own, by yourself, to watch out for your own interests. And that’s expensive. Really, really expensive.

It’s the libertarian dream, home to roost.

Not Greece

Cyprus is not like Greece. The government didn’t borrow a lot of money. What happened is that their banks failed. Cyprus’ banks seven-or-eight times the size of Cyprus’ economy when the EU average was three times, in-part because they offered tax-haven status to depositors around the world. In particular they attracted wealthy Russian and British tax-evaders. If the banks fail they will lose their money. And they were doing what big banks do with depositors’ funds — bad loan, speculation, investing in Greek bonds… It turned out that when something is unsustainable it can’t be sustained, and this time it wasn’t. The banks failed.

But it wasn’t just wealthy Russians and Brits on the line here … Cyprus’ businesses also have their money in Cyprus’ banks. So here’s the thing: If the banks just fail it would mean that every business in Cyprus would lose their money too, and be unable to make their payrolls, pay their creditors, even pay their rent.

When Banks Fail You Lose Your Money

Here is something that most people don’t understand: When banks fail every depositor loses their money. In the depression banks failed and depositors lost their money. Regular people around the country lost their savings. This is what causes bank runs – people trying to get their money out in time. The ones who don’t get there in time lose everything.

Since the depression American banks are insured up to a certain amount by the Federal Depository Insurance C-something (FDIC), and this has prevented these bank runs. When bank fails the FDIC steps in (usually on a Friday evening), closes the bank and arranges for another bank to take over the insured accounts (usually by Monday morning) and regular depositors hardly even notice the change.

European depositors with $100,000 Euros or less are also insured, so these Cypriot depositors will be repaid at some point. Amounts over that will have to wait for the banks to be liquidated, and might or might not get some pennies on the Euro.

On top of that, when banks fail you can’t get normal financing. It becomes difficult to borrow to meet the next payroll even though you have more than that due from receivables, or to get financing to upgrade your equipment even though your cash flow can handle the payments…

So governments have to step in when there is a systemic banking-system failure. If they don’t the entire economy in that country basically just shuts down.

The Cyprus Deal Means You Have To Watch Your Bank

So Cyprus needs to bail out its big banks or lose everything, and the government is making a deal with the International Monetary Fund and German and other banks for a loan to keep things going. It looks like the Cyprus bank bailout deal means depositors with amounts over the insured level are “taking a haircut” and losing 40% of their money.

Before this happened in Cyprus you usually large depositors could stick their money in a generic “bank” and if something happened a government would step in and get you most, if not all, of your money. Banks were generic banks, they held you money and when you needed it you could just get it.

But now there is a lesson: banks can fail and government might not step in and bail everyone out. You can lose your money.

You can lose your money.

This means you have to pay attention to which bank you are putting your money in. You need to look at the particular bank you are putting your money into and understand if they are playing games, speculating, hiding things from their books, making bets with a “London Whale,” using fantasy valuations or “repos” to make their books look better, laundering money for drug dealers or terrorists, etc.

It’s on you, because government’s aren’t doing it. Whether it is due to deregulation or “regulatory capture,” the banks are doing what they want, when they want and to whom they want. And no one is holding them accountable. You can lose your money.

Government is no longer functioning when it comes to big banks, so you have to do the work yourself. You can lose your money so you have to know if your bank is on the level. Good luck with that.

Anti-government types, you got what you wanted. Government is not “meddling” with businesses – at least not with the big banks. So sit back and enjoy the ride.

Comments