Courtesy of John Mauldin’s mid-week Outside The Box newsletter, Eric Sprott touches on one of the lesser-discussed aspect of the Greece crisis, namely its effects on the country’s banks.
What’s interesting is that in the standard formulation — the one that’s gained currency thanks to Ken Rogoff — it’s sovereign debt crises that follow banking crisis (which is what we’re experiencing right now).
Sprott brings it full circle.
Here’s part of it:
One aspect of the Greek situation that has been obscured by all the recent political wrangling is the crisis’ impact on the Greek banks. Although the banks were supposed to be rock solid after all the government-injected capital they received (not to mention zero-per cent interest rates and generous lending terms from the European Central Bank), data shows that Greek bank deposits have fallen 8.4 billion euros, or 3.6 per cent, in two months since December 2009. With no restraints on capital flows within the European Union, Greek savers are free to transfer their assets elsewhere. Given that bank deposit guarantees in Greece are the responsibility of the national government rather than the European Central Bank, we suspect Greek citizens are pulling money out of their banks because they question their government’s ability to honour its domestic deposit guarantees. We envision Greek depositors asking themselves how a government that can’t raise enough money to stay solvent can then turn around and guarantee their bank deposits? It’s a fair question to ask.
The Greek bank stocks have been thoroughly punished throughout the crisis. Chart A plots an index consisting of the four largest Greek bank stocks and shows an average decline of 47% since November 2009. The deposit withdrawals from these banks have been so damaging to their respective balance sheets (remember bank leverage?) that the Greek banks have asked to borrow 17 billion euros left over from a 28 billion euro support program launched in 2008.3 You see the connection here? Greece experienced a financial crisis, followed by a sovereign crisis, followed by another financial crisis. There is no doubt that the Greek crisis has helped drive the gold spot price to its recent all time high in euros. Gold is a prudent asset to own in times of crisis, and it’s possible that a portion of the Greek deposit withdrawals were reinvested into the precious metal. The fact remains, however, that if the Greek government cannot stem the outflows of deposits soon, the EU will have no other choice but to undertake a real sovereign bailout with all its bells, whistles and arduous protocols.
Once again, the question is: Is Greece Europe’s Bear Stearns:
It’s a vicious spiral from financial crisis to sovereign debt crisis to banking crisis, and there is no reason it can’t spread to other European countries suffering from similar fiscal imbalances. With Spain and Portugal next in line with their own sovereign debt issues, we can expect depositors in these countries to make similar runs to the bank for their cash. “Guaranteed by Government” is truly beginning to lose its potency in this environment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) seems to be preparing for such a scenario with its recent announcement of a tenfold increase in its emergency lending facility. The IMF’s New Arrangements to Borrow (NAB) facility is designed to prevent the “impairment of the international monetary system or to deal with an exceptional situation that poses a threat to the stability of that system.” The NAB facility has grown from US$50 billion to US$550 billion with the mere stroke of a pen. Does the IMF know something that the market doesn’t?
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