China’s deposit guarantee is really the opposite

December 1, 2014

By John Foley

The author is a Reuters Breakingviews columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.

Market purists get nervous about the idea of governments guaranteeing deposits in the event of a bank failure. They worry that savers will become too trusting, and that lenders will take greater risks. In China, where the central bank on Nov. 30 unveiled proposals for deposit insurance after 21 years of talk, the reverse is true. Savers already trust too much. The proposed reform is more like an anti-guarantee.

The Chinese government started discussing a scheme to protect household deposits as early as 1993. In 2004, the central bank set up a department to handle its introduction. Why has it taken so long? One reason is powerful state-owned banks, who are the obvious losers from a levy that will be introduced to fund the insurance scheme. Their opposition isn’t entirely irrational. Being big and government-backed, they’re already the least likely to fail.

A bigger reason for caution is that deposit insurance in China could be seen as a negative signal. It would challenge the prevailing belief that the state backs everything. The collapse of Hainan Development Bank in 1998 was a rare exception to the received wisdom that all Chinese banks are too big to fail. Rich clients would probably move savings above the insured threshold into the biggest banks, leaving smaller lenders short of funding.

The insurance scheme probably won’t raise enough to get the government off the hook. If the state charges banks an annual levy of 0.02 percent of their insured deposits, an institution like Agricultural Bank of China would pay 1.5 billion yuan a year, less than one percent of its annual earnings. Even after a decade, the scheme would only have raised enough to cover half of the individual deposits at, say, Huaxia Bank, a smaller lender which faced a crisis of confidence in 2012 after a wealth product it sold failed to pay out on time.

After years of moral hazard, China’s savers probably care little about formal promises. They already treat wealth products sold by banks as being as good as deposits, even though they are explicitly not guaranteed. Regulators have yet to prove customers wrong. That’s why allowing institutions to fail will be the next and more important challenge. Insuring savings is useful, but only once it is put to the test.

This view was updated on Dec. 1 following the publication of details of the scheme.

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Yes, deposit insurance may indeed be taken as a “negative signal” in China for the moment, but the existing uncertain program of “implicit” unlimited coverage is the greater negative. If not controlled sometime, the risks to society and the state posed by moral hazard and the ever growing risks of the status quo are too great. It is no small irony that in adopting deposit insurance China is turning to an idea that reached the United States from its shores in 1829 (Chinese regulatory practice at Canton inspired the first American deposit insurance statute, New York’s Safety Fund, lineal ancestor of all modern deposit insurance schemes). This Chinese prehistory (the Consoo Fund 1780-1842) offers many lessons that China might consider today, but perhaps the most important is that unlimited liability must be avoided. This would seem to be a key purpose of the present decision to make deposit insurance explicit after a long period of unclear legal status.

Frederic Delano Grant, Jr., author, The Chinese Cornerstone of Modern Banking: The Canton Guaranty System and the Origins of Bank Deposit Insurance 1780-1933 (Studies in the History of Private Law, Martinus Nijhoff Publishers, Brill, Netherlands), published Sept. 29, 2014. se-cornerstone-modern-banking

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