How Europe’s banking crises threaten the eurozone

By Felix Salmon
May 16, 2012

The size of the run on Greek banks is not at all clear: while it seems that something on the order of €1 billion has left the banks of late, it’s less obvious whether that was over the course of one day, three days, or two weeks. The big picture, though, is unambiguous:

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What you’re seeing here is Greece down to its last €165 billion or so in deposits, and at the margin the rate of decrease is probably accelerating, despite the fact that most sensible Greeks will have already stashed their hard-earned euros safely outside the country a long time ago. I don’t know what the minimum amount is that Greeks need on deposit just to serve their near-term liquidity requirements, but we’re not there yet: Greece’s total population is only 11 million. So there’s a long way further this number can fall — especially since the Greek banking system isn’t receiving the support it needs from the ECB.

The more realistic constraint is simply that many Greeks lack the education and sophistication and language skills needed to move their money out of the country. This, for instance, is telling:

A 60-year-old textiles store owner who gave his name only as Nasos said he had transferred 10,000 euros over the phone to a bank in fellow euro zone state Cyprus on Tuesday afternoon.

If Greece exits the euro, there’s no doubt that there will be a massive banking crisis in Cyprus — it’s pretty much the least safe haven conceivable for someone looking to move their money from Greece. The only reason to move money to Cyprus rather than, say, Luxembourg is that they speak Greek there, and the logistics of moving money to Cyprus are easier than the logistics of moving money to any other country.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the eurozone periphery, foreigners are already pulling their deposits from Italian banks, while the Spanish banking system is only getting increasingly precarious:

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All of which is to say that the causal relationship between sovereign crises and banking crises is rather more complicated than one causing the other: in reality, they cause each other, in a vicious cycle which clearly isn’t close to being broken in any of the southern European states. Greece is further along in the cycle than Spain or Portugal or Italy, but they’re all still moving in the wrong direction.

Greece’s banks, remember, are the mechanism by which the rest of Europe will force Grexit. Banks are the circulatory system of any economy: if they stop pumping money, the country dies. And so, in extremis, Greece will need to do a complete blood transfusion, replacing all euros with drachmas, if the only alternative is to see the flow of euros dry up entirely.

In the meantime, however, expect to see deposits continue to leave Greece — and the rest of the European periphery as well. Even if your euros are reasonably safe in a big Italian bank, they’re surely safer in a big German bank. And the first thing that all depositors want is safety. Now that questions have been raised about the solvency of various southern European banking systems, it’s going to be very hard to reconstitute the eurozone in a robust fashion. The Eurozone was never designed to cope with millions of Spaniards moving their money out of the country, behaving like middle-class Venezuelans with offshore accounts in Miami. And it also was never designed to cope with capital controls. But increasingly, it looks like we’re going to end up with one or the other. Or both.

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