Cyprus: Deposit insurance and moral hazard

The outcry over Cyprus levy on depositors in defaulting banks raises the question: Why were depositors not more wary of where they deposited their funds? Not all banks are created equal. The reason is deposit insurance for deposits under €100,000 implied that the government would stand behind its banks and rescue depositors should the banks ever default. The problem is that no one considered the possibility that all the banks would suffer losses sufficient that the government would be forced to default on both its explicit and implied obligations.

Some time ago I wrote about the moral hazard of deposit insurance:

Deposit Insurance: When too much of a good idea becomes a bad idea

Deposit insurance was introduced in the 1930s and saved the US banking system from extinction. Administered by the FDIC, and funded by a levy on all banking institutions, deposit insurance, however, encourages moral hazard. Depositors need not concern themselves with the solvency of the bank where they deposit their funds so long as deposits are FDIC insured. High-risk institutions are able to compete for deposits on an equal footing with well-run, low-risk competitors. This inevitably leads to higher failure rates, as in the Savings & Loan crisis of the 1980s.

The FDIC does a good job of policing deposit-takers, but no regulator can substitute for market forces. Deposit insurance is critical during times of crisis, but should be scaled back when the crisis has passed. Either limit insured deposits to say $20,000 or only insure deposits to say 90% of value, where the depositor takes the first loss of 10%. That should be sufficient to keep depositors mindful as to where they bank. And restore the competitive advantage to well-run institutions.

Requiring depositors to take the first loss of 10 percent should be standard practice for deposit insurance. The same should hold true for bank creditors. But we need to distinguish between insolvency — where liabilities exceed assets — and a liquidity event where the central bank is only called on to provide temporary respite. If the bank is rescued from insolvency by the regulator, bond holders should be required to take an equivalent haircut — painful yet not life-threatening. No one is entitled to a free ride. And bank shareholders, if a there is a bail-out, should lose everything — similar to the Swedish approach in the 1990s.