Is a bank run about to bring Europe to its knees?

Some market watchers say yes, pointing ominously to the torrents of money pouring out of Ireland.

Not such a good bet

Irish bank deposits declined in November for the fourth straight month, the central bank said last week. Overseas deposits fled the country at their fastest pace in more than a year.

The deposit flight compounds the stress on a financial system whose massive property-lending losses already have driven the government to accept an unpopular bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

Worse yet, it shows that the solutions policymakers slapped together in the fall of 2008 helped in some cases to create even bigger problems — ones that are now coming due.

Unconditionally guaranteeing bank deposits is just such a policy, in a country where loan losses made the banks insolvent, job loss left many taxpayers peniless and deposits now at least double annual economic output.

And this time, given the unpopularity of bailouts and dysfunctional European politics, there is ample reason to fear the banking mess won’t so easily be swept aside.

“Facing facts like these, each morning when I wake up I have to wonder, ‘Why is today not a good day for a wholesale run on the Irish banking system?’” asks Scott Minerd, chief investment officer at Guggenheim Partners. “And if there is a wholesale run on the Irish banking system, then what stops the same scenario from cascading into Portugal, Greece, Italy, and most importantly, Spain?”

That is very much the question being asked in bond markets, where the cost of borrowing surged in all the so-called peripheral European countries in the second half of 2010. The yield on Irish 10-year government bonds, for instance, surged to 9% at year-end from around 5% in August.

The high cost of market borrowing ties the hands of government officials who have promised to ride to the rescue of the bubble-ridden banks. Ireland has already ponied up outlandish sums to keep the banks afloat. Officials have said at every turn they believed they had the ability to stabilize the system, but stability has remained beyond their reach.

Now, with the state locked out of the bond market and the banks losing depositors, who is going to lend in an economy that already has shrunk drastically from its bubbly size of just a few years ago?

Bank runs “will seriously undermine the prosperity of this country for a generation,” Pimco’s Mohammed El-Erian said in November. He said the first steps to stemming the run would include “a big external aid package and steps by the Irish government.”

The IMF, the EU and the Irish government committed to those steps this fall. But there is still no sign people in Ireland or elsewhere believe the $113 billion bailout package will keep their money safe. Among many other things, there has been a rush out of the euro for the Swiss franc, not to mention the ever-present embrace of gold.

On Minerd's mind

The flight from Irish banks has been most pronounced among foreigners, who presumably are less attached to their bailed-out bankers and can easily find other banks that, at least for the moment, appear less apt to go out of business.

Some 20 billion euros ($27 billion) of overseas deposits fled the country in November alone, according to the Central Bank of Ireland. The level of foreign deposits has plunged 28% in the past year and is down 42% from its bubbly peak.

But don’t blame just the foreigners. Domestic deposits tumbled by 6.3 billion euros in November, in their steepest decline since August 2009.

All told, the Irish banking system’s deposit base has contracted by 15% over the past year — which isn’t making it any easier for taxpayers to keep the deeply troubled banking sector afloat.

Meanwhile, the aid the Irish banks took from the eurosystem more than doubled over the past year, to 97 billion euros from 45 billion in November 2009.

The flight of deposits from troubled Irish banks is an unhappy irony because Ireland was lauded in some quarters in 2008 when it became the first state to guarantee bank deposits. That decision led to a short-lived surge of funds into the Irish banks — not that the money stuck around for long. Since the late 2008 peak, more than 100 billion euros of overseas deposits have left the Irish banking system.

When you consider that similar trends could easily play out in the other euro countries, you have the recipe for a hangover-inducing New Year that is likely, in the view of Minerd, to see the euro plunge anew against the dollar. He expects the euro to test its decadelong low against the dollar of 85 cents before all is said and done, compared with a recent $1.33.

“As sovereign credit downgrades continue to flow in and deposits in Europe’s weakened banking system flow out, a broader crisis in Europe appears to be imminent in 2011,” says Minerd.