Greek banks under siege

Jun 08, 2011

If Europe didn’t have enough problems, Greece now has a full-fledged bank run on its hands.

Household deposits at Greek banks have dropped in five of the past six months, falling by a total of 12 billion euros ($17.6 billion), according to Bank of Greece data. Two-year deposits tumbled 8% from a year ago in April and savings deposits plunged at a 16% year-over-year clip in March, notes Graham Turner of GFC Economics in London.

The flight of Greek funds overseas will only add to country’s financial crisis, which has Greece on the verge of accepting another bailout from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund.

But while officials may yet succeed in kicking this Hellenic can down the road for another year or two, at the very least the bank run adds unwelcome uncertainty. If enough money flees the country, it could hasten the inevitable restructuring of Greek debt – an outcome the European Central Bank is desperately trying to delay in the name of saving undercapitalized banks on the Continent.

A restructuring “will not be deferred indefinitely if Greek depositors continue to vote with their feet,” Turner writes in a note to clients Tuesday. “They ultimately have the best sense of whether this level of austerity and privatization is sustainable from a political perspective.”

The deposit flight is hardly surprising, considering the dire news coming out of Greece. Talk about its leaving the euro seems far fetched and has been resoundingly rejected by policymakers, but the country’s road back to economic competitiveness is steep indeed.

Wages, as measured by unit labor costs, rose just 7% over the past decade in Germany but soared 50% or so in Greece – meaning that workers there are looking at steep pay cuts indeed if they are to bring the country’s cost structure into line with the region’s so-called core. And that is only a first step in what promises to be a long and punishing economic makeover, assuming the euro zone manages to hold together.

The woes of Greek banks follow a similar tale in Ireland over the past year. There, deposits left the country as it became clear that cleaning up the banking system would cost much more than the government had admitted.

That episode ended with the Irish getting a bailout in return for a horrific austerity program that, in typical bubble-era logic, left the investors who funded the banks’ wrongheaded expansion binge untouched. The investors' luck is going to run out sooner or later -- but it is hard to gauge just when, what with Germany pushing for an extension of Greek debt maturities and the ECB screaming in a near panic, Nothing to see here! Move along!

Such is life when your taxpayer dollars are directed mostly to propping up the edifices of banks that served mostly to enrich insiders when times are good.

For now, that effort continues mostly unimpeded elsewhere in Europe. There is no sign in the data that banking fears are spreading to Spain, which is by all accounts the next big European economy on the hit list, let alone much bigger Italy.

But then, this being the year of the bank run, it is early yet to rule out problems anywhere on the periphery.

“I think Greece is in a league of its own,” says Turner, “but we know there has been significant buying of top end real estate in London by Spanish and Italian investors.” From one house of cards to another, as it were.

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