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Tuesday, December 6, 2011

It begins: bank runs break out in Greece, following the contours of the sovereign debt crisis

Following the path of the sovereign debt crisis, the Eurozone's bank runs have begun.

Anxious Greeks Emptying Their Bank Accounts

Many Greeks are draining their savings accounts because they are out of work, face rising taxes or are afraid the country will be forced to leave the euro zone. By withdrawing money, they are forcing banks to scale back their lending -- and are inadvertently making the recession even worse.

Georgios Provopoulos, the governor of the central bank of Greece, is a man of statistics, and they speak a clear language. "In September and October, savings and time deposits fell by a further 13 to 14 billion euros. In the first 10 days of November the decline continued on a large scale," he recently told the economic affairs committee of the Greek parliament... the outflow of funds from Greek bank accounts has been accelerating rapidly. At the start of 2010, savings and time deposits held by private households in Greece totalled €237.7 billion ... [but] the Greeks today only have €170 billion in savings -- almost 30 percent less than at the start of 2010.

...Nikoloudis has detected a further trend. At first, it was just a few people trying to withdraw large sums of money. Now it's large numbers of people moving small sums. Ypatia K., a 55-year-old bank worker from Athens, can confirm that. "The customers, especially small savers, have recently been withdrawing sums of €3,000, €4,000 or €5,000. That was panic," she said.

For those who insist it couldn't happen here, a word of caution: it can and it has, as recently as 2008.

The 2008 financial crisis displayed characteristics of a classic bank run, but people holding bank accounts weren't the ones scrambling to get their cash. It was lenders demanding their money from other financial institutions.

Indeed, today's panics are more likely to involve major financial institutions and are largely hidden from plain sight until they are severe enough to trigger plunging stock prices, bankruptcies, layoffs and rising unemployment. And the current European crisis is a reminder that some of the vulnerabilities exposed in 2008 still exist.

These panics often originate in the shadows of the banking system, where major financial institutions do business with one another... [and] the size of shadow-banking activities [are] roughly $60 trillion as of 2010—a sum that represents 25% to 30% of the total global financial system.

At best, shadow banking offers financial institutions a source of funding and liquidity on a day-to-day basis. At worst, it allows the buildup of leverage and systemic risk, as the 2008 financial crisis revealed. Gary Gorton, a Yale University professor and leading researcher in this field, has documented that the crisis was effectively "a run by banks and firms on other banks."

...Given the speed that Europe's debt crisis is unfolding, however, any measures that could help fend off future shadow-banking panics risk coming too late.

The propagand-conomist Paul Krugman -- a proponent of the debt-ridden European social welfare state -- hardest hit.

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