What is a bank run and how can we prevent them? A bank run, as I am sure you all know, is a rush by depositors to withdraw their deposits for fear that the bank will not have the money to give them. But there is a lot to unpack there in order to understand what is going on and how runs might be prevented.
It is important to understand the difference between debt and equity—between lending a specific amount of money with specific terms and investing an amount of money in exchange for a share of the earnings (or losses) of the recipient. When you buy shares in a company, it has no obligation to return your money. If you no longer want to invest in that company, you can sell your shares to someone else or the company might, at its discretion, buy them back. Its failure to “return” your money cannot be the cause of a company’s bankruptcy (take over by creditors to collect what the company is no longer able to return).
The deposits that we make in our banks are a special case of debt finance of whatever the banks do with our money. As we know, they lend much of it to people and companies for one thing or another and invest some in hopefully safe assets like Treasury bills and keep a tiny bit on hand for when you need cash. But the deposit contract says that you have the right to withdraw (or pay to someone else) any or all of it whenever you want to. Thus, banks must keep sufficient liquid assets in order to satisfy such withdrawals by selling them in the market when you demand your money back. The Federal Reserve, our lender of last resort, also has facilities for lending to banks needing cash against the collateral of bank assets.
The difference between illiquidity and insolvency is critical as well. A bank is solvent when the value of its assets match or exceed the value of its liabilities (such as your deposits). But having sufficient good assets doesn’t mean that that bank can always honor your deposit withdrawal demand. That is a question of liquidity. Does the bank have enough of its assets backing your deposit in forms that it can pay out immediately (cash in its vault, deposits at the Federal Reserve that it can transfer to another bank or use to buy cash, or assets it can quickly sell such as t-bills, or credit lines with other banks or the Fed, etc.)? “The difference between bank liquidity and capital” Thus, even a solvent bank (positive capital) might fail to honor your withdrawal demand if it doesn’t have sufficient liquid assets. “The big bailout-what next?”
Usually, a bank becomes insolvent when more of its loan assets default than the bank has capital to cover such losses. But as we will see in the case of Silicon Valley Bank, insolvency can also result from a decline in the current market value of a “good” asset. When depositors suspect that their bank might be insolvent, they will withdraw their money while they still can. This tends to use up the bank’s liquid assets compounding the risk of default. As the word spreads the classical bank run takes off (electronically these days rather than long lines outside the bank as in the old days).
The SVB, which specialized in financial services to start-ups and technology companies, enjoyed a huge increase in its deposits over the last four years, increasing from $49 billion in 2018 to $189.2 billion in 2021 dropping back to $175.4 billion at the end of 2022. It invested most of those deposits in “safe” long term government and similar debt. While the default risk for these assets was negligible, the risk of a loss in current market value if market interest rates increased was high. No one will pay the face value of a 3% ten-year bond while current market rates for the same maturity are 4%. The rapid increase in interest rates as the Federal Reserve reversed money growth to fight inflation tanked the current market value of a large share of SVB’s assets making it impossible for it to come up with the cash depositors might demand if they “ran”. That is how runs work. On March 10 SVB was put into receivership.
The original sin of modern banking is financing long term loans/investments with money (demand and savings deposits). Islamic banking, what uses equity investing, is wiser in this regard. During the Savings and Loan crisis in the U.S. in the 1980s and early 90s (financing mortgages with deposits) more than 1000 S&Ls failed when interest rates increased. But in fact, the U.S. bank regulation regime has some good features. While bank risk taking is subject to many, often costly, regulations, the ultimate check on risk taking comes from the knowledge of bank owners that they will lose their entire stake if their bank becomes insolvent. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which oversees America’s deposit insurance scheme, has developed effective bank bankruptcy and resolution procedures that allow it to take over and resolve insolvent banks with barely a ripple. A favorite tool is the so-called purchase and assumption transaction by which a healthy bank buys the assess of the insolvent one and assumes its liabilities (deposits), usually over a weekend. Thousands of insolvent banks have been resolved by the FDIC in the last fifty years. See “Institutional and Legal Impediments to Efficient Insolvent Bank Resolution and Ways to Overcome Them” by Warren Coats and Arno Liuksilo “Warren Coats-17”
Most bank depositors pay no attention to the financial condition of their bank because their deposits are insured against losses, which until last week had been raised to $250,000. But the government has now implicitly extended such insurance to all deposits via accounting and other tricks, thus removing any remaining check on bank risk taking from all depositors. On Monday, President Biden announced that no depositors in SVB (and Signature Bank of New York) would lose any of their deposits. Following the banking crisis of 2008, the Dodd-Frank law further strengthened financial sector regulations. The most important and helpful provisions of this 2,300 page law provided for significant increases and strengthening of bank capital requirements.
The overuse of debt rather than equity financing is a more general weakness in our economy. The IRS should stop subsidizing it. Interest on borrowing is deductible from taxable income while dividends on equity financing are not. While increasing bank capital makes them less run prone, a simpler and easer to regulate approach is to remove the cause of runs all together by eliminating any risk that your bank can’t honor its obligation to return your money on demand. Another few thousand pages of laws and regulations might catch the last mistakes (though it is hard to see why regulators didn’t address the obvious duration risks taken by SVB), but there is an easier, less costly solution. Bank failures result from the mistakes of banks (their owners and managers) and the failure of depositors to more carefully evaluate the soundness of the bank in which they deposit their money. But depositors have little competence to evaluate bank soundness, and why should they be expected to?
Money (bank deposits) should be fully separated from credit. Deposits should not finance loans. Those financing investments should share in its risks (and rewards) via equity financing. “More than decade ago Professor Kotlikoff and [John Goodman] proposed “limited purpose banking” in The New Republic and in Investment News. The idea is that credit market institutions should be intermediaries between savers and investors and should not themselves use depositors’ money to make risky investments.”
When we deposit money in banks for safekeeping and making payments there should never be any doubt about the bank’s ability to return it on demand and thus no reason to “run” on the bank to protect our deposits. This is the essence of the Chicago Plan which would replace so call fractional reserve banking with 100% reserves (deposits at the central bank). When my bank deposit is backed totally by my bank’s deposits at the Fed, I would know with certainty that they were 100% safe and instantly available. The “Chicago Plan” and New Deal Banking Reform | Levy Economics Institute (levyinstitute.org) Narrow banking schemes have a similar motivation. “A proposal for the feds balance sheet”