The banking sector appears to be in the midst of a wobble at present, so it seems like a good idea to examine exactly how worried we all should be about our banking arrangements.
Is my money safe?
By Andrew Lawford
This article is published on: 7th April 2023
As no doubt everyone will have read, the current concerns have been triggered by Silicon Valley Bank, an institution the existence of which I was blissfully unaware until it suddenly collapsed. On examining what happened to SVB, the most startling thing to me was that it essentially suffered a good, old-fashioned bank run: depositors lost faith, ran for the exit and, well, you know the rest. The bank didn’t even have particularly exotic lending practices – most of its problems were caused by the fact that it had purchased government bonds with relatively long maturities, which had suffered temporary losses due to rising interest rates (the value of a bond will fall as interest rates rise, but this generally won’t result in a loss if you hold it until maturity).
If the crisis had been circumscribed to SVB and a couple of other similar banks in the US, we might all have gone on without further thought, but then all of a sudden we found out that Credit Suisse was in trouble. Was this the same sort of crisis, or something new? In reality, CS had, in the words of one analyst: “spent the last decade finding astonishing new ways to lose money and embarrass itself”. Some of the best examples of this were: allowing drug money to be laundered in Eastern Europe, getting caught up in a corruption scandal in Mozambique, channelling client funds to a fraudulent trade finance lender and a spying episode involving management and former employees. It is fair to say that CS had made its bed quite well and recent events finally forced it to lie down.
Once we had digested the idea of CS’s failure, then the market started to be concerned about Deutsche Bank – another institution which stands as an example of the colossal risks emanating from global banks with a wide variety of activities, from retail to investment banking and everything in between. For the moment, at least, it would appear that the markets have been soothed somewhat, but one could be forgiven for being concerned over the safety of one’s money in the current environment.
How safe are deposits with Italian banks?
Turning to the safety of Italian banks, we need to examine the provisions of Italian depositors’ insurance, which is available up to €100,000 per account holder (so if you have a joint account, for example, you get €100k for each person). Opening more than one account with the same bank doesn’t change anything, but opening an account with another bank would give you a further €100k for funds deposited with that bank.
As always, however, there are a number of devils in the detail, and the FITD (Fondo Interbancario di Tutela dei Depositi), the entity that provides the guarantees, has its fair share. First of all, it should be noted that all banks licensed in Italy must adhere to the FITD, which functions like a mutual guarantee system. What this means is that if a bank fails, the FITD basically has a whip-round amongst the other member banks in order to make good on the guarantee. This might be all well and good when the bank in trouble is some rustic banca popolare, but if it happened to be one of the big names, then this would almost instantly translate into a systemic crisis whereby trying to prop each other up would lead to them all falling over. The image that comes to mind is that of a group of drunks staggering down the street trying to keep each other upright. At that point the big question would be whether, and to what extent, the state would step in to provide a blanket guarantee. The current orthodoxy in such matters would seem to imply that some sort of guarantee would be forthcoming, although obviously much would depend on the state of the public finances at the time.
The mechanics of FITD guarantees
The FITD has been in existence since 1987, but only recently has its name (“Fondo” meaning “Fund”) actually corresponded to the reality of the situation. Up until 2015 the guarantee was totally unfunded, but a 2014 European directive obliged member states to institute depositors’ guarantees of €100,000, and for these to be pre-funded in the measure of 0.8% of the total guaranteed deposits by 2024. As of the end of 2022, the FITD had funds of €3.3 billion to cover €740 billion of guaranteed deposits (i.e. those under €100k), so roughly 0.44% of the total. The FITD forms part of EU and Italian banking regulation mechanisms and has been used primarily as part of various solutions contrived to avoid failure for struggling banks in the first place. In fact, since 1987 the fund has paid out about €3.3 billion, of which only €77 million was used to make depositors whole, with the rest being used to fund “solutions” to avoid collapse – the most recent example of this being Banca Carige which received €530 million as part of its sale to Banca BPER in 2022.
In the background, the EU is working towards EDIS – the European Deposit Insurance Scheme – which would institute a pan-EU fund as part of the banking union, but the machinations of this project have yet to be worked out satisfactorily, so for the time being we are stuck with national systems, albeit ones offering similar guarantees.
So what does this mean for me?
Notwithstanding the inherent weakness of a system based on mutual guarantees as described above, it would appear that the €100,000 minimum would be respected in any reasonable scenario. It also seems likely, based on past form, that the state would intervene to encourage a solution in any critical situations long before even a relatively unimportant bank actually failed. The fact that the depositors’ insurance is based on an EU directive also seems to imply that any need for state intervention to guarantee the basic level of depositors’ protection would be supported by the EU. So on the basis of all this, it seems reasonable to choose your local Italian bank by considering the services it is able to provide you as opposed to any perception of its security.
The proviso to the above is that you make sure to maintain only a modest amount of money in any bank and look at more secure solutions for the bulk of your financial assets. In this context, EU investment wrappers remain the gold standard for Italian residents, offering greater levels of protection as well as myriad other benefits – please take a look at this article – and get in touch if you’d like to explore how this might work for your own situation.