Run on French Banks

Could there be a run on French banks if credit agencies downgrade their debt ratings? A bank run is when many customers of a bank simultaneously wish to withdraw funds. They do this, commonly, because they believe that the bank might go into bankruptcy and that they, the customer, will lose money. If a sufficiently large number of customers decide to withdraw their money for fear of the bank becoming insolvent it can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. A possible run on French banks is of concern because the large deposits that many nations, including Germany and the US have in these banks. It was the run on many US banks in the early 1930’s that helps create the Great Depression. The prospect of a Greek debt default is especially worrisome for French banks as they hold substantial amounts of Greek debt. As with other bank runs it is the prospect of losing money that drives depositors to withdraw funds.

There are a number of ways that banks attempt to prevent a run. An old and often successful procedure is to close the bank temporarily. Such a “bank holiday” stems the flow of capital out of the bank while other measures are instituted to protect the bank. Deposit insurance helps protect depositors but the amounts of deposit insurance are useful for individuals and not for nations. The interconnectedness of banks and other financial institutions is such that damage from a run on French banks and subsequent collapse could spread to North America and Asia. It is a measure of how seriously investors take this situation that when news of a possible resolution to the European debt dilemma emerged this last week socks soared in the US and worldwide. Varying foreign currency rates have been a hallmark of this situation.

Nations throughout the world have been trying to get a hand on the degree to which their banks are exposed to this situation. The US Federal Reserve announced that it is analyzing the books of the six largest US financial institutions for European, especially French, debt. It is pertinent that Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan Chase, and Wells Fargo have deposits equal to two thirds of the US GDP which comes to a little under $10 Trillion USD. The concern of the Fed is the currency swaps in which these folks have engaged. In a currency swap two parties exchange currencies or interest payments on currencies on a fixed future date. These are Forex transactions. Speculators use these in search of profits. Central banks may use these to keep currencies stable. The concern of the Fed is that US banks may have excessive exposure to the Euro and the risk of a Euro collapse if the European debt dilemma becomes unsolvable. This combination of Forex and sovereign debt has plagued the markets for over a year and may, indeed, produce a run on French banks. As credit agencies such as Moody’s appraise the situation Forex traders are wary of movement of the Euro and the US Federal Reserve is pumping dollars into Europe in order to forestall a global financial disaster.