Sometimes I can miss the blindingly obvious.
Like other observers of the widening sovereign debt crisis in Europe, we’ve commented on the fact that the big reason for Germany to work towards a rescue (more likely, the end game is a restructuring) of Greece and other Club Med members at risk is that its own banks, like those of France, are exposed if Greece defaults. Given that Eurobanks were thinly capitalized in the runup to the crisis and have recognized even fewer losses than their US counterparts, they are still fragile and vulnerable to systemic shocks. So the axis of contagion seemed to be through bank holdings of Greece sovereign debt (as well as having written CDS on Greek debt).
But we neglected to consider a more direct source of trouble, namely, that of bank runs in the countries at risk. John Mauldin’s latest newsletter tells us that is already underway in Greece:
Money is flying from Greek banks, which makes sense, as how can a bankrupt Greek government guarantee Greek bank deposits? I know that Greek bankers may have a different view, but Greek depositors are voting with their feet. And …it is not just Greece. It is fast becoming Portugal. And Spain is not far behind in my opinion.
Yves here. Despite all the noise about government debt defaults, the pattern in the Great Depression was selective default (war debt being the big favorite). However, this was also an era before bank deposit insurance was the norm for advanced economies. Moreover, Europeans may be even more quick trigger to pull funds out of banks, given that they have more direct experience of the fragility of governments (World War II memories, the implosion of Yugoslavia on its borders, the impact of general strikes). Recall that in the financial crisis, many US depositors were nervous about bank safety (witness how bank analysis service Institutional Risk Analyst offered a retail bank soundness product to cater to inquiries).
So we have a second potential axis of contagion, via impairment of banks in the Club Med countries themselves. That has the potential to affect:
1. Bondholders of banks in Club Med countries (witness the virtual shutdown of bond issuance in Europe)
2. Companies, whether domestic or foreign, who do business in Club Med countries (transactions are normally settled in local banks; finding banks both sides to a commercial deal will find acceptable may loom as a issue)
3. Most important, interbank markets
So far, the reaction to the Greece/Club Med crisis seems to be a generalized widening of risk premia (ex the US, where investors seem to believe the eurozone can implode without having any adverse impact here). We may start to see more differentiation, in particular, further widening in exposures that are arguably on the front lines, as the crisis grinds on.