All Commentary
Thursday, May 20, 2010

Federal Deposit Insurance: A Banking System Built on Sand

Any benefit this system provides to small depositors is incidental to its real objective: to serve the cartel.

Federal deposit insurance grew out of a turbulent time in American history: the Great Depression. During two waves of bank failures in the 1930s an astonishing 9,000 banks closed and millions of depositors lost some or all of their savings. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) began operations in 1934, insuring deposit accounts up to $5,000 per person (roughly $80,000 in today’s money).

The bank failure rate then dropped dramatically and never again rose anywhere close to the level of the 1930s. And such bank failures that have occurred have cost insured depositors nothing; many uninsured depositors were made whole as well. Bank runs are a distant memory, revived occasionally by reruns of It’s a Wonderful Life.

Yet it may be premature to pronounce deposit insurance a success. It can take a long time for an unsustainable program to unravel: Witness Social Security and Medicare. Seventy-five years after the start of Social Security and 45 years into Medicare, it’s common knowledge that both programs are headed for a financial cliff. A closer look at deposit insurance will show cracks in its edifice, raising questions about its sustainability as well as the distortions that it has introduced into the economy.

Before we take that closer look we might ask whether, as is widely assumed, the bank failures of the 1930s were an example of unregulated free markets run amok. During that time, as Milton Friedman and Anna Schwarz pointed out in their classic, A Monetary History of the U.S., the number of bank failures in Canada was exactly zero. Canada is closely linked to the United States economically and culturally, making this episode as near to a controlled experiment as any macroeconomist could wish for.

The difference? Canada had just ten nationwide banks with about 3,000 branches, while branch banking across state lines, and often within states, was prohibited by U.S. law. Thus smaller communities could only be served by relatively weak, poorly capitalized banks. A hailstorm might be enough to topple the local bank in a small farming community as surely as if it were built from straw.

The banking system was also caught in the downdraft of a plummeting money supply. When banks hold only a fraction of their liabilities as reserves, deposit inflows cause the money supply to multiply, but the reverse happened during the Depression as worried depositors began to cash out their accounts. The economy could have adjusted to a declining money supply in one of two ways: either by lowering prices and wages or by Federal Reserve injection of new money. Hoover’s jawboning and Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation precluded the first solution, while the Fed, out of ignorance or confusion, failed to inject new money. With economic adjustment prevented by government policies, a vicious cycle of souring bank loans, liquidation of deposits, further declines in the money supply, and more business failures took hold.

Interestingly, Milton Friedman and Murray Rothbard, both free-market economists, reached opposite conclusions about the declining money supply. While Friedman blamed the Fed, Rothbard celebrated what he saw as the people’s attempt to overturn fractional-reserve banking, which he believed is inherently fraudulent. Either way, the fingerprints of government were all over the bank failures of the 1930s and the Great Depression generally.

With the failure of so many banks, U.S. Representative Henry Steagall vigorously pushed deposit insurance legislation. Franklin Roosevelt was among his opponents. Indeed, when asked about guaranteeing bank deposits four days after his inauguration in March 1933, Roosevelt said he agreed with Herbert Hoover: “I can tell you as to guaranteeing bank deposits my own views, and I think those of the old Administration. The general underlying thought behind the use of the word ‘guarantee’ with respect to bank deposits is that you guarantee bad banks as well as good banks. The minute the Government starts to do that the Government runs into a probable loss. . . . We do not wish to make the United States Government liable for the mistakes and errors of individual banks, and put a premium on unsound banking in the future.”

FDR was right. Deposit insurance generates moral hazard: an incentive to engage in more reckless behavior when one’s misdeeds are covered by someone else. Bank managers tend to make riskier loans than they would without insurance, and depositors don’t worry about the lending practices of the banks they patronize. Currently many people, including me, buy bank certificates of deposit through online brokers, perhaps not even learning the name of the bank that got our money. The magic letters FDIC are all we look for.

Savings & Loan and Moral Hazard

The savings and loan crisis of the late 1980s saw a catastrophic explosion of moral hazard. Deregulation had lifted interest rate caps for S&Ls and allowed them to expand from residential mortgages into commercial and consumer lending. Competitive pressures sent managers scrambling into these markets, which were mostly unfamiliar to them, while at the same time they had to compete vigorously for deposits. With deposit insurance offered to all chartered institutions regardless of risk, S&Ls made many preposterous loans. When the dust settled, roughly half had failed. A massive taxpayer bailout followed and, as very rarely happens to failing government agencies, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation was abolished in 1989—though its responsibilities were shifted to the FDIC.

Moral hazard is an aspect of all insurance, public or private. But private insurance companies, if they wish to survive and prosper, must find ways to limit policyholders’ risky behavior. Deductibles, copays, threats of cancellation, and rewards for prudent behavior return some monetary incentive to policyholders. In addition, insurance companies try to educate policyholders about prudent behavior. Crucially, in a free market private insurance companies’ profit-and-loss statements tell whether they’re getting it right. Government agencies lack profit-and-loss discipline and are inevitably subject to political pressure. The FDIC’s legally mandated requirement to hold reserves to back its liabilities may resemble market discipline, but as we shall see, when the mandate was violated, no one lost his job and no investors lost any capital.

Private insurance companies invest most of their reserves in productive activities such as corporate securities or real estate. They count on earnings from these investments to balance low or even negative returns on their pure underwriting activities. The FDIC, by law, holds its reserves in the form of Treasury securities. Any alternative would certainly be riskier and more politically charged. Yet we must recognize that this arrangement, as with the Social Security Trust Fund, is merely a pass-through of the FDIC’s liabilities to U.S. taxpayers.

The FDIC reserve fund is called the Deposit Insurance Fund (DIF). For most of its history, the DIF was kept within its statutory limit, which has varied over time but is currently a range of 1.15 to 1.25 percent of insured deposits. At least, that’s the statutory range. It’s actually essentially zero. But are the statutory numbers the right ones? No one can be sure, but again, the FDIC lacks a profit motive to help get it right.

A spate of bank failures in 2008 and 2009, while far less severe in number and magnitude than in the 1930s, left the DIF with no unencumbered assets at all. The pace of bank failures continued during the first three months of 2010, while the number of problem banks on the FDIC’s secret list jumped 27 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009, to 702. In short, the FDIC is in trouble.

A restoration plan has been proposed to get the DIF back to 1.15 percent of insured deposits by about 2017, a date that has been pushed back more than once. The plan relies heavily on an assumption that the economy will soon resume robust growth and that “only” about $100 billion in failure costs will be incurred between 2009 and 2013, with most of those costs coming in 2010. For the shorter term, the proposal calls on commercial banks to prepay their deposit insurance premiums through 2011. When they do so, a new asset will appear on their balance sheets: a prepaid expense. To gain their acceptance and cooperation, the FDIC proposes that this prepaid expense be counted as an asset that is just as safe as U.S. government securities and therefore does not require additional capital backing. This shuffle will be pretty much a wash for the commercial banks, and the upshot is that the FDIC will indirectly borrow its own future premium income, hoping that income will materialize in amounts sufficient not only to cover future bank failures but also to rebuild the DIF. We shall see.

The DIF is not the FDIC’s only problem. When closing a failed bank, the agency tries to sell as many of the bank’s assets as possible, including branches, loans, and securities holdings. The FDIC’s goal is usually to make all depositors whole, not just insured depositors. It sometimes takes possession of assets for which it can’t get an acceptable bid. In doing so it acquires assets that are difficult to evaluate and thus greatly complicate estimates of future liabilities.

Disguised Risk

Now let’s take a longer look at the business of banking. The very words we use, like “bank” and “deposit,” can distort our thinking. The word “bank” comes from the bench or counter where medieval money changers did business. The word “deposit” suggests something like an ore deposit in the ground: the minerals are there and can be gotten out. We think of banks as custodians of our money, keeping it safe for us and making it available whenever we need it. But present-day banks are not deposit banks, locking our money away in a vault as the term would suggest, but rather loan banks. Most of our deposits are loaned out and not all of them could be redeemed on short notice. This works fine as long as there is no large and sudden short-term demand for withdrawals. But we have come to believe, in part due to misleading terminology, that we can have rewards without risk. Interest paid on bank deposits is now essentially zero but as depositors, we still reap benefits such as ATMs and online banking with no fee and no apparent risk. In short, as in so many areas of contemporary life, we have been led to expect something for nothing.

Thus proper labeling could help rationalize banking. Those who want utmost safety in the form of true deposit banking should be free to pay for it with fees for storage of their currency or gold. Liability insurance for true custodial service should be very cheap. Those who wish to entrust their money to loan banking should accept the risk, and if they want insured accounts, they—not taxpayers—should be prepared to pay for the insurance, at least indirectly.

While there is nothing inherently wrong with loan banking, we get too much of it when it is disguised as deposit banking and backed by mispriced and politically motivated government insurance. The result is a banking system that is more highly leveraged than it otherwise would be. This in turn increases the severity of business cycles—booms and busts.

FDIC Incentives

Back to the FDIC. As we have seen, banks pay for its service in the form of insurance premiums. Coverage is not mandatory, so the organization looks somewhat like a private business. But in fact it is a monopoly supplier to banks (with a parallel institution serving credit unions). Private competitors are locked out, perhaps not by statute, but by the FDIC’s implicit and explicit backing by the Treasury (explicit in the form of a line of credit). Without a profit motive, the FDIC lacks the incentive to serve its bank customers and its indirect depositor customers by offering innovative services with effective moral-hazard controls.

Though the FDIC lacks market incentives, it is awash in political incentives. Thus in 2008 Congress voted for an increase in deposit coverage from $100,000 to $250,000 with little or no discussion of the costs of this move. This “temporary” increase has been extended once and will likely become permanent. Members of Congress are of course motivated by the campaign contributions of bankers and others, and may not know or care about the long-term consequences of such actions.

Private Options

How might private firms handle bank deposit insurance? Before the government takeover of the banking system, private clearinghouses sometimes provided mutual aid among member banks. The Suffolk Bank in Boston was a notable example in the early 1800s. It supported country banks in New England for many years by clearing their transactions and accepting their currency at par. It earned a profit doing so.

But could private firms ever be big enough to provide bank deposit insurance in today’s multitrillion dollar economy? Reinsurance firms offer evidence that they could. As their name indicates, General Re and other such firms insure insurance companies. Who insures the reinsurance companies? No one. Absent government intervention, these firms would experience diseconomies of scale when they grow too large, provided it is clear that they would not be in line for a government bailout should they get into difficulty.

Failure is an important aspect of the free market. Economist Joseph Schumpeter’s pithy phrase “creative destruction” captures this notion and reminds us that failures, which will always be with us, should be liquidated so that others can pick up the remains and apply them to more promising enterprises. Shouldn’t this idea apply to banks as well? Rothbard actually celebrated occasional bank runs as a way of putting the fear of God into bank managers and depositors alike. Amazingly, Roosevelt’s initial response to the deposit insurance proposal echoed Rothbard’s: “There are undoubtedly some banks that are not going to pay one hundred cents on the dollar. We all know it is better to have that loss taken than to jeopardize the credit of the United States Government. . . .”

Washington-Wall Street Banking Cartel

Make no mistake, our current banking system is, and has long been, a cartel run for the mutual benefit of Wall Street financiers and their regulator friends in Washington. Case in point: Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley were allowed to convert to bank holding companies so that they could receive federal bailout money. The $180 billion AIG bailout provided Goldman with 100 cents on the dollar for its holdings of AIG credit default swaps.

Let us not be so naive as to believe that government deposit insurance is any different. Any benefit this system provides to small depositors is incidental to its real objective: to serve the cartel.

The banking system is in need of real reform. More regulation? More virtuous regulators? Only the naive, the ignorant, or the disingenuous can believe these answers in the face of regulation’s long history of failure, the practical impossibility of detailed oversight, and the perverse political incentives that always operate. The solution lies not in wiping out risk—there can be no real economic growth without risk. Instead, we need rational incentives: Let risks be borne by those best able and willing to take them.

  • Warren Gibson teaches engineering at Santa Clara University and economics at San Jose State University.