In November 2010, rumours swirled through financial markets that Spanish bank BBVA was suffering a run on its deposits. The share price fell before excitable traders realized they had made a mistake.
In fact the bank was holding a “fun run” in Madrid and customers had lined up outside its branches to get their T-shirts. In a jittery market, talk spread quickly and few things worry bank investors and customers more than talk of a run.
Nervous times have returned to the euro zone, and customers are worrying again about whether their savings are safe.
Banks, regulators and policy makers in Greece, Spain and across Europe are back on high alert to avoid a repeat of the most catastrophic risk for a bank – a loss of confidence among savers, or a run on the bank.
A run may start irrationally, but once it takes hold the panic can be entirely rational. No one wants to be last in line if everyone else is pulling out their cash.
A run on Britain’s Northern Rock in September 2007 was one of the most sudden and shocking events of the financial crisis.
It was the first run on a British bank for more than 100 years and critics said it made the country look like a banana republic. Yet it is providing lessons on how to limit the damage in future.
“The key thing to learn is that runs can happen out of nowhere and once they start they are incredibly difficult to stop. And to stop them you have to do far more than you expect, and to do it far more quickly than you expect,” said Alistair Darling, Britain’s finance minister at the time.
“With what’s going on at the moment, it’s clear that many Greeks have taken their money out. If you’re not careful, a trickle can become a flow and it can then become an absolute torrent,” Mr. Darling told Reuters in an interview.
The dynamics have shifted, but there is now a greater risk that panic will spread to more than one bank.
“Northern Rock was a question about the soundness of the bank. Now the question is about the soundness of the government,” said Nicolas Veron at Brussels think-tank Bruegel.
“Then there is a related question – for countries that are at risk of leaving the EU, it could make sense to withdraw the deposits. It becomes a currency risk,” he said.
If Greeks fear their country could leave the euro, they may not want to keep their money in a local bank and risk seeing it devalued.
As a result, deposit insurance schemes can offer only limited support.
A guarantee helps, but not if there are doubts that the government can pay, and it doesn’t protect against currency redenomination, as in Argentina in 2001, when the value of deposits fell 20 per cent.
Reassuring customers they will not lose money and strengthening the deposit guarantee scheme is nonetheless the biggest lesson learned from Northern Rock.
“It came as a bolt from the blue and people weren’t sure of their protection, and then there was some spectacular and sensational media coverage. It was difficult to control,” said a person involved with events at that time.
Northern Rock was caught on the back foot when news of its problems were reported by the BBC late one Thursday night.
The bank, which had grown rapidly to become Britain’s fifth biggest mortgage lender, had needed emergency funding from the Bank of England a few days before, having been frozen out of wholesale funding markets due to a reckless business model.
The BBC report caused panic among savers, which got worse when policymakers were slow to reassure them.
Thousands queued outside Northern Rock’s branches from early that Friday, over the weekend, and on the Monday. When Mr. Darling stood up to tell people their savings would be 100 per cent guaranteed, the queues quickly disappeared.
Reassurance came too slowly and ministers were criticized for not doing enough to calm savers.
“Our lesson from Northern Rock is we let it run for three or four days, which was far, far too long,” Mr. Darling said.
“The problem was the government did not appear to be in control of events, and it wasn’t. It wasn’t until the Monday evening when I announced the formal guarantees that we were able to stop money leaving,” he said.
Although that slowed the visible run, deposits continued to be pulled from Northern Rock by online, postal and telephone customers in a so-called silent run.
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