Greeks and Italians are taking their money and running, moving it abroad or even burying it underground for fear the euro zone crisis will topple banks and wipe out what remains of their savings.
Bankers in Greece say worries about the resilience of local banks, coupled with a rise in burglaries, has helped trigger a surge in demand for safe deposit boxes for those who have yet to set up accounts outside the country.
Some are even building their own.
“There has been a big increase in rentals of safe deposit boxes, about fivefold compared with last year,” said one banker at a large, foreign-owned bank. “About 10 per cent of the withdrawals we see are headed there.
“The most extreme case was a client who told me he was building a safe under his pool.”
Retail bank deposits in Greece have plunged to five-year lows as fears mount that the stricken nation will fail to meet international lenders’ bailout terms and restructure loans by March, raising the spectre of a ditched euro, a return to the drachma and a sharp devaluation.
With ordinary Greek grandmothers now joining the wealthy in seeking sanctuary from economic chaos, banks have embarked on an interest rate war, with some smaller institutions sweetening terms to up to seven per cent to woo customers.
Bankers said that although clients were less panicky than during last September and October, demand remained brisk for foreign currencies such as the Swiss franc, U.S. and Australian dollars, and even Norwegian kroner – or gold.
The crisis engulfing Greece has already forced Ireland and Portugal to seek bailouts. It now also threatens the efforts of Italy, the currency bloc’s third-largest economy, to raise €450-billion ($593-billion) to finance its debt burden this year.
Ordinary Italians are also losing trust in local banks. Some have sought a safe haven over the border in Switzerland, while others are putting their faith in the relative stability of euro zone leader Germany.
Those priced out of property hot spots such as London are investing in Berlin instead, attracted by the German capital’s relatively low prices, low ownership rates and relatively stable growth prospects.
Pensioners, doctors, film directors, architects, young couples and teachers, some of whom can afford to spend no more than €100,000, are seeking apartments in Berlin, prompting local estate agents to brush up on Italian-language skills.
“Sales skyrocketed in the last two months due to fears of a possible default of Italy, expectations of more property taxes and the possibility the country will fall into recession,” said Federico Racca, a manager at specialist estate agency Berlino Immobiliare.
In the first week of December, Berlino Immobiliare’s network sold fifty properties, as much as it normally does in a single month. In November it sold 78.
“They are arriving en masse. What we (are seeing) ... has no comparisons with the last eight years,” said Annalisa Fornara, an estate agent at m2Square, a small property agency in Berlin.
“There is an entire portion of the market that is moving for the Italians.”
Some Italian bankers stress that the rising cost of living, falling incomes and Christmas spending are as much to blame for draining bank accounts as any flight of capital. Italy’s private sector deposits have fallen less dramatically than those of Greece, down 4 per cent in the past year.
A manager at a top asset management group in Bologna conceded that “dramatic” media coverage had worried people, adding that large clients had placed cash in safes and that deposit boxes in the area now had “no spare capacity.”
“They’re worried about a default and a run on the banks Argentina-style,” he said. “I personally am managing to keep my clients, though I must admit while I spent 10 minutes with them before, I am now spending a couple of hours to explain things.”