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Canada’s surprisingly large exposure to our too-big-to-fail banks

A Bay Street sign, the main street in the financial district is seen in Toronto, Jan. 28, 2013.

Mark Blinch/Reuters

The haircut imposed on large bank depositors in Cyprus has naturally made people with high cash balances elsewhere nervous.

The big question is whether Cyprus is a special case. Its banks dominated the country, with banking assets equal to about seven times the size of the local economy. The disproportionately large scale of the banking sector relative to the economy meant that the government couldn't rescue the banks using taxpayer funds, without destroying its own credit rating.

For Canadians, there is probably not a lot to worry about when it comes to depositors' getting similarly fleeced. The domestic banking system is sound, and it would take some kind of financial Armageddon to put its solvency and the safety of depositors into doubt, even those with more than the $100,000 covered by deposit insurance.

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So how big is Canada's bank asset size relative to the economy, the key metric that sunk the Cypriot account holders?

The ever helpful gold bugs at Sprott Asset Management have compiled a chart showing the exposure among the G7 countries to their too-big-to-fail banks, and it shows Canada, quite surprisingly, is in the middle of the pack.

Canada's big banks have assets nearly twice the size of the economy. The United Kingdom is the worst by this metric, with big bank assets nearly three times the size of the economy, followed by France, at nearly 2.5 times, putting Canada in third place.

The U.S. is in the best position, with total assets at its too-big-to-fail banks only about half of GDP.

Sprott, of course, is long gold, and would benefit if depositors yanked money from banks and placed it in the yellow metal. Here is their take and we'll give the last word to them: "We have been vocal about our concerns over the state of the global financial system for the better part of the decade. The Greek tragedy is now being played out in Cyprus with a new twist as depositors have been unwillingly turned into sacrificial lambs. Given the size of the banking sector in most G7 countries and the burgeoning government debts, the ability of the governments to bail out their banks is severely constrained, especially considering the political headwinds that exist today. For this reason, we strongly believe that real assets trump a fiat currency in a "savings" account. It is not our intention to be alarmist here, merely to say, 'caveat depositor.'"

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