Deposit insurance, OBR etc

This wasn’t going to be the topic of today’s post, but I see Stuff has a story up based largely on a conversation I had late last week with their journalist Rob Stock.  (NB In the first version I saw a couple of hours ago a rather important ‘not” was omitted from this sentence “But a big bank failure was imminent, he said”).

New Zealand is being tipped to join the rest of the OECD in having a government-backed bank deposit guarantee scheme.

Under the Reserve Bank’s Open Bank Resolution scheme (OBR), depositors at a failing bank might have to take a “haircut” with some of their money being taken to recapitalise their bank, and get it open for business again quickly.

But former Reserve Bank head of financial markets Michael Reddell is tipping an end for OBR following the release of a discussion paper into the future of the Reserve Bank.

The background to this was the release last week of a joint Reserve Bank/Treasury consultative document as part of phase 2 of the review of the Reserve Bank Act.  I haven’t yet read the whole document, although a reader who has tells me it is a fairly substantive (and thus welcome) piece.  But when Rob Stock got in touch to suggest he would like to talk about the reappearance of the OBR (Open Bank Resolution), I read the relevant section (chapter 4) on “Should there be depositor protection in New Zealand?”

Stock is not a fan of the OBR option and was uneasy as to why it was appearing in the consultative document.  My response was along the lines that OBR had played a key role in Reserve Bank thinking about failure management for almost 20 years now.  Any new consultative document (especially a joint RB/Treasury effort) had to build from where policy/rhetoric had been but that, nonetheless, my read of the document suggested a clear framing pointing towards (officials favouring) New Zealand adopting deposit insurance.

Treasury has favoured such a change for some years, while the Reserve Bank had historically been quite resistant –  mostly, on my reading, because they take a rather naive wishful-thinking approach which ignores twin realpolitik pressures that ministers will face if a major bank is at the point of failure.    They believe in the value of market discipline (as, surely, in some sense most people do) and don’t want to do anything that might acknowledge that it isn’t always going to be a feasible (political) option.   In my view, in reaching for something nearer a first-best model in an idealised world, they increase the chances of third or fourth best outcomes.  A well-run deposit insurance scheme isn’t perfect, but offers the prospect of a decent second-best set of outcomes.  And, for what it is worth, would bring New Zealand into line with the rest of the advanced world.  As the consultative document makes clear, of the OECD countries only New Zealand and Israel don’t have deposit insurance, and Israel has already indicated that it is going to introduce a scheme.

As I noted, it was hard to see why any of the parties in the current government would be resistant to introducing deposit insurance (the Greens had been openly calling for such a reform) and there had been signs that although the “old guard” of the Reserve Bank had been resistant to deposit insurance the new Governor was likely to be more receptive. (And in the off-the-record speech Orr gave a few months ago, it was reported that among his comments was “deposit insurance is coming”.)   National had been resistant, but relevant context for that included the way they were landed with the aftermath –  and losses – of the retail deposit guarantee scheme after coming into government late in 2008.  The retail deposit guarantee scheme bore almost no relationship to a proper deposit insurance scheme –  being introduced at the height of a crisis, primarily covering unsupervised institutions and then knowingly undercharging those institutions for the risk being assumed.  But it is relevant (together with National’s bailout of AMI) in revealing how politicians are likely to behave under pressure in a financial crisis.

Why do I favour deposit insurance (as a second best)?   I’ve covered this ground in other posts, but just briefly again.   I see little or no prospect that, in event of the failure of a major bank, politicians will let retail depositors lose their money (reliance on OBR assumes exactly the opposite interpretation).    If so, it is better to force depositors themselves to pay for that protection up-front, in the form of a modest annual insurance premium.

At present, with the four biggest banks all being subsidiaries of Australian bank parents, the failure of a major domestic bank is only seriously likely to occur if the parent is also in serious trouble. (And the 5th biggest bank is government owned –  enough said really.) If the parent isn’t in serious trouble, there would be a strong expectation that the parent would recapitalise any troubled subsidiary and/or perhaps manage a gradual exit from the New Zealand market.

It simply isn’t very credible to suppose that if the ANZ banking group is failing, and the New Zealand subsidiary is also in serious trouble, a New Zealand government will let New Zealand depositors of ANZ lose (perhaps lots of) money while their Australian cousins and siblings (often literally given the size of the diaspora), depositors with the ANZ, are bailed out by (or covered by deposit protection by) the Australian government.   It isn’t as if there is any very credible scenario in which the New Zealand government’s debt position had got so bad that the government could claim “we’d like to help, but just can’t”, and the optics (and substance) would be doubly difficult because it is generally recognised that a concomitant to making OBR work would probably be to extend guarantees to the liabilities of other (non-failing) banks –  otherwise, in an atmosphere of crisis transferring funds to the failing bank will look very attractive to many.

My view on this is reinforced by the practical examples of bailouts we’ve seen.  Sure, the previous Labour government let many small finance companies fail without intervening, but then the deposit guarantee scheme happened. AMI policyholders were bailed out, when there was no good public policy grounds (other than the politics of redistribution etc) for doing so.  And, beyond banking, we had the bail-out of Air New Zealand in 2001. In the account of that episode that Alan Bollard (then Secretary to the Treasury) told, uncertainty about what might happen in the wake of any failure was a big part of the then Prime Minister’s decision.  It would be the same with the failure of any systemic bank.   It isn’t an ideal response, but it is an understandable one, and one has to build institutions around the limitations and constraints of democratic politics.

(The other reason why OBR is never likely to be used for big banks, is that in any failure of a major bank, trans-Tasman politics is likely to be to the fore, with a great deal of pressure from Australia for the failure of the bank group’s operations on both sides of the Tasman to be handled together/similarly.  It was a little curious that nothing of this was mentioned in the chapter of the consultative document.)

If there is no established depositor protection mechanism and if politicians blanch at the point of failure –  as almost inevitably they will –  then in practice what is most likely to happen is that everyone will be bailed out.   And that really would be quite unfortunate  – big wholesale creditors, who really should be on their own (and able to manage risk in diversified portfolios), losing along with granny.   And so one argument is that deposit insurance allows us to ring-fence and protect (and charge for the insurance upfront) retail depositors, while leaving wholesale creditors to their own devices in the event of failure.  In other words, a proper deposit insurance scheme could increase the chances that OBR can actually be used to haircut the sort of people (funders) that most agree should lose in the event of a bank failure.

There were a few things in the Stock article where I’m quoted in a way that at least somewhat misrepresents what I said.

Reddell said he expected the deposit insurance to win out and the scheme to be run by the Government.

An EQC-like fund would be created to collect insurance premiums from all depositors, with no banks allowed to opt out, he said.

The question here had been about which private insurer would be strong enough to provide the deposit insurance.  My response was that it was most unlikely such a scheme would be run through a private insurer –  they too can become stressed in serious crises –  and that what one would expect would be a government-run and underwritten fund, accumulating levies over the decades, and helping to cover any losses in the event of a major failure.

The premium would be about 10 basis points on deposits, so a deposit account paying interest of 3 per cent, would be cut to 2.9 per cent, with the rest funding the deposit guarantee premiums, Reddell said.

Here the question was mostly about who would bear the cost of the insurance. My point was that one would expect the cost to fall primarily on depositors (rather than say, borrowers or shareholders).  The size of any premium (which should be differentiated by the riskiness of the institution) would be a matter to be determined, and varied over time, but I did note to Stock that for an AA rated bank that cost might be quite modest.   I noted that although CDS (credit default swap) premia had increased since, in the half decade or so leading up to the 2008 financial crisis the premia for Australasian banks had typically been only around 10 basis points.

In other guarantee schemes each depositor only has a maximum amount of their money guaranteed. The paper mentions $50,000, but Reddell said the scheme, if introduced, would have a cap of around $100,000.

My point was that a cap of only $50000 (an idea mooted in the paper) didn’t seem particularly credible, and based on the levels of coverage in many overseas schemes (and under the deposit guarantee scheme) I would expect any deposit insurance scheme cap to be at least $100000.   Set the cap too low and it will end up being unilaterally changed at the point of crisis, with no compensating revenue to cover the additional insurance being granted.

And finally

But a big bank failure was not imminent, he said.

“Canada has gone over 100 years without a big bank failure. There’s no reason to think we will get one in the next few decades,” he said.

Of course, failures are always possible, but much of the mindset and literature is too influenced by either US examples (where the state has had far too big a role in banking), or those from emerging markets.   Canada provides a very striking contrast, but even in New Zealand or Australia the only period of systemic stress in the 20th century was in the period (the late 1980s) when a previously over-regulated system was deregulated quite quickly and everyone (lenders, borrowers, regulators) struggled to get to grips with applying sound banking practices in an unfamiliar environment.   A once in a hundred year systemic bank failure is something authorities have to plan for, and given the choice between collecting modest annual insurance premia for a hundred years to cover some (or even all) of the cost of bailing out retail depositors, and doing nothing and (most probably) bailing them out anyway, I know which second-best alternative I’d choose.

I hope the government agrees, and acts to implement a deposit insurance regime for New Zealand.  There are lots of operational details to work out if they do, and those aren’t the focus of this consultation document, but deposit insurance is the way we should be heading.