Contrary to what most people had assumed, banking in the United States had been highly stable in the decades before deposit insurance. Of course, depositors were concerned about their safety, but this made them cautious in whom they banked with. They demanded reassurance from their banks, and the banks gave it to them. Pressure from depositors forced the banks to be conservative, to lend carefully, to keep their leverage ratios low, and to disclose their broad positions. The bankers themselves were conservative even in their dress, but this was itself reassuring, and the solid architecture of the banks’ offices reinforced the notion that they were pillars of the community with solid roots in it. The key to banking was maintaining the confidence of depositors and not taking that confidence for granted.
Before deposit insurance, a bank that took too many risks would eventually undo itself. It would do well for a while, increasing market share and generating better shareholder returns than the fuddy-duddy banks, which would feel the pressure. However, come the inevitable downturn, the cowboy bank would experience heavy losses on its questionable lending, liquidity would tighten, and a point would come where the frightened depositors would run for their money: the cowboy would be literally run out of business. These occasional crises were unpleasant, but good for the long-term health and even stability of the system: the runs would expel the cowboys from the system and give a salutary reminder to those who survived. The system itself was rarely seriously at threat, because the depositors would redeposit their funds with the safe banks. There would typically be a flight to quality, a transferring of funds within the system, rather than a run on or threat to the system as a whole. Thus, it was the threat of a run that kept the bankers in line.
Once you introduce deposit insurance the situation changes profoundly. Deposit insurance allows the bankers to take their depositors’ confidence for granted. This takes the pressure off the bankers, who can now safely increase both their lending risks and their leverage ratios, thereby increasing returns to their shareholders (or, in modem Wall Street, to themselves). For their part, the depositors are no longer concerned with the risks their banks are taking, but only with the rates they get on their deposits. Consequently, deposit insurance subsidizes risk-taking, so leading to excess risk-taking with the deposit insurance agency and, ultimately, the taxpayer, picking up the tab.
Nor does the damage end there. With deposit insurance, there is no longer any run to fear and even the most insolvent banks following the most unsound “shoot to the moon” investments can now remain in business indefinitely, attracting more funds and staying in business by merely raising deposit interest rates. The process of competition then becomes utterly subverted: instead of allowing the conservative banks to drive out the cowboys, even if it takes a little time, the process of competition now rewards the cowboys and penalizes the good banks. It therefore pays to become a cowboy and, eventually, all banks do.
– From Alchemists of Loss by Kevin Dowd and Martin Hutchinson (pp. 271-2). Pictures of the two authors here, taken at the launch of the book last Wednesday evening at the Institute of Economic Affairs.