Monday, December 12, 2011

Banking with Chicken Little in Latvia

There are reasons for concern everywhere about the financial system, especially in light of the Eurozone debt crisis, the postponed, but still possible collapse of the euro and other things based on facts, figure, events and rational analysis. But that is not the biggest immediate risk for bank customers in Latvia. The biggest risk is proving to be the customers themselves.
Whatever else banks are, they are institutions based on trust at the customer level. That is, the bank is kept solvent by the fact that depositors a) believe the bank will be there the next day, which depends on b) most of the other depositors being there the next day. If that doesn't happen, whatever else the bank is doing with the money entrusted to it by customers doesn't matter, because, basically, the customers cannot be trusted to stay with the bank and can, for whatever reason, seriously damage it or pull it down.
This is what is starting to happen in Latvia with the initially groundless panic surrounding Swedbank and, to a far lesser extent, SEB. Both parent banks in Sweden are stable, solvent, and there are no signals from any of the many third parties watching the banks (auditors, analysts, shareholders) that anything is wrong (or, for that matter, that the official authorities, which there may be some reason to mistrust, are hiding anything). But now in Latvia, the mass hysteria of bank depositors is itself becoming at least a low intensity threat to Swedbank and the other banks. It at least suggests there is some truth, but little reason behind the saying that in bank panics and runs, the cool and rational will fare the worst, remaining as the “last man not taking everything out of the bank”.
There may be an explanation, but not a justification of public behavior in Latvia in connection with the recent closing of Latvijas Krājbanka. However, that was a relatively small bank in terms of assets (but broad-based in terms of numbers of customers) and its demise was the result of alleged criminal behavior by the owner of its parent Snoras Bank, the Russian millionaire Vladimir Antonov. Also, thousands of customers were compensated to the extent of their deposit insurance coverage very quickly, with some LVL 200 million paid out within days of the collapse.
The fundamental problem is that people in Latvia now have a largely irrational distrust of banking system as a whole, with Swedbank singled out as the market leader, and a far  less irrational mistrust of government authority based on inept initial statements (Krājbanka is OK) by the Financial and Capital Markets Commission (FCMC) in connection with the collapse of Snoras in Lithuania. This mistrust is showing signs of turning into a kind of mind-set of the Middle Ages. What I mean by that is that people see their surroundings as governed by incomprehensible, mainly malevolent and arbitrary forces beyond their control or understanding. Wars, plagues, famines were frequent occurances and to the average illiterate peasant, they simply happened or were acts of God or other mystical forces. It now seems that many Latvians view the financial system and their environment as a whole as a malevolent force to which one can only react in the short term, based on the basic emotions fear and suspicion, putting reason and the checking of emotions against facts on the back burner. It is the kind of mindset that led to numerous panics, delusions, witch-burnings, children's crusades and other acts of mass hysteria in one form or another. This is shocking and baffling to the more rational societies of Europe, in particular, the Swedes.
Another way to put it is that these recent and still ongoing events show that the greatest risk to any Latvian customer of a stable, well capitalized and profitable Swedish-owned bank is the fact the many of his or her fellow customers are like Chicken Little, ready to run about madly shouting that “the sky is falling”. It would almost be reason enough to move one's assets, if possible, to Swedbank in Sweden, where the cohort of bank customers is less excitable and irrational.


Anonymous said...

Can't really blame the customer, especially the elderly people.

I mean we have a history with banking institutions here.

Heck, they were fucked twice over with BB and then LKB. Some of them thought they would lose all of their money @ LKB just like at BB. And that memory is still very vivid. They don't know bout all the new fancy laws protecting the customer, heck even if they knew about them, they wouldn't trust them. And reasonably so, since the government is constantly lying and fucking them over and over again.

And It's not like anyone will honestly ever say stuff like "yeah, that bank is soo fucked, take out all the money, guys".

This hysteria is very much rational, sure the sources are not reputable or verifiable, but when you don't(and can't) trust neither media or government, this is what you get.

You reap what you sow.

KasparsM said...

The banks are responsible the past financial crisis through irresponsible lending and creating too complicated and vulnerable financial instruments which created subprime crisis. It all was beyond the control of common people, so how can we blame them for not having faith in banks anymore?

Trust has to be earned by actions and the banks and especially the government have a long way to go.

Anonymous said...

From a customers point of view not irrational at all - you have nothing to gain but everything to lose if you don't act. When a critical number of people have made withdrawals you have to decide what is the likelihood of a bank going belly up, especially in a small country of Latvia with recent and not so recent bad banking history.