Deposit insurance system may face WaMu test

Attention has focused on the danger presented by the failure of Lehman Brothers. But the failure of a commercial bank such as Washington Mutual can have systemic consequences if it threatens a run on other weak banks.

Washington Mutual – the sixth largest bank in the US – has lost more than a third of its market value recently as investors fear it lacks liquidity and capital to survive the credit crisis.

The failure of a bank its size would test the strength of the US deposit insurance system and its ability to maintain the confidence of the nation’s savers.

The US Federal Insurance Deposit Corporation covers the first $100,000 in deposits held by each individual in a given bank. As of June 30, 64 per cent of the total $7,000bn deposits were insured in the US – a much larger proportion than in the UK at the time when Northern Rock. the commercial bank, failed.

Nonetheless, this still leaves $2,500bn in uninsured deposits. If a high-profile failure causes these uninsured deposits to shift abruptly in a flight to safety, it could be highly destabilising for the banking system.

The US could be forced to adopt a de facto blanket guarantee on all bank deposits, as the UK did on a temporary basis during the Northern Rock crisis.

There are other precedents. At the start of the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s, the International Monetary Fund opposed extending deposit guarantees. But the IMF soon changed tack and told crisis-hit countries to issue full guarantees.

A formal blanket guarantee in the US would require legislation. But under a 1991 law, the FDIC could seek a systemic risk exemption to cover all the deposits of a failing institution, subject to the approval of its board, a supermajority of the Federal Reserve governors, and the Treasury secretary in consultation with the president.

The FDIC has no desire to invoke this authority – which has never been used; would be unpopular with taxpayers; and would carry a cost in terms of moral hazard.

The FDIC is respected for its operational effectiveness. But its $45bn deposit insurance fund is underfunded according to its own guidelines, at 1.01 per cent of insured deposits.

The FDIC is preparing a capital replenishment plan that would involve raising premiums paid by banks.

But analysts fear it may have to draw on its $70bn Treasury credit lines. Alan Avery, a partner at Arnold and Porter, said a single failure – if big enough – “would cause the FDIC to immediately draw on the Treasury credit”.

Washington Mutual had $143bn in insured deposits on June 30 – about three times the size of the deposit insurance fund, but less than half of its $307bn assets.

By Krishna Guha in Washington and Joanna Chung in New York

Published: September 14 2008 20:38 | Last updated: September 14 2008 20:38

Source: Financial Times

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