Which is why fractional reserve banking is so dangerous.  Once a bank lends money they don’t have they are inherently insolvent from the start. 

L: Doug, there is considerable disagreement over the significance of the Cyprus crisis. A lot of people are saying that it’s just a flash in the pan; Cyprus is a small country, far off, and doesn’t really matter. Other people are saying it’s very significant. The European Central Bank took unprecedented steps. What do you think?

Doug: I think this could be the spark that ignites the keg of dynamite under the current financial system. All banks, all around the world, are bankrupt, and have been for years. That’s because all the world’s banks run on a fractional reserve basis.

L: I know what you mean, but we should spell that out: by law and backed with government guarantees, banks only have to keep a tiny fraction of the money people deposit on hand. They lend out the vast bulk of it, and in even in good times, they could not return all depositors’ money at once, since loans cannot be called in instantaneously, and most would be defaulted on if they were. In bad times, the charade is even more hollow, since many loans that banks are currently owed will never ever get paid.

Doug: Yes, and they are all in that position. It was more serious in Cyprus because that economy is very leveraged to finance. In other words Cyprus was a banking epicenter for Europe. It was easier to make deposits – there were fewer questions asked – making banking the major business of the country. But I think the trouble will spread from there. It could spread to Luxembourg or Malta next; both are at least as leveraged to the financial sector as Cyprus. And from there… who knows?

Anyone with any sense should withdraw whatever cash they have in European banks, whether in euros or any other currency, immediately. Cyprus demonstrated that governments are quite willing and able to confiscate money sitting in a bank account in order to preserve the banking system. We live in Bizarro World.

L: Why would it spread? Cyprus was said to be particularly vulnerable because of its strong Greek connections; Cypriot banks had bought of lot Greek debt. Would people in Luxembourg be as exposed?

Doug: All banks are in effect creatures of the state at this point. They all own a lot of government bonds, which are considered the most secure form of capital. Of course, that’s the opposite of the truth; all these governments are bankrupt as well. The Greek government is just more overtly bankrupt than most.

Actually, we should take a minute here to discuss what a properly run banking system looks like. Historically, banks offered two types of accounts: demand deposits and time deposits. Demand deposits are what we call checking accounts today, but the original idea was that you’d pay your bank to store your money securely, and you had the right to “demand” your deposit back immediately, and to transfer funds via check.

The idea of time deposits, which became savings accounts, was that the bank would pay you interest when you deposited your money with them for a specific period of time. That’s why it’s called a “time” deposit; you lent the bank your money for a given time, as did other depositors, and the banks would always know how much money they could lend out – at higher interest rates. Furthermore, loans made against time deposits were always short term, and also self-liquidating, against receivables, or excess inventory, for instance.

There were no government guarantees for deposits back then; bankers needed to capitalize their businesses with their own funds, and if they miscalculated, they were personally liable – and often did go bankrupt themselves if they made too many bad loans. Depositors naturally avoided banks known to make risky or illiquid loans. Banks competed to be known as the most prudent and solvent.

Both lenders and depositors were cautious. Before the early 20th century, people might well have laughed at today’s depositors of Cypriot banks. If they were foolish enough to put their money in banks that made such stupid loans, they only get what they deserve.