Stability vs. moral hazard - a compromise to deposit insurance

Icesave website, as it appeared in February 2010When the Icelandic banks started persuading clients from the UK and the Netherlands with high interest savings accounts, those interested in the offer could be roughly divided into three groups. Some merely saw the interest, and did not think there would be any risk involved. Others predicted that the Icelandic economy would end up in a serious crisis, and thus stayed away. And then there were those, who had a hunch of the emerging problems, but an even stronger confidence that in case of a crisis, deposit insurance would cover the losses - as it did in 2008.

The deposit insurance is not only an important security factor for individuals, it's also an essential element in maintaining the stability of the economic system. Its downside on the other hand is the moral hazard residing in the minds of the aforementioned third group : potential profits are taken to oneself, whereas the risk is socialized to be paid by others. In this sense deposit insurance has a lot in common with the current Greek bailout. Both basically boil down to a conflict between maintaining stability and avoiding moral hazards. The first one (stability) is of course more important, but ignoring the latter entirely may ultimately result in losing the first one too. And it seems to me that moral hazards aren't payed enough attention to.

In case of deposit insurance, perhaps an efficient balance between stability and moral hazards would be to make the deposit insurance reversely progressive. As a simple example, the savings could be fully covered till 20 000 €, 98% covered for the amount of money exceeding 20 000 €, and 95% covered for the amount exceeding 50 000 € up to 100 000 €. Thus, the most basic savings would be fully protected, but with deposits resembling investments, part of the risk would be taken by the depositor. The risk would remain so small that it would not cause a large scale panic on the market.

Another interesting factor is that apparently the promised interests are also a part of the deposit insurance. As a matter of fact, even now and still for about month now, a few thousand clients of the Finnish Sofia Bank are waiting the last 15% of their money - and with interest. By restricting the amount of interest paid in case a bank ends up in receivership and/or by perhaps implementing a reversely progressive deposit insurance, the moral hazard could be avoided. With a model like this there could have been a bit fewer Icesave savings in the Icelandic Landsbanki, which in turn could have made the economic bubble in Iceland at least a tiny bit smaller.

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