Home > #OWS, finance, FogOfWar, guest post, news > The Numbers are in: Round 1 to #OWS

The Numbers are in: Round 1 to #OWS

November 6, 2011

This is a guest post by FogOfWar:

CUNA (a trade industry group for credit unions) just announced that at least 650,000 customers and USD $4.5 Billion have switched from banks to credit unions in the last five weeks. I think this is a pretty impressive showing for the lead up to “Bank Transfer Day”, and, as posted before, am a supporter of the CU transfers. A few quick points on the announcement:

Are those numbers driven by “Move Your Money” or BofA’s $5 Debit Fee?

A little of both, I suspect, and there’s no hard survey data (that I know of) splitting it out. The two points aren’t completely separate, as one of the points of “move your money” (at least in my mind) is to let people know that credit unions generally have lower fees than large commercial banks & it often makes financial sense to shift your account over regardless of your political views on “Too Big To Fail (TBTF)”.

So is 4.5 Billion a lot or a little?

It isn’t a big number in the scope of overall deposits, but it’s a really big number for transfers in just one month. For scale, the total deposits in all 11,000+ CUs nationwide are somewhere around $800Bn, and that’s roughly 10% of the total deposits in the US. So $4Bn (to make the math easy) is a 0.5% increase in deposits for CUs and somewhere around a 0.05% reduction in the deposit base of US banks in the aggregate. I suspect the transfers are concentrated in the large “final four” banks (BAC, JPM, C, WFC which, if memory serves, account for somewhere around 40% of deposits), so the reduction might be closer to 0.10% for the TBTF quartet.

Wait, those seem like really small percentages—why do you think this matters?

Well, because it’s a greater increase in deposits in one month than credit unions (in aggregate) got in the entirety of last year (and last year was a good year for CUs in which they saw their market share increase). People (rightly) don’t change their checking accounts lightly (there’s a lot of “stickiness” to having direct deposit/ATM cards/etc.—in short it’s a pain in the ass to change your financial institution), so this is a pretty impressive number of people and amount of deposits in this span of time.

Also (and this will play out over time), this could be the start of a trend. Certainly there seems to be a large uptick in discussion of “move your money”, and, as the idea percolates around there’s a lag between thought an action, so this well could be a slow build.

“A Slow Deliberative Walk Away from the TBTF Banks.”

Another important point is that, in fact, you really don’t want too many people moving their accounts in a short period of time for two reasons. First, a rush of people all removing their deposits at the same time is, in fact, a “run on the bank”. This is destructive for a host of reasons—in particular it can cause the institution on which there’s been a run to go into bankruptcy (regardless of whether that bank is otherwise solvent), and, let’s not forget, we the taxpayer are ultimately on the hook for the deposits of bankrupt commercial banks through the FDIC, which is funded by bank fees but backed by the full faith and credit of the taxpayer (and a BofA bankruptcy might put that backstop to the test). So, much as I disagree with many of the decisions of the mega banks, I don’t want the “move your money” campaign to be a catalyst for their insolvency proceedings.

Instead, what I’d really like to see is a slow steady whittling down of their deposit base, and thus their overall size, until they are no longer considered “to big to fail” and thus pose no danger to the taxpayers, as they will be free to make good or bad decisions and live or die, respectively, by them. In short, I’d like to see a “slow deliberative walk away from the TBTF banks” playing out over the course of the next 2-3 years.

The other reason is that credit union’s can only take deposits at a certain pace without running into issues with their own capital buffers and operations. This is a slightly technical issue, but with a substantive point behind it. In essence, absorbing a large growth in new deposits takes some time, not just from an operational perspective (ramping up staff, at a certain point opening new branches and ATMs), but also because more capital needs to be accumulated to provide a safety buffer for the additional deposits that have been taken on. From this perspective, the $4.5 Bn in 5 weeks is a “goldilocks” level—not to much to overheat, not too little to be a rounding error, but just right (OK, actually think it could be 2-3 times the pace without overheating, but everyone else loves to use that hackneyed “goldilocks” metaphor and I just felt peer pressure to frame it that way).

I read that it won’t have an impact on the banks—is that true?

In a word, “total fucking bullshit”. The deposit base is the skeleton of a bank—it’s what holds the whole thing together. Deposits are steady (essentially) free money. Money that can be deployed wherever the bank finds interesting at the moment: loans to customers, speculative exotic derivatives, new branches, foreign investment, whatever. Moreover, if retail deposits mean so little to banks, then why in the world do they spend so much advertising coin chasing them? Generally for profit institutions advertise for products that are profitable to them, not one’s that are irrelevant. QED.

That’s true over the long term. It is worth noting, however, that at this exact moment in time the banks are flush with cash sitting idle on deposit with the fed. http://www.cnbc.com/id/44019510/Bank_of_New_York_Puts_Charge_on_Cash_Deposits Which, by the way, makes it perfect timing for the “move your money” campaign. As I said before, I really don’t want a “run” on the banks, and the fact that banks are flush with cash currently means they’re relatively safe in the immediate moment from a loss of deposits.

But the real reason you’re still seeing Chase commercials on TV even though they’re flush with cash doing nothing at the Fed, is that Chase knows that most people rarely change their primary checking accounts. The accounts that are moving over now are (statistically) gone for good. Later, when that flush cash at the Fed is no more and the banks want the easy money of a wide retail deposit base, they’ll find it very difficult to bring those people back. Not because credit unions are really awesome, just because people really don’t like switching accounts—BofA has to spend a lot of energy to bring in a new account from another institution and doesn’t actually care if it brings it in from lower east side people’s or from Citibank (money is fungible).

Lastly, and perhaps most important, the primary checking account is the primary point of entry to our financial lives. Big banks like the free money you give them on deposits, but equally much they like the chance to have your credit card business, your mortgage and car loan business, your insurance business, your investing business and possibly your retirement and college savings business. All that ancillary business can be (and very much is) statistically quantified on a per-account average basis. All those cross-sells add up over time to big numbers.


Categories: #OWS, finance, FogOfWar, guest post, news
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  1. November 24, 2011 at 6:46 am
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