Monday, May 28, 2012

Run On Greek Banks

There has been a lot of news in the last couple of weeks about runs on banks in Greece.  It is reported that bank customers have withdrawn euros in total of the equivalent of over a billion U.S. dollars.

There are a couple things that are a little surprising about this news.  First, 800 million euros (or one billion U.S. dollars) is really not a lot of money in today's world.  In the U.S., we talk about trillions now. One billion dollars is only 0.1% of a trillion dollars.  While the total amount is not insignificant for Greece, it is also not exactly earth-shattering news.  I suppose the symbolism of it is bigger than the actual amount of money.

The second notable thing is just how long it took for this to happen enough that it is headline news.  I was forecasting a Greece pullout from the euro zone last year.  Greece has been a mess for years now.  It is amazing how long people wait until they finally take action.  These people withdrawing money from the banks in a panic remind me of shoppers looking for canned foods and bottled water on the day that a hurricane is about to hit.  They can only hope at that point that there will be something left for them.  The problem is that these people should have known that a hurricane was coming days before if they had paid any attention.  Yet, they waited until the last minute.

The more amazing thing is the shoppers who just deny that a hurricane will hit at all.  They don't even bother trying to do some last minute shopping in preparation.  Are there really still people in Greece who have their money in Greek banks?  This is just the epitome of foolishness.

There is definitely a lesson here.  Most things, particularly when it comes to economics and government policy, do not happen all at once.  There are usually warning signs.  Some Jewish people living in Germany in the early 1930's saw the warning signs and got out.  Some saw the signs in the later 30's.  Some were able to get out and some weren't, but at least they had a shot.  Meanwhile, there were some that were in denial right until the end.

It is good to keep an eye on the big picture.  If you were living in Greece during the last few years, what would you have done?  Hopefully you would have left the country, where the government is trying to seize wealth any way it can.  If you stayed, hopefully you would at least have the sense to not leave any significant amount of money in a Greek bank.

Americans should pay attention to the same warning signs.  It is not just about banks or even economics.  It is everything political.  As times get tougher, the U.S. government and state and local governments will be looking for ways to fund their own operations.  Hopefully Americans will do a better job of turning their backs on big government than the Greek people.

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