ATHENS-In Europe's most economically stricken countries, people are taking their money out of banks as a way to protect their savings from the growing financial storm. People are worried that their savings could be devalued if their country stops using the euro, or that banks are on the verge of collapse and that governments cannot make good on deposit insurance. So in Greece, Spain and beyond they are withdrawing euros by the billions - behaviour that is magnifying their countries' financial stresses.
The money is being hoarded at home or deposited in banks in more stable economies. It's a steady bank "jog" at the moment, not a full-bore run. But it threatens to undermine the finances of those countries' already-stressed lenders. And if it does turn into a full bank run following yesterday's crucial election in Greece, it could hasten financial disaster in Europe and help spread turmoil around the world.
Since the Greek debt crisis broke in late 2009, deposits have fallen by 30 per cent. Savers have slowly pulled some €72 billion (US$90.24 billion) from local lenders, with total household and corporate deposits standing at €165.9 billion (US$207.94 billion) in April, according to the latest data from the Bank of Greece.
Spanish deposits have fallen about six per cent over the past year. They dipped suddenly in April by about €3.1 billion, or 1.8 per cent, to €1.624 trillion as problems with the country's troubled banks started to grow to alarming proportions. This is despite the fact that deposits are guaranteed by the government up to €100,000 across the eurozone.
Spain's financial turmoil quickly worsened in late May, when Bankia, the country's second-largest lender, announced it needed capital of €19 billion to stay afloat. Bankia denied reports of a rush by its customers to withdraw, but the bailout scared Spaniards who assumed their money was safe.
Bankia client Rosa Monsivais panicked and decided she had to move her savings from Bankia to a bank she thought would be safer. She chose a foreign bank with Spanish operations, the Dutch owned ING bank. It took longer than she thought, leading to anxious days until she knew her money was in her new account.
"It scared me a little. I took all my money out and put it in ING," said Monsivais, a 41-year-old graphic artist who would not say how much money she moved. "But it took a full week to do this kind of transaction. I was reading the newspaper each day and it worried me." The money across Europe is headed to different places.
Some has simply been withdrawn and spent out of urgent need as people lose their jobs due to recessions. Some is winding up in bank accounts or invested in countries that are more stable such as Germany. The rest is being invested in property or bonds being issued by other countries that use the euro.
The flight of money from other countries was seen as one factor pushing up central London house prices, according to Knight Frank, a real estate agency dealing in high-end property. "While it looks very much that the surge in Greek buyers has fallen off sharply since the beginning of the year - those who had the funds to buy have done so - we are now seeing a noticeable uptick in interest from France, Italy, Spain and even German-based purchasers looking at the prime London market," the company said in its Prime Central London Index report.
Meanwhile, some money appears to be simply hoarded at home, despite the risk of theft. Last month, police in Athens arrested a gang that specialised in breaking into basement storage spaces under apartment blocks, netting a rich haul in stashed cash and valuables.
"What the average Greek has in mind is to secure the euros they currently hold," said Theodore Krintas, managing director at Attica Wealth Management. "That has been going on for a long time, and will continue as long as the uncer-tainty increases concerning Greece's position in the near future in the eurozone and the European Union."
Since 2010, Greece has been dependent on two bailouts totaling €240 billion in loans to pay its bills. In return, the government had to promise to make deep spending cuts to lower its fiscal deficit. That has helped put the country in a deep recession. So far it's been a trickle rather than a flood in Greece, underlining its slow-motion nature. Many have kept their deposits because they don't believe Greece will leave the euro.
Yesterday's general election in Greece, with pro-bailout parties winning enough seats to form a coalition government, has eased fears about Greece's imminent exit from the euro-zone. With most of the vote counted, official results showed the pro-bailout New Democracy winning 30 per cent and 130 of the 300 seats in Parliament. The radical anti-bailout Syriza party had 26.6 per cent and 71 seats and the pro-bailout Socialist PASOK party came in third with 12.5 per cent of the vote and 33 seats.
Wealthy Germans also are concerned that inflation will surge if Europe's central bank has to step in and spend huge amounts of money propping up the single currency. So they are putting more money into their own country's high-end real-estate in hope it will keep its value.
Well-heeled Spaniards have been moving money to Switzerland and the US for months amid mounting worries about Spain and the safety of the eurozone, said Bruce Goslin, managing director for Europe, the Middle East and Africa for K2 Intelligence consulting group.
"As we are circulating and talking to people, some things are becoming clear. Everyone says 'There is nothing going on in Spain', the economy is contracting so fast we're going to have to go out of Spain," said Goslin. Spain's banking problems come from the collapse of a real estate boom.
Banks that made reckless loans are not being paid back and are seeing the value of the properties they invested in tumbling. This is making the country's banking system increasingly financially insecure - heightening savers' fears that their money is not safe.
Fernando Encinar, head of research at real estate Web site Idealista.com, said some wealthy people who didn't have money to buy during the boom are now taking advantage of prices that have fallen 26 per cent in four years. Many Spaniards can't move money abroad because times are so tough, said Vincent Forest at the Economist Intelligence Unit. With unemployment now at nearly 25 per cent, Spaniards with jobs and savings are increasingly helping out less fortunate relatives.
"Most Spaniards have huge savings, but they have someone in the family who needs money and isn't earning anything," Forest said. Many Italians-some of Europe's most devoted savers-are also moving money. They are worried their government will be the next victim of the crisis through its heavy debt load, even though Italy's banks, government finances and economy are in better shape than Spain's.
Some 60,000 to 70,000 small investors have bought property abroad, mostly in Germany but also on the Spanish islands, in the last three months, for a total investment of €400 million on an annual basis, said Paolo Righi, president of the Italian Federation of Real Estate Professionals.
Ruth Stirati, who runs a business helping Italians buy property in Berlin, said she gets about ten e-mails a day asking about properties. "Over the last two or three weeks, there has been a new panic," she said. "They have a thousand fears: That the banks won't have money, that the euro will fail. It is without substance, their doubts. But they worry there will be one strong euro in Germany, and one that is weak."
Wealthy Germans aren't worried about seeing their money disappear due to collapsing banks, but they are concerned that their savings will be eaten away through inflation. As a result, they are putting money into real estate-at home.