How safe is your bank?

When you have your money in a bank, the money is legally no longer yours. It belongs to the bank and you become an “unsecured creditor”. This is the legal situation and it has been confirmed by the Reserve Bank in an email (27 March from Sonia Speedy) to Sue Hamill of Positive Money. When the bank has your money it can do what it likes with it, including take risks you don’t know about. So putting your money in a bank is a “customer beware” activity it seems.

If you have your money in Bank of New Zealand, Westpac, ASB or ANZ, then you run the risk that you don’t know too much about what your bank is up to. The latest thing is covered bonds, which is just one of these risks. They are packaging their ‘high quality residential mortgages’ up and selling them off as ‘Covered Bonds’ to investment funds. Then if the bank gets into trouble, the investment funds are ‘secured creditors’ and are ahead of you in line when the liquidator takes over. This means that Kiwi households will be forced to help bail out banks while overseas lenders have their money protected.

If you think Kiwibank is an exception, then think again. They started selling off their mortgages as covered bonds in April 2013.

But authorisation from Government doesn’t seem to matter to banks. When I rang Parliament on 9 May 2013, I found the Bill on covered bonds was still at committee stage, having passed its Second Reading on 22 February.

Then there is the small matter of Interest Rate Swaps (IRS) which all these banks (and the Co-operative Bank too, not sure about TSB) engage in. If you can imagine taking out a variable-rate mortgage and then paying a bank to make your loan payments fixed, you’ve got the basic idea of an interest-rate swap. They comprise 80% of our derivatives market and are widely used by local authorities to hedge against the risk of interest rate changes.

In April 2013 the US futures regulator was reported to be investigating allegations of manipulation of this popular derivatives benchmark and had issued subpoenas to market participants including the interdealer brokerage ICAP and several global banks. It seems the rates are set by 20 exhorbitantly paid brokers at a desk in Jersey City, New Jersey. A year earlier they had discovered that the LIBOR rates were being manipulated and this investigation has now been widened. LIBOR sets the actual interest rate that banks charge each other. Since mortgages, student loans, financial derivatives, and other financial products often rely on Libor as a reference rate, the manipulation of submissions used to calculate those rates can have significant negative effects on consumers and financial markets worldwide.

At the time LIBOR was though to be the biggest financial scam ever. Two big banks have been fined for this including the Swiss bank UBS which was fined a record $1.5billion in Dec, 2012.

Interest rates swaps are a gigantic market. Would you believe this figure, or even be able to imagine how big it is? It is $379 trillion in June 2012 (Bank of International Settlements website accessed May 1, 2103). The size of the global economy is $70 trillion, so it is more than five times this. The risk manager of the Co-operative Bank told me when I visited him in early 2012 that they were involved in interest rate swaps because it was safe and it saved them money. The Financial Manager of Kapiti Coast District Council told me they had made money from interest rate swaps and had no plans to drop the practice.

So this leaves us with the possibility of putting your money with a credit union. Unfortunately all credit unions must use a bank for their overnight transfers, so that one is a dud too.

There is one other possibility. When I rang the Reserve Bank some time ago about which banks were involved with Open Bank Resolution (where the customers bail out a distressed bank and which will be in place by July 1 this year) I was told there are two small Indian banks which were too small to be involved in the scheme.

So there are the facts. The choice is now yours. I am sticking with the Co-operative Bank and TSB.

You could always change to a Credit Union

Unknown-1Today I phoned the CEO of the NZ Association for Credit Unions, Henry Lynch. I told him that feedback we had had from our members about our petition on Open Bank Resolution had included people who said they banked with a credit union anyway so didn’t have to worry about Open Bank Resolution.

It seems there are three big credit unions in New Zealand. Baywide Credit Union based in Hawkes Bay has 15 branches. First Credit Union in Hamilton has 50,000 members and NZCU South covers the South Island. No limit on deposit size. And there are other smaller ones. They are owned by their members and you can go to their AGM etc.

They do have mortgages, but only at floating rates. They don’t have credit cards but their debit cards, where you preload your money, uses your own money and is fine for all online payments like Amazon etc. That is a relief for those wanting to change.

I also learnt by listening to a Radio Live interview with the CEO of the Co-operative Bank that people don’t have so many problems changing banks these days. The only situation in which they have problems is if they have a fixed rate mortgage and it costs them to break it.

Credit Unions in New Zealand are champing under controls which don’t exist in Canada, where almost one in three people bank with a credit union.  Last Sunday the Sunday Star-Times had an article which outlined the various laws and regulations which constrain credit unions or impose unnecessary costs on them. Obviously the New Economics Party would develop policies which address these concerns.


Thoughts on the Occupy Movement and Bank Transfer Day

I have just read the most wonderful piece of prose on the Occupy Movement by Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economics. And today I have been interviewed for Planet FM on the world’s Problems so I am thinking about the Occupy Movement.

I think they will eventually win and suspect it will take years. It was so inspiring to read the Dominion this morning and see that St Paul’s Cathedral in London was letting the protesters camp there and that the Anglican church is launching a fierce attack on greedy bankers, accusing them of having “slipped their moral moorings.”

Nov 5th was Bank Transfer day, the day people are called on by the Occupy movement to transfer their bank accounts to a credit union. Credit unions didn’t go down in the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and have excellent facilities for changing automatic payments. They have ATM machines round the country. A good choice if you don’t mind going without a credit card. They are financial co-operatives where the customers own the bank so you can go to their AGM and stand for their board. They don’t deal in derivatives.

Very recently the PSIS has managed to acquire bank status with the Reserve Bank and is now rebranded as the Co-operative Bank. Up to now their cheque books had to have the Bank of New Zealand them, presumably because BNZ did their credit clearing overnight. So you can change your account to them, but remember to keep a close watch on how they change. Will they deal in derivatives? They have the right to. Will they deal in shares and bonds and their derivatives? Will they get into insurance or wealth management services? They shouldn’t. Banks should be prohibited by law from doing anything but banking (the Glass Steigel Act in USA) and we had a similar prohibition before Roger Douglas deregulated the banks in the 1980s. Yes old fashioned banks were doing what old fashioned banks did best – taking in deposits and lending them out.