Regulatory Moral Hazard: The Real Moral Hazard in Federal Deposit Insurance

By Ely, Bert | Independent Review, Fall 1999 | Go to article overview

Regulatory Moral Hazard: The Real Moral Hazard in Federal Deposit Insurance


Ely, Bert, Independent Review


Many banking regulators, academics, and others hold that deposit insurance creates an undesirable moral hazard in banking. But the real moral hazard that federal deposit insurance creates is regulatory moral hazard. In this article I describe regulatory moral hazard, explain why depositor discipline of banks is highly undesirable, show how federal deposit insurance fosters regulatory moral hazard and propose a cross-guarantee concept for privatizing banking regulation so as to eliminate regulatory moral hazard in banking.

Moral Hazard

A moral hazard exists when a decision maker takes risks that he otherwise would not have taken, because the adverse consequences of the risk-taking have been transferred to a third party in a manner that is advantageous to the risk-taker and, more important, is disadvantageous and potentially even destructive to the party to whom the risk has been shifted. Insurance is such a risk-transferring device; therefore, the potential for moral hazard exists in any form of insurance, not just in deposit insurance. However, insurance presents a moral hazard only when it is underpriced or the insurance contract lacks sufficient safeguards for the insurer. A properly priced and carefully written insurance contract may actually cause an insured decision maker to take less risk or to be more conscious of the risks being taken than if he were uninsured. This desirable result occurs when the insurer assesses and then monitors the insured's risk-taking and sets risk-sensitive premiums designed to deter unwise risk-taking by the insured. Hence, for example, we expect an insured auto driver to drive more safely than an uninsured one: the insured driver fears losing his insurance if he drives carelessly; the uninsured one has no such concern.

Insurance enterprises have operated successfully for centuries, with relatively few failures, because they have used pricing and contractual safeguards to reduce insurance's moral hazard sufficiently to enable insurers to earn the profits needed to attract the capital to support the insurance risks that they have assumed. Deposit insurance has been a notable exception, especially in the United States. Over the last 165 years, most state-run deposit insurance schemes have failed, as did the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation (FSLIC). However, three successful state deposit-insurance plans operated in Ohio, Indiana, and Iowa prior to the Civil War (Calomiris 1989, 15-19). Those three plans are historical precursors to the cross-guarantee concept discussed in the last section of this article. The relatively few deposit insurance programs in other countries have, in general, not fared much better than those in the United States.

Deposit insurance's moral hazard is rooted in the very rationale of deposit insurance. Quite simply, deposit insurance exists only because bank failures have caused losses to depositors. If banks (used here as shorthand for depository institutions of all types) never failed or, more realistically, if banks failed with no losses to depositors, then no political demand for deposit insurance would arise. Like any other economic good, deposit insurance is demanded only because consumers feel a need for it. The United States has had a richer experience with deposit insurance primarily because it has had so many bank failures, especially in the twentieth century, compared to other industrialized countries.

To identify the root cause of the moral hazard in deposit insurance, we must first explore the underlying causes of bank failures. By definition, a bank fails when, in going out of business, it imposes losses on its creditors, primarily its depositors and, before the Civil War, the holders of its circulating notes (currency issued by state-chartered banks). A bank that liquidates itself or is acquired by another bank without imposing any loss on its creditors is not a failed bank for the purposes of this article, even though it may have been approaching insolvency. …

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