The alchemy of deposits

Patrick McKenzie dropped an interesting post on the seemingly humble but actually quite awesome deposit. You can find my (Australian focussed) perspective on the mechanics of bank deposits here but who could resist learning more about “…the terrible majesty of the humble bank deposit”.

The perspective Patrick offers is not necessarily new for anyone who understands banking but a lot of this is probably not well understood by the broader public actually using bank deposits. His post is short and worth reading if only for the “pink slime” analogy.

His first point is that “deposits are money”

The actual core feature of deposits is that you can transfer them to other people to effect payments. Big deal, you might think. You can also transfer cows, sea shells, Bitcoin, an IOU from a friend, or bonds issued by Google to effect payments. But deposits are treated as money by just about everyone who matters in the economy, including (pointedly) the state. Economists can wax lyrical about what “treated as money” means, but the non-specialist gloss is probably just as useful: anything is money if substantially everyone looking at the money both agrees that it is money and agrees at the exchange rate for it. This is sometimes referred to as the “no questions asked” property; money is the Schelling point for value transfers that all parties to a transaction are already at.

This is so fundamental a feature of deposits that, in developed nations, we don’t remember that it isn’t automatic

His second point is that bank deposits are “heavily engineered structured products pretending to be simple”.

From the consumer’s perspective, deposits are “my money,” functionally riskless. This rounds to correct. From the bank’s perspective, deposits are part of the capital stack of the bank, allowing it to engage in a variety of risky businesses. This rounds to correct. The reconciliation between this polymorphism is a feat of financial and social engineering. A bank packages up its various risky businesses—chiefly making loans, but many banks have other functions in addition to the risks associated with any operating business—puts them in a blender, reduces them to a homogenous mix, and then pours that risk mix over a defined waterfall.

The simplest model for that waterfall is, in order of increasing risk: deposits, bonds, preferred equity, and common equit

The “pink slime” analogy referenced above is a colourful way of saying that deposits benefit from having a claim on a diversified pool of assets, the “homogeneous mix” in the extract above. Equally important however is the fact that deposits have a super senior claim on that diversified pool as outlined in the waterfall analogy.

Patrick has packed quite a few nice turns of phrase into his post but one of my favourites addresses the pervasive misuse of the term “deposit”

The fintech industry has not covered itself in glory here. Sometimes firms misclaim a product to be a deposit where it is not. Sometimes they actually institutionally misunderstand the nature of the product they have created. One would hope that that never happens, but … smart people are doomed to continue discovering that just because a deposit is a complex structured product involving a bank which has a stable dollar value, not every complex structured product involving a bank which appears to have a stable dollar value is actually a deposit

To repeat “…just because a deposit is a complex structured product involving a bank which has a stable dollar value, not every complex structured product involving a bank which appears to have a stable dollar value is actually a deposit”

Patrick uses the recent example of Voyager as a case in point. I don’t think it is being pedantic to argue that a “crypto bank” is an oxymoron but I don’t hold out much hope that the term will go away any time soon. A “bank” is arguably a highly regulated institution by definition and the crypto versions to date are either not regulated or subject to a less onerous form of regulation.

This is Patrick’s take on Voyager

Voyager, a publicly traded company, marketed a deposit-adjacent product to users, paying a generous interest rate. Then a cascading series of events in crypto, outside the scope of this essay, blew up a series of firms, including one which had taken out a loan of hundreds of millions of dollars from Voyager. Suddenly, the information-insensitivity of Voyagers not-deposits was pierced, the pink slime appears both undermixed and undercooked, and customers now need to follow a bankruptcy proceeding closely. … When something which was believed to be a deposit is discovered to not actually be a deposit, infrastructure around it breaks catastrophically. Matt Levine has an excellent extended discussion about how Voyager discovered that attaching the ACH payment rail to their deposit-adjacent product became a huge risk once they went under.)

As regular readers will know, I am a big fan of Matt Levine so I endorse Patrick’s recommendation to read Matt’s accounts of what is going on in the crypto world. There is one aspect of Patrick’s post however that I struggled with and that is his account of bank deposits as a cheap source of funding

Why fund the risks of a bank with deposits, as opposed to funding them entirely with bonds and equity (and of course, revenue), like almost all businesses do? From the bank’s perspective, this is simple: deposits are very inexpensive funding sources, and the capability to raise them is the one of the main structural advantages banks have vis-a-vis all other firms in the economy. 

He is correct of course in the sense that the nominal interest rate on bank deposits is quite low, commensurate with their low risk. Two observations however,

Firstly, the true cost of a bank deposit has to take account of the cost of running all the infrastructure that facilities creating a diversified pool of assets and operating the payment rails that allow deposits to effect payments.

The second is that the super senior preferred claim that bank deposits have on the waterfall makes the other parts of the bank liability stack more risky. I know that the “bail-out” or “Too Big To Fail” have traditionally created a subsidy. However, banks are now required to hold both a lot more capital and to issue “bail-in” instruments that should in principle mean that this subsidy is much reduced if not eliminated. If the other parts of the bank liability stack are not pricing in these changes then the really interesting question is why not.

So there is a lot more to this than what Patrick has written (and he has promised further instalments) but I can still recommend his post as a useful (and entertaining) read for anyone seeking a better understanding of this particular corner of the banking universe.

Tony – From the Outside

Author: From the Outside

After working in the Australian banking system for close to four decades, I am taking some time out to write and reflect on what I have learned. My primary area of expertise is bank capital management but this blog aims to offer a bank insider's outside perspective on banking, capital, economics, finance and risk.

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