The great savings rush is on in Britain, as worried investors flock to put their money into one of several safe banks that guarantee 100% of deposits — and are shaking up the banking industry throughout Europe.
Mike Bellhouse lined up Thursday to open an account at Northern Rock. The bank failed last year, but the government took it over and fully guarantees customers' deposits.
"It's all about security," says Bellhouse, 31, a London real estate agent.
It's also a big relief for savers nervous about the safety of their money in the credit crisis that began in the USA and washed across Britain and Europe. Ensuring the safety of people's bank deposits is one reason the financial bailout plan before Congress would increase the amount of personal savings guaranteed in U.S. banks to $250,000 from $100,000.
Across Europe, the amount protected in banking accounts varies widely — from $26,400 in Switzerland to $212,000 in Italy, according to a survey by the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
But there's nothing like 100% insurance on an unlimited amount, says Peter Ryan, 65, a doctor. He opened an account at Northern Rock — one of the few nationalized banks in Britain — after selling a house several months ago and looking for a single bank to safely deposit the proceeds.
"It's 100% guaranteed by the Bank of England and the government," Ryan says at a Northern Rock branch in central London.
It didn't matter that new customers can't open long-term certificates of deposit that pay higher interest rates, as the bank announced Thursday. For Bellhouse, he wants to separate his savings from the bank that holds his mortgage, and he wants the money guaranteed to be safe.
Northern Rock, which was bailed out in September 2007 at the start of the credit crunch and was nationalized in February, isn't the only bank reaping Britons' savings.
Ireland approved a law Thursday that guarantees 100% of deposits in six of its largest banks, sparking concerns that people will transfer huge deposits from British banks. Until now, Ireland insured deposits up to about $40,000.
"We're attracting a significant number of business inquiries," says Jeremy Carey, spokesman for the Anglo Irish Bank, which does business in Britain.
One of the biggest windfalls for new accounts could be the British Post Office, which offers banking services run by the Bank of Ireland and whose accounts also would be 100% insured.
Royal Mail spokesman Mike Taylor said post offices are "seeing an increase in customers" since the Irish government announced the unlimited guarantee on deposits Tuesday — the day after the Irish Stock Exchange suffered its greatest drop in history.
Ireland's action is big news — and a major worry — in Britain.
"Savers dash for Irish safe haven," read a headline in London's Daily Mail newspaper.
The British Bankers' Association called Ireland's action anti-competitive and said in a statement, "We need fair play for financial institutions in Europe."
British Prime Minister Gordon Brown urges an increase in the guarantees on British bank accounts to just more than $88,000. Now personal bank accounts are insured to $62,000.
Alistair Milne, a banking professor at City University London, says a rush to pull money out of one bank and put it in another was "a bit worrying."
"Banks have a funding problem already without losing deposits as well," he says.
He doubts that transferring deposits would trigger a bank's collapse, but it could seal the demise of a bank in serious financial trouble.
Ireland's action is attracting attention elsewhere in Europe.
European Union Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes pleaded with individual governments not to take such unilateral action to stave off a banking meltdown.
In the past week, four European banks were bailed out by their governments.
Contributing: wire reports