It’s Not Exactly “A Wonderful Life”

But the press should prepare to cover more bank failures

For the better part of a year now, the business press has been getting on-the-job training in covering financial disasters in all its forms. Today’s topic: bank runs.

The Los Angeles Times has a good reminder of what’s at stake when a bank fails. Americans have been lulled by federal-deposit insurance into thinking their funds are totally safe. They are, but only up to $100,000 ($250,000 if it’s a retirement account). Only rich folks have that much money in an account right? Well, no:

But an estimated 10,000 IndyMac customers had deposits that exceeded those limits. Among them was 70-year-old Charles Tengeri, a retired teacher from Pasadena, who arrived at IndyMac’s headquarters at 4 a.m. and grabbed one of the first spots in line.

Tengeri had more than $200,000 in five certificate of deposit accounts— his life savings, he said. After waiting five hours, he left with a check for $171,000.

“It’s not 100%, but it’s better than nothing,” said Tengeri, who still has more than $50,000 tied up in the bank. “It’s not fair… . I’m praying for it, I’m crossing my fingers for it, but I don’t know.”

Check out this dramatic scene in
The Orange County Register:

A few minutes before the Laguna Woods branch opened, the horn on a catering truck arriving at a nearby construction site blared out the trumpet herald more commonly associated with the horse races.

Almost immediately, the bank crowd began to surge toward the doors. Several people from farther back in the line banged on the door, one man saying he felt faint and asking if he could sit inside.

Here’s the kicker:

Later a woman from Washington Mutual came by handing out water bottles—and business cards.

Seen WaMu’s stock chart lately?

The FDIC says it will try to get 50 percent of excess deposits “available,” reports The Wall Street Journal. The story doesn’t adequately explain what the FDIC is talking here about so it’s not clear whether that means that’s all depositors like this retired teacher will get back or if it’s just what they can get back right now.

The run on the bank, the lines snaking outside the branches in the sweltering heat, the lost savings—there’s more of this to come. The New York Times this morning (emphasis ours):

Regulators and investors are bracing for a small number of banks to fail over the next 12 to 18 months. Analysts predict that 50 to 150 banks might stumble. In the first quarter this year, the F.D.I.C. listed 90 banks as troubled, which is far lower than the levels during the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. Still, Ms. Bair said that number would increase. IndyMac, for example, was not on that first quarter list at the F.D.I.C. but was still seized by regulators.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.