Unless you were of wage-earning age when the savings and loan scandal took place in the 1980s, you probably have never given much thought to where you do your banking. When all is said and done, one bank cashes checks pretty much as well as any other bank.
Sure, you may have researched checking account rates at the Fool's Rates Center or compared your bank's money market rate to MBNA's
The Russians do -- and for good reason. In 1992, in a fit of economic "shock therapy," Russia's government freed price controls that had been in place for decades. The result was hyperinflation and the near-instantaneous destruction of the values of bank accounts holding lifetimes' worth of pensions and savings. In 1998, it happened a second time when Russia's government defaulted on its loans, starting a chain reaction of banks freezing deposits and defaulting on obligations to their clients.
Six years later, it has happened again. A government campaign to close down undercapitalized and quasi-criminal banks sparked a string of banks locking their doors, unplugging their ATMs, and sowing panic among their depositors. Frightened depositors staged a run on Alfa Bank, one of Russia's largest retail banks, withdrawing as much as 10% of the bank's deposits. Only a concerted effort between Russia's central bank and Alfa's oligarch shareholders kept the bank liquid.
By Monday, the situation appeared to have stabilized. But one has to wonder when the Russians will tire of these sexennial banking crises. Free markets reign in Russia (in a manner of speaking), and already there are several alternatives to the ever-failing domestic Russian banks. Since 1998, Western banks such as Holland's Finansbank (OTC BB: FNKKY) and ING Group
So finally, change is coming to Russian banking. For both Russian depositors and U.S. investors in the Western banks that are stealing Russian retail banking market share, the change is good.
Fool contributor Rich Smith owns no shares of any company mentioned in this article. In various combinations, he has lived, studied, and worked in and with businesses investing in Russia for the past decade.