A zombie bank is a financial institution that has an economic net worth less than zero but continues to operate because its ability to repay its debts is shored up by implicit or explicit government credit support. The term was first used by Edward Kane in 1987 to explain the dangers of tolerating a large number of insolvent savings and loan associations and applied to the emerging Japanese crisis in 1993. A zombie can continue to operate and even to grow as long as creditors remain confident in the relevant government's ability to extract the funds needed to back up its promises from current or future taxpayers. But when this ability seems doubtful, zombie institutions face runs by uninsured depositors and margin calls from counterparties in derivatives transactions.
In an article published in the Mar/Apr 1992 issue of Society entitled "The Savings and Loan Insurance Mess," Edward Kane expanded on the source of the analogy. "Although the Savings and Loan (S&L) debacle is extremely complex," Kane wrote, "simple-minded cartoons and horror movies can illustrate how the S&L insurance fund turned into such a mess. ...In movies such as George Romero's Night of the Living Dead and Dawn of the Dead, corpses climb out of their graves and walk around hunting for food. They are hungry for only one thing—human flesh. As soon as these living-dead "zombies" feed on another human, the human quickly dies and becomes a zombie too. Many S&Ls have, for some time, been zombie institutions. These institutions were insolvent in the sense that their assets had fallen below the level at which they could cover their deposit debt. These zombie S&Ls were able to survive only because they could feed off taxpayers through the device of government-guaranteed federal deposit insurance."
Tyler Cowen, a professor of economics at George Mason University, wrote for the New York Times in April 2011 that "If enough depositors fear frozen accounts, the banks will be emptied out, and they also will require additional government bailouts, on top of the bailouts for the bad real estate loans. The banks come to resemble empty shells, conduits for public aid but shrinking and unprofitable as businesses — and, to a large extent, that is already the case in Ireland. Portugal is moving in this same direction, toward being a land inhabited by zombie banks. It’s the zombie banks that doom the current European bailout plans."
- Kane, Edward J. (1989). The S&L Insurance Mess: How Did It Happen?. Washington, D.C.: Urban Institute Press. ISBN 978-0-87766-468-0.
- Kane, Edward J. (December 1993). "What Lessons Should Japan Learn from the U.S. Deposit-Insurance Mess?". Journal of the Japanese and International Economics (Elsevier) 7 (4): 329–355. doi:10.1006/jjie.1993.1021. ISSN 0889-1583.
- Kane E. The Savings and Loan Insurance Mess. Society. March 1992;29(3):4-10
- Cowen, Tyler (16 April 2011). "Euro vs. Invasion of the Zombie Banks". The New York Times.
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