Lithuanians still wary of banks

  • 1998-10-29
  • Paul Beckman
VILNIUS - Russian crisis, or no Russian crisis, Lithuania has not seen a bank of its own topple since 1995. A recent "Spinter" survey appearing in the "Veidas" weekly magazine, however, indicates that many Lithuanians are nevertheless wary of throwing their hard-earned money into the nation's banks.

According to the survey, which involved 500 respondents from Lithuania's largest cities, a commanding 43.5 percent of people polled said they believed the Russian crisis would negatively affect their savings in some way, while only 8.2 percent felt otherwise.

Another 37.5 percent offered no opinion because they had no savings in banks to speak of. In a related graph, 58.8 percent of the respondents said they were inclined to distrust Lithuanian banks while 23.5 percent said they were leaning the other direction.

The 2.2 percent who professed complete faith in the sector were overshadowed by the 11.3 percent who proclaimed absolute distrust.

Judging from the public's display of skepticism, one may be lead to believe the country's banks are teetering on the edge of collapse. Instead, a different picture of the banks' existence has emerged: business as usual.

Alexander Federas, director of Vilniaus Bankas' marketing department, stated that the bank had only very minor set backs due to the havoc in Russian financial institutions by having taken part in syndicated loans to Russia's Alpha and Income banks, which amounted to $2 million.

Federas mentioned that since Russia's financial trouble began last August, the situation at Lithuania's largest bank has been "normal."

"There was a point when some private clients began changing their litas into dollars over a ten day period," said Federas. "Now, when they need the money to buy something, they are changing their money back into litas. Which is actually good business for our bank. But other than that, the business at our bank has been normal."

A spokesman for Lietuvos Taupomasis Bankas also mentioned that activity of the savings bank is flowing about as smoothly as ever. By saying the bank generally focuses on the subject of savings, they have experienced very few direct influences from the Russian crisis.

"We actually haven't felt much at all from the crisis," said the spokesman.

"Very few have withdrawn their savings upon hearing about the events in Russia. Some changed their savings from litas into foreign currency, but many have changed it back again."

With the activity on the part of banks and the public reportedly remaining consistent, Eduardas Vilke-lis of the Lithuanian Commercial Banker's Association suggested the negativity reflected in the poll could be influenced by several factors.

Vilkelis claimed that many individuals who have a connection to the banking sector often pay more attention to rumors and speculation rather than the actual results of the banks' work. Unfounded beliefs that the litas could be devaluated also contributed to some fears, according to Vilkelis.

"Some negativity also stems from some painful past events," said Vilkelis. "That's especially true of [the Lithuanian banking crisis] in 1995-1996. A good name can be lost very quickly, but to get it back takes years."

The government is currently attempting to compensate the depositors who lost money in the ill-fated Lithuanian Joint-Stock Innovation Bank which crumbled during the mid-1990's. On Oct. 21, the Government's Press Service announced that December pears the Russian crisis has not influenced public behavior in regard to banking."

If banks continue to hold their own throughout the Russian crisis as expected, both Martinaityte and Vilkelis hinted it could contribute to a more confident public.

"Take two banks like Taupomasis and Vilniaus," said Vilkelis. "These are both emerging as powerful banks. Vilniaus Bankas has better financial results, but Taupomasis is receiving the savings of government [privatization activities] and is widely accessible to the general public, even in small towns. Trust is a very objective issue, however. Only after people see that banks are not going to go bankrupt, will they trust them."