Can Someone Figure Out Cyprus?
The story changes every few hours. It is not clear what the Cypriot parliament will do. They could quite possibly simply say no, or change any number of things. The whole thing is patently ham-handed. It illustrates what I mean when I keep saying that the EU is making up the rules as they go along. Why take money from widows and then exempt the branches of Greek banks? (I hear the reasoning, but I don’t understand it.) It is all about protecting banks and institutions and not the defenseless. I find the whole thing rather outrageous in the way that it looks through the wrong end of the telescope.
And dear gods, why risk creating a situation that encourages depositors in banks to question the ownership of their money? If the deposits of the citizens of a member country of the EU are not safe from bureaucrats, at least up to €100,000, then why should they trust any bank? And why in Hades is the IMF appearing to dictate that depositors will lose money? And why do Turkish depositors in non-Greek banks lose when Greek depositors in Greek banks don’t? Cyprus is complicated enough without poking that nationalistic anthill.
Cyprus is also a problem in itself. It is the size of a small city, not a country. My friend Frank Trotter of Everbank noted today that the agricultural subsidies Texas gets from the US government total more than the entire GDP of Cyprus. Would anyone blink if the banks in San Bernadino County went bankrupt? Cyprus’s banking system is around 8 times the size of the country’s GDP, so asking the country to back the deposits of its banks is ludicrous. Perhaps as much as half the deposit total is from outside the country (encouraged by the banking system and regulators), and it is widely assumed that Cyprus launders a great deal of Russian-oligarch and Russian-mafia money. Which of course does not sit well with Germany, especially in advance of its upcoming election. Try telling the good burghers of Bavaria that they should pay to bail out Russian oligarchs. Frau Merkel has made it clear she will not.
The EU contends that Greece was a one-off situation and no one else will get bailed out, at least not on sovereign debt. We will see.
While the bailout money needed is about the size of the entire economy (€17 billion), that is chump change to maintain the system. The banks are in large part bankrupt because they bought too much Greek debt and were forced to take haircuts on that debt. If the ECB bailed out Greek banks and depositors (which they did), then why is Cyprus a special case, demanding that some small depositors and not others lose money? Then again, if the banks go down, which they could easily do without a bailout, depositors stand to lose a great deal more, as Cyprus as a country can no longer access the bond market.
Does Europe want Russia to step in at the price of Russia’s getting a Mediterranean port? Is saddling one set of people with a tax and letting others off the hook even legal in Europe? There seems to be some debate.
This mess occurred because there is no clear eurozone banking policy or general deposit insurance, both of which were promised in the wake of the last such crisis and then soundly rejected by Germany (Merkel), which does not want to pay for the banking sins of other countries.
I fear that whatever I write will be both obsolete and wrong before I can even hit the send button, so I will forbear. We will revisit Cyprus when we can make some informed observations. But let me point out that I wrote a few weeks ago that the real challenge to the euro is, first, France (another country whose banks are far too large to be bailed out in a crisis) and, second, that the voters of more than one country are simply getting fed up. The way European leaders are handling the Cyprus situation does not inspire confidence.