Question after Cyprus: Will govts loot depositors again?

To earn its bailout, Cyprus has forced depositors to share a part of their costs. This is financial repression - and it could happen elsewhere in Europe

Vivek Kaul March 26, 2013 14:41:05 IST
Question after Cyprus: Will govts loot depositors again?

So why is the world worried about a tiny country called Cyprus? A country of less than a million people, which accounts for just 0.2 percent of the eurozone economy. The eurozone is a term used in reference to the 17 countries that have adopted the euro as their currency.

The answer lies in the fact that what is happening in Cyprus might just play itself out in other parts of continental Europe, sooner rather than later. Here's why.

Cyprus has been given a bailout amounting to 10 billion (or around $13 billion) by the International Monetary Fund and the European Union. As The New York Times reports, "The money is supposed to help the country cope with the severe recession by financing government programs and refinancing debt held by private investors."

Hence, a part of the bailout money will be used to repay government debt that is maturing. Governments all over the world typically spend more than they earn. The difference is made up by borrowing. The Cypriot government has been no different on this account. An estimate made by Satyajit Das, a derivatives expert and author of Extreme Money, in a note titled The Cyprus File, suggests that the country might require around 7-8 billion "for general government operations, including debt servicing".

But there is a twist in this tale. In return for the bailout, the IMF and the European Union want Cyprus to make its share of sacrifices as well. The Popular Bank of Cyprus (better known as the Laiki Bank), the second largest bank in the country, will shut down operations. Deposits of up to 100,000 will be protected. These deposits will be shifted to the Bank of Cyprus, the largest bank in the country.

Deposits greater than 100,000 will be frozen, seized by the government and used to partly pay for the deal. This move is expected to generate 4.2 billion. The remaining money is expected to come from privatisation and tax increases.

As The Huffington Post writes, "The country of about 800,000 people has a banking sector eight times larger than its gross domestic product, with nearly a third of the roughly 68 billion euros in the country's banks believed to be held by Russians." Hence, it is widely believed that most deposits of greater than 100,000 in Cypriot banks are held by Russians. And the move to seize these deposits thus cannot impact the local population.

This move is line with the German belief that any bailout money shouldn't be rescuing the Russians, who are not a part of the European Union. "Germany wants to prevent any bailout fund flowing to Russian depositors, such as oligarchs or organised criminals who have used Cypriot banks to launder money. Carsten Schneider, an SPD politician, spoke gleefully about burning "Russian black money," writes Das.

It need not be said that this move will have a big impact on the Cyprian economy given that the country has evolved into an offshore banking centre over the years. The move to seize deposits will keep foreign money away from Cyprus and thus impact incomes as well as jobs.

The New York Times DealBook writes, "Exotix, the brokerage firm, is predicting a 10 percent slump in gross domestic product this year followed by 8 percent next year and a total 23 percent decline before nadir is reached. Using Okun's Law, which translates every one percentage point fall in GDP (gross domestic product) to half a percentage point increase in unemployment, such a depression would push the unemployment rate up 11.5 percentage points, taking it to about 26 percent."

But then that is not something that the world at large is worried about. The world at large is worried about "what if" - what if what has happened in Cyprus starts to happen in other parts of Europe?

The modus operandi being resorted to in Cyprus can be termed as an extreme form of financial repression. Russell Napier, a consultant with CLSA, defines this term thus: "There is a thing called financial repression which is effectively forcing people to lend money to the...government." In the case of Cyprus the government has simply decided to seize the money from the depositors in order to fund itself, albeit under outside pressure.

The question is will this become a model for other parts of the European Union where banks and governments are in trouble? Take the case of Spain, a country which forms 12 percent of the total GDP of the European Union. Loans given to real estate developers and construction companies by Spanish banks amount to nearly $700 billion, or nearly 50 percent of Spain's current GDP of nearly $1.4 trillion. With homes lying unsold developers are in no position to repay. Spain built nearly 30 percent of all the homes in the EU since 2000. The country has as many unsold homes as the United States of America which is many times bigger than Spain.

Question after Cyprus Will govts loot depositors again

The fear is "what if" a Cyprus-like plan is implemented in Spain, or other countries in Europe, like Greece, Portugal, Ireland or Italy, for that matter, where both governments as well as banks are in trouble. Reuters

And Spain's biggest three banks have assets worth $2.7 trillion, which is two times Spain's GDP. Estimates suggest that troubled Spanish banks are supposed to require anywhere between 75 billion and 100 billion to continue operating. This is many times the size of the crisis in Cyprus which is currently being dealt with.

The fear is "what if" a Cyprus-like plan is implemented in Spain, or other countries in Europe, like Greece, Portugal, Ireland or Italy, for that matter, where both governments as well as banks are in trouble. "For Spain, Italy and other troubled euro zone countries, Cyprus is an unnerving example. Individuals and businesses in those countries will probably split up their savings into smaller accounts or move some of their money to another country. If a lot of depositors withdraw cash from the weakest banks in those countries, Europe could have another crisis on its hands," The New York Times points out.

Given this there can be several repercussions in the future. "The Cyprus package highlights the increasing reluctance of countries like Germany, Finland and the Netherlands to support weaker eurozone members," writes Das.

The German public has never been in great favour of bailing out the weaker countries. But their politicians have been going against this till now simply because they did not want to be seen as responsible for the failure of the euro as a currency. Hence, they have cleared bailout packages for countries like Ireland, Greece, etc, in the past. Nevertheless that may not continue to happen given that Parliamentary elections are due in September later this year. So deposit holders in other countries which are likely to get bailout packages in the future may be asked to share a part of the burden or even fully finance themselves.

This becomes clear with the statement made by Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister who heads the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, "when failing banks need rescuing, eurozone officials would turn to the bank's shareholders, bondholders and uninsured depositors to contribute to their recapitalisation."

"He also said that Cyprus was a template for handling the region's other debt-strapped countries," reports Reuters. In the eurozone, deposits above 100,000 are uninsured.

Given this likely possibility, even a hint of financial trouble will lead to people withdrawing their deposits. As Steve Forbes writes in Forbes "After this, all it will take is just a hint of a financial crisis to send Spaniards, Italians, the French and others scurrying to ATMs and banks to pull out their cash." Even the most well capitalised bank cannot hold onto a sustained bank run beyond a point. It could also mean that people would look at parking their money outside the banking system.

"Even in the absence of a disaster individuals and companies will be looking to park at least a portion of their money outside the banking system," writes Forbes. Does that imply more money flowing into gold, or simply more money under the pillow? That time will tell.

Also this could lead to more rescues and further bailouts in the days to come. As Das writes, "If depositors withdraw funds in significant size and capital flight accelerates, then the European Central Bank, national central banks and governments will have intervene, funding affected banks and potentially restricting withdrawals, electronic funds transfers and imposing cross-border capital controls." And this can't be a good sign for the world economy.

The question being asked in Cyprus as Forbes magazine puts it is: "If something goes wrong again, what's stopping the government from dipping back into their deposits?" To deal with this government has closed the banks until Thursday morning, in order to stop people from withdrawing money. Also the two largest banks in the country, the Bank of Cyprus and the Laiki Bank have imposed a daily withdrawal limit of 100 (or $130).

It will be interesting to see how the situation plays out once the banks open. Will depositors make a run for their deposits? Or will they continue to keep their money in banks? That might very well decide how the rest of the Europe behaves in the days to come.

Watch this space.

Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek

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