Cyprus: The next blunder

Charles Wyplosz 18 March 2013

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The decision to tax all Cypriot bank deposits has attracted massive attention (Spiegel 2013) – and rightly so. It is a huge blunder:

  • In the unlikely event that all goes well, the government will receive a bit of cash – but not enough to cover the loan generously offered by its European partners – and the Cypriot banking system will be history.
  • The alternative is a massive bank crisis in many Eurozone countries – a huge blow to the euro, maybe even a fatal one.

Not an emergency measure

Policymakers have been debating the Cyprus bailout for nearly a year; this cannot be classified an 'emergency action'. They engaged in a lively debate whether Cyprus is 'systemic' or not, the answer to which can only be 'it depends'. It depends not on the size of Cypriot banks but on the way the Eurozone acts. They also debated the Russian deposits that apparently represent a sizeable proportion of bank liabilities. The debate turned around the issues of how dirty this money is and how to do the laundry. They also debated on the size of a possible loan to the Cypriot government. The government itself requested something to the tune of 100% of its GDP, why not? After all this amounts to 0.2% of Eurozone GDP.

Eurozone’s help: Suffocating solidarity

From what is known:

  • Cyprus will receive a loan of about half the requested size under the usual austerity conditions.
  • The gross public debt of Cyprus will rise from its current level of some 90% of GDP to about 140%, a level that is unsustainable and will eventually require some deep restructuring.

This debt trajectory is a forecast, of course, but well in line with experience.

The effects of this Eurozone austerity programme are now well known. Cyprus joins a distinguished list of countries that benefit from suffocating Eurozone solidarity (Wyplosz, 2011).

  • The programme will impose tough austerity;
  • Its public-debt-to-GDP ratio will grow because deficits will not go away and because GDP will decline.
  • There will the need for more loans as economic predictions will be found to be 'disappointing' over and over again.
  • Unemployment will skyrocket, spreading intense economic and social suffering.

Who knows, populist parties could well be on the rise, adding political drama to economic pain. This technology is now well oiled.

The bank deposit ‘confiscation’

What is new is that bank deposits will be 'taxed'. The proper term is 'confiscated'. Like everywhere in the EU, bank deposits in Cyprus are guaranteed up to €100,000. Depositors have arranged their wealth accordingly, only to be told that the guarantee has been changed ex post.

Taxing stocks is optimally time-inconsistent (Kydland and Prescott, 1977). It is a great way of raising money but it has deep incentive effects as it destroys property rights. What is at stake is the credibility of the bank deposit guarantee system throughout Europe.

The system was shaken in 2008 but in the opposite direction. Followed by all other countries, Ireland offered a full guarantee in a successful effort to stem an impending bank run. The cost to the government was such that it triggered a run on the public debt that led to the second bailout after the Greek 'unique and exceptional' one.

That move has now been recognised as a mistake, which may explain how Cyprus is now being treated.

The Eurozone’s ‘corralito’

Because it is time-inconsistent, the decision to tax deposits has been preceded by a freezing of bank deposits. This is remindful of the Argentinean corralito of 2001, which led to economic dislocation, immense suffering and such anger that two governments fell (Cavallo 2011). Hopefully, the Cypriot corralito will not last too long.

The question is: how bank depositors will react in Cyprus and elsewhere? The short answer is that we don’t know but we can build scenarios:

  • The benign scenario is that depositors in Cypriot banks will accept the tax and keep their remaining money where it is. Depositors in other troubled countries will accept that Cyprus is special and remain unmoved.
  • A less benign scenario is that depositors in Cypriot banks come to fear another round of optimal, time-inconsistent levies. This is what theory predicts. After all, if policymakers found it optimal once, why not twice, or more?

Under the less benign scenario:

  • We will have a full-fledged bank run as soon as the corralito is lifted. Since bank assets amount to some 900% of GDP, there is no hope of any bailout by the Cypriot government.
  • Any new European loan would immediately translate into a run on the public debt.

Enter ECB, stage right

At this point in the scenario script, the ECB enters the play. Being the only lender of last resort, the ECB will have to decide what to do.

  • In principle, it could stabilise the situation at little cost as total Cypriot bank assets represent less than 0.2% of Eurozone GDP or 0.5% of the central bank’s own balance sheet.
  • But this would involve the risk that it could suffer losses – especially if the banks are badly resolved, i.e. the bankruptcies are badly handled.

This is not unlikely since the ECB does not control Cypriot bank resolution.

Remember that the current version of the banking union explicitly leaves resolution authority in national hands. In Cyprus, as almost everywhere else, national authorities are deeply conflicted when it comes to their banking systems. Powerful special-interest groups become engaged when banks go bust and governments decide who pays the price. Thus, it is a good bet that Cyprus’s bank resolution will be deeply flawed. The risk to the ECB is real.

Proper resolution under European control could have been part of the conditions for the loan just agreed. But this does not seem be the case. The omission most likely reflects a belief by policymakers that the Cyprus crisis has been solved successfully. The problem is that this belief is false: Cyprus’s predicament remains even under the benign scenario.

All the conditions for a total disaster are in place

The really worrisome scenario is that the Cypriot bailout becomes euro-systemic – in which case the collapse of the Cypriot economy will be a sideshow. This will happen when and if depositors in troubled countries, say Italy or Spain, take notice of how fellow depositors were treated in Cyprus.

All the ingredients of a self-fulfilling crisis are now in place:

  • It will be individually rational to withdraw deposits from local banks to avoid the remote probability of a confiscatory tax.
  • As depositors learn what others do and proceed to withdraw funds, a bank run will occur.
  • The banking system will collapse, requiring a Cyprus-style programme that will tax whatever is left in deposits, thus justifying the withdrawals.

This would probably be the end of the euro.

Conclusions

The likelihoods of these three scenarios – benign, less benign, and total disaster – are difficult to assess.

  • What is clear is that the Cyprus bailout has created a new situation, more perilous than ever before.
  • Once more a deeply dangerous policy action is decided apparently without any awareness of its unintended consequences.

It is also another violation of sound existing arrangements. We have a no-bailout clause in the Maastricht Treaty – a clause that was essential to the Eurozone’s stability. Putting it aside in the case of Greece was the heart of the today’s problem – the reason the crisis spread (Wyplosz 2010). This no-bailout clause has once again been put aside summarily.

We are now witnessing another radical change as a perfectly reasonable deposit guarantee is being undermined. Historians will one day explore the dark political motives behind this move. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the bad equilibrium that has just been created will not be chosen by anguished depositors.

References

Cavallo, Domingo (2011). “Looking at Greece in the Argentinean mirror”, VoxEU, 15 July.

Kydland, F E and E C Prescott (1977), “Rules Rather than Discretion: The Inconsistency of Optimal Plans”, Journal of Political Economy 85(3): 473-491.

Spiegel, Peter (2013). “Cyprus depositors’ fate sealed in Berlin”, FT.com, March 17 6:23 pm.

Wyplosz, Charles (2010). “And now? A dark scenario”, VoxEU.org, 3 May. 

Wyplosz, Charles (2011). “The R word”, VoxEU.org, 29 April.

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Topics:  EU institutions Macroeconomic policy

Tags:  EU, Eurozone crisis, Cyprus

Professor of International Economics, Graduate Institute, Geneva; Director, International Centre for Money and Banking Studies; CEPR Research Fellow