You’ve heard that the tiny European country Cyprus is threatening to grab between 3 and 13% of bank depositors’ funds in return for a bailout of the country by the European Union.
Zero Hedge reports that Germany’s Finance Minister and the IMF originally demanded that 40% of bank deposits be looted.
Sajiyat Das notes:
Irrespective of the fate of Cyprus, the solution adopted will exacerbate the European debt crisis.
Many commentators note that the deposit grab may cause panic among bank depositors in Spain and other vulnerable countries as well. Indeed, many are asking whether this could be a modern Creditanstalt situation. Another common analogy is that this could be “worse than Lehman” failing.
On the other hand – given that the entire economy of Cyprus is smaller than that of Shreveport, Louisiana, and that Cyprus is mainly a parking spot for hot money from Russian oligarchs and mafia – some say that the whole crisis will quickly blow over.
What’s the bigger picture? Bank deposit grabs may spread to other vulnerable European countries. The New York Times reports:
Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the president of the group of euro area ministers, declined early Saturday to rule out taxes on depositors in countries beyond Cyprus.
And the chief economist of the German Commerzbank has called for private savings accounts in Italy to be similarly plundered:
A tax rate of 15 percent on financial assets would probably be enough to push the Italian government debt to below the critical level of 100 percent of gross domestic product.
Indeed, Zero Hedge has been warning about this kind of scenario for years.
Why are they doing it?
The Financial Times notes:
Cyprus’s new president Nicos Anastasiades did not like the idea of forcing any losses on ordinary account holders….But after receiving what Cypriot officials said were reassurances from Angela Merkel…Mr Anastasiades agreed to a deal that he thought would include relatively modest “haircuts” – a 7 per cent levy on deposits above €100,000 and a 3.5 per cent hit on those below.
With the principle of haircuts agreed, Mr Anastasiades decided to stay for the finance ministers meeting, which was just getting under way. All he asked was that the rates be tweaked: raise the levy on the bigger deposits in order to lower the hit taken by the less well off. Both sides believed a deal was at hand….
However, Mr Anastasiades was left reeling by the response to his request for modest adjustments, according to Cypriot officials. Wolfgang Schäuble, the German finance minister, said Nicosia would immediately have to raise as much as €7bn from depositor haircuts. A stunned Mr Anastasiades decided to walk out…
But Mr Anastasiades soon learnt storming out was not an option. The European Central Bank had another shock for him: the island’s second-largest bank, Laiki, was in such bad shape that it no longer qualified for the eurosystem’s emergency liquidity assistance – the cheap central bank loans that teetering eurozone banks need to run their day-to-day operations.
The message, delivered by the ECB’s chief negotiator, Jörg Asmussen, meant that if no deal was reached, Laiki would collapse, probably bringing the island’s largest bank down with it, and saddling Nicosia with a €30bn bill to reimburse accounts covered by the country’s deposit guarantee scheme. It was money Nicosia did not have. All of the island’s account holders would be wiped out.
Mr Schäuble was not alone. Several officials involved in the talks said he not only had backing from the Finns, Slovaks and to a lesser extent the Dutch. The International Monetary Fund, which had been urging depositor haircuts for months, had won the argument over the skittish European Commission, which had long worried that seizing depositor assets could spark a bank run in Cyprus and, potentially, elsewhere in the eurozone.
Yves Smith explains that the real reason for the EU’s grab for deposits from Cyprus bank accounts is that it is easier to screw the little guy than to screw sophisticated investors:
Why are depositors, the folks most senior in the creditor hierarchy, being whacked? Shareholders and bondholders should be wiped out before they lose a penny. Yes, but this is a case where expediency, unwisely, has been allowed to carry the day.
In an excellent and important post, “A stupid idea whose time had come,” Joseph Cotterill of FT Alphaville explains why the axe fell on the depositors.
There is pretty much squat in the way of equity and senior debt. The “other liabilities” may be secured. So then we get to liabilities to central and other banks. The liabilities to central banks are not going to be haircut; that is part of the “private sector participation” premise. Remember, banks in periphery countries have been pledging any asset the ECB will take to it, and any stuff the ECB won’t take to their own central bank. In the case of the Cypriot banks, the exposure is almost entirely that of the local central bank. Again from Cotterill:
As of January, the Cypriot central bank was extending around €9bn of secret liquidity in return for collateral no longer accepted at normal ECB liquidity ops. Much of it (it’s naturally difficult to determine how much) was probably going to Laiki.
… That’s €9 billion of Cyprus loans to the banks, mainly Laiki, which is junior to deposits, versus the €5.8 billion to be seized from depositors. So why aren’t the loans from the Cyprus central bank being written down and the Cyprus sovereign debt investors taking losses? Well, it turns out it is easier to screw retail customers than it is professional investors:
As it is, there were lots of good reasons why a sovereign debt restructuring did not happen. I don’t want to downplay them. Notably, the fact that the bonds that were best to restructure were governed under English law, and were likely held by the kind of investor who’s willing to litigate. I listed the problems here. Around it all was the inability to get write-downs out of Cypriot domestic-law sovereign debt, because that was held by the banks which already bore big black holes in their balance sheets. Again we come up to something that could be raised in the defence of the deposit levy — local exposure was so great everywhere, that any distribution of losses would have been painful. For the widow depositor, substitute the pension fund holding local-law bonds….
No wonder this cartoon – showing the EU forcing the Cypriot bankers to rob their depositors – is going viral in Cyprus (the caption just says “bank robbery of the Cypriot people):
Indeed, it’s not the “great recession” … it’s the great bank robbery. (Too bad Cyprus didn’t choose the right fork in the road.)
As Tyler Durden notes, the Cypriot deposit grab is just one of a wide variety of forms of financial repression that central banks, big private banks and governments are using to grab money from the people. For example, negative interest rates are an ongoing theft.
Sajiyat Das writes:
A debt crisis, especially on the current scale, cannot be dealt without other than by financial repression. To date, it has taken the form of higher taxes, interest rates below the rate of inflation, directed investment and increased government intervention in the economy. Cyprus marks a new phase of financial repression, shifting the burden increasingly onto savers directly by confiscating savings.
As we’ve previously noted, we’ll have a never-ending depression unless bondholders are forced to take a haircut. The world economic and political “leaders” have demonstrated once again that forcing the big boys to take a haircut is inconceivable. Instead, they will escalate their campaign of repression against savers and taxpayers.