Iceland, Cyprus... And These Two Countries?
Overnight, Reuters published an article highlighting something we noted first over three years ago: the unreasonably large size of a local financial sector as represented by its total assets compared to the host nation's GDP.
Specifically, Reuters alleges that "Cyprus' troubles stem from its exposure to Greece and the huge losses its two largest banks, Bank of Cyprus and Marfin Popular, had to stomach when euro zone leaders agreed in late 2011 to write down the value of private-sector holdings of Greek government bonds. In total, Cyprus requires 17 billion euros, nearly equivalent to its economy's annual output, to rescue its banks and deal with the government's own bills. Relatively small in the context of the Greek and Irish EU-IMF bailouts, at 240 billion euros and 67.5 billion euros apiece, for an island of just 1 million people it is a huge burden and speaks volumes about how large and unwieldy its banking sector had become."
More importantly, Reuters points out the similarities between Cyprus and Iceland in one key metric: total financial assets to the underlying GDP: "The [Cyprus] banking sector is now roughly eight times the size of the economy compared to 10 times for Iceland and over four times for Ireland before their crises. Banks in both countries used cheap funding to gorge on speculative investments." The issue for Cyprus of course was the composition of the liabilities matching these assets, which were mostly in deposit form, which was the alleged reason why the Eurogroup decided to proceed with deposit haircuts in order to shrink the overall financial balance sheet: arguably there were no other liabilities it could haircut. And yes, Cyprus is very comparable to Iceland in that regard. That much is known.
What may not be known is that it is specifically the fact that the underlying economy was tiny by comparison, i.e., small, relatively inert, non-aggressive government, in both Iceland and Cyprus that made them a depositor's safe haven... until of course confiscation day.
What is certainly not known, at least for now, is that slowly but surely financial markets and more importantly depositors, will start looking at all countries that have a very high ratio of financial assets, and thus deposits, to host GDP, as an indicator of where the "Cyprus Virus" may strike next.
Which is why we present readers with a pop quiz: the chart below show the ratio of total financial assets to host nation GDP. The tragic cases of Cyprus and Iceland are well-known, as per Reuters, and highlighted on the chart. We urge readers to guess what the supposedly very stable countries X and Y are on the chart, whose total financial system assets to GDP are approaching those of Cyprus, especially since depositors in their banking systems may be due for a very unpleasant surprise next if indeed Iceland and now Cyprus are the case studies.
Hint: Russian billionaire oligarchs are quite familiar with both X and Y.
We will provide the answer shortly after Bernanke's press conference today in which he will once again reaffirm he will monetize US debt as long as the US runs a $1+ trillion budget deficit, i.e., forever.
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