Authored by Gavyn Davies, originally posted at The FT,
The calmness of the financial markets in the face of the deteriorating Cyprus crisis in the past week has been remarkable. Although Cyprus is tiny enough to be completely overlooked in most circumstances, its economy and banking system have characteristics similar to other, much larger, eurozone countries. Cyprus is certainly at the extreme end, but an over-leveraged banking system, with insufficient capital and reliance on foreign funding, is familiar territory in the eurozone.
Cyprus is therefore, in some respects, a microcosm of the entire eurozone crisis, if a microcosm on steroids. The manner in which the crisis has been handled by the Eurogroup and the ECB will have demonstration effects on other economies, for good or ill.
At the time of writing, the outcome of this weekend’s negotiations remains uncertain. However, assuming that there is no catastrophic breakdown in the talks, leading to the exit of Cyprus from the euro area, the broad outline of the settlement seems to be taking shape. It is reported that the Cypriot government will accept a “bail in” of depositors in one or both of its troubled banks, allowing the release of eurozone financial support, while still keeping the government debt/GDP ratio under 150 per cent.
Furthermore, the banking sector should be sufficiently cleaned up and recapitalised to allow the ECB to release further Emergency Lending Assistance from the central bank of Cyprus next week, thus enabling the banks to re-open. Many large depositors would find themselves subject to painful haircuts, rumoured to be around 33 per cent, and then locked into equity in the “bad bank” which would be created by the bank restructuring.
Controls would be imposed on the free movement of capital, so these large depositors, many of them Russian, would be unable to withdraw their remaining funds for an indefinite period. If the Cyprus Parliament baulks at these terms, which is still not impossible, then the spectre of an early exit from the euro would once again begin to loom into view.
A deal of the sort outlined above, keeping the euro intact, would probably be enough to prevent any immediate contagion effects to other economies. After all, everyone knows that Cyprus is a special case, given the size of its banking sector relative to GDP, its exposure to foreign depositors of questionable virtue and its concentration of bank lending to the collapsed Greek economy.
No other economy has that combination of disadvantages, which has made a conventional bank rescue impossible for the Cypriot government, and unacceptable to the rest of the eurozone, especially Germany. Bank depositors in Spain and Italy will presumably be aware of these unique features, and therefore more willing to view it as a special case.
That said, four of the features of the reported deal are setting unfortunate precedents for the future.
First, the way in which the bank failures have been handled shows that the eurozone is still very far removed from a workable banking union. The original rescue plan last weekend made the cardinal mistake of requiring a haircut on small depositors of under €100,000, who could reasonably have expected protection from losses. It is a well established principle of bank work-outs that losses should be taken in the following order: shareholders first, then bondholders, then uninsured depositors, then insured small depositors. The fact that the Eurogroup was willing even to contemplate anything different sends a very bad signal, though hopefully the worst has now been avoided.
Second, the principle of divorcing the debt of governments from that of banks (and thus breaking the “diabolical loop” which threatened to bring down Spain last year), was very rapidly thrown out of the window in Cyprus. There was apparently no willingness to use ESM money directly to recapitalise the banks, even though that is being done successfully with the Bankia resolution in Spain this very week.
German Finance Minister Schauble even went as far as to say that in other countries small deposits are safe “only on the proviso that the states are solvent”. Does that not drive a coach and horses through the separation of banks and governments, which was one of the principle promises made by eurozone leaders at their crucial summit of June 29, 2012?
Third, there is the possibility that investors will view any haircut on large depositors not as a special tax, or a bail in of creditors, but as a capital levy on investors. What is the difference, one might ask? A capital levy occurs when governments require their citizens to contribute to state finances by paying a percentage of their wealth to the government. The theory is that, if this is done without warning in extraordinary circumstances, and as a once only event, it allows revenue to be raised without having the usual disincentive effects on work effort and savings.
Barry Eichengreen’s fascinating analysis of the history of capital levies argues that they will inevitably be considered when governments get themselves into severe debt crises, though he adds that they are hard to apply in democracies, and are rarely successful. It would be most unfortunate if investors in the euro area began to fear that capital levies of this sort might come onto the agenda if the crisis gets worse. A flight of capital could result. (See also “Cyprus Levy: Historical Precedents” by Carola Binder.)
Fourth, there is the fact that direct controls over the exit of capital from a eurozone member will have occurred for the first time in Cyprus. This replicates what happened in the Icelandic bank crisis, when capital controls were originally said to be temporary, but have proven impossible to remove ever since. But to have this happen within the borders of a “single currency” is a different matter. Indeed, it seems to breach one of the basic principles of a single currency in the first place. (See Jeremy Warner.)
If the reported deal is done to keep Cyprus inside the euro by Monday, we can expect to hear, very loudly, that this is a unique case, and that the unfortunate features of this settlement cannot be extrapolated to any other future circumstances. Let us hope not. If nothing else, it would certainly demonstrate that the eurozone still has much work to do before the crisis is fully under control.