Banks in Cyprus are in crisis. They have many bad debts e.g. to Greece and as mortgages in a falling property market. Private-sector debts have become unsustainable for the banks. The problem is compounded by negative economic growth and large government deficits (see chart). But, as with Icelandic banks back in 2008, this means a crisis for the whole country.
The reason is that the banking sector in Cyprus, as in Iceland and Ireland too, is large relative to the whole economy – over 8 times annual GDP (second only to Ireland in the EU). Loans to Greece alone are as much as 160% of Cyprus’ GDP and Cypriot banks were badly hit by the terms of the Greek bailout, which required creditors to take a 53% reduction (or ‘haircut’) in the value of their loans to Greece. With such a large banking sector, it is impossible for the Cypriot government alone to rescue the banks.
Cyprus thus turned to the EU for a bailout: back in June 2012. This makes Cyprus the fifth country to seek a bailout (after Greece, Ireland, Portugal and Spain). A bailout of €10 billion has just been agreed by the EU and IMF. The bailout comes with the ‘usual’ conditions of strong austerity measures of tax rises and cuts in government expenditure. But what makes this bailout different from those given to the other countries was a proposed levy on savers.
The proposal was that people with up €99,999 in their bank accounts (of any type) would face a one-off tax of 6.75%. The rate for those with €100,000 or more would be 9.9%, including on the first €99,999. This would raise around €5.8 billion of the €10 billion.
Not surprisingly, there was a public outcry in Cyprus. People had thought that their deposits were protected (at least up to €100,000). There was a run on cash machines, which, as a result were set to deliver just small amounts of cash to cope with the excessive demand. There was huge pressure on the Cypriot government not to introduce the measure.
But the ramifications of the proposed levy go well beyond the question of justice to savers. Questions are being raised about its incentive/disincentive effects. If people in other countries in future financial difficulties felt that they might face similar levies, how would they behave? Also, there is no haircut being proposed for holders of banks’ bonds. As Robert Peston states in his first article below:
The Cypriot deal sets back the cause of the new global rules for bringing order to banking systems when crisis hits. Apart from anything else, in other eurozone countries where banks are weak, it licenses runs on those banks, as and when a bailout looms.
But getting incentives right is not easy. As the Buttonwood column in The Economist points out:
The problem is tied up with the issue of moral hazard. This can be applied to both creditors and debtors; the former should be punished for reckless lending and the latter for living beyond their means. The collapse of Lehman Brothers is seen as an example of the faulty reasoning behind moral hazard; by letting the bank go bust, the crisis was spread throughout the financial system. But rescuing every creditor (or intervening to bail out the markets every time they falter) is the reason we are in this mess.
One alternative considered by the Cyprus parliament was to exempt people with less than €20,000 in their accounts from the levy. But this was rejected as being insufficient protection for savers. Another is to exempt people with less than €100,000, or to charge people with between €20,000 and €100,000 at a lower rate or rates.
But charging less, or nothing, on deposits of less than €100,000 would make it harder to to raise the €5.8 billion required by the EU. Without alternative measures it would mean charging a rate higher than 9.9% on larger deposits. The Cypriot government is afraid that this would discourage inward investment. Russia, in particular, has invested heavily in the Cyprus economy and Russia is campaigning vigorously to limit the size of the levy on large deposits. But there is little sympathy for Russian depositors, much of whose deposits are claimed to be ‘laundered money’. The Cypriot government has been seeking financial support from the Russian government.
An alternative proposal being considered is to issue government bonds in an “investment solidarity fund” and to transfer pension funds from semi-public companies to the state. Also Russia may be willing to invest more money in Cyprus’ offshore oil and gas fields.
A deal was struck between Cyprus and the EU/IMF early in the morning of 25 March, just hours before the deadline. For details, see the News Item Cyprus: one crisis ends; another begins.
Webcasts and podcasts
Eurozone ministers agree 10bn euro Cyprus bailout Channel 4 News (16/3/13)
Bailout is ‘blackmail’ claims Cyprus president Euronews (17/3/13)
Cyprus’s president tries to calm fears over EU bailout The Guardian (18/3/13)
Cypriot bank customers reactions to savings levy BBC News (17/3/13)
Cyprus bailout: Parliament postpones debate amid anger BBC News (17/3/13)
Cyprus parliament delays debate on EU bailout Al Jazeera (17/3/13)
Cyprus told it can amend bailout, as key vote postponed BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (18/3/13)
Robert Peston: Cyprus bailout an ‘astonishing mess’ BBC News, Robert Peston (18/3/13)
Cyprus bailout is ‘completely unfair’ BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Michael Fuchs and Bernadette Segol (18/3/13)
Lenders ‘doing everything you should not do’ on Cyprus BBC Radio 4 Today Programme, Alistair Darling (19/3/12)
Cyprus warned over bailout rejection BBC News (20/3/13)
Cyprus becomes fifth eurozone bailout The News International (Pakistan) (17/3/13)
Cyprus bailout deal sparks run on ATMs Irish Independent (17/3/13)
EU leaders gamble in Cyprus bank bailout BBC News, Gavin Hewitt (17/3/13)
Cyprus told it can amend bailout, as key vote postponed BBC News (18/3/13)
Q&A: Cyprus bailout BBC News (19/3/13)
Cyprus’ President Defends Bailout Deal The Motley Fool (16/3/13)
Sad Cyprus The Economist, Buttonwood’s Notebook (12/3/13)
The Cypriot bail-out: A fifth bitter lemon The Economist (30/6/12)
Analysis: Cyprus bank levy risks dangerous euro zone precedent Reuters, Mike Peacock (17/3/13)
The Cyprus precedent Reuters, Felix Salmon (17/3/13)
The Cyprus Bank Bailout Could Be A Disastrous Precedent: They’re Reneging On Government Deposit Insurance Forbes, Tim Worstall (16/3/13)
Cyprus rescue breaks all the rules BBC News, Robert Peston (18/3/13)
Cyprus and the eurozone’s survival BBC News, Robert Peston (20/3/13)
Eurogroup defends Cyprus bail-out The Telegraph (17/3/13)
Cyprus eurozone bailout prompts anger as savers hand over possible 10% levy The Guardian (16/3/13)
Cyprus’s wealth tax makes perfect sense – its rich won’t escape unscathed The Guardian, Phillip Inman (18/3/13)
The tragedy of Cyprus The Real Economy blog, Edmund Conway (16/3/13)
Damage limitation in Cyprus BBC News, Stephanie Flanders (19/3/13)
The fatal flaw in the eurozone’s not-so-cunning plan for Cyprus The Guardian, Larry Elliott (19/3/13)
Cyprus plans special fund in race to get EU-IMF bailout BBC News, (21/3/13)
Cyprus says ‘significant progress’ in debt crisis talks BBC News (23/3/13)
The Banking System in Cyprus: Time to Rethink the Business Model? Cyprus Economic Policy Review, Vol. 5, No. 2, pp. 123–130, Constantinos Stephanou (2011)
European sovereign-debt crisis Wikipedia
- What is the justification given by the Cypriot government and the EU for imposing a levy on bank deposits?
- What alternative measures could have been demanded by the EU? Why weren’t they?
- What is the significance of Russian deposits in Cypriot banks?
- Compare the benefits of the proposed levy rates with the alternative of imposing levies only on deposits over €100,000, but at higher rates (perhaps tiered).
- Explain the moral hazard issues in bailing out the Cypriot banks.
- How serious is the problem that imposing a tax on deposits in Cypriot banks might have adverse affects on the behaviour of depositors in other countries’ banks?
- How might Cypriots behave in future in regards to depositing money in banks? What impact could this have on the economy of Cyprus?
- Explain “the unholy trinity of options facing indebted nations (inflate, stagnate, default)”. Compare the effectiveness of each.