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.
As part of the Basel III round of banking regulations, representatives of the EU Parliament and member governments have agreed with the European Commission that bankers’ bonuses should be capped. The proposal is to cap them at 100% of annual salary, or 200% with the agreement of shareholders. The full Parliament will vote in May and then it will go to officials from the 27 Member States. Under a system of qualified majority voting, it is expected to be accepted, despite UK resistance.
The main arguments in favour of a cap are that it will reduce the focus of bankers on short-term gains and reduce the incentive to take excessive risks. It will also appease the anger of electorates throughout the EU over bankers getting huge bonuses, especially in the light of the recession, caused in major part by the excesses of bankers.
The main argument against is that it will drive talented top bankers to countries outside the EU. This is a particular worry of the UK government, fearful of the effect on the City of London. There is also the criticism that it will simply drive banks into increasing basic salaries of senior executives to compensate for lower bonuses.
But it is not just the EU considering curbing bankers’ pay. The Swiss have just voted in a referendum to give shareholders the right to veto salaries and bonuses of executives of major companies. Many of these companies are banks or other financial sector organisations.
So just what will be the effect on incentives, banks’ performance and the movement of top bankers to countries without such caps? The following videos and articles explore these issues. As you will see, the topic is highly controversial and politically charged.
Meanwhile, HSBC has revealed its 2012 results. It paid out $1.9bn in fines for money laundering and set aside a further $2.3bn for mis-selling financial products in the UK. But its underlying profits were up 18%. Bonuses were up too. The 16 top executives received an average of $4.9m each. The Chief Executive, Stuart Gulliver, received $14.1m in 2012, 33% up on 2011 (see final article below).
Webcasts and podcasts
EU moves to cap bankers bonuses Euronews on Yahoo News (1/3/13)
EU to Curb Bank Bonuses WSJ Live (28/2/13)
Inside Story – Curbing Europe’s bank bonuses AlJazeera on YouTube (1/3/13)
Will EU bonus cap ‘damage economy’? BBC Radio 4 Today Programme (28/2/13)
Swiss back curbs on executive pay in referendum BBC News (3/3/13)
Has the HSBC scandal impacted on business? BBC News, Jeremy Howell (4/3/13)
Bonuses: the essential guide The Guardian, Simon Bowers, Jill Treanor, Fiona Walsh, Julia Finch, Patrick Collinson and Ian Traynor (28/2/13)
Q&A: EU banker bonus cap plan BBC News (28/2/13)
Outcry, and a Little Cunning, From Euro Bankers The New York Times, Landon Thomas Jr. (28/2/13)
Bank bonuses may shrink – but watch as the salaries rise The Observer, Rob Taylor (3/3/13)
Don’t cap bank bonuses, scrap them The Guardian, Deborah Hargreaves (28/2/13)
Capping banker bonuses simply avoids facing real bank problems The Telegraph, Mats Persson (2/3/13)
Pro bonus The Economist, Schumpeter column (28/2/13)
‘The most deluded measure to come from Europe since fixing the price of groceries in the Roman Empire’: Boris Johnson attacks EU banker bonus cap Independent, Gavin Cordon , Geoff Meade (28/2/13)
EU agrees to cap bankers’ bonuses BBC News (28/2/13)
Viewpoints: EU banker bonus cap BBC News (28/2/13)
Voters crack down on corporate pay packages swissinfo.ch , Urs Geiser (3/3/13)
Swiss voters seen backing executive pay curbs Reuters, Emma Thomasson (3/3/13)
Swiss referendum backs executive pay curbs BBC News (3/3/13)
Voters in Swiss referendum back curbs on executives’ pay and bonuses The Guardian, Kim Willsher and Phillip Inman (3/3/13)
Swiss vote for corporate pay curbs Financial Times, James Shotter and Alex Barker (3/3/13)
HSBC pays $4.2bn for fines and mis-selling in 2012 BBC News (4/3/13)
- How does competition, or a lack of it, in the banking industry affect senior bankers’ remuneration?
- What incentives are created by the bonus structure as it is now? Do these incentives result in desirable outcomes?
- How would you redesign the bonus system so that the incentives resulted in beneficial outcomes?
- If bonuses are capped as proposed by the EU, how would you assess the balance of advantages and disadvantages? What additional information would you need to know to make such an assessment?
- How has the relationship between banks and central banks over the past few years created a moral hazard? How could such a moral hazard be eliminated?
There has been considerable discussion recently about whether the government should introduce a property tax on high value properties. The government, finding it difficult to reduce the public-sector deficit and yet determined to do so, is looking for additional measures to reduce government expenditure or raise tax revenue.
But would it favour a mansion tax as a means of raising additional revenue?
The imposition of such a tax is favoured by both Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party. It is strongly opposed, however, by Conservatives. But just what would such a tax look like and what are the arguments for and against it?
One alternative would be to impose a one-off tax on property valued over a certain amount, such as £2 million. Alternatively it could be levied only for as long as the government is seeking to make substantial inroads into the deficit.
Another would be to add one or more bands to council tax. At present, council tax in England is levied in 8 bands according to the value of a person’s property. The highest band is for property valued over £320,000 in 1991 prices, with the amount of tax due for each band varying from local authority to local authority. (Average UK house prices in 2012 are 135% higher than in 1991.) In Scotland the bands are lower with the top band being for property valued over £212,000 in 1991 prices. In Wales, there is an additional band for property valued over £424,000, but properties are valued in 2003 prices, not 1991 prices.
With low top bands for council tax, people in mansions end up paying the same as people in much more modest property. It would be relatively easy to add additional bands, with the top band applying only to property worth, say, over £1 million or more.
The arguments in favour of a mansion tax are that it is progressive, relatively easy to collect, hard to evade and with minimal disincentive effects. The arguments against are that it would make the tax system ‘too progressive’, would not necessarily be related to an individual’s ability to pay and could have substantial disincentive effects.
The progressiveness of the UK tax system is illustrated in the chart, which looks at the proportion of income paid in direct, indirect and all taxes by quintile groups of households – that is, households grouped into five equal sized groups ranked from lowest to highest gross income. (Click here for a PowerPoint of the chart.)
The following articles look at the debate as it has raged over the past few weeks. Try to unpick the genuine arguments from the political rhetoric!
Clegg Says U.K. Could Apply Mansion Tax ‘in Five Seconds’ Bloomberg, Robert Hutton (25/9/12)
Two thirds back mansion tax on £1m homes Metro, Tariq Tahir (8/10/12)
Mansion tax would ‘tackle inequality’ This is Tamworth (27/9/12)
Council tax: the easy way to make mansion-dwellers pay Guardian, Simon Jenkins (25/9/12)
Rich must pay fair share in tax BBC Andrew Marr Show, Nick Clegg (23/9/12)
We will get mansion tax on £2 million homes through next budget, promise Lib Dems The Telegraph, Rowena Mason (25/9/12)
Trying to tax the wealthy not worth the price The Scotsman, George Kerevan (31/8/12)
Tax on wealth is true to Tory principles Financial Times, Janan Ganesh (24/9/12)
How would Clegg’s emergency wealth tax work? Guardian, Hilary Osborne (29/8/12)
Labour considers mansion tax on wealthy Financial Times, George Parke (5/9/12)
Conservative conference: Cameron rules out ‘mansion tax’ BBC News (7/10/12)
Don’t make wealth tax a habit Financial Times, Howard Davies (29/8/12)
George Osborne blocks mansion tax, but insists wealthy will pay more The Telegraph, Robert Winnett (8/10/12)
Why George Osborne had to kill the mansion tax The Spectator, Matthew Sinclair (7/10/12)
David Cameron rules out mansion tax and plans further welfare cuts Guardian, Hélène Mulholland (7/10/12)
Viewpoint: Would a wealth tax work? BBC News, Mike Walker (29/8/12)
For all the claims made about wealth taxes, it’s not correct to say the rich are paying their fair share Independent, Jonathan Portes (2/10/12)
House price data links Economics Network
The Effects of Taxes and Benefits on Household Income, 2010/2011 ONS (26/6/12) (see especially Tables 2 and 3 and Table 26 for historical data)
- Explain the distinction between direct and indirect taxes, and between progressive and regressive taxes. For what reasons do the poor pay a higher proportion of their income in indirect taxes than the rich?
- What forms can a tax on wealth take?
- How progressive are taxes in the UK (see the ONS site in the Data section above)?
- Assess the arguments in favour of a mansion tax.
- Assess the arguments against a mansion tax.
- What type of wealth tax would be hardest to evade?
- What are the likely income and substitution effects of a wealth tax?
Recently there have been calls from business leaders and Conservative politicians to scrap the UK’s 50% income tax rate, which is paid on taxable incomes over £150,000. The 50% income tax rate is thus paid by top earners, who comprise around just 1% of taxpayers.
And yet the government receives about 30% of income tax revenue from this 1% – and this was before the introduction of the 50% rate in April 2010. (In fact, with the marginal national insurance rate of 2%, top earners are paying an effective marginal rate of 52%.)
One argument used by those who favour reducing the 50% rate is that the rich would pay more income tax, not less. There are four reasons given for this. The first is that people would be encouraged to work harder and/or seek promotion if they knew they would keep more of any rise in income. The second is that fewer rich people would be encouraged to leave the country or to relocate their businesses abroad. The third is that more people would be encouraged to work in or set up businesses in the UK. The fourth is that there would be less temptation to evade taxes by not declaring all income earned or to find clever ways of avoiding tax.
These arguments were put forward in the 1980s by Art Laffer, an adviser to President Reagan. His famous ‘Laffer curve’ (see Economics (8th edition) Box 10.3 or Economics (7th edition) Box 10.4) illustrated that tax revenues are maximised at a particular tax rate. The idea behind the Laffer curve is very simple. At a tax rate of 0%, tax revenue will be zero – but so too at a rate of 100%, since no-one would work if they had to pay all their income in taxes. As the tax rate rises from 0%, so tax revenue would rise. And so too, as the tax rate falls from 100%, the tax rate would rise. It follows that there will be some tax rate between 0% and 100% that maximises tax revenue.
Those arguing that a cut in the top rate of income tax would increase tax revenue are arguing that the 50% rate is beyond the peak of the Laffer curve. But this is an empirical issue. In other words, to assess the argument you would need to look at the evidence as, theoretically, the peak of the Laffer curve could be below or above 50%. Indeed, some argue that the peak is more likely to be at around 75%.
The following podcasts and articles consider the arguments. As you will see, the authors are not all agreed! Consider carefully their arguments and try to identify any flaws in their analysis.
On 27 June 2012, Arthur Laffer appeared on the BBC Today Programme to discuss the Laffer curve and its implications for UK income tax policy. You can hear it from the link below
Should the 50p tax rate be ditched? BBC Today Programme, John Redwood and Paul Johnson (3/3/12)
Arthur Laffer: Tax rate should ‘provide for growth’ BBC Today Programme (27/6/12)
Where’s the High Point on the Laffer Curve? And Where Are We? Business Insider, Angry bear Blog (3/3/12)
Tax cuts: we can have our cake and eat it The Telegraph, Ruth Porter (22/2/12)
‘Scrap the 50p tax rate’ say 500 UK entrepreneurs Management Today, Rebecca Burn-Callander (1/3/12)
The Laffer Curve Appears in the UK Forbes, Tim Worstall (22/2/12)
Memo to 50p tax trashers: Laffer Curve peaks at over 75 per cent Left Foot Forward, Alex Hern (1/3/12)
- Explain how a cut in income tax could lead to an increase in tax revenue.
- Distinguish between the income effect and the substitution effect of a tax cut. Which would have to be bigger if a tax cut were to increase tax revenue?
- If, in a given year, the top rate of tax were raised and tax revenue fell, would this prove that the economy was now past the peak of the Laffer curve?
- What would cause the Laffer curve to shift/change shape? To what extent could the government affect the shape of the Laffer curve?
- If the government retains the 50% top tax rate, what can it do to increase the revenue earned from people paying the top rate?
- What other objectives might the government have for having a high marginal income tax rate on top earners?
- Investigate the marginal income tax and national insurance (social protection) rates in other countries. How progressive are UK income taxes compared with those in other countries?
According to the Sunday Times Rich List, the combined wealth of Britain’s 1000 richest people grew by nearly 4.7% last year to £414 billion (after growing by 18% in 2010).
This is in stark contrast to average households, who saw their real incomes decline by 1.9% in 2011. As the Guardian article below says:
The Rich Listers are not merely the 1%, but the 0.01%, and this fanfared celebration of their assets feels like a celebration of things that nobody feels like celebrating: bankers’ bonuses, complex corporate tax-avoidance structures, the stifling grip of aristocratic family wealth.
So why are the rich getting richer and what are the implications for society and the economy? Watch and read the following webcasts and articles and then see if you can answer the questions below.
Rich List shows how super-wealthy have dodged recession (or) Channel 4 News (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List: Wealthy getting richer BBC News, Ben Thompson (29/4/12)
Britain’s richest see fortunes rise to record high Reuters, Tim Castle (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List shows rich recover wealth twice as fast Myfinances.co.uk, Ben Salisbury (29/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List suggests UK’s wealthiest defy recession BBC News (28/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List 2012: Wealth of richest grows to record levels The Telegraph, Patrick Sawer (28/4/12)
The Not-So-Rich-Any-More List Guardian, Oliver Burkeman and Patrick Kingsley (27/4/12)
Sunday Times Rich List ITV News (29/4/12)
Distribution of Personal Wealth HMRC
The effects of taxes and benefits on household income ONS (19/5/11)
Household Quarterly Release 2011 Q4 – Real household actual income and expenditure per head ONS
- Distinguish between stocks and flows. Which of the following are stocks and which are flows: income, wealth, savings, saving, expenditure, possessions?
- If the combined wealth of the 1000 wealthiest people increased in 2011, does this imply that their incomes rose? Explain.
- Why have the super rich got richer, while average incomes in the country have fallen?
- What are the costs and benefits to society (other than the super rich) of the super rich becoming richer?
- Distinguish between the income and substitution effects of an increase in income of the wealthy. Which is likely to be larger and why?