The European economic crisis has taken different forms in different places, and Cyprus is the latest country to face the prospect of financial ruin. Overextended banks in Cyprus are teetering on the brink of failure for issuing loans they cannot repay, which has prompted the tiny Mediterranean country, a member of the European Union, to turn to Brussels for help. Late Sunday, the European Union and Cypriot president announced new terms for a bailout that would provide the infusion of cash necessary to prevent bankruptcies in Cyprus’ banking sector and, more important, prevent a banking panic from spreading to the rest of Europe.
What makes this crisis different from the previous bailouts for Greece, Ireland or elsewhere are the conditions Brussels has attached for its assistance. Due to circumstances unique to Cyprus, namely the questionable origin of a large chunk of the deposits in its now-stricken banking sector and that sector’s small size relative to the overall European economy, the European Union, led by Germany, has taken a harder line with the country. Cyprus has few sources of capital besides its capacity as a banking shelter, so Brussels required that the country raise part of the necessary funds from its own banking sector — possibly by seizing money from certain bank deposits and putting it toward the bailout fund. The proposal has not yet been approved, but if enacted it would undermine a formerly sacred principle of banking in most industrial nations — the security of deposits — setting a new and possibly destabilizing precedent in Europe.
For years before the crisis, Cyprus promoted itself as an offshore financial center by creating a tax structure and banking rules that made depositing money in the country attractive to foreigners. As a result, Cyprus’ financial sector grew to dwarf the rest of the Cypriot economy, accounting for about eight times the country’s annual gross domestic product and employing a substantial portion of the nation’s work force. A side effect of this strategy, however, was that if the financial sector experienced problems, the rest of the domestic economy would not be big enough to stabilize the banks without outside help.
Europe’s economic crisis spawned precisely those sorts of problems for the Cypriot banking sector. This was not just a concern for Cyprus, though. Even though Cyprus’ banking sector is tiny relative to the rest of Europe’s, one Cypriot bank defaulting on what it owed other banks could put the whole European banking system in question, and the last thing the European Union needs now is a crisis of confidence in its banks.
The Cypriots were facing chaos if their banks failed because the insurance system was insufficient to cover the claims of depositors. For its part, the European Union could not risk the financial contagion. But Brussels could not simply bail out the entire banking system, both because of the precedent it would set and because the political support for a total bailout wasn’t there. This was particularly the case for Germany, which would carry much of the financial burden and is preparing for elections in September 2013 before an electorate that is increasingly hostile to bailouts.
Even though the German public may oppose the bailouts, it benefits immensely from what those bailouts preserve. As I have pointed out many times, Germany is heavily dependent on exports and the European Union is critical to those exports as a free trade zone. Although Germany also imports a great deal from the rest of the bloc, a break in the free trade zone would be catastrophic for the German economy. If all imports were cut along with exports, Germany would still be devastated because what it produces and exports and what it imports are very different things. Germany could not absorb all its production and would experience massive unemployment.
Currently, Germany’s unemployment rate is below 6 percent while Spain’s is above 25 percent. An exploding financial crisis would cut into consumption, which would particularly hurt an export-dependent country like Germany. Berlin’s posture through much of the European economic crisis has been to pretend it is about to stop providing assistance to other countries, but the fact is that doing so would inflict pain on Germany, too. Germany will make its threats and its voters will be upset, but in the end, the country would not be enjoying high employment if the crisis got out of hand. So the German game is to constantly threaten to let someone sink, while in the end doing whatever has to be done.
Cyprus was a place where Germany could show its willingness to get tough but didn’t carry any of the risks that would arise in pushing a country such as Spain too hard, for example. Cyprus’ economy was small enough and its problems unique enough that the rest of Europe could dismiss any measures taken against the country as a one-off. Here was a case where the German position appears enormously more powerful than usual. And in isolation, this is true — if we ignore the question of what conclusion the rest of Europe, and the world, draws from the treatment of Cyprus.
A Firmer Line
Under German guidance, the European Union made an extraordinary demand on the Cypriots. It demanded that a tax be placed on deposits in the country’s two largest banks. The tax would be about 10 percent and would, under the initial terms, be applied to all accounts, regardless of their size. This was an unprecedented solution. Since the global financial crisis of the 1920s, all advanced industrial countries — and many others — had been operating on a fundamental principle that deposits in banks were utterly secure. They were not regarded as bonds paying certain interest, whose value would disappear if the bank failed. Deposits were regarded as riskless placements of money, with the risk covered by deposit insurance for smaller deposits, but in practical terms, guaranteed by the national wealth.
This guarantee meant that individual savings would be safe and that working capital parked by corporations in a bank was safe as well. The alternative was not only uncertainty, but also people hoarding cash and preventing it from entering the financial system. It was necessary to have a secure place to put money so that it was available for lending. The runs on banks in the 1920s and 1930s drove home the need for total security for deposits.
Brussels demanded that the bailout for Cypriot banks be partly paid for by depositors in those banks. That demand essentially violated the social contract on the sanctity of bank deposits and did so in a country that was a member of the European Union — one of the world’s major economic blocs. Proponents of the measure pointed out that many of the depositors were not Cypriot nationals but rather foreigners, many of whom were Russian. Moreover, it was suggested that the only reason for a Russian to be putting money in a Cypriot bank was to get it out of Russia, and the only motive for that had to be nefarious. It followed that the confiscation was not targeted against ordinary people but against shady Russians.