Penny Wise, Euro Foolish

After spending more than four years and a half-trillion dollars trying to restore faith in their currency, their governments and their banks, the top financial minds in the eurozone may have thrown it all away over the weekend to save a pittance.

If you are cynical enough, you might say this is the kind of judgment we ought to expect by now from the top financial minds in the eurozone.

I am not that cynical – or at least I wasn’t, before the finance chiefs of 17 countries decided to raid every bank account in the island nation of Cyprus to raise part of a 17-billion-euro rescue package. As recently as Friday, the Cypriot government (which reluctantly agreed to the terms in order to stay in the euro club) proclaimed that bank deposits were sacrosanct. By Saturday, after word of the rescue deal’s terms got out, virtually every ATM in government-controlled Cyprus was empty of cash. (The exceptions were those machines in the portion of the country that Turkish forces have occupied since a 1974 invasion.)

Cypriot banks were supposed to reopen today after a three-day holiday weekend. They did not, on the government’s orders. It remains to be seen whether they will be open tomorrow. Whenever the doors finally open, there is a good chance we will see domestic and foreign customers of those banks rush to send their money elsewhere. Having been misled once, they have no reason to trust official assurances that this levy on their deposits is a one-time event. If Cyprus needs more funds beyond the current package, what would prevent a second raid on deposits?

You could call it the Willie Sutton theory of multilateral economics: When you don’t want to risk your own cash to bail out a neighbor, you go where somebody else’s money is.

In this case, “somebody else” is the Russian clientele that makes up a large part of the customer base of Cyprus’ banks. Quoting data from the Central Bank of Cyprus, Bloomberg reported yesterday that 31 percent of Cypriot bank deposits are from customers outside the euro area, mainly Russians, who tend to have large bank balances. These foreigners would have paid the bulk of the levy, which was initially set at 9.9 percent of deposits exceeding 100,000 euros. But even small accounts held by Cypriot citizens would have been hit with a seizure of 6.75 percent. This is effectively a tax on savings that would punish pensioners and small businesses.

On its own, Cyprus is not important to the world economy, or even to the eurozone, where it represents less than .005 of total economic output. The money required by the Nicosia government to bolster its banks and pay its bills – 17 billion euros – is pocket change next to the bailouts already approved for Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Spain. But taxpayers in Germany and other prosperous euro economies are tired of paying for what they see as the sins of their profligate partners. They resolved to extract their kilo of flesh.

But it seems the knife slipped. Financial markets tumbled around the world on Monday in reaction to the move. In Asia alone, stock markets lost an estimated $190 billion yesterday, with the situation in Cyprus a big factor (though new moves to tighten China’s real estate market were also in play). The euro dropped to its lowest level in months, while every major non-euro currency rose. Reversing recent trends, cash poured back into the perceived havens of American and German government bonds.

The problem is not just that that so-called “bail-in” of bank depositors is unfair. It is that the midnight raid set a precedent with nasty implications for bank customers all over the eurozone. Having seized deposits in Cyprus, why can’t the same eurozone finance ministers look to deposits in Spain, if its government requires further aid? Or Italy, or even France, should it appear that their sluggish economies and spending proclivities are going to get them into trouble? Not to mention Greece, whose multiple bailouts (which included a haircut for private holders of government bonds, while sparing the European Central Bank) still have not provided much assurance that it can return to solvency?

The move against tiny Cyprus may end up destabilizing the banking system in much of the eurozone and further retarding Europe’s economic recovery. It is almost impossible to revive an economy that lacks banks that are strong enough to lend. Without economic growth in the struggling euro countries, even the prosperous members like Germany, Finland, the Netherlands and Austria will suffer from shrunken export markets and repeated calls for financial aid, without which the struggling countries cannot afford to keep the euro.

From the German perspective, Cypriots ought to bear a big part of the cost of bailing out their own government and banks. This assumes Cypriots are mainly to blame for their own problems. But Cyprus did not foster an unsustainable building boom like Spain’s, or spend far beyond its means like Greece. Its problems stem mainly from the fact that government-controlled Cyprus is ethnically Greek and has close business, cultural and financial ties to Athens. Banks in Cyprus were major investors in Greek bonds, whose value plunged when that country ran off the financial rails. It now turns out that the ECB, having protected the value of its own Greek bond exposure, is imposing penalties on Cypriot savers and businesses as the price for offsetting some of the losses it imposed on their Greek holdings.

The big beneficiaries of the European moves, besides the debt-issuing treasuries in Washington and Berlin, are likely to be banks in non-euro nations like Switzerland, the United States, Canada and the United Kingdom. Those governments can point to an unblemished record of protecting depositors who – by law – are supposed to be protected, even if on rare occasions large account holders who exceed government insurance limits are exposed to some losses. Big depositors know the credit risks they take when they entrust large sums to banks, but they have no way to defend themselves against midnight government assaults aimed at bolstering the fisc.

The details of the Cyprus move were still in flux yesterday, amid proposals to reduce the tax on small accounts while increasing it on big ones. On the global stage, these details do not matter. What matters is that the eurozone has let it be known that bank accounts, no matter how modest the deposit nor how strong the institution, are up for grabs when a central government needs money. Nobody can look at a eurozone bank quite the same way since this weekend. Europe will pay a price for this, one that is liable to be far more than the pocket change it may squeeze out of Cypriot depositors.

About Larry M. Elkin 564 Articles

Affiliation: Palisades Hudson Financial Group

Larry M. Elkin, CPA, CFP®, has provided personal financial and tax counseling to a sophisticated client base since 1986. After six years with Arthur Andersen, where he was a senior manager for personal financial planning and family wealth planning, he founded his own firm in Hastings on Hudson, New York in 1992. That firm grew steadily and became the Palisades Hudson organization, which moved to Scarsdale, New York in 2002. The firm expanded to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 2005, and to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2008.

Larry received his B.A. in journalism from the University of Montana in 1978, and his M.B.A. in accounting from New York University in 1986. Larry was a reporter and editor for The Associated Press from 1978 to 1986. He covered government, business and legal affairs for the wire service, with assignments in Helena, Montana; Albany, New York; Washington, D.C.; and New York City’s federal courts in Brooklyn and Manhattan.

Larry established the organization’s investment advisory business, which now manages more than $800 million, in 1997. As president of Palisades Hudson, Larry maintains individual professional relationships with many of the firm’s clients, who reside in more than 25 states from Maine to California as well as in several foreign countries. He is the author of Financial Self-Defense for Unmarried Couples (Currency Doubleday, 1995), which was the first comprehensive financial planning guide for unmarried couples. He also is the editor and publisher of Sentinel, a quarterly newsletter on personal financial planning.

Larry has written many Sentinel articles, including several that anticipated future events. In “The Economic Case Against Tobacco Stocks” (February 1995), he forecast that litigation losses would eventually undermine cigarette manufacturers’ financial position. He concluded in “Is This the Beginning Of The End?” (May 1998) that there was a better-than-even chance that estate taxes would be repealed by 2010, three years before Congress enacted legislation to repeal the tax in 2010. In “IRS Takes A Shot At Split-Dollar Life” (June 1996), Larry predicted that the IRS would be able to treat split dollar arrangements as below-market loans, which came to pass with new rules issued by the Service in 2001 and 2002.

More recently, Larry has addressed the causes and consequences of the “Panic of 2008″ in his Sentinel articles. In “Have We Learned Our Lending Lesson At Last” (October 2007) and “Mortgage Lending Lessons Remain Unlearned” (October 2008), Larry questioned whether or not America has learned any lessons from the savings and loan crisis of the 1980s. In addition, he offered some practical changes that should have been made to amend the situation. In “Take Advantage Of The Panic Of 2008” (January 2009), Larry offered ways to capitalize on the wealth of opportunity that the panic presented.

Larry served as president of the Estate Planning Council of New York City, Inc., in 2005-2006. In 2009 the Council presented Larry with its first-ever Lifetime Achievement Award, citing his service to the organization and “his tireless efforts in promoting our industry by word and by personal example as a consummate estate planning professional.” He is regularly interviewed by national and regional publications, and has made nearly 100 radio and television appearances.

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