Europe’s Disturbing Precedent in the Cyprus Bailout

There is no question that there are shady Russians putting money into Cyprus. But ordinary Cypriots had their money in the same banks and so did many Cypriot and foreign companies, including European companies, who were doing business in Cyprus and need money for payroll and so on. The proposal might look like an attempt to seize Russian money, but it would pinch the bank accounts of all Cypriots as well as a sizable amount of legitimate Russian money. Confiscating 10 percent of all deposits could devastate individuals and the overall economy and likely would prompt companies operating in Cyprus to move their cash elsewhere. The measure would have been devastating and the Cypriot parliament rejected it.

Another deal, the one currently up for approval, tried to mitigate the problem but still broke the social contract. Accounts smaller than 100,000 euros (about $128,000) would not be touched. However, accounts larger than 100,000 euros would be taxed at an uncertain rate, currently estimated at 20 percent, while bondholders would lose up to 40 percent. These numbers will likely shift again, but assuming they are close to the final figures, depositors putting money into banks beyond this amount are at risk depending on the financial condition of the bank.

The impact on Cyprus is more than Russian mafia money being taxed. All corporations doing business in Cyprus could have 20 percent of their operating cash seized. Regardless of precisely how the Cypriot banking system is restructured, the fact is that the European Union demanded that Cyprus seize portions of bank accounts from large depositors. From a business’ perspective, 100,000 euros is not all that much when you are running a supermarket or a car dealership or a construction company, but this arbitrary level could easily be raised in the future and the mere existence of the measure will make attracting investment more difficult.

A New Precedent

The more significant development was the fact that the European Union has now made it official policy, under certain circumstances, to encourage member states to seize depositors’ assets to pay for the stabilization of financial institutions. To put it simply, if you are a business, the safety of your money in a bank depends on the bank’s financial condition and the political considerations of the European Union. What had been a haven — no risk and minimal returns — now has minimal returns and unknown risks. Brussels’ emphasis that this was mostly Russian money is not assuring, either. More than just Russian money stands to be taken for the bailout fund if the new policy is approved. Moreover, the point of the global banking system is that money is safe wherever it is deposited. Europe has other money centers, like Luxembourg, where the financial system outstrips gross domestic product. There are no problems there right now, but as we have learned, the European Union is an uncertain place. If Russian deposits can be seized in Nicosia, why not American deposits in Luxembourg?

This was why it was so important to emphasize the potentially criminal nature of the Russian deposits and to downplay the effect on ordinary law-abiding Cypriots. Brussels has worked very hard to make the Cyprus case seem unique and non-replicable: Cyprus is small and its banking system attracted criminals, so the principle that deposits in banks are secure doesn’t necessarily apply there. Another way to look at it is that an EU member, like some other members of the bloc, could not guarantee the solvency of its banks so Brussels forced the country to seize deposits in order to receive help stabilizing the system. Viewed that way, the European Union has established a new option for itself in dealing with depositors in troubled banks, and that principle now applies to all of Europe, particularly to those countries with financial institutions potentially facing similar problems.

The question, of course, is whether foreign depositors in European banks will accept that Cyprus was one of a kind. If they decide that it isn’t obvious, then foreign corporations — and even European corporations — could start pulling at least part of their cash out of European banks and putting it elsewhere. They can minimize the amount of cash on hand in Europe by shifting to non-European banks and transferring as needed. Those withdrawals, if they occur, could create a massive liquidity crisis in Europe. At the very least, every reasonable CFO will now assume that the risk in Europe has risen and that an eye needs to be kept on the financial health of institutions where they have deposits. In Europe, depositing money in a bank is no longer a no-brainer.

Now we must ask ourselves why the Germans would have created this risk. One answer is that they were confident they could convince depositors that Cyprus was one of a kind and not to be repeated. The other answer was that they had no choice. The first explanation was undermined March 25, when Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem said that the model used in Cyprus could be used in future bank bailouts. Locked in by an electorate that does not fully understand Germany’s vulnerability, the German government decided it had to take a hard line on Cyprus regardless of risk. Or Germany may be preparing a new strategy for the management of the European financial crisis. The banking system in Europe is too big to salvage if it comes to a serious crisis. Any solution will involve the loss of depositors’ money. Contemplating that concept could lead to a run on banks that would trigger the crisis Europe fears. Solving a crisis and guaranteeing depositors may be seen as having impossible consequences. Setting the precedent in Cyprus has the advantage of not appearing to be a precedent.

It’s not clear what the Germans or the EU negotiators are thinking, and all these theories are speculative. What is certain is that an EU country, facing a crisis in its financial system, is now weighing whether to pay for that crisis by seizing depositors’ money. And with that, the Europeans have broken a barrier that has been in place since the 1930s. They didn’t do that casually and they didn’t do that because they wanted to. But they did it.

By George Friedman

Europe’s Disturbing Precedent in the Cyprus Bailout is republished with permission of Stratfor.”

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