In the last several weeks, a sequence of events involving Cyprus has triggered serious questions about the sustainability of the European Monetary Union (EMU). The events surrounding the finance ministers’ decision to levy taxes (i.e., partially confiscate deposits) on depositors in a Euro-system bank led to a sequence of blunders that have been well-recited in the press. There is no need to repeat the details here.
For readers who missed it, I do want to add this link to the personal observation of Edward Scicluna, finance minister of Malta, who was appointed by his country’s prime minister on March 13. His first action was to participate in the notorious Eurogroup meeting on Cyprus.
In the Cyprus affair, we observe a defeat of the concept behind the Eurozone and the original European Union. It took half a century to create the European Union after WWII. The driving force was what the French call a “rapprochement” between formerly antagonistic parties. To put it simply, the Germans and French decided to stop killing each other after a thousand years of war. An economic union seemed the right way to go about attaining peace and prosperity. After centuries of destructive inflation outcomes, they realized credible money was absolutely necessary for this peaceful outcome to succeed.
That process led to the Maastricht Treaty (1992), the official adoption of the euro (1995), the final exchange-rate setting of the euro (1998), and the actual launch of the euro on January 1, 1999.
Eleven countries of the original fifteen in the newly formed European Union agreed to adopt the euro. The currency existed only in virtual form for the first three years and then enjoyed a nearly flawless transition to the physical version, which was immediately accepted. The results were stellar. Interest rates converged down to very low levels. Efficiencies resulted, because currency-exchange costs within the Eurozone were completely eliminated. More transparency in pricing and increased trade among the members of the Eurozone added to their economic growth rates. It was a high time for the euro.
In its first years the European Central Bank (ECB) was led by a Dutch central banker, Willem (Wim) Duisenberg, as president, and a French central banker, Christian Noyer, as vice president. The initial governing council of the ECB had a single purpose in mind, and they never violated it. They knew from history that they could not allow the new currency to be destroyed or inflated. They understood that it had to be hard and credible. They set about implementing that policy, regardless of short-term costs. The euro emerged in the early part of the first decade of the millennium as one of the strongest, most widely used, and most dependable currencies in the world.
Subsequently, there was a series of expansions of the Eurozone, which now comprises 17 nations. There also followed a softening of credit-quality restrictions and an easing of collateral rules. There has been apparent succumbing to political pressures. The Eurozone is not the same place it was when Duisenberg and Noyer led the ECB.
Fourteen years after the euro’s launch, we have the perception of currency weakness, coupled with an ongoing banking-system shock. This January, another Dutchman, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, became Chairman of the group of eurozone Finance Ministers. In the space of a few months he has undone all the good work started by his predecessor, Wim Duisenberg.
Dijesselbloem has a history. He nationalized a failed bank and insurance group, SNS Reaal, in February. There he wiped out the bondholders and shareholders. We have no arguments with that from our side. But when Dijesselbloem attacked the insured depositors in a Euro-system bank, he went too far.
“Taxing depositors is no different from outright confiscation of individual wealth. This type of action would not surprise anyone under a communist regime, but it is truly troubling in a supposedly free-market capitalist and lawful society.” Well said by Chen Zhao, Managing Editor, BCA Research. Readers please note that “of the 147 banking crises since 1970 tracked by the IMF, none inflicted losses on all depositors, irrespective of the amounts they held and the banks they were with.” The Economist (March 23) concluded that “depositors in weak banks in weak countries have every reason to worry about sudden raids on their savings.”
We agree. We advise clients to take no risk with their bank deposits to the extent they can avoid them.
So, what will the leadership of the Eurozone do now?
Is the euro dying? If that is the case, a requiem may be in order, as we watch it suffer a protracted, agonizing death. We could be seeing the early death throes in Greece and now in Cyprus, and we may soon see them elsewhere (perhaps in Slovenia, Malta, Spain, Italy, or other Eurozone nations). Each in turn may succumb to metastatic euro-failure disease.
Or is there a possibility of euro renewal? Could the Cyprus crisis and bank depositor confiscation policy act as a catalyst for change? The Cyprus events come on the heels of the Greek sovereign-debt default. Clearly that was not enough to trigger a change. Will the finance ministers of the Eurozone finally realize that they cannot continue to do what they have done in the past? Will they be cognizant of Einstein’s guidance that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome?
Is Europe sufficiently shocked to quickly adopt Eurozone-wide banking standards and impose them? Will they include penalties and losses where necessary? Can they achieve a system-wide deposit insurance structure along the lines of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC)? Is it possible to develop a process by which the ECB’s authority in regulation and supervision can function and a credible zone-wide banking system be implemented? Will the ECB reinstate collateral standards and adhere to them? Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) is a proper vehicle only for the resolution of short-term problems. It led to Greece’s downfall, because it allowed the substitution of unsuitable for suitable collateral. It thereby fed money to deteriorating credits.
These and a hundred other issues have become urgent. Therefore, they require actions that will produce results acceptable to markets, investors, bankers, observers, academics, and journalists, all of whom are monitoring these events intensely.
And the actions must be believed and accepted by the general populace and the active business person. This sentiment issue has become critical. My sense from recent travel in Europe and the Emirates is that the general European population has given up on its leaders. Europeans feel powerless.
My sense also sees a Europe looking for believable answers. If positive action happens quickly, the euro can experience renewal. But it must happen quickly.
A bungled effort by the Eurozone finance ministers has resulted in a catastrophe of larger, uninsured deposit failure, threatened breach of smaller deposit insurance, and, now, capital controls. Capital controls are a desperate act and represent failed governance. They are the last twitch of a dying animal. Cyprus now has them.
Cyprus will suffer through an economic depression as it joins Greece and others in a downward spiral. Nothing good can come out of the recent events if the finance ministers remain in “business as usual” mode. Political statements in the Eurozone are falling on disbelieving ears. When an official says that everything is safe, he prompts additional runs on his banks. When someone says his government can honor its obligations, no one believes him. At this point, political silence is more credible than affirmative statements.
We have traveled the last two weeks in Europe and the Persian Gulf. Our discussions occurred in the midst of the Cyprus and Euro-system crises. We have held those conversations with professionals from as far north as Finland and as far south as Abu Dhabi. We have witnessed and discussed transfers in the billions. We viewed the manner in which they are occurring. We watched the surreptitious bleeding of balances from troubled banks, and we read the reports of individuals, businesses, and other agents performing an end run around the Eurozone finance ministers.
Euro sickness is coming to a head. Capital controls are the death of a country, currency, and economy. They create depressions. They are not temporary in the true meaning of a short-term action. Iceland still has capital controls five years after its banking shock. Nearly all countries in Europe are suffering a spiraling down of their financial structures. The 17-member Eurozone’s overall growth rate in 2013 will be near zero. The 27-member European Union will not be much better.
Europe’s leaders face a fundamental question regarding the euro. Do they want a requiem, in which case all they have to do is keep doing what they are doing, or do they want a renewal, in which case behavior must change credibly, immediately and decisively?
We are going to find out soon enough. Markets will force the requiem if political forces do not deliver the renewal.
For investors, this has become an easy decision. You can either bet on the renewal, which we are not ready to do, or you can bet on the requiem, which means capital moves out of the Eurozone.
We are underweight in Europe for very good reason. We are emphasizing investment strategies that seek some safety and resilience in a very dangerous, event-driven world.