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Cyprus: Further Compressing the Coiled Spring

21 March 2013
by Guest author
Bank runs are nothing new, but they're not a thing of the past either

Bank runs are nothing new, but they’re not a thing of the past either

Today’s post is from Adrian Blundell-Wignall, Special Advisor to the OECD Secretary General on Financial Markets. The view expressed here is his own and does not necessarily reflect that of any OECD government.

The Cyprus crisis is the result of policy mistakes and a failure of collective responsibility, as well as an illustration of what bad policy can do and could do if it’s not corrected. It’s now too late to take the easier steps that could have avoided the problems we’re facing today, but there are alternatives to the myopic, badly conceived plan proposed by the Troika (the committee led by the European Commission with the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund that negotiates loans to the states worst affected by the sovereign debt crisis).

While all deposits are supposed to be guaranteed to €100,000, those with above that amount were to be taxed 9.9%, and those with less 6.75%; enough to raise about €7bn, to make up the €17bn estimated to be needed to rescue Cyprus’ banks (since  a limit of €10bn for Troika bailout loans was imposed). The deposit plan was (naturally) rejected by Cyprus’ parliament.

The “above-€100,000” depositors are in the main Russian depositors; the bulwark of Cyprus’ role as an offshore centre.

Large withdrawals of electronic funds have been suspended. Electronic transfer of funds from Cyprus has been stopped. Banks are closed, now until next week.

Bank collapses would result in some €68bn deposit insurance liabilities to be paid (at least 1/3 outside the euro area), an amount much larger than Cyprus’s GDP (just under €18bn) —an unthinkable option.

While reports suggested there was a Troika threat to cut off ECB liquidity support (hence collapsing the banks), this was not made by the ECB, which has responsibility for such decisions and continues to support the banks for now.

A key policy mistake in Cyprus was that action was not taken sooner. Hybrid and unsecured bonds should be the first in line (after equity) in burden-sharing during bank failure resolution. Bondholders were involved in burden-sharing in other European countries and implicit bank debt guarantees declined. This caused the amount of outstanding unsecured bonds of Cypriot banks to fall noticeably during 2012 (there is now only €1.2bn of junior bond holders left!) but the Troika failed to take action to deal with the banks. Consequently, the bulk of liabilities now consists of deposits. Early action would have reduced the cost.

There is a collective responsibility here. Starting from the failure to act early, one can add more to the list: the losses of Cyprus’ banks derived mainly from holdings of Greek government bonds, which successive European politicians promised would never be allowed to default; the one size fits all monetary policy; the failure to implement and monitor the Maastricht fiscal pact; and the permission given to enter the euro in the first place.

The Troika’s plan amounts to a confiscation of deposits. The most recent example of this kind of policy was Zimbabwe in 2008—confiscating foreign currency bank accounts (puzzlingly the IMF was critical of this then). And there have been examples in extreme crisis situations in Europe and Latin America before that, which also made things worse and left a deep distrust of banking for generations.

The plan has surprised even the worst critics of the euro project.Not contributing to bank runs is the single most important lesson of hundreds of years of financial policy making in crises, lessons that appear to have been lost on the Troika.

The full implication of this latest policy announcement from Europe is hard to assess. But policy makers need to rethink this policy quickly.

The risk of runs on Cyprus bank deposits is now high, as soon as the banks re-open, in the absence of capital controls and limits on cash withdrawals. Governments went through a lot of trouble to establish new deposit insurance ceilings in Europe. The new harmonised EU (and EFTA)-wide deposit insurance ceilings have to be seen against the background of re-instilling depositor confidence, while also trying to limit moral hazard risks. Major efforts have been undertaken by deposit insurers to raise awareness of these new ceilings. Any policy measure that undermines the credibility of this ceiling runs the risk of triggering a depositor runs in other countries that have banking sectors under stress and weak sovereigns.

The Basel process is trying to discourage reliance on short-term wholesale funding while favouring retail deposits, with a view to improving the outlook for financial stability. Deposits are currently very much sought after.  For example, the relative stability of the Italian banking sector in part reflects the ability of Italian banks to increase their domestic retail deposit base. Haircutting small depositors will undermine these efforts.

Restrictions on capital flows, should they prove necessary, perpetuate external imbalances, undermine trust, and may prompt and encourage similar measures by other countries.

There are serious problems on bank balance sheets in certain larger EU economies, which may in the end require bank resolutions. It is only natural that the Cyprus approach be taken as a pointer for what could be done elsewhere (confiscation of deposits). This is very important, because one of the stumbling blocks for the European Banking Union project is the very nature of deposit insurance and who will pay for it. The precedent being set here will make it more difficult to finalise the banking union project.

Trust in the financial system is built around the most basic ideas of caveat emptor for sophisticated participants and protections for unsophisticated investors.  European politicians have strongly supported the OECD push for better financial literacy and consumer protection—yet the Cyprus plan says that Europe is prepared to hurt the small unsophisticated depositor in banks that they believed were safe.

Global systemically important banks have not been restructured to separate material derivatives and securities businesses, where caveat emptor should apply, from traditional businesses of deposit taking and lending where protections are important. More volatility can put big banks under pressure via margin and collateral calls, contaminating traditional banking, if the crisis were to escalate from here.

What could be done?

There were so many choices that could have avoided the problems. A list of alternatives from the easiest to the hardest includes:

  • Earlier action in the first place—alas now not available.
  • Given no meaningful action was taken, ‘tax’ uninsured deposits for all depositors above €100,000 to the amount required. Promises are not broken, and many unsophisticated depositors had more than one bank account to avoid the risk of loss. This ‘big deposits approach’ would undermine Cyprus’ status as an offshore financial centre—but that may not be such a bad thing for the future.
  • Capital injections into banks from the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) to the amounts required, TARP-style, in exchange for warrants.
  • Fully nationalise the banks, keep them running, and wipe out all equity and bond holders. Restructure the banks, and then sell them back to the private sector—a time honoured and profitable approach, used in Scandanavia, in the US S&L crisis and even on a piecemeal basis in this crisis.

Sticking with the Cyprus plan amounts to telling European depositors and that their money is not safe in any country where banks have problems (bond holders know this already). The ‘coiled spring’ has just been compressed further. For now the private sector believes in ECB magic. This is perhaps the most strongly held market view. But when the strongest-held views are contradicted—even by the slightest hint of a problem elsewhere in the future—the coiled spring could uncoil explosively in a collective unwinding of all those beliefs. This would create new problems and would certainly further delay Europe’s recovery.

Change course now! And, in doing so, clarify Europe’s view on deposit insurance and resolution in the Banking Union plan as soon as possible, making it clear that confiscation of insured deposits will never happen anywhere.

Useful links

OECD work on sovereign debt and financial stability

OECD work on public debt management

3 Responses
  1. Mark Farrington permalink
    March 21, 2013

    Excellent comment. How burden sharing was seen appropriate for depositors – even those of businesses with operating accounts above 100,000 – while bond & equity holder risk capital has not been completely exhausted first is beyond reason. A dogmatic interpretation of the deposit insurance threshold of 100,000 when so many other capital tiering rights have been ignored throughout this EMU crisis is ridiculous. The Russians are right to be furious. Like with Ireland, this is a case of Paris, Brussels and Berlin treating offshore banking centres with disdain. When Cypriot banks offer above market interest rates to large Russian corporates or private individuals, then there is obviously a blurring of the line between bond holders and depositors. However, EU individuals and small business can be foregiven for assuming that recapitalising banks and defending deposits was official EC policy. What depositor haircuts were levied in Spain?

  2. matthew williams permalink
    March 21, 2013

    Coupla extra’s
    1. subordinated was ~E 200mn… arguably hardly worth it.
    2. senior was ~E 1,500mn and (i think) all government guaranteed issuances.
    3. word is (operators, not market types) that alot of UHNW/HNW money was repatratried out of cyprus last week. Implied loss for residential is higher than suggested.
    4. (Lee Buchheit)

    Congratulations to the politicians for not only saying no, not a single ‘ey’.

  3. March 23, 2013

    I fully agree this should be the way forward. Remember that there is little or no difference between deposits in excess of what has been given a guarantee and an unsecured bond.

    But I would also like to see many more assuming their shared responsibilities. One of the main reasons why the banks of Cyprus are in so much trouble was allowing these to hold so much debt of Greece against so little capital, and all that the courtesy of the Basel Committee.

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