The Cyprus bailout package contains a tax on bank deposits. This column argues that the tax is a deeply dangerous policy that creates a new situation, more perilous than ever. It is a radical change that potentially undermines a perfectly reasonable deposit guarantee and the euro itself. Historians will one day explore the dark political motives behind this move. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the bad equilibrium that has just been created will not be chosen by anguished depositors in Spain and Italy.
The decision to tax all Cypriot bank deposits has attracted massive attention (Spiegel 2013) – and rightly so. It is a huge blunder:
Policymakers have been debating the Cyprus bailout for nearly a year; this cannot be classified an ’emergency action’. They engaged in a lively debate whether Cyprus is ‘systemic’ or not, the answer to which can only be ‘it depends’. It depends not on the size of Cypriot banks but on the way the Eurozone acts. They also debated the Russian deposits that apparently represent a sizeable proportion of bank liabilities. The debate turned around the issues of how dirty this money is and how to do the laundry. They also debated on the size of a possible loan to the Cypriot government. The government itself requested something to the tune of 100% of its GDP, why not? After all this amounts to 0.2% of Eurozone GDP.
From what is known:
This debt trajectory is a forecast, of course, but well in line with experience.
The effects of this Eurozone austerity programme are now well known. Cyprus joins a distinguished list of countries that benefit from suffocating Eurozone solidarity (Wyplosz, 2011).
Who knows, populist parties could well be on the rise, adding political drama to economic pain. This technology is now well oiled.
What is new is that bank deposits will be ‘taxed’. The proper term is ‘confiscated’. Like everywhere in the EU, bank deposits in Cyprus are guaranteed up to €100,000. Depositors have arranged their wealth accordingly, only to be told that the guarantee has been changed ex post.
Taxing stocks is optimally time-inconsistent (Kydland and Prescott, 1977). It is a great way of raising money but it has deep incentive effects as it destroys property rights. What is at stake is the credibility of the bank deposit guarantee system throughout Europe.
The system was shaken in 2008 but in the opposite direction. Followed by all other countries, Ireland offered a full guarantee in a successful effort to stem an impending bank run. The cost to the government was such that it triggered a run on the public debt that led to the second bailout after the Greek ‘unique and exceptional’ one.
That move has now been recognized as a mistake, which may explain how Cyprus is now being treated.
Because it is time-inconsistent, the decision to tax deposits has been preceded by a freezing of bank deposits. This is remindful of the Argentinean corralito of 2001, which led to economic dislocation, immense suffering and such anger that two governments fell (Cavallo 2011). Hopefully, the Cypriotcorralito will not last too long.
The question is: how bank depositors will react in Cyprus and elsewhere? The short answer is that we don’t know but we can build scenarios:
Under the less benign scenario:
At this point in the scenario script, the ECB enters the play. Being the only lender of last resort, the ECB will have to decide what to do.
This is not unlikely since the ECB does not control Cypriot bank resolution.
Remember that the current version of the banking union explicitly leaves resolution authority in national hands. In Cyprus, as almost everywhere else, national authorities are deeply conflicted when it comes to their banking systems. Powerful special-interest groups become engaged when banks go bust and governments decide who pays the price. Thus, it is a good bet that Cyprus’s bank resolution will be deeply flawed. The risk to the ECB is real.
Proper resolution under European control could have been part of the conditions for the loan just agreed. But this does not seem be the case. The omission most likely reflects a belief by policymakers that the Cyprus crisis has been solved successfully. The problem is that this belief is false: Cyprus’s predicament remains even under the benign scenario.
The really worrisome scenario is that the Cypriot bailout becomes euro-systemic – in which case the collapse of the Cypriot economy will be a sideshow. This will happen when and if depositors in troubled countries, say Italy or Spain, take notice of how fellow depositors were treated in Cyprus.
All the ingredients of a self-fulfilling crisis are now in place:
This would probably be the end of the euro.
The likelihoods of these three scenarios – benign, less benign, and total disaster – are difficult to assess.
It is also another violation of sound existing arrangements. We have a no-bailout clause in the Maastricht Treaty – a clause that was essential to the Eurozone’s stability. Putting it aside in the case of Greece was the heart of the today’s problem – the reason the crisis spread (Wyplosz 2010). This no-bailout clause has once again been put aside summarily.
We are now witnessing another radical change as a perfectly reasonable deposit guarantee is being undermined. Historians will one day explore the dark political motives behind this move. Meanwhile, we can only hope that the bad equilibrium that has just been created will not be chosen by anguished depositors.Courtesy: Charles Wyplosz
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