Business

03.17.13

After Cyprus Bank Bailout, Depositors Race to Withdraw Their Cash. Is the Rest of Europe Next?

As Cyprus reneges on their deposit insurance guarantees, the rest of Europe is in the crosshairs.
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People line up use an ATM machine outside of a bank Larnaca, Cyprus, Saturday, March 16, 2013. Many rushed to cooperative banks which are open Saturdays in Cyprus after learning that the terms of a bailout deal that the cash-strapped country hammered out with international lenders includes a one-time levy on bank deposits. The move, decided in an extraordinary meeting of the finance ministers of the 17-nation eurozone in the early hours Saturday, is a major departure from established policies. Analysts have warned that making depositors take a hit threatens to undermine investors' confidence in other weaker eurozone economies and might possibly lead to bank runs. (Petros Karadjias/AP)

As you probably already know by now, the banking system of Cyprus has imploded, and Europe has stepped in to provide, not a "bail-out", but a "bail-in": the banks get a capital infusion, but the depositors have to take a haircut, losing between 7-10% of the value of their bank account.  That's not exactly what they're calling it, of course; it's a "special bank levy" of 6.75% on accounts up to 100,000 (the limit for deposit insurance) and about 10% on accounts above that limit.  

The depositor haircuts seem to have been necessary to get political support for the deal in the EU--and political support in the EU was necessary because Cypriot banks had assets somewhere in the neighborhood of 8 times the Gross Domestic Product of Cyprus.  And just to bring it full circle, the banking system had grown to such grotesque, hypertrophied proportions because Cypriot bank accounts seem to be a favorite of tax-dodging Russian oligarchs . . . which is why it was politically necessary to give depositors such a large haircut.

From a technical, economic, perspective, however, this looks to be disastrous.  If we are not yet having full-scale runs on Cypriot banks, we've at least worked up to a pretty brisk jog.  No banking system can survive a bank run; if everyone tries to get their money out at once, even the soundest, most prudently managed bank in the world will fail, because they can't liquidate their loan assets fast enough to keep the cash moving out the door.

The decision to place a levy on insured accounts, in particular, seems extremely foolish. Note that it may have been necessary to prevent a run on the foreign accounts, which by some reports constitute about a third of total deposits.  But if violating the deposit guarantees was necessary to implement your "tax the Russians to pay for the bank bailout plan", that should have been a sign that the plan was a bad idea.

Deposit insurance is the one way we know to stop a bank run.  Oh, the government can say that this was a one-time thing, but once you've broken your promise once, what's to stop you from doing it again?  It's bad enough to slam middle-class savers in order to put a smaller levy on Russian oligarchs, but it's insane to do so when you're actually making it less likely that your bank bail-in will succeed.  And at this point, the whole scheme is looking extremely shaky.  

It's foolish for Europe, too.  If Cyprus had done this on its own, the country would be in trouble, but the rest of the world would just emit a bemused sigh and move on.  Now, however, this plan has the imprimatur of the EU stamped on it--and so people are going to be looking hard at other European banking systems.  Which other nations' depositors might have to take a similar haircut in the future?  

Hopefully, savers will view Cyprus as an extreme one-off: a tiny nation whose banking system was unsustainably oversized for its economy, and whose substantial depositor base of kleptocratic foreigners made it uniquely difficult to deliver government support.  

The problem is, Europe seems to be chock full of unique, one time problems with its banking system.  There's a real risk that investors will decide that they'd rather not stick around to see what one-of-a-kind, custom-crafted solution the European ministers come up with next.