Cyprus bailout terms open nightmare scenario

Arthur Beesley: confidence in EU banking system undermined at critical time


The move to seize almost €6 billion from bank depositors in Cyprus marks an extraordinary change of course for the Eu ropean authorities. After a few months of relative calm in the euro zone, the development threatens a new upsurge of volatility.

The deal struck in the pre-dawn hours on Saturday would have seen 6.75 per cent wiped from all deposits under €100,000 and a further 9.9 per cent taken from deposits exceeding that amount. Whatever the eventual outcome of fevered efforts in Nicosia to provide a belated measure of protection to people with modest deposits, the damage is done.

Despite insistent claims that the Cypriot case is unique, the inevitable conclusion is that bank deposits are no longer sacrosanct in the battle to shore up the single currency. This may be no more than an implicit threat in the most extreme of scenarios, but that’s all that is required to undermine confidence in a time of acute crisis.

This is no overstatement. With the fragile situation in Italy and Spain unresolved, the danger now is that people in those countries might dash to withdraw their money if turbulence suddenly returns. That is the stuff of nightmare.

It is in the nature of such actions that they tend to be self-fulfilling, with risks snowballing quickly. What is more, the euro zone crisis has shown again and again that the weakness of one country in a currency union is the weakness of all.

Not for nothing was it an article of faith in the European Union – until last weekend, at least – to maintain something approaching absolute protection over deposits. Similarly, the gradual unwinding of the fateful Irish bank guarantee has been accompanied by repeated
Government reassurances that deposits up to €100,000 remain under State protection.

There is good reason for that. Only one week has passed since the Government sold long-term Irish debt for the first time in years. If calm in the euro zone is a prerequisite for a full return to private markets later this year then the turmoil in Nicosia is most unwelcome.

The failure to distinguish between the small-time savings of regular Cypriots and the vast holdings of Russian and other international depositors remains deeply perplexing. Not only does it smack of a political tin ear at the centre of European power, but there is wilful negligence too. How does this sit with the drive to eventually provide pan-European deposit protection under the “banking union” initiative? Not well at all – and the banking union has been billed as the final salvation of the single currency.

Far from promoting stability in Cyprus and beyond, the deal has led to a dangerous political crisis on the island and the temporary closure of its banks and prompted worry about another wave of contagion sweeping through the euro zone’s brittle financial system. Markets are struggling to maintain their composure, and the sense remains that this will go down as yet another instance of EU leaders making things a good deal worse when they were trying to make them better.

Yes, the ever-increasing burden of adjustment throughout the EU has been borne by ordinary people. This is the case in respect of new property and water taxes in Ireland, the Croke Park pay cuts, the raid on pension funds and all the other measures to assert control over the public finances.

While it’s more or less the same in other countries, there is still something particularly unsavoury about an unexpected fiat in the dead of night to expropriate funds directly from bank depositors. If setting money aside for the future in a bank is supposed to be a sensible thing to do, this seems like an egregious penalty on good behaviour.

The explanation for all this lies first in German disquiet at the notion of a bailout for Cyprus and its banks whose benefit would be felt disproportionately by the wealthy Russians who store their money there.

That is laudable enough from the perspective of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who faces a testing general election in September and whose bailout policy remains contentious. What remains baffling, however, is that the initial deal went through without any protection for small depositors.

After all, Cyprus first sought a bailout last June. After nine long months of talks, it is difficult to understand how finance ministers could sign off on a deal of such manifest weakness.

The eurogroup of ministers is now under the stewardship of Dutch minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a relative newcomer to the European scene. It’s a matter of conjecture as to whether this particular deal would have passed muster with the wily Jean-Claude Juncker, Luxembourg ’s long-serving prime minister.

The shortcomings in the arrangement have been attributed to tension between the Cypriot government and European negotiators. The core demand of the EU-IMF-ECB troika was for a €5.8 billion contribution from depositors in order to keep the public debt of Cyprus from spiralling into uncontrollable territory.

By targeting all depositors, the Cypriots hoped to minimise the impact on Russian high rollers who use their banks as a shelter from the vagaries of the financial system in Moscow. The levy would have to jump to 15.6 per cent if all depositors with less than €100,000 were to be protected, as the EU wants.

This was a step too far for the Cypriots. Fearful of prompting capital flight and intensifying recession, they spent yesterday discussing steps to exempt deposits of less than €20,000. Talks were also under way with the Putin administration to tap an alternative source of funding.

From an Irish standpoint, ironies abound. The first is that senior bank bondholders have the same legal standing as depositors.

Back when the former Anglo Irish Bank still had senior bondholders to repay, this was one of the main arguments against tackling them. To threaten one was to threaten the other. A further argument was that the financial benefit from any move to withdraw protection from senior bondholders would be too small to risk undermining confidence in the senior debt of all frail euro zone banks.

If that kind of thinking now seems like a quaint relic of past times, it’s too late now to do anything about money paid to Anglo’s bondholders.

Arthur Beesley is political news editor

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