The clichés are frequent, abundant, and apt: have your cake and eat it too; kick the can down the road; squeeze the tube of toothpaste; see the chickens come home to roost — in that order. They are being used these days to describe financial crises and political responses to financial crises. A couple of years ago, writing about the role of Greece in the ongoing euro monetary-financial crisis, I said that the “contradiction is between the love of state largesse and the limits of governments’ ability to raise revenue,” and I suggested (unoriginally) that Greece might be a domino to tip other dominos (more clichés).
Now Cyprus. It’s the latest hotspot in the euro crisis. If you read or listen to news supplied by the mass media here in the US, you know that Cypriot banks are on the ropes. You know that they have a lot of euro-denominated deposits, including somefrom tax-dodging or money-laundering Russians. And you know that a bailout is in the works. However, unless you think or read more deeply, you don’t know how the situation in Cyprus fits into the bigger picture of euro zone troubles.
Even if you read The Economist, as I do, you only get a hint. In its March 30, 2013 issue, it got through two articles on the Cyprus bailout while barely mentioning how that was precipitated by Greece. I’m not saying there is a media conspiracy to obscure the facts, but there is a tendency to avoid speaking of and maybe even to avoid thinking of the complex and unsettling cause and effect relationships among the various financial unbalances in European banks, treasuries, and currencies. (Yes, I know there is supposed to be only one euro, but more on that below.)
Why would those rich Russians trust banks in miniscule Cyprus? Because the deposits were in Europe, in the euro zone, denominated in euros, and implicitly guaranteed by Europe.
The Economist said, “The troubles of the two banks were caused, some believe, by a decision to buy Greek government bonds that were then restructured.” It said thisonly in the context of an article mentioning that Cypriots feel like victims, in this case of the “restructuring.”
That sentence from The Economist does everything wrong. It directs us away from the truth that the euro mess is a great tangle of interrelationships with “moral hazard” at every knot. And it downplays important circumstances, employing euphemisms. “Troubles” should be “failures”; “some believe” should be deleted; “a decision” should be followed by a statement of the reasons and motivations for the decision; and “restructured” means “defaulted.”
As a corrective, I’ll tell you what I think is going on, preferring clichés to euphemisms.
How does a miniscule country get pumped up on foreign deposits? Why would those rich Russians trust banks in Cyprus? Because the deposits were in Europe, in the euro zone, denominated in euros, and implicitly guaranteed by Europe. That’s an example of having your cake and eating it too. The “cake” is having a hard currency that does not fluctuate against any other currency in the euro zone and can be freely transferred among all euro-zone countries, since it’s supposed to be the same currency. “Eating it too” is failing, as a nation, to have the reforms, institutions, sovereign finances, and controls in place that would justify the currency’s value and stability.
The deposits in Cypriot banks, like all deposits, are loans. The banks had to invest the money. They bought Greek government bonds — more cake being had and eaten. The Greek bonds were paying better interest than, say, German bonds. That should tell you something, but they were supposed to be risk-free, again because of the implicit guarantee of Europe.
The Greek crisis, going back at least to 2004, is now nearly a decade-long process of kicking the can down the road. The can is, of course, severe economic pain that may take the form of extreme austerity, high inflation, and currency devaluation (which would require exit from the euro and, in the case of Greece, the dreaded “Grexit”). The bits of pain that were inflicted along the way — on bondholders, employees, and taxpayers — have always and ever been insufficient to constitute really doing something with the can other than kicking it.
The crisis in Cyprus demonstrates that Europe’s restructuring of Greek debt and bailouts of the Greek treasury were also largely examples of squeezing the tube of toothpaste. One pinches the problem here, and it bulges out over there. One collapse delayed begets another threat of collapse that demands immediate attention.
Cyprus may remain in the euro in name only. A euro that cannot leave Cyprus has a value different from and lesser than a euro that can travel freely.
Now, one or two birds at a time, the big flock of chickens is beginning to come home to roost. In the Cypriot bank bailout deal, bank shareholders are wiped out. They get nothing. Some bondholders are wiped out. Depositors are restricted from getting their money; there are daily withdrawal limits; and currency controls are in place. Some depositors, the uninsured with balances above 100,000, will not get all their money back; they will see their deposits converted to bank shares, probably worthless. In theory, smaller deposits are secure, and Cyprus keeps the euro.
The tough conditions for the bailout, ostensibly required by a commission composed of the European Central Bank, the European Commission, and the IMF, but in substance required by Germany, are the price for Cyprus “staying in the euro,” and that is the main goal of the bailout. But it is not clear that Cypriot euros are still the same as other euros. In other words, Cyprus may remain in the euro in name only. A euro that cannot leave Cyprus has a value different from and lesser than a euro that can travel freely. Such a euro sits in Cypriot banks, from which it can’t be freely withdrawn. The bailout may fail to render the banks solvent. The risk of insolvency, the restrictions on withdrawal, and the currency controls all undermine the value of the deposits.
Enter Gresham’s law: bad money drives out good — if the exchange rate is fixed by the state. In this case the bad money, Cypriot euros, drives out the good money, other euros, other currencies, precious metals, and other stores of value, because the exchange rate is fixed by law and by definition: euros are supposed to be euros. That’s what monetary union was supposed to mean. The troika cannot let the Cypriot euro float; that would be an immediate, rather than slow, failure of the bailout plan; therefore, the official exchange rate between the Cypriot euro and the real euro will be 1:1. Cypriots will withdraw their bad money as fast as they can. They will hoard good money. They will seek opportunities to spend or exchange their bad money at the official rate. Goods will leave the country to be sold for good money to be held abroad. Scarcity will reign. Cyprus will impose export controls (a usual next step after the imposition of currency controls), turning many of its people into criminals. In the 1980s, I saw this in Bénin, where after a period of currency controls, the markets were utterly bare and smugglers were being shot on sight. Next door in Togo, the markets overflowed with goods, including, I suppose, goods from Bénin.
There is much more to be said, about the near-certain collapse of the Cypriot economy, about “contagion” — the fear that similar blows will strike depositors in other weak euro zone countries, and the resultant capital flight — about many more chickens coming home to roost, about the suffering of men, women, and children, and about whose fault it is.
But the topic is depressing. I begin to feel sympathy for the journalists and reporters who do not dwell on these things. I’ll kick this can down the road.