September 19, 2017

Inside Europe: Euro Zone Still Looking for a Handle on Crisis

PARIS — What if German savers were to help rescue Greece, Portugal or Spain by investing in their state assets and companies rather than bailing them out with taxpayer-backed loans? That novel idea for recycling Berlin’s huge current account surplus, avoiding fire-sale privatizations in the weakest euro zone states and fueling growth in southern Europe comes from the French economist Olivier Garnier.

Mr. Garnier, the chief economist of Société Générale, argues that creating an agency in charge of purchasing, restructuring and privatizing state-owned assets could, over time, solve several of Europe’s deep economic problems.

Such a “European Treuhand (Trust) Agency” would offer a “debt-for-equity conversion” that could repair the public finances of the euro zone’s bailed-out states, reduce North-South current account imbalances in the 17-nation currency area and generate investment in Europe’s periphery.

Mr. Garnier argues that the idea would offer German savers a better return than parking their surplus cash in domestic bank deposits earning zero nominal interest, and would be politically more palatable for Germans than risky taxpayer loans to governments that might never be able to repay the debt.

The fact that such long-shot proposals are doing the rounds four years into the bloc’s debt crisis highlights how few of the underlying problems that caused it have been resolved.

This idea may be timely as Chancellor Angela Merkel tries to soften Berlin’s image as Europe’s stern austerity enforcer and show a gentler side with initiatives to help fight youth unemployment in crisis-stricken euro zone countries. But to bitter Greeks or Spaniards, it might look more like an exercise in German colonization than a helping hand. While Dutch, Austrian or Finnish savers might join, the “European” agency would inevitably be dominated by German money.

When the top-selling German daily newspaper Bild ran a headline at the start of the debt crisis in 2010 screaming “Sell your islands, you bankrupt Greeks! — and the Acropolis, too,” it caused fury, rekindling resentments smoldering since World War II.

Quoting Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble’s comment that “we want to show that we are not just the world’s best savers,” Mr. Garnier says: “He should have added that the Germans have to show they can be wiser investors, making a more efficient use of their savings and of their related taxpayers’ guarantees.”

His idea has a German precedent. After the fall of the Berlin Wall and German unification in 1990, a trustee agency known as the “Treuhandanstalt” was set up to restructure, wind up or sell off East German state enterprises. Some top talents of West German business were recruited to help shake out and spin off eastern companies.

But this example points to some of the obstacles to Mr. Garnier’s proposal. The Treuhandanstalt was criticized for laying off nearly 2.5 million workers of the 4 million it had inherited and for closing businesses that critics said were profitable. It contributed to East-West resentment over the social and financial costs of unification, and its first president was assassinated by (West German) Marxists.

Privatizing state-owned companies and property are a key part of the bailout programs prescribed by the European Union and the International Monetary Fund for the euro zone’s debt-laden governments. Yet Greece’s consistent failure to meet its privatization revenue goals highlights just how hard it is to attract serious investors to countries mired in deep recession, and to sell even profitable businesses for a fair price.

An attempt by Athens to sell its natural gas company, Depa, collapsed in June, blowing a hole of €1 billion, or $1.3 billion, in its bailout plan, and raising further doubts about plans to hawk the state gambling monopoly and the money-losing railroad.

Elsewhere in the region, so-called vulture funds of private equity investors are looking to pick up stakes in blue-chip Spanish companies at knock-down prices after bailed-out banks were forced to divest.

With Mr. Garnier’s model, a long-term investment vehicle funded by both private sector savings and the German government, or with a state guarantee, would buy up the assets, taking them off their governments’ books, then restructure and run them until they could be sold off profitably.

The German economists Daniel Gros and Thomas Mayer suggested last year that Germany should create a sovereign wealth fund, like those of Norway, Singapore and Saudi Arabia, to invest excess savings. Such a fund would be a safer and more efficient way to place German savings than in unremunerated deposits, they argued, and would have the side benefit of lowering the euro’s exchange rate, which would benefit struggling south European economies.

Mr. Garnier would put that money to work inside the euro zone. He notes that Germany’s state-owned development bank, KfW, is already dipping a toe in these waters by providing loans through its Spanish counterpart to credit-starved small and medium-size businesses.

Mr. Garnier’s proposal raises three other issues: Would the agency be able to run the assets more efficiently than current owners? How would the risk to German savers’ capital be mitigated? And how could the assets be valued at prices acceptable to all?

His answer to each question is that the status quo is worse: The assets are moldering while governments desperately need the money. Germans face risks from the bailed-out countries as taxpayers, so why not get some return on their savings? And the assets could be priced in a way that allowed for some upside for south European states if they fetch more on the market.

“I see all the hurdles, but it would be ill-advised to rely only on fiscal transfers to share risks among euro zone economies,” Mr. Garnier said in an interview. “A European fiscal union raises even bigger obstacles than this — abandoning budget sovereignty — and writing off official debt would be fraught with legal and political obstacles.”

Paul Taylor is a Reuters correspondent.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/23/business/global/23iht-inside23.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

High & Low Finance: Cyprus Capital Controls Come Years After They Were Needed

The new controls are aimed at stopping that hot money from fleeing Cyprus too rapidly. They limit how much cash anyone can take out of the country. Electronic transfers are banned. So is check-cashing. The controls are supposed to be temporary. But they sure don’t look like one-week wonders. There are limits on how much cash can be sent abroad each quarter for a student’s overseas education. There are monthly limits on how much any Cypriot can run up in credit card charges abroad.

That something like this was necessary seems clear. That it will work is not.

During 2008 and 2009, as it became obvious that the Irish banking system was imploding, Cyprus became the new euro zone locale for hot money. Cypriot banks paid higher interest rates on euros and — by some accounts — were not too picky about the provenance of the money coming in.

In 2008, according to a study by the McKinsey Global Institute, $40.7 billion was funneled into Cyprus through loans and bank deposits. In the context of world capital flows, that was a blip. But it amounted to 161 percent of Cypriot gross domestic product that year.

During the Asian currency crisis of the late 1990s, the world learned just how vulnerable a country can be to hot money. If it seems nice on the way in, it can be very nasty on the way out. It is one thing for international capital flows to take the form of direct investment, in factories and companies, or even portfolio investment, through the purchase of corporate stocks and bonds. The nature of that investment does not involve a promise to repay it on demand. But loans and deposits can be demanded just when a country and its banking system can least afford to repay them.

During that crisis, Malaysia broke from the consensus that capital controls were always bad, that the free market knew best. It proved to be a wise decision, although it was endorsed at the time by few economists.

What is happening in Cyprus now bears more than a little similarity to what happened in Ireland earlier. The Irish also enjoyed capital inflows that were a multiple of G.D.P., and the country’s oversize banking system eventually collapsed. There the largest part of the problem was a housing bubble, brought on by lenient lending. When that bubble burst, foreigners wanted their money immediately, and Ireland decided to stand behind its banks, virtually bankrupting the country’s government.

Most of the capital that flowed into Ireland during the good times was not bank deposits. And Ireland had enough of a real economy — absent banking and real estate — that it has continued to attract some foreign direct investment every year since the collapse.

But it used to be said of Cyprus that it had only banks and beaches. It got little in the way of foreign direct investment during the good times. When money flowed in, it took the form of demand deposits that were supposed to be available at any minute.

Luckily for those who had put money into Irish banks, or bought senior bonds from those banks, the Irish banks failed early, before governments realized they could not afford to do bailouts. In Cyprus’s case, the European institutions that were making the decisions first came up with the idea of “taxing” all bank deposits, whether they were insured or not. Fortunately, the Cypriot Parliament balked at that, and the eventual plan makes more sense.

Shareholders and bondholders at the worst bank are wiped out. Deposits up to the 100,000-euro limit for insured deposits are protected, although the capital controls may mean it will be a while before depositors can get their hands on the money. Deposits over that limit in the most troubled bank could be wiped out. At best, those depositors are likely to wait years before they get back a small fraction of their money. The central bank estimates large depositors in the largest bank will do a little better, perhaps getting most of their money back. But such estimates could prove wildly optimistic if banks lose most of their deposits when, or if, capital controls come off.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/29/business/cyprus-capital-controls-come-years-after-they-were-needed.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Cyprus and European Officials Scrambles to End Bank Crisis

Eight days after hashing out a bailout deal that the financial world reviled and the Cypriot Parliament unanimously rejected, the Eurogroup of finance ministers and Cyprus officials plan to meet here Sunday night with their pencils sharpened.

They face a deadline of Monday, when the European Central Bank has said that it will cut off the financing that is keeping Cyprus’s teetering banks from collapsing.

The Cypriot president, Nicos Anastasiades, flew to Brussels on Sunday after mapping out a tentative outline of a deal late Saturday with representatives of the troika of negotiators involved in the bailout: the European Central Bank, the European Commission and the International Monetary Fund.

His first order of business was a meeting with Mario Draghi, the president of the central bank; Christine Lagarde, the managing director of the monetary fund; and José Manuel Barroso, the president of the commission. Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, which represents European Union leaders, was expected to preside over the meeting. 

Mr. Anastasiades had also briefed Cypriot political leaders on the outline, which is said to call for imposing a hefty one-time tax on bank deposits above  100,000 euros, or about $130,000. Whether that will pass Parliament, whose signoff is needed, remains to be seen.

“The situation is very difficult,” the president said in a statement issued early Sunday.

The Eurogroup that will meet is the 17 finance ministers of the countries using the euro, whose taxpayers would ultimately provide the 10 billion euros, or $12.9 billion, that  Cyprus is seeking.

Traveling with Mr. Anastasiades was the deputy leader of the ruling Democratic Rally party, Averoff Neofytou;  the minister of finance, Michalis Sarris;  and the government spokesman, Christos Stylianides.

The president planned to meet in Brussels with the head of the monetary fund, Christine Lagarde, who will be participating in the meeting of the finance ministers.

Those ministers drove a hard bargain last weekend, demanding that Cyprus come up with 5.8 billion euros of its own money in order to receive the bailout.

The source of that 5.8 billion has been the sticking point ever since. As announced in the early hours of Saturday a week ago, the money would have been raised by levying a one-time tax on all depositors with money in Cypriot banks — a large portion of which is held by wealth foreigners, many of them Russian.

But that plan met a storm of criticism, because it would have hit even small depositors and seemed to violate the trust implicit in the deposit-guarantee system used throughout the euro zone in which accounts of less than 100,000 euros are supposed to be insured by the government.

The fear of an immediate run on Cypriot banks has kept the country’s banks closed since then, although they are scheduled to reopen Tuesday. The only money available to depositors has been what they can take from automatic teller machines before reaching their daily account limits. The government has ordered the banks to keep the A.T.M.s fully loaded, and lines of customers have been snaking from them sporadically throughout the week.

Still unclear is whether the banks could reopen if the European Central Bank carries out its threat to cut off short-term financing unless a bailout deal is reached.

The revised bailout terms now under discussion would assess a one-time tax  of 20 percent on deposits above 100,000 euros at one of the nation’s biggest banks, the Bank of Cyprus, which has the largest number of savings accounts on the island. Because Bank of Cyprus suffered huge losses on reckless bets it took on Greek bonds, the government appears to be taking  depositors’ money to help plug the hole.

A separate tax of 4 percent would be assessed on uninsured deposits at all other banks, including the 26 foreign banks that operate in Cyprus.

Under the plan, savings under 100,000 euros would not be touched — a significant difference from the original plan, which not only enraged Cypriot citizens but ignited fear that precedent had been set for  euro zone governments to tap insured bank savings in times of a national emergency.

Cypriot officials have also backed off a proposal that would have sought to raise billions of additional euros by nationalizing state-owned pension funds. Germany, whose political and financial clout dominates euro zone policy, had indicated it opposes the move.

President Anastasiades, a lawyer by profession and a center-right politician of the same side of European Union politics as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was voted into office in February on the promise of reaching an effective bailout with his euro zone peers.

According to those involved in the first round of negotiations a week ago, Mr. Anastasiades was the one who pushed for the largest accounts to be subject to a tax of less than 10 percent   — a formula that meant the tax would have to hit all depositors in order to raise enough money.  The thinking was that he did not want to seem to be making a target of the wealthy foreigners who have long considered Cyprus a bank-friendly tax haven. That many of those foreigners were Russian was not lost on political observers.

In the last week, Cyprus  sought to work out some sort of side financial-support deal with Moscow, but those talks went nowhere. Russia was said to be trying to make any new support contingent on access to Cyprus’s  potentially rich offshore natural gas deposits.

The natural gas discussions provoked another geopolitically fraught aspect of the Cyprus crisis: the fact that the northern part of the island has been controlled by Turkey ever since an Athens-back coup in Cyprus in 1974. On Sunday, Turkey’s ministry of foreign affairs issued a statement warning Cyprus not to use the natural gas as collateral. Doing so, it said, would ignore “the inherent rights of the Turkish Cypriots who are co-owners of the Island.”

With Turkey bristling and Russia seemingly not a fallback option, and with the Cypriot Parliament intent on protecting small bank account holders, Mr. Anastasiades best hope now might be the revamped proposal, and the newly sharpened pencil, that he is taking to Brussels.

 

 

James Kanter reported from Brussels and Liz Alderman from Nicosia, Cyprus. Andreas Riris contributed reporting from Nicosia.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/25/business/global/cyprus-and-european-officials-scrambles-to-end-bank-crisis.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Cyprus Lawmakers Prepare to Vote on New Bailout

Without lawmakers’ approval for new measures, the country will not receive the €10 billion, or $13 billion, bailout it has requested and could risk a disorderly default.

Members of the so-called troika of lenders — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — met Friday morning with President Nicos Anastasiades and were planning to review the new proposal, should Parliament pass it.

A crowd of several hundred demonstrators massed again Friday morning in front of the Parliament building. Many angrily demanded compensation for their losses at the banks.

With anger and anxiety growing across Cyprus, Mr. Anastasiades’s new plan would scrap a tax on bank deposits. Experts warned, however, that the deposit-tax plan might need to be revisited unless the government found other means to reach the goal of raising €5.8 billion to satisfy Cyprus’s creditors and unlock the full bailout funds.

The plan sent to Parliament would nationalize pension funds from state-run companies and conduct an emergency bond sale to help raise the €5.8 billion. Gone was any reference to a deposit tax, which Parliament roundly rejected in a vote Tuesday.

Before concrete details emerged, German leaders made it clear they would not back a deal that involved nationalizing the state-owned companies’ pensions, a measure that is rejected in Berlin as more socially dangerous than even the original plan to tax smaller savings.

In a closed-door meeting with members of her junior coalition partner, the Free Democrats, Chancellor Angela Merkel made clear her impatience with the government in Cyprus, stating that “under no circumstances can we give up our principles,” the public television network ARD reported.

“When you consider that there was massive resistance against involving the savings, then it is not easy to see how tapping the pension funds, which we view as socially a much more drastic step, is a very good idea,” Steffen Seiber, Ms. Merkel’s spokesman, told reporters.

Germany is not alone. Luc Frieden, Luxembourg’s finance minister, expressed frustration over a lack of communication in Nicosia, telling Germany’s RBB radio, “It is difficult that we are not getting any details from Cyprus.”

Lawmakers will also vote on restrictions on taking cash out of banks and out of the country, known as capital controls, when the banks reopen Tuesday after a national holiday Monday. The bill would limit cash withdrawals, prohibit or restrict check cashing and bar “premature” account closings and any other transaction the authorities deemed unwarranted.

The authorities have ordered Cypriot banks to keep A.T.M.’s filled with cash as long as the banks themselves are closed. But that has been of little help to the thousands of international companies that do banking in Cyprus, which cannot transfer money in and out of those accounts to conduct business.

The central bank said Thursday that Cyprus had until Monday to reach an agreement with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund, if the government wanted its banks to continue to receive the low-interest loans essential to keeping them afloat.

Many of the wealthiest citizens of Russia, which is not in the euro currency union, have bank accounts in Cyprus — one reason that euro zone finance ministers have taken such a hard line.

A delegation of Cypriot officials led by the finance minister, Michalis Sarris, remained in Moscow until Friday morning to press their case for additional aid, but there were no reports of progress, and the officials stayed out of sight.

The Russian prime minister, Dmitri A. Medvedev said Friday in a joint news conference in Moscow with José Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, that his country was not walking away from Cyprus.

Instead, said Mr. Medvedev, Russia would wait until a deal is done between E.U. authorities and Cyprus before extending additional help.

“Regarding our participation in this process, we haven’t shut the doors,” said Mr. Medvedev. “Of course we’ve got our own economic interests at stake.” Additional efforts to help Cyprus will come “only after a final settlement scheme” involving the European Union, he said.

The situation in Cyprus “is very dramatic and should be addressed as soon as possible,” Mr. Medvedev said.

Reporting was contributed by Melissa Eddy in Berlin, David M. Herszenhorn in Moscow, James Kanter in Brussels and Andreas Riris in Nicosia.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/23/business/global/cyprus-bailout-vote.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

With No Deal on Horizon, Cyprus Keeps Banks Closed

The proposals are meant to sharply reduce the amount of money that would be raised by a controversial tax on bank deposits, as originally planned in an international bailout package totaling €10 billion, or about $13 billion, that the Cypriot Parliament rejected the night before.

But even the revised plan contains a bank tax that, while much smaller than originally proposed, might still not be palatable to Parliament. Under the new plan, all Cypriot bank deposits of up to €100,000 would be hit by a one-time tax of 2 percent. Deposits above that threshold would be subject to a 5 percent levy.

The fallback was being cobbled together as Cyprus’s finance minister pressed his case in Moscow on Wednesday in hopes of securing additional aid from Russia, many of whose wealthiest citizens have big deposits in Cypriot banks.

At the same time the Cypriot government extended through next Tuesday a bank holiday meant to prevent a run on Cyprus’s financial institutions. Banks have frozen all accounts in a financial crisis here that risks tipping the country into default and sowing turmoil across the euro zone.

Banks have been closed since Saturday, and the authorities have ordered banks to keep automated bank machines filled with cash as long as their doors remain shut. But that has been of little help to the thousands of international companies who do banking in Cyprus, which cannot transfer money in and out of those accounts to conduct business.

The extended bank holiday is designed to buy time for the Cypriot authorities to reach an agreement with the so-called troika of rescuers — the International Monetary Fund, the European Central Bank and the European Commission — whose representatives were in Nicosia on Wednesday but were not certain to sign off on Cyprus’s latest plan.

Three banks dominate the economy, and each is edging close to collapse. The government was also making tentative plans to merge at least two of them — Cyprus Popular Bank and Bank of Cyprus — and place the healthy assets into a one entity, while moving troubled assets into a so-called bad bank.

With all sides fearing that a crisis is imminent, even the Church of Cyprus, one of this Mediterranean island’s biggest investors, was offering to throw its considerable wealth behind the rescue effort.

European officials, and especially the European Central Bank, are watching the situation with alarm, said a person close to the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly. Right now, Cypriot banks, crippled by their heavy exposure to Greece’s collapsed economy, are heavily dependent on low-interest financing from the E.C.B., which could be cut off if the banks do not remain solvent.

If Cyprus does not soon receive a financial lifeline, European officials fear that “the damage would be enormous, and the country itself would be at risk of collapse,” the person close to the discussions said. Officials are concerned about the risk that Cyprus might need to leave the euro currency union, creating “a painful situation that would spur chaos,” this person said.

On Wednesday morning, the finance minister of Cyprus, Michalis Sarris, met with his Russian counterpart, Anton G. Siluanov, at the Russian Finance Ministry. In the afternoon Mr. Sarris met for about 90 minutes with a deputy prime minister, Igor I. Shuvalov, at the main government offices in the Russian White House.

Cypriot banks racked up huge losses in the past several years by issuing loans to businesses in Greece that are now virtually worthless as that country grapples with the fourth year of a severe recession. The banks also took huge financial losses on large holdings of Greek government debt, which they bought when times were good in order to profit from attractive interest rates. The bailout crisis has outraged average Cypriots, many of whom oppose the government’s skimming their accounts to pay for the banks’ mistakes.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/21/business/global/after-deal-is-rejected-cyprus-scrambles-to-find-funds.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Resistance in Cyprus Grows to Europe’s Bailout Plan

President Nicos Anastasiades was trying to compel policy makers in Brussels to soften demands for a tax to be assessed on Cypriot bank deposits, saying European Union leaders used “blackmail” to get him to agree to those conditions early Saturday in order to receive a bailout package worth 10 billion euros, or $13 billion.

Cyprus, whose banking system is verging on collapse, is now the fifth nation in the 17-member euro union to seek financial assistance since the crisis broke out three years ago.

As anger in this country swelled against the measure, Mr. Anastasiades delayed an emergency vote parliamentary vote on the bailout plan until Tuesday, the second step in as many days. Faced with a lack of support from lawmakers, the vote could be delayed until as late as Friday.

The government also said it would keep Cypriot banks shuttered until at least Wednesday, beyond a bank holiday that was supposed to end Monday, a move aimed at staving off a possible bank run.

Cyprus’s banking association issued a statement calling on people to remain “calm,” saying it was ready to implement whatever measures were needed to protect the stability of the banking sector. The association said it would instruct banks to load automated teller machines with cash while banks remained closed.

Financial markets stuttered on the news, with Asian stocks suffering the most, closing down about 2 percent. European market indexes were off about 1 percent by the end of the session, and Wall Street shares were less than 0.2 percent lower in afternoon trading.

For the first time since the onset of the euro zone sovereign debt crisis and the bailouts of Greece, Portugal and Ireland, ordinary depositors — including those with insured accounts — were being called on to bear part of the cost, €5.8 billion.

The previous bailouts have been financed by taxpayers, and the new direction raised fears that depositors in Spain or Italy, two countries that have struggled economically of late, might also take flight.

A crowd of protesters gathered in front of the presidential palace, shouting angrily at Mr. Anastasiades and inveighing against Germany and European leaders as he entered the building to meet with his cabinet. “Merkel, U stole our life savings,” read one banner tied to a bus stop. “EU, who is next, Spain or Italy?” read another.

Miguel Arias Cañete, Spain’s agriculture minister, told journalists in Brussels on the sidelines of a European Union meeting on Monday that he saw no risk of contagion. Spain’s banking system had undergone “a very rigorous clean-up,” the minister said, and were now in a “magnificent situation” following their bailout last year.

The finance ministers from the euro zone countries were to take up the Cyprus issue on a conference call later Monday. Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the president of the group, had declined Saturday to rule out taxes on depositors in countries beyond Cyprus, although he said such a measure was not being actively considered.

A key question for the finance ministers was expected to be whether any revised formula for the tax on deposits could still deliver the 5.8 billion euros agreed to in the bailout deal. The plan, a so-called bail-in, also would wipe out 1.4 billion euros held by junior bondholders in Cypriot banks. Only senior bondholders, who have paid a premium to be first in line for repayment of their investments, would be fully protected.

Joerg Asmussen, a member of the European Central Bank governing council, suggested that creditors may not object to a revision of the bailout terms.

This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:

Correction: March 18, 2013

An earlier version of this article incorrectly reported the days banks in Cyprus would remain closed. The central bank said they will stay shut through Wednesday.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/03/19/business/global/asian-markets-drop-on-latest-euro-concerns.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

In Cyprus Bailout, Questions Over Who Should Shoulder the Bill

LONDON — On their Web sites, the largest of Cyprus’s failing banks brag that their client representatives are fluent in Russian. No indication, though, whether strizhka — Russian for haircut — is part of their lexicon.

As drawn-out negotiations with Europe over a bailout for Cyprus near an end, the country’s banks, flush with Russian deposits, hope they do not have to force haircuts, or losses, on some of their wealthiest depositors.

Europe, struggling to complete a potential 17 billion euro, or $22.2 billion, rescue package for Cyprus, is under intense pressure to make private sector investors, rather than European taxpayers, pay a bigger share of the bill than in past bailouts. Officials in Brussels and Berlin are said to be considering a controversial plan that could require depositors in Cypriot banks to accept losses on their savings. Russians, who hold about one-fifth of bank deposits in Cyprus, would take a big hit.

That step would be a radical departure from the bailouts of Greece, Portugal and Ireland. In those rescues, while investors holding Greek bonds were eventually forced to take haircuts, it was largely loans from European countries that financed the bailouts, with bank deposits held sacrosanct.

In a Europe where big banks hold outsize political and financial power — Cypriot banks wield assets eight times the size of the country’s economic output — any move to punish depositors is certain to attract bitter opposition.

And though the plan may have some merit on paper, it would be hard to carry out in practice, given the ties that bind Cyprus to Russia.

Demetris Christofias, the Cypriot president, is a declared Communist who received his higher education in Russia. What is more, Russia provided Cyprus with $3.3 billion in emergency financing last year. And the largest individual shareholder of the Bank of Cyprus is Dmitry Rybolovlev, a billionaire Russian businessman.

But European officials see Cyprus as a new opportunity to censure banks for what they describe as their too-big-to-fail sense of entitlement, according to some people involved in the bailout discussions. Cyprus’s loosely regulated and tax-friendly banking climate has long made it a favorite destination for Russians seeking to place their rubles in a euro zone bank that does not ask too many questions.

People in favor of forcing depositors to share the cost of the bailout make this argument: It was an unusually high, $14.4 billion spike in Cypriot bank deposits in 2010 — as much as half of it from Russia — that prompted the banks to make the bad lending decisions that led to their collapse. The banks put much of the money into Greek government bonds, only to absorb big losses when those bonds were restructured last year.

Of the $22.2 billion needed to keep Cyprus afloat, at least $13.1 billion would need to be pumped into the country’s banks.

European officials caution that while it may still be a long shot, a move to force large, uninsured depositors to share the pain with Europe’s taxpayers would send a powerful message to the market that risky financial conduct has consequences.

“If it is just the official sector that does this, then what you end up doing is bailing out Russian oligarchs,” said Alessandro Leipold, chief economist of the Lisbon Council, a research organization in Brussels and a former top executive at the International Monetary Fund. “I would be very surprised if there is no private sector involvement here.”

German lawmakers have said they will reject any deal that has the effect of bailing out Russian depositors. And Chancellor Angela Merkel, who plans to visit Cyprus on Friday, said Wednesday that the country would be given “no special conditions.”

Forcing losses on bank depositors is a last-ditch measure taken by bankrupt governments when all other measures have been exhausted. During the debt crisis in Latin America in the ’80s, depositors lost money when their dollar accounts were changed into the local, devalued currency. Another way to make depositors share the pain would be to convert long-term deposits into bonds with stretched-out maturities.

Article source: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/11/business/global/the-cyprus-bailout-question.html?partner=rss&emc=rss

Reuters Breakingviews: The Limitations on Central Banks

Printing money — or quantitative easing — has always been seen as the last resort. Now, it seems to be the only option. It has various manifestations, and recent weeks have shown some of its limitations.

The Swiss National Bank and the Bank of Japan tried to reverse the appreciation of their respective currencies by increasing liquidity to banks and striving for still lower short-term interest rates. Japan also intervened directly in the currency market by selling yen. But it remains close to its peak, and the Swiss franc has pushed on to new highs. This type of involvement has not proved effective.

The European Central Bank has shunned Q.E. outright. Being bold has meant buying euro zone government debt in the secondary market, while neutralizing the monetary effect by sucking in bank deposits. This big gun has worked. Yields on 10-year Italian and Spanish government debt have tumbled by over one percentage point.

The question for the central bank is whether it should go further by buying large amounts of euro zone sovereign debt without any offsetting moves that take money out of the system. This might seem an easy solution to the region’s debt crisis. But the risk is that the central bank becomes a holder of debt that requires restructuring — as is probably the case now with Greece.

The central bank then faces real losses that it must pass on to European governments. Again, it could just print more money to fill the hole, monetizing the debt, as economists say. Numerous irresponsible central banks in Latin America and elsewhere have done so in the past. But the usual result has been high inflation. Germany, which remembers Weimar, sees this as the ultimate risk.

The Bank of England has so far taken a conservative Q.E. course — buying £200 billion of British government bonds. Growth there remains weak. The bank may well decide in coming months to start a second round of Q.E. But it’s doubtful how effective more gilt purchases would be. The bank might be tempted to be bolder and buy corporate bonds. The risk is that this is like pushing on a piece of string, as the real problem is a lack of demand in the real economy.

By far the boldest exponent of Q.E. has been the Federal Reserve. Its second round of money printing financed purchases of $600 billion of Treasuries. The question is how much QE2 has achieved and, as markets panic, if QE3 will soon be required. But when the yield on the American 10-year note is already hovering around 2.4 percent, would more Treasury purchases be useful?

Ben S. Bernanke, the Fed chairman, has said that more radical options are available. Cooperation between monetary and fiscal authorities, he wrote in 2002, could permit a “money-financed tax cut” equivalent to a “helicopter drop” of money, to use a phrase from the economist Milton Friedman. Politicians would certainly balk at that — as would most Fed governors, three of whom have rejected the bank’s new commitment to keep rates low till 2013.

Congress sought to tie the government’s hands on conventionally financed spending, and is politically miles away from using printed money to finance looser fiscal policy.

The reality is that bolder Q.E. would bring risks for the dollar and for inflation worldwide. QE2 coincided with a surge in global commodity prices, increasing inflation in emerging economies and, now, in America to 3.6 percent. Gasoline prices are up 36 percent in the last year. Consumer purchasing power has been harmed. If more Q.E. means higher prices, the policy risks obstructing growth.

But if recession returns to the United States, the world economy slows and the markets’ worst fears are realized, then the Fed and other central banks would have no other option. The world isn’t desperate yet, even though America’s recovery is slow. Central banks do have an arsenal. They just should not rush to use it. IAN CAMPBELL

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