18 March 2013

Cyprus is far too important to get wrong

One of the claims constantly touted by enthusiasts of the European Union is the much exaggerated claim that the EU and its predecessors "kept the peace in Europe" after two major wars.   There is an element of truth in that, simply because countries and people that trade more, travel more and do business with each other in ever increasing frequency, are less likely to tolerate the sort of mindless aggressive nationalism that is the hallmark of so much war.  There can be little doubt that free trade and movement of people and goods within the EU is good for that (although overwhelmingly it was NATO that has kept the peace in Europe, and both it and the EU failed demonstrably to do this in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s).

That peace prize is looking a bit fractious, as the actions over Cyprus in the past few days have indicated.

Let's be clear, I think taxation is legalised theft, in any case.  More insidious is the legalised theft of state sanctioned inflation and regulated interest rates, which are currently effectively stealing savings from the public in the UK.  13% of the value of Pound Sterling has been eroded in the UK alone, by inflation, about double that if you compare it to the US$.  

The British Labour Party and Liberal Democrats both believe in a wealth tax, taking money from you because you own a particular asset over a set value.  

Now the EU, having promised that the first 100,000 Euros of deposits of everyone's bank accounts are protected by government deposit insurance, is going back on that and pushing for the confiscation of 6.7% of bank accounts located in Cyprus up to 100,000, and 9.9% on deposits above that.

Consider what you would do if that happened to you.

You'd be angry, very angry, and some of that anger might be directed towards whoever you thought was responsible.  Banks, officials, politicians.

The wealth tax is to bail out the Cypriot banks, which overextended themselves, particularly being used by many larger depositors from Russia seeking to avoid scrutiny over transactions that may be illegal in other jurisdictions.  

Of course the real answer to this would be to led the banks fail, then the deposit insurance scheme would kick in and those with deposits over 100,000 Euros would lose it all. Which is the right thing to do.  However, the problem is that Germany, indeed the Eurozone believe it must bail out banks within the Eurozone.  This effort is a clumsy attempt to put some of the cost upon Cypriots, especially clumsy because it is unique to Cyprus (Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish depositors haven't had to pay), and because it sets a new precedent.

Who now believes bank deposits are safe in Greek (who believed it before?), Spanish, Portuguese or Italian banks?  There is ever chance of a run on bank deposits in some if not all of those countries, and in the Euro itself, putting those banks in jeopardy and devaluing the Euro some more.

One claim is that the basis for this proposal was that Cyprus didn't want to upset Russia, by letting the banks fail or claiming the bailout by a far larger clawback from large depositors.  I doubt whether Russian depositors will be trusting Cypriot banks from now on in any case.  

A run on the banks will expose not only the lack of liquidity in banks to give you back your money, but the inherent risk in fractional reserve banking.  That being that banks issue credit for which they have no deposits, to an order of several times the value of deposits.  When those borrowers can no longer repay their debts,  consider how that affects your ability to recover your deposits.

What next?

The law of unintended consequences may unravel in the coming days, as banks in the Eurozone periphery start to see a panic appear, as people start to take out their savings, in fear Greece, Italy, Spain or Portugal could be next, or Ireland.  Once people see queues at banks in those countries, they will join them, and there will be a snowball effect.  Their own national politicians may not be trusted, certainly the ones in Brussels wont be.  The more they get told it wont happen to them, the more they will point at Cyprus and say "actually myself and my family are more important than your empty promises", the more it will get worse and worse.

I believe the only way this can be stemmed is either to honour the 100,000 Euro deposit guarantee (and slam deposits above that level), or for Cypriot citizens to be guaranteed that amount alone (leaving foreign holders of accounts to take the hit).   The price for that would be paid by Eurozone taxpayers elsewhere, and I'll let them decide how to treat the politicians who decide better to thieve from northern Europeans than from southern Europeans.  There is only so much of this Germans will take as perpetual penance for a war that most of them were born after.

Resolution of this issue must happen within the next day or so.  Imaginations will wander, rightfully, after that.  Bear in mind Italy doesn't have a government.

Otherwise it becomes unthinkable.  Long lines of Europeans outside banks that close due to running out of banknotes, a general public becoming anxious that their savings are inaccessible.  How long before a brick is thrown, or a firearm brandished, and people demand access to vaults and safes?  

In other words, how long before the average, law abiding, middle income citizen discovers what an abject fraud it is to trust their politicians, and those in Brussels to look after them, rather than to protect people from failure?

Meanwhile, the damage is done to Cypriot banking.  Who now would place a deposit into a Cypriot bank?  What Cypriot is taking a cheque or cash and putting it into a local bank?  How many Cypriots are now changing their future banking arrangements to banks elsewhere (and how many are not in a position to readily do so?)?

Stepping back, how's that protection of peace in Europe looking now, when a small but sizeable proportion of Greeks embrace fascism it is easy to ignore, but when confidence in the Eurozone banking system plummets, does Brussels have reason to continue to prance about with this hubris about all the good that it has done?

UPDATE:  The Cypriot Parliament, which must vote on this law, wont do so until Friday.  Cypriot banks will remain closed until then.  Will this trigger panic more widely?  What would you do?

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