What’s the Big Deal about Cyprus?

Editor’s Note: In an interview with the GlobalPost, Michael Klein explains what made the terms of Cyprus’s rejected bailout controversial and this situation might mean for the rest of the eurozone.

Why did the Cyprus bailout package cause such uproar?

With insured deposits, there is a guarantee that there will be no confiscation of depositors’ money. Even just the fear of a bank run can lead to a bank run. In the 1930s, none of the deposits were guaranteed by the government and that led to bank runs, which in turn deepened the Great Depression. Government guarantees on insured deposits took away most of those fears.

[The Cyprus bailout] is a little bit of crossing the Rubicon to start charging depositors a tax on what they perceived to be insured deposits.

The real concern is not so much what’s going on in Cyprus, but if this becomes a method by which bailouts are funded. Then, there is concern that this could lead to bank runs all over Europe, as other countries’ banks are imperiled.

If the same kind of thing happens there, it could be really problematic.

What are the potential risks of a bailout that includes taxes on depositors’ accounts? Is it a bad precedent to set?

I think it is a bad precedent. It doesn’t distinguish between bad banks and good banks. And it means that deposit insurance might not mean what they say it means.

The bank run is an infrastructure thing because then banks start to shut down and it starves the economy of credit. Historically, we’ve seen that in situations where banks fail, the depressions that ensued were deeper, more severe and more protracted than recessions that arose for other reasons.

Even though concessions were made to let small depositors off the hook for the tax, the bailout was vetoed by the Cyprus government. What does this mean for Cyprus and for the rest of the Eurozone?

There’s a problem with letting small depositors off the hook logistically, because what could happen is people could split up their deposits and all of a sudden big depositors could look like small depositors. Presumably they have information beforehand, so people couldn’t do that. If you had a deposit in excess of a 100,000 euros before, you can’t hide it.

For Cyprus [a veto] means they have to go back to the negotiating table. Either they get cut off from the bailout funds or there’s a realization on all parts that this was a problematic solution and they go back to the table.

The problem is though – people have been talking about this for a while now – if one country exits the Euro area, it could cause a cascade. People have not been focusing on Cyprus so far. People have been focusing on Greece, of course. If Greece were to exit, the concern is, ‘who’s next?’

If Cyprus exits… if they don’t get the bailout and they drop out of the euro, then the question arises again of who’s next. That question has always been one of the big issues in Europe. As market psychology moves against countries, the most immediate problem is that sovereigns have to pay, and everybody else has to pay, much higher interest costs.

These interest costs had been coming down and it seemed like things were settling down as compared to a year or two ago, but now the question arises about whether this will cause interest rates to spike up again.

The Dutch finance minister and Deutsche Bank’s Chief executive have said this is unlikely to be a model for other countries. Why was Cyprus a special case? How would this affect other vulnerable countries like Spain and Italy?

Cyprus is seen as a financial center where the banks are outsized given the size of the economy. There’s also an issue with a lot of foreigners parking their money in Cyprus. But, nonetheless, people might not necessarily perceive it as a special case.

On Monday morning when banks opened in Spain and Italy, there were no bank runs. Some people cite that as evidence that Cyprus is a special case. On the other hand, it could be the case that the tinder has gotten a lot drier and a spark can do a lot more damage.

The fact that it hasn’t happened yet doesn’t mean it’s not going to happen.

Greece is still a real problem. Greece doesn’t show signs of recovery. There has been some shift in other countries, but they’re operating in an environment of very weak growth for Europe as a whole. In the last week or so, Germany has talked about not providing for the stimulus to its economy, which means that Germany’s not going to be an instrument of growth for Europe.

The three problems in Europe are the sovereign debt crisis, the banking crisis and slow growth. They’re all interconnected with each other. You can’t solve one without solving another.

The banking crisis, part of it has to do with non-performing loans, so slow growth affects the banking crisis. The banking crisis means that credit is less available, and that contributes to slow growth. Slow growth makes tax receipts lower for the sovereigns, so their debt crisis is worse because the cyclical part of their deficit is large. And then banks hold sovereign debt, and when that looks more imperiled, the banks are more imperiled. All these three things are very interconnected. You can’t really solve one without solving the other two.

So far they seem to have pushed austerity measures as a way of dealing with the Eurozone crisis. Do you think that’s the wrong approach?

In a lot of countries, ultimately there has to be a scaling back of government spending and a way to raise taxes. However, in the midst of a deep, deep downturn, austerity just makes the situation worse.

It’s sort of an extreme example of what’s happening in the United States. In the United States, we seem to be coming out of a recession, and the government’s deficit has been bigger because of the recession. If we started cutting the deficit right now, we would provide very strong headwinds to the recovery.

In Europe, it’s like that but much more severe. They’re in a much worse situation. These countries are just stuck in a deep cycle of austerity and slow growth, which means further deficit problems, which raises more demands for austerity, and so on.

It seemed like things were getting a bit better but this is raising concerns so the Eurozone crisis may be back in the headlines. There may be second round effects around what’s going on in Cyprus, especially that they’re willing to cross the Rubicon now.

Once you start not distinguishing between banks that are better off and banks that are worse off, once you say insured deposits are not really insured and are open for taxation, that leads to a lot of concern about the banking system. It might start to show up in other countries as well.