There are two ways to look at the hugely controversial bailout agreed for Cyprus in the early hours of Saturday morning, in which the small island nation – accounting for only 0.2 per cent of eurozone GDP but whose troubles will have an impact far beyond its size (including on some 25,000 Brits in Cyprus) – received a €10bn rescue package in return for a series of unusually harsh conditions. In a shock to everyone, including admittedly Open Europe, the deal included a “tax” on depositors: 6.75 per cent for anyone with less than €100,000 in a Cypriot bank account, 9.9 per cent for anyone with more than that.
The first way to look at the deal: lessons have been learned. Unlike in the case of Greece, Cypriot debt will come down to around 100 per cent of its GDP, following this deal. While not great, it’s not the type of maddening cocktail of continued austerity and increasing debt that Greece has been forced to swallow (the country’s debt is at 160 per cent of GDP this year). At least the combination of the deposit tax and privatisations in Cyprus will give the country some breathing space. And the alternative, letting Cyprus sink and leaving the euro, showing the world that the single currency is no longer “irreversible”, would have been far worse.
The second way: All bailouts are unfair – the people who screwed up almost never pay – but this is in a league of its own. Seventeen Eurozone finance ministers locked themselves in a room and decided that every Cypriot depositor – whether super-wealthy or dirt-poor – will, out of the blue, see part of their hard-earned money seized. Remember, Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades explicitly promised in his election campaign, only a few weeks ago, that depositors were safe. The Cypriot electorate now faces losses on deposits as well as years of austerity (under the bailout loan). What’s worse, deposits under €100,000 are supposed to be protected by EU law, not raided by EU leaders. And Cypriot banks have frozen close to €5.8bn, i.e. imposed capital controls which is meant to be illegal under EU single market rules. This is political dynamite.
Regardless of one’s interpretation, in the entrenched eurozone North-South stand-off, this clearly represents a victory for the German government and German taxpayers over their southern counterparts, as it was Berlin that drew a line in the sand. In many ways, Cypriot depositors fell victim to the forthcoming German elections in September.
What happens next? Well, the Cypriot parliament will vote on the deal tomorrow (conveniently, a bank holiday in Cyprus). This will be a nail-biter. The parties which supported Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades only hold 28 out of 56 MP, so not a majority. Yesterday, Anastasiades issued a stark warning: accept the bailout deal or face “a complete collapse with a possible exit from the euro”. Given the huge stakes, I reckon that MPs will approve the deal, but it could be close – current voting arithmetic suggests 30 in favour and 26 against, but this is incredibly fluid. Even if the parliament does reject the package, there could still be room for further negotiation.
The bailout format is therefore a gamble on several levels. Most importantly, massive questions still linger over the precedent this sets. If Cypriot depositors are forced to pay today, why not Spanish ones tomorrow? People queuing up in massive numbers outside ATM machines is always an incredibly scary sight wherever you are and given the anger in Cyprus, we just don’t know how people will react when banks open again (unclear when, the Cypriot government may declare both Tuesday and Wednesday bank holidays as well). But fears of deposit-led contagion to other parts of the eurozone should definitely not be be overstated. EU leaders have gone out of their way to say that the depositor tax won’t be repeated in other countries. And viewed with a depositor’s eyes from Barcelona or Bilbao, Spain may have very little in common with Cyprus.
The eurozone also now has a contagion-fighting instrument in the ECB’s bond-buying programme (the OMT), which can be used should panic spread to Spain and Italy. There’s a problem here of course. If the Cyprus deal represents a more assertive German approach, it will be far more difficult to actually trigger the OMT as that, in turn, depends on whether the debtor country will agree to be put on a bailout programme, with tough conditions (a prerequisite for it to tap the OMT). Cyprus is small enough to boss around, but Italy or Spain?