Cyprus: an island in search of a saga to learn from

After following from afar the events in Cyprus I recently visited the island. Many Cypriots feel that the banking collapse is now only history and no point thinking about it. But that is far from the truth: as long as neither Cypriots nor the other EU countries know the whole Cypriot saga it can neither provide lessons nor a warning; and the mistrust lingers on. In addition to a public investigation of what really happened and why, write-downs of household debt and a functioning insolvency framework Cypriots desperately need one thing: hope for the future.

Crisis-stories are a plenty in Cyprus and the islanders are more than willing to tell them. During the traumatic days in March 2013 when the banks were closed for ten long days people called the Central Bank of Cyprus, CBC, crying.

“The bail-in wasn’t fair because it hit depending on with which bank you were banking,” one Cypriot said. “And look at what it’s done to us, all the empty space in the centre,” said the owner of a small business. “One of my clients,” said a man working in finance, “had a loan of €5m and €7m in deposits. Next day, he still had a loan of €5m but only €100,000 in deposits.” The client, of course, banked with Laiki Bank, also known as Cyprus Popular Bank and Marfin Popular Bank. Then there was the man on the beach in Paphos, selling boat trips. He now owns 500,000 shares in Bank of Cyprus worth quite a bit less than the €500,000 on his account until his funds, together with all other deposits above €100,000, were converted into shares.

In March 2013 Cyprus stared into the abyss of financial collapse. In order to qualify for a €10bn Troika loan, the absolute maximum the Troika – i.e. the European Union, EU, the European Central Bank, ECB and the International Monetary Fund, IMF – was willing to lend, Cyprus had to raise €5.8bn. After the Eurogroup threw out its first rescue plan, which included a levy on guaranteed deposits, i.e. less than €100.000, the Cypriot Parliament rejected a levy on non-guaranteed deposits only. Instead, the Cypriot government grabbed deposits above €100,000 in Laiki to merge it with Bank of Cyprus where non-guaranteed deposits were turned into shares.

From the Cypriot point of view it seems unfair that whereas Cyprus had to find own funds other hard-hit European countries – Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain – got Troika loans to bail out banks. The overwhelming feeling in Cyprus is that the island’s 1.1m inhabitants and an economy contributing 0.2% of the euro zone economic output was too small and insignificant to matter to the Troika. Abroad lingers the suspicion that Russian money in Cyprus were unpalatable to the Troika.

However, the reason for the misery seems more complicated and closer to home: the government of Demetris Christofias was adamant not to enter a Troika programme; a noble aim in itself but the government’s manoeuvres to avoid it seem less noble. CBC officials fed incomplete if not misleading information to the ECB. Fragments of this story have emerged only recently, not from the two attempted public enquiries but from a secret report done at the behest of president Nicos Anastasiades, later leaked to the New York Times.

“People want answers,” one Cypriot said but so far, there are few answers but plenty of questions, the most pressing being why there is no strive to do a proper investigation on the events leading to the drama in March 2013. The Special Investigative Committee, SIC, set up in Iceland after the Icelandic collapse in 2008 would be an ideal inspiration.

The story of the Cypriot collapse has many intriguing aspects. One of them is the sale of Greek branches of Cypriot banks, i.a. Bank of Cyprus Greek operations; another is the purchase of Greek sovereign bonds (mainly from German banks, which had a high exposure on Greece) by Cypriot banks, possibly seeking high-risk high yield investment to cover earlier disastrous lending.

Below, two further aspects are scrutinised: why the bail-in happened and why the Troika accepted, though only for some hours, a crisis levy on guaranteed deposits.

The rumours before the collapse and the hope that this time, it would be different

As in Iceland, the Cypriot banking sector was far too large – seven times the island’s GDP – for Cyprus to support it on its own. Its destabilising core was Laiki Bank,. The bank had for a long time offered higher interest rates than other banks; only ever attractive to risk-takers and naïve investors who do not recognise it as a warning sign. In the summer of 2012 the Cypriot government attempted to solve the Laik problem by nationalising the bank.

With Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Spain struggling there had been little focus on tiny Cyprus but its problems were evident to anyone who bothered to look. After the nationalisation of Laiki there were talks with the Troika in late summer and autumn 2012 as to what should be done. No one, least of all the Cypriots, expected any drama. My Cypriot contacts kept telling me that the talks would no doubt end quietly in a negotiated bail-out of some sort. After all, Cyprus was a small economy, the Troika had by now some practice in dealing with failing banks threatening an entire economy; and there was also a growing awareness that private debt should not be shifted on to the state. Compared to the on-going Greek drama his would go well, I heard.

There were however rumours that this time it would indeed be different. In January 2013 Landon Thomas wrote in the New York Times of “Questions of Whether Depositors Should Shoulder the Bill:” officials in Brussels and Berlin were said to be working on “a controversial plan that could require depositors in Cypriot banks to accept losses on their savings. Russians, holding about one-fifth of bank deposits in Cyprus, would take a big hit.” Truly a radical departure from bailouts in Portugal and Ireland and a haircut, albeit only after an earlier bailout, in Greece – so far, bank deposits had been held sacrosanct.

Considering the delicate situation CBC governor Panicos Demetriades gave a rather remarkable interview to Wall Street Journal on March 5 2013 where he rejected the idea of haircut on depositors. Instead, he aired the idea of a “special solidarity levy” on interest income, which could give the state an annual income of as much as €150m – a risible sum compared to what was needed – but hoped that privatisation would gather €4.5bn. Alex Apostalides lecturer at the European University Cyprus has recently written about an encounter with Demetriades on the fateful 15 March 2013: when asked, Demetriades said that any haircut on deposits would be a catastrophe for the banking sector.

At the beginning of 2013 all the Cypriot political energy was in the presidential election campaign. But some were more aware than others that something might happen; there are still rumours of people who emptied their bank accounts just before the bail-in. ECB data shows that deposits were seeping out. In June 2012 they stood at €81.2bn. In January 2013 they were €72.1bn, down by 2%, in February at €70bn, 2.1% month on month and in March €64.3bn. According to the Anastasiades report €3.3bn were taken out of Cypriot banks March 8–15, the week up to the bail-in.

Capital controls, i.e. limits on amounts taken out from deposits or moved between deposits, were part of the package in March 2013. Yet, money did allegedly seep or even flow from certain deposits in spite of the controls. In Cyprus stories are told of private jets clouding the skies over Nicosia on and after 18 March, carrying neck-less black-clad men accompanying their angry-looking masters to the banks; all returned smiling with bursting hold-alls. List with names of people said to have taken out money in spite of the controls circulated in the media. – All of this is part of the still unwritten report of what really happened.

What seemed like good idea at the time: ‘un-guaranteeing’ the €100,000 deposit guarantee

On Friday March 15 2013 the Eurogroup met in Brussels at 5pm after markets closed. In the wee hours of March 16 the Group published a statement and its representatives held a press conference. The statement itself was short but not sweet, at least not for the Cypriots who had hoped and believed that their island would be assisted like other troubled euro-countries.

The press release stated (emphasis mine in all quotes):

The Eurogroup further welcomes the Cypriot authorities’ commitment to take further measures mobilising internal resources, in order to limit the size of the financial assistance linked to the adjustment programme. These measures include the introduction of an upfront one-off stability levy applicable to resident and non-resident depositors. Further measures concern the increase of the withholding tax on capital income, a restructuring and recapitalisation of banks, an increase of the statutory corporate income tax rate and a bail-in of junior bondholders. The Eurogroup looks forward to an agreement between Cyprus and the Russian Federation on a financial contribution.

The Russian loan never materialised any more than a Russian loan promised to the governor of the Central Bank of Iceland as the Icelandic banks collapsed in October 2008. Cyprus’ relationship with Russia was long-standing Iceland was not known to have any particular relationship with Russia, which meant that this promise seemed very much out of the blue. However, just as the Christofias government was against a Troika programme the governor and a few others were equally against seeking assistance, in Iceland’s case from the IMF.

Interestingly, neither the press release nor the statement specified what ‘an upfront one-off stability levy’ implied. Those present at the 4AM press meeting were ill at ease and unwilling to spell out the action. Christine Lagarde director of the IMF only talked of “burden sharing.”

According to Reuters, citing an unnamed source, Cyprus “agreed a one-off levy of 9.9 percent to apply to deposits in Cypriot banks above 100,000 euros and of 6.7 percent for deposits below 100,000 euros…”

With this fundamental diversion from earlier policies the Eurogroup agreed that an EU country could touch deposits below the guaranteed €100,000. In other words: depositors in EU now knew that in a financial crisis their guaranteed deposits were no longer untouchable.

Whether a momentary mental black-out or a wish to try something unorthodox this solution evaporated over the weekend. The statement released following a Eurogroup phone conference on Monday March 18 carried a very different message:

The Eurogroup continues to be of the view that small depositors should be treated differently from large depositors and reaffirms the importance of fully guaranteeing deposits below EUR 100.000. The Cypriot authorities will introduce more progressivity in the one-off levy compared to what was agreed on 16 March, provided that it continues yielding the targeted reduction of the financing envelope and, hence, not impact the overall amount of financial assistance up to EUR 10bn.

Given the fact that the Eurogroup had less than 48 hours earlier agreed to a levy on guaranteed funds the word “continues” does not quite rhyme with the earlier statement.

The banks remained closed on the following Monday, March 18 2013 as the Cypriot government under president Nicos Anastasiades, only in power since March 1, struggled to get a grip on failing banks – and to find another solution when the original idea lost its sparkle.

In a rare display of tense irritation the ECB issued a statement on March 21 saying that the ECB governing council had “decided to maintain the current level of Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) until Monday, 25 March 2013. Thereafter, Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) could only be considered if an EU/IMF programme is in place that would ensure the solvency of the concerned banks. – As far as is known, this is the only time the ECB has ever issued a statement acknowledging the end of ELA.

The Cypriot banks remained closed until March 28. When they opened again there were capital controls in place to prevent a run on the banks – and depositors in Laiki and Bank of Cyprus had been singled out to carry the cost.

In hindsight, it is profoundly interesting that the Eurogroup, ECB and the IMF did indeed agree to levy on guaranteed deposit. Allegedly, the Germans were not happy but agree they did. In the end, things did change in the coming days. A general levy was voted down in the Cypriot parliament. The Cyprus collapse did not happen over a few days in March but over almost two years, from May 2011 when the island lost access to markets. The course of events cannot just be explained by panic.

Indeed the bail-in was no panic solution but had been in the making for more than half a year; only the Cypriots did not know it.

*Continue reading at The Icelog.

About the Author

Sigrún Davídsdóttir
Sigrún Davídsdóttir is an Icelandic journalist based in London. Her interests are European and international politics and economy, the eurocrisis, banking, tax havens and corruption (often through the prism of the Icelandic financial collapse in 2008) - as well as arts, culture and food.

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