Three posts yesterday. The first was “Island Nightmares:”
What is it about islands around Europe’s periphery? Is there some peculiar psychological thing about proximity plus the illusion of isolation that makes them turn themselves into havens for runaway banks? Inquiring minds want to know.
Anyway, the Cyprus story has obvious parallels with both Iceland and Ireland, with RMML — Russian mobster money laundering — as an extra ingredient. All three island nations had a run of rapid growth as banking havens that left them with banking systems that were too big to save. Iceland, at peak, had banks with assets that were 980 percent of GDP, more than 10 times the US number; Ireland was at 440 percent. Cyprus, at around 800 percent, was closer to Iceland in this respect. For a good summary, read this.
In all three, runaway banking was the source of the crisis — although not everyone seems to get this, even now. Joe Weisenthal finds the most clueless remark so far about Cyprus, and it comes, you guessed it, from George Osborne, who seems to think it has something to do with lack of fiscal discipline. Actually, as the IMF (pdf) points out,
Before the 2008 crisis, Cyprus enjoyed a long period of high growth, low unemployment, and sound public finances.
Oh well. In any case, the question is what to do now.
Iceland got through the crisis with less damage than Ireland, for two reasons. First, it let the banks default on liabilities to overseas creditors, including deposits in offshore accounts. Second, it had the flexibility that comes from having your own currency.
The own-currency advantage helped the real adjustment of the economy; it also allowed some fairly undisruptive financial repression, because the depreciation of the krona (coupled with temporary capital controls) led to a brief burst of inflation that eroded the real value of deposits. Savers were hurt — but with banks having grown to 10 times GDP, that was going to happen one way or another.
Cyprus, unfortunately, seems to be making a hash of it. To be fair, the proposed levy on depositors is actually smaller than the real losses Icelandic depositors took (and they lost on their currency holdings too). But this is just the beginning! Even with the effective default on deposits, Cyprus will need a huge loan from the troika, and the condition for this loan will be harsh austerity. This looks like the beginning of endless, inconceivable pain.
And while it looks as if the terms of the deposit tax are being revised, overseas creditors are still getting a much better deal than in Iceland. I’m still trying to figure out the technical aspects here, but it seems clear that one big problem is that Cyprus, unlike Iceland, isn’t willing to put its banking excesses behind it; they’re still trying to hold on to the RMML business, which means less taxation of the RMs and more taxation of locals.
I am, as I’ve already admitted, somewhat behind the curve here; I should have been tracking Cyprus, but I wasn’t. Still, even on a cursory look it’s really hard to see how any of this is going to work.
Next up was “The Яussians Are Coming! The Яussians Are Coming!:”
How big a deal is the Russian factor in Cyprus’s crisis? Pretty big, it seems. Over at FT Alphaville, Izabella Kaminska reports on estimates of 19 billion euros in Russian nationals’ deposits in Cyprus banks, which is more than the country’s GDP. Without being an expert here, I wonder whether this is an understatement; given what we think we know about the nature of much of this Russian money, is all of it really being declared as Russian?
Let me make a broader point: we’ve now seen three island nations around Europe become huge international banking hubs relative to their GDPs, then get into crisis because their domestic economies don’t have the resources to bail out those metastasized banking systems if something goes wrong. This strongly suggests, to me at least, that we have a fundamental problem with the whole architecture (to use the preferred fancy word) of international finance.
As long as you haven’t bought into the Barney-Frank-did-it school of thought, you realize that the global crisis of 2008 was in a fundamental sense made possible by the erosion of effective bank regulation. As Gary Gorton (pdf) has documented, we had a 70-year “quiet period” after the Great Depression in which advanced countries had very few major financial flare-ups; Gorton argues, and most of us agree, that the key to this quietness was a constrained, regulated financial system that also limited the opportunities for excessive non-bank leverage.
But this regulation in turn depended, to an important extent, on limited international capital flows; otherwise regulations made in Washington or elsewhere would have been bypassed via havens like, well, Cyprus. And once capital controls began to be lifted in the 1970s we entered an era of ever-bigger financial crises, starting in Latin America, then moving to Asia, and finally striking the whole world.
So what are we going to do about this? Cyprus, as a euro-zone country, should really be part of a euro-wide safety net buttressed by appropriate regulation; it’s insane to imagine that the euro can be run indefinitely with merely national deposit insurance. But euro-area deposit insurance doesn’t seem to be in the cards — and anyway, there are plenty of other potential Cypruses out there.
All of which raises the question, is the era of free capital movement just a bubble, fated to end one of these years, maybe soon?
The last post of the day was “Grand Bargaining:”
Like others, Greg Sargent has been pleading with “centrist” pundits to acknowledge an obvious truth: Barack Obama has actually proposed the mix of spending cuts and revenue increases they want, while Republicans are unwilling to make so much as a dime of compromise. Greg looks at yesterday’s talk shows and finds this confirmed openly by GOP leaders: there is no ratio of spending cuts to revenues that will reconcile them to any tax hike whatsoever.
Greg presumably hopes that this admission will finally cure pundits of the habit of blaming both sides for the failure to reach a Grand Bargain — or, in practice, devoting most of their criticism to Obama.
Silly Greg. As Scott Lemieux explains, the centrist view is that all Obama has to do is have the leadership to lead, with leadership. Nothing Republicans say or do can shake this conviction.