Cyprus: everything you need to know

The tax, the Russians, the insurance, the surprise, and the future.

The tax

The Cypriot government is to impose a levy of 9.9 per cent on deposits of more than €100,000, and 6.75 per cent on deposits of less than that. Or maybe those numbers are 3.5 per cent for the poorer depositors and 12.5 per cent for the richer ones, according to the FT last night. Or maybe it's actually 3 per cent for €0-100k, 10 per cent for €100-500k, and 15 per cent for €500k+, according to Dow Jones' Matina Stavis this morning.

Update: or maybe it's 0 per cent for some as-yet-unidentified portion at the bottom, according to Reuters.

For what it's worth, Stavis Reuters seems most up-to-date, and the proposal she's got hold of is apparently the one set to be negotiated in the Cypriot parliament today.

The Russians

The reason for the tax is the, er, "unusual" make-up of the Cypriot banking system. It is an offshore finance capital which caters to a lot of very wealthy Russians. And it's big - or rather, Cyprus is little. The cost of recapitalising the banks is around sixty per cent of the country's entire GDP, and that's a cost which Cyprus' government can't afford.

At the same time, Cyprus is a small enough nation within the EU that the core nations - for which, read "Germany" - can afford to play hardball. Germany is sick and tired of paying to recapitalise periphery banks, and is doubly unhappy about having to do it when a lot of the deposits in this particular country's banks are borderline - or actually - laundered money. But given the size of Cyprus, most other euro nations could handle its exit from the euro with ease – which isn't the case for, say, Greece – and so the ECB had the courage to make Cyprus an offer it couldn't refuse: either fund some of its bailout with a levy on large depositors, or the ECB would suspend emergency capitalisation for one of Cyprus' two struggling banks, in effect forcing bankruptcy and an exit from the eurozone (Cyprexit? Cyxit? Cexit?).

But it appears Cyprus went further than Germany demanded. Ekathimerini reports that the German finance ministry only requested a levy on deposits over €100,000. Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble is quoted:

We would obviously have respected the deposit guarantee for accounts up to 100,000. But those who did not want a bail-in were the Cypriot government, also the European Commission and the ECB, they decided on this solution and they now must explain this to the Cypriot people.

As Paweł Morski writes:

If the infliction of losses on small depositors has a purpose, it’s probably to reassure the Russians that they are not being discriminated against. Yes, I may have thrown up a little in my mouth typing that.

The exact numbers suggested on Friday night - the ones which have already been modified - make it look like Cyprus went even further, specifically levying a 6.75 per cent levy on small depositors just to ensure that the levy on larger depositors didn't break 10 per cent. Now that that barrier has been broken, hopefully the distinction will keep growing until small depositors pay nothing, and the entire burden is on those who can afford to pay it.

The insurance

The levy on small depositors is unanimously agreed to be the worst thing about Cyprus' case. There is debate about whether or not bank depositors should have to stomach some of the cost, because, to quote Morski again, "when you deposit money in a bank you’re making a loan". There is debate about whether the ECB is continuing its anti-democratic trend, started with the technocratic ousting of Silvio Berlusconi last year, or whether the two choices it presented Cyprus really are the only two options reasonably available to it. There is debate about whether the levy is actually even legal, because, as Joseph Cotterill points out, it may not be "reasonably foreseeable and adequately accessible" enough to satisfy Article 1 of Protocol 1 of the ECHR, which governs the legality of wealth taxes.

But on the penalisation of the poor, all are in agreement: it was a bloody stupid move. The biggest reason is that the levy on deposits under €100,000 hits insured depositors: people who are legally protected from losing their money even in the event of a bank crash. Deposit insurance is disliked by many titans of finance, because it creates a so-called "moral hazard", allowing banks and savers alike to forget that their money is technically at risk and behave in ways that they shouldn't. Nonetheless, it has one major advantage, which keeps it alive in nearly every western nation: it prevents bank runs.

If you know that your money is safe even if your bank fails, the motivation to remove your money from a bank which might fail is greatly reduced. And given, of course, one of the things which makes a bank fail is that everyone who thinks it might takes their money out, deposit insurance ought to - and does - prevent systemic crises turning into waves of collapsed banks.

By hitting poor depositors, who thought that their money would be safe, the Cypriot government has created the risk, however small, of a bank run in its own nation and others. Because if you are an Italian depositor worried about the state of your own banks, are you going to be quite as certain as you were that you're insured in the event of a collapse?

Even worse, incidentally, is the fact that deposit insurance is actually required by the EU, and €100,000 is the threshold set by the Deposit Guarantees Scheme Directive. That's why no-one told Cyprus to hit its poor, but it did it anyway.

Finally, as well as stupid, the levy on small accounts is likely to be borderline pointless. Bank deposits in most nations vaguely follow the 80:20 rule: 80 per cent of deposits come from 20 per cent of customers. The changes in the proposed levies back that up: a 5pp increase in the levy on deposits over half a million paid for a 3.75pp decrease on deposits under €100,000. The poor are being taxed, not to aid the fiscal situation of Cyprus, but to fit a bizarre definition of fairness - as well as to stay in "the laundry business".

The surprise

There's one thing that the Cypriot parliament got right: this news was a surprise to nearly everyone. ("Nearly", because there had been unhelpful murmurings about depositors taking a hit for a couple of months, which will have led to some draw-downs). If you want to hit savers, you need to do it before they have a chance to react; otherwise, you're going to see deposits being withdrawn and shoved in shoeboxes under the bed.

The announcement coming, as it did, late on a Friday night of a bank holiday weekend was a stroke of good planning. So good, in fact, that some commentators got a bit caught up in the flow of things, and suggested that the move was a good test of whether any country had what it takes to leave the Euro: keep it a secret, announce on a bank holiday, close the ATMs and freeze funds to prevent capital flight.

Of course, Cyprus then blew it. Rather than passing legislation over the weekend and enacting the levy before markets opened late Sunday night, the country is still debating what should happen as Monday morning becomes Monday afternoon. Don't get me wrong, debate is good. But here, speed is probably better. There's already queues outside ATMs; who knows what will happen if the banks open before the tax is levied?

The future

In the short run, things should work out OK. From its savers and the ECB, Cyprus now has the cash to recapitalise its banks; and it managed to do so without defaulting on its sovereign debt, which is nice for the bondholders at least.

Despite the fact that a Rubicon has undeniably been crossed, this isn't, as some commentators are warning, Lehman II. Cyprus is, from its size to its banking sector to its questionable financial specialisation, nearly unique in the eurozone. As Faisal Islam writes, it won't be long until government ministers are lining up to reassure their citizens that they are not Cyprus - and, unless they are Cyprus, they'll probably be right.

Of course, where most ministers dare to tread walks George Osborne, who has already been quoted saying that Britain is Cyprus, and that if we don't "retain the confidence of world markets", we would go the same way. Joe Weisenthal pulls no punches: Osborne's "Ignorant Comments About Cyprus Are Why The UK Economy Is Such A Disaster".

But in the long-term, the blackmail of Cyprus is representative of the deeper hurdles that the eurozone has to face up to at some point. The crisis, insofar as it is a crisis of collapsing banks and insolvent sovereigns, may end sooner or later; but the question of who actually runs Europe, and whether democracy can ever be allowed to make the "wrong" choices in the continent, looks further from being answered than ever before.

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.