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 Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.