From Russia with love, to Cyprus with cash

Perhaps the Russian oligarchs’ days of hassle-free, tax-free, risk-free banking are finally over...

Brits may not have known that much about Cyprus before this past week, but if you thought its only exports were olive oil, halloumi and suntans you need to add one more – money.

Of the £10.8bn invested in Russia in the third quarter of last year, £3.2bn came from Cyprus. That is 30 per cent of the total, and it was not a one-off: the Mediterranean island provided more than 24 per cent of Russian investment in 2011, and 28 per cent in 2010.

When it comes to capital flows, the closest parallel to Cyprus is on the far side of the world, on another former British island that also dominates investment into a much larger neighbour. Cyprus is Russia’s Hong Kong. So, when Cyprus announced that it would freeze bank accounts and would tax deposits over €100,000 at 9.9 per cent, its government was trying to grab a chunk of the estimated £20bn that Russians had parked there.

The Russian account-holders have failed to win the sympathy offered to ordinary Cypriots who, before parliament rejected an international bailout deal, faced losing their savings, but the eventual consequences of freezing the Russian money may prove catastrophic. The tax on deposits was intended to protect the banking system from collapse, but if the Russian money takes fright the banks may be past saving anyway.

After communism collapsed, Russians could make money in their homeland but had no confidence that their homeland would let them keep it. Cyprus saw an opportunity and, because of the time zone, lax visa regulations and a favourable tax treaty – at first, there was no withholding tax on profits leaving Russia for Cyprus, and even now it is only 5 per cent – it became the cash conduit of choice.

Since 1994, according to research from Global Financial Integrity, £518bn has left Russia illegally. That may be overstated but still, as one lawyer recently told me, it has been “the largest outflow of money since money was invented”.

Unlike Russia, Cyprus has a reliable court system and most money is safe once it’s there. Or, at least, it was until the proposed tax on deposits. Jamison Firestone, an American lawyer who has specialised in Russian taxes for two decades, struggled for an analogy to describe the shock he felt. Eventually he settled for a scene from the apocalyptic film The Day After Tomorrow where American refugees are struggling to enter Mexico. “I’m sending letters out saying, ‘Please don’t pay us into our Cypriot bank account, pay us into our Russian bank accounts, where the money is safe,’” he said.

“Everybody has put in orders to transfer all their money out. As soon as they lift the freeze on bank transfers there won’t be enough money in the banks to make those transfers. So the system will collapse anyway, even after this surprise levy.”

Much of Russia’s capital outflow, once it had bought villas in the west, went straight back into Russia: now as legal, protected, dividend-paying investment. Cyprus was the staging post on the way in and out, and it is now home to thousands of Russians, who are servicing the money, its owners and each other. My friend Tanya, who moved there with her family five years ago, describes her neighbourhood like a sunnier version of Moscow: “There are Russians everywhere, Russian shops, doctors, hairdressers. There are a couple of Russian schools, too, and lots of after-school activities for the children.”

The financial services companies that employ these children’s parents swelled to seven times Cyprus’s economy but the money was only ever passing through.

“Cyprus was low-security, low-cost, high ease of use,” Firestone said. “So it was great if you were non-political, just an ordinary Russian businessman who wanted a safe, low-cost place to hold profits. Once profits were paid out of Russia there were no more taxes.

“They have just put a tax on a lot of people who did not have to be there and who could effectively do this out of the UK or other jurisdictions.”

Among the other countries rivalling Cyprus as conduits for foreign investment are the wealthy European tax havens of Luxembourg and the Netherlands. But Richard Murphy of the Tax Justice Network doubts they could mop up the business if Russian cash leaves Cyprus. Even the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man may now be too tightly regulated.

“For the bandits, it could be Panama or the British Virgin Islands, and for those looking for security, Singapore,” he said.

No one wants to have to get up in the middle of the night to deal with his banker, so perhaps the Russian oligarchs’ days of hassle-free, tax-free, risk-free banking are finally over – until another country taps in to the money to be made in banking for them.

The Cypriot port of Limassol. Photograph: Getty Images

This article first appeared in the 25 March 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After God

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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?