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18 March 2013updated 22 Oct 2020 3:55pm

Cyprus: it’s hard to imagine a neater way of undermining confidence in the banking sector.

A PR disaster.

By Douglas Blakey

I hold my hands up.  I could not have been more wrong if I had tried.

I did not believe that the banking powers-that-be (the European Union, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) would be so dumb as to sanction a levy on consumers savings to bail out banks.

It has been a PR disaster. It is hard to imagine a neater way of undermining confidence in the banking sector.

That the leading banks in Cyprus are in a mess is not in dispute. The sector is reckoned to need a bailout of €17 bn; that is probably a conservative estimate. But the proposal to raise €5.8 bn from depositors of Cypriot banks sets a dangerous precedent, in particular the notion that the levy apply to all savers.

There is, or rather there was, an EU-wide guarantee that small savers’ deposit balances up to €100,000 were protected. That assurance has been given to savers in Cyrus as elsewhere in the EU. That promise is now seen to be complete and utter bunkum. It gets worse. The EU and the European Central Bank are not merely allowing the authorities in Cyprus to rip up the €100,000 guarantee; the EU and ECB are the very bodies pressing Cyprus to levy a charge on all depositors.

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The latest in this Cypriot pantomime is that the country’s president Nicos Anastasiades is considering a levy on deposits below €100,000 of 3 per cent. That, I suppose, is an improvement on a levy of 6.7 percent proposed over the weekend. The revised act of larceny would witness account holders with balances of between €100,000 and €500,000 forfeiting 10 percent, while deposit balances above €500,000 would be cut by 15 per cent.

It is no wonder that share prices have tumbled at the Eurozone’s largest banks. It can be argued that Cyprus is a special case as regards the size of its banking sector relative to the country’s GDP. It is not however far-fetched to imagine consumers in countries such as Spain, Greece and especially Italy fearing that their savings may be under threat in the future.

Just to add to the gloom, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch president of the group of euro area ministers, on Saturday refused to rule out taxes on depositors in countries beyond Cyprus. There remains time for the Cyprus government and the EU authorities to re-work their sums in an attempt to rebuild trust among small depositors. They could, for example, apply a tax-free threshold of €100,000 while raising the threshold on savings above €100,000; it is the least the government ought to do.

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