Monday, March 18, 2013

A Cypriot Tragedy

Tragedies are usually associated with Greece - a tribute to the richness of its theatre in the 5th Century BC. Over the weekend, you could be forgiven if you changed your tastes to a Cypriot tragedy. For that's exactly what has happened - albeit in the more prosaic world of economics.
These are the facts. Cyprus is another Eurozone country in deep trouble. It needed a bailout. So far, nothing unusual. A bailout was duly announced over the weekend. It was the terms of the bailout that sent a jolt reverberating through the world of economics. The EU is bailing them by about €13 bn (chickenfeed by the standards of bailout). But the conditions of the bailout are that all bank depositors would be levied a tax of between 6.75% and 9.9%. That means on Tuesday when banks opened, all depositors would lose that amount instantaneously.
The genesis of the problem is, alas, not new. Cyprus is a very small country. In boom times, it went berserk pushing its financial industry, positioning itself as an island finance centre. That's fine, but it just went way over the top. Cypriot banks had made loans to outsiders equivalent to 8 times the country's GDP. Worse still, a lot of those was to Greece its neighbor. When Greece began to go under, Cyprus was given an almighty whack. The bailout was then a question of when, and not if.
Another actor muddling the issue is Russia.  Of the € 68 bn bank deposits which are going to get a "haircut" (the tax referred to above) , a full € 21 bn comes from Russian companies. We shall not speculate where from this close affinity of Russia came from - let us just say that the word "money laundering" comes to mind. Now the Russians will instantly lose € 2bn. Enter Vladmir Putin. He is howling against the "$%^&* Germans who are the orchestrators of the bailout.
What about Joe Public in Nicosia. Even if you had say € 100 Euros in the bank, tomorrow it is only € 93. If ever there was a recipe for street riots, this is it.
And what about nervous bank depositors in other troubled countries - say Spain or Italy. Tomorrow it might be their turn. Only an idiot will keep his money in a bank anymore if you are an European. Take it out IMMEDIATELY. Dig a hole and bury it in your backyard. Keep it under the pillow. But don't deposit it in a bank even if a gun was pointed at your head.
What a mess. The world badly needs a new economic order. Fire all economists. Go back to the basics of countries balancing their budgets. Living within their means. Curbing the excesses in the banking and finance industry ruthlessly. It will be a prolonged period of pain. But when the clouds disperse, it will be a saner and fresher world. 
This, of course, is a Utopian dream - which leader is going to tell the truth to his voters. And even if he did, which voter is going to accept it. We shall stumble along from one crisis to another.