The reaction to this weekend’s European Union bailout deal for Cyprus has gone from initial shock to rather predictable condemnation. “Europe botches another rescue,” ran the headline on an editorial in the Financial Times. “It’s as if the Europeans are holding up a neon sign, written in Greek and Italian, saying ‘time to stage a run on your banks,’ ” Paul Krugman, the economist and New York Times columnist wrote on his blog.
As widely reported, the deal has an important claw-back component: a one-time tax on the deposits of everyone who has a bank account in Cyprus ‑ Cypriots and foreigners alike ‑ aimed at raising 5.8 billion euros of the total rescue package of 17 billion euros. It’s always possible that the hyper-alarmist scenario of a pan-European bank run actually takes place, although by Monday afternoon, even jittery stock markets across Europe were starting to grow calmer, as EU officials insisted that the Cyprus deal was exceptional.
In fact, there are two compelling reasons why the EU actually has gotten this one right. The first is that Cyprus for years ranked highly on international lists of opaque tax havens, as it reinvented itself in the 1990s as the offshore banking center of choice for Russians. Under growing international pressure, and in order to join the EU in 2004, Cyprus eventually abolished its offshore tax regime and put in place a residence-based one with some clear oversight.
Still, the suspicions about Cypriot banks linger on. Last November, the German foreign-intelligence agency reportedly warned that any EU bailout funds for Cyprus could simply end up in the pockets of Russian oligarchs, according to the newsweekly Der Spiegel. The German agency estimated the amount of Russian money in Cypriot banks at $26 billion – substantially more than the total EU bailout package. Indeed, one Russian businessman, Dmitry Rybolovlev, owns almost 10 percent of Bank of Cyprus, the island’s biggest. (The Bank of Cyprus is also one of the two banks whose soured loans to Greece sparked the crisis in the first place.) Cyprus remains on an Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development “gray” list of countries that have made progress to meeting international standards but have not yet been judged squeaky-clean. (So, too, does Luxembourg, which was the one country supporting Cyprus’s objections in the weekend negotiations).
Under these circumstances, simply cutting Cyprus a check for the equivalent of more than half its annual gross domestic product with no strings attached would be politically incoherent. France and Germany for years have railed about the dangers of offshore tax centers, and have pushed their colleagues around the world at G8, G20 and other meetings to clamp down on abuses and harmful tax competition. The notion of “moral hazard” was much bandied about during the 2007-08 financial crisis, although in the end few were punished. But not to ask for a contribution from the Cypriots themselves would undermine their tough line on tax havens and what the French and German leaders have called the need for a “moralization” of finance.