By Ambrose Evans-Pritchard
One's first reflex is to gasp at the stupidity of the EU policy elites, but truth is that most EU officials handling the Cyprus crisis know perfectly well that their masters have just set the slow fuse on a powder keg – and they can only pray that it is slow.
The decision to expropriate Cypriot savers – even the poorest – was imposed by Germany, Holland, Finland, Austria, and Slovakia, whose only care at this stage is to assuage bail-out fatigue at home and avoid their own political crises.
This latest debacle has caught me on the hop, literally, since I am in Tokyo learning about Abenomics, so let me just make a few quick points before going off for a pint of sake.
The EU creditor states have at a single stroke violated the principle that insured EU bank deposits of up $100,000 will be guaranteed come what may, and in doing so they have more or less thrown Portugal under a bus.
They appear poised to seize large sums from Russian banks – €1.3bn from state-owned VTB alone, and therefore from the Kremlin – prompting the condign riposte from Vladimir Putin that the action is "unfair, unprofessional and dangerous."
They have demonstrated that the rhetoric of EMU solidarity is just hot air, that they will not force their own taxpayers to share a single cent of clean-up costs for the great joint venture of monetary union – in which northern banks, insurers, pension funds, and indeed governments, were complicit.
Their refusal to pay is entirely understandable in one sense – and if I were a German taxpayer, I would not care to swallow these losses either – but then the leaders of these creditor countries can hardly expect the world to believe that they will in fact do whatever it takes to hold EMU together. Quite obviously, they will not.
The sooner this is made clear, the better. The sooner they take the proper course of withdrawing from EMU and organise the break-up the euro in the least disruptive way, the sooner Europe can recover.
We have already seen the EU solidarity mask slip a few times, not least in the repeated retreats over Greece, and again when German-led quartet resiled from last year's summit deal to let the ESM bail-out fund take some of the weight of recapitalising banks off the shoulders of the Irish and Spanish states.
What is clear is that Angela Merkel will not risk defeat in the elections in September by ceding a single vote to Social Democrats determined to hold her feet to the fire over a bail-out for "Russian oligarchs, money-launderers, and tax evaders" in Cyprus, or by ceding votes to the new anti-euro party Alternative fur Deutschland. She will look after her own political interests, and all the rest is humbug.
It is a fast-moving story. The Cypriot parliament may throw out the deal. It may be rejigged so that depositors under $100,000 pay less than the 6.75pc levy agreed, and those above may pay more than 9.9pc.
The creditor powers appear to think that the contagion risk is manageable now that the ECB has its bond rescue mechanism in place for Spain and Italy. But they made just such an assumption when they imposed a haircut so cavalierly on private investors in Greece, only to precipitate a full-blown crisis across Club Med. And don't forget, the reason why Cyprus has gone belly up is because of the knock-on effect on Cypriot banks from the Greek haircuts.
It is far from clear that the ECB backstop for Italy still exists, given that there is no compliant government in Rome able to meet the rescue conditions.
Portugal is not safely out of the woods. Its slump has been deeper than expected. Its debt dynamics are nearing the danger zone faster than feared. Citigroup, Nomura, and many others think it almost certain that Portugal will need a second rescue, and probably debt-restructuring. What happens then? Are savers going to wait patiently for their own scalping as this becomes clearer?
As for Spain, we learn from leaks in the Spanish press that officials from the ECB and the Commission warned Eurogroup ministers that the raid on Cypriot savers posed a grave contagion risk to Spanish banks, threatening to set off deposit runs.
EMU commissioner Olli Rehn promised that there will be no losses imposed on depositors in other countries, but the decision will be made in Berlin, the Hague, Helsinki, Vienna. He has no authority to make such a pledge. He is just a civil servant.
The danger may not be immediate but if the economies of Portugal, Spain, and Italy languish through this year in deep slump with no green shoots of recovery starting to sprout in the second half – as many fear – this new dispensation will be tested. The fatal precedent of haircuts for depositors will start to matter a great deal. Hell hath no fury like a saver robbed.
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