Imagine you woke up one day to discover your bank account has been raided by another country's government. Just like that, $1 in every $16 of your supposedly safe money is gone. If you're wealthy enough to have more savings, it could be $1 in $10. Is it a nightmare? The opening chapter of a Kafka story? A Bond villain plot to start a bank run and bring down the government?
Nah, it's just the new reality facing bank depositors in Cyprus. And it might just set off a fresh wave of financial panic in the euro zone. Because we haven't had enough of that lately.
Cyprus is the forgotten sick man of Europe. It's so forgotten that it hasn't even cracked the acronym of troubled European economies (the PIIGS or GIIPS, depending on your taste). But being forgotten has made it no less troubled. It needs money. And Germany isn't exactly enthusiastic about handing over money, particularly in an election year for Chancellor Angela Merkel. Indeed, Germany has insisted on more than its usual pound of austerity in return for a bailout. It's insisted that Cyprus pick up a large part of its own check. And that's been terrible news for Cypriot savers. (And Russians. We'll get there, soon.)
The terms of the Cypriot bailout (and bail-in) are as simple as they are startling. Germany will cough up about $13 billion, and, in exchange, Cyprus will levy a "one-time" tax on bank deposits to raise an additional $7.5 billion. This tax will take 6.75 percent from insured deposits of €100,000 ($129,000) or less, and 9.9 percent from uninsured amounts above €100,000. Depositors will get bank stock equal to whatever they lose from the tax. If you're wondering why anybody would keep their money in a Cypriot bank now, well, they wouldn't. This is an open invitation for an old-fashioned run on their banks. The only reason that isn't happening now is their banks are closed for an extended holiday.
This bailout is the right answer to the wrong question. The wrong question is how Germany can bailout Cyprus (and a bunch of less-than-savory Russians) without risking Merkel's reelection. The right question is how does Germany bailout Cyprus in a way that doesn't risk the future of the euro at all.
Of course, there are all sorts of other questions here, all of them involving the word hell (or some other four-letter variation). Questions like: what the hell were they thinking, why the hell would Cyprus go along with this, and how the hell did an economy equal to 0.2 percent (!!!) of euro zone GDP become any kind of threat to the future of the euro? Well, as has often been the case, the answer begins with too big to fail, and in this case, too big to save, banks.
There's Something Rotten in Cypriot Banks
There are four things you need to know about Cypriot banks. First, they have assets equal to roughly eight times the country's GDP. Second, they get a huge percentage of their deposits from tax-dodging Russians. Third, they invested a ton of money in Greece. And fourth, they are highly dependent on central bank financing to stay afloat. In other words, Cypriot banks are too big for Cyprus to save. But somebody needs to save them.
How did all this money get into Cyprus banks? Like many other small islands, Cyprus has found that turning itself into a tax haven (and money-laundering center) is a pretty lucrative business. Money has poured in from Russian oligarchs and mobsters looking to avoid taxes back home, and that Russian money has bloated Cypriot banks to a size far beyond the government's ability to bail out. Indeed, roughly 37 percent of the island's €68 billion of deposits come from abroad -- and as Kate Mackenzie of FT Alphaville points out, this foreign money makes up €25.5 billion of the €37.6 billion of deposits over €100,000. In other words, almost all of the foreign money is in uninsured accounts, and 68 percent of all uninsured accounts come from abroad.
So, what did Cyprus banks do with all of this money?Well, they invested it where they thought they had a competitive advantage: Greece. After all, southern Cyprus is ethnically Greek (the northern half is occupied by Turkey), and the Greek economy, which is 12 times larger than the Cypriot one, looked like an ideal place to expand. It wasn't. Cypriot loans to the Greek government and businesses have opened black holes on bank balance sheets. In 2012 alone, two of the biggest Cypriot banks, Cyprus Popular and the Bank of Cyprus, lost a combined €3.5 billion on Greek bonds. That's over 10 percent of GDP in a €31.8 billion Cypriot economy. It'd be like if Citigroup and JP Morgan lost $1.5 trillion in a single year (or approximately 250 times the "London Whale" losses).
The Cypriot banking system would have collapsed long ago were it not for emergency funding okayed by the European Central Bank (ECB). Here's how it works. Suppose you run a euro bank desperately short on cash, collateral, and confidence. In other words, you need more money, but you so obviously need more money that nobody will lend it to you except on a secured basis -- and only then against top-notch collateral, which you don't have. Well, this is what lenders-of-last-resort are for, assuming your bank is illiquid and not insolvent. You can take your slightly crappy collateral to the ECB, and get a loan subject to a haircut. Technically-speaking, the worse your collateral, the higher the interest rate the ECB charges you.
But suppose your collateral isn't just slightly crummy; say it's really crummy. Well, don't worry, you're still in luck! The ECB won't give you a loan, but your national central bank will, pending ECB approval. Welcome to the wonderful world of "emergency liquidity assistance" (ELA). Now, this sounds confusing (and that's probably the intent behind it), but it's really not. It's the same idea as before, only with crappier collateral and higher interest rates. Remember, the ECB sets monetary policy for every euro member, but those members retain their own central banks, which carry out the ECB's policy decisions. These national central banks can basically accept any collateral -- really, anything -- as long as they apply more severe haircuts and get the okay from the ECB. The only other big difference here is the national central banks, not the ECB, are on the hook in case of default.
Cypriot banks have stayed alive by gorging on this ELA funding. The chart below from Joseph Cotterill of FT Alphaville shows the balance sheet of the second-biggest Cypriot bank, Laiki. Notice it gets a third of its capital from the central bank. That's, um, a lot.
This dependence on central bank financing leaves Cyprus quite open to, shall we say, ECB persuasion. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what we call "foreshadowing".
An Offer Cyprus Can't Refuse -- or Can't Accept?
Cyprus needs €17 billion. Germany doesn't want to give it €17 billion. Merkel doesn't want to bail out Russian gangsters in an election year. So she's forcing Cyprus to come up with €7 billion even though the government can't afford it.
There are two ways a broke government could still come up with this money. First, it could force its own creditors or the banks' creditors to take losses. But, as Joseph Cotterill points out, the Cypriot government can't logistically force losses on its foreign lenders, and its domestic lenders are mostly its banks. In other words, the only losses the government can force on its bonds would make the banks' problems all the worse.
That leaves the banks' creditors. Most banks fund themselves with three classes of lenders: junior bondholders, unsecured senior bondholders, and secured senior bondholders, including insured depositors. If the bank goes bust, the secured senior bondholders are at the front of the line for whatever's left, and so on. But Cypriot banks are almost entirely funded with deposits and ELA money. Now, junior bondholders did take €1.4 billion in losses, but there basically no unsecured senior bondholders. As Charles Forelle of the Wall Street Journal points out, the two biggest banks in Cyprus have €46 billion in deposits and €184 million in unsecured senior debt. In plain English, Cyprus has to make its depositors or its national central bank accept €5.8 billion in losses -- and it can't make its national central bank take losses.
So Germany is making Cypriot depositors pay. The questions are which depositors, and how much of their deposits. Cypriot president Nicos Anastasiades originally agreed to a 7 percent levy on deposit amounts above €100,000 and 3 percent below that, but the Germans decided that wasn't enough, according to Peter Spiegel of the Financial Times. When Anastasiades tried to walk out in protest, ECB officials promptly informed him they would cut ELA funding for the second-biggest Cypriot bank, Laiki, if he didn't agree. That would send Laiki into bankruptcy, and cost Cyprus €30 billion, versus the €5.8 billion the Germans wanted. It's quite something when the ECB lets Germany use it as its debt collector. Of course, Anastasiades eventually acquiesced -- though he insisted the top tax rate not exceed 10 percent, likely to preserve Cyprus' future viability as a tax haven. That meant insured depositors had to be charged 6.75 percent to make the math add up.
It's a total clusterf***. These tax rates still has to be approved by the Cypriot parliament, and, well, that's not happening. The vote has already been postponed twice, and the Cypriots are back negotiating what they hope will be more politically acceptable tax rates. Under the latest plan, deposits under €100,00 would get 3 percent haircuts, deposit amounts between €100,000 and €500,000 would get 10 percent haircuts, and amounts over €500,000 would get 15 percent haircuts. This has the virtue of mostly hitting foreign depositors, and mostly sparing poorer, domestic ones. It should pass, but, then again, insured deposits shouldn't be getting hit at all. Should is no guarantee.
Is the Euro Worth 5.8 Billion Euros?
The entire euro crisis comes down to a single question. Is a euro in a Spanish (or a Cypriot) bank worth the same as a euro in a German (or a Dutch) bank?
If Spain leaves the euro, then any euros in its banks will get turned into much cheaper pesetas overnight. Spanish depositors would be entirely rational to move their money to a German bank if they think there's any chance Spain will abandon the common currency. Even a slow-motion bank run would only starve Spain of even more credit, and drag it down even further -- making a euro exit all the more attractive. In other words, it's a self-fulfilling fear.
Or at least it was, until ECB chief Mario Draghi stopped the vicious circle. Last July, he promised to do "whatever it takes" to save the euro -- and those words alone were enough to end the panic. A Spanish euro was worth the same as a German euro once again. But what about a Cypriot euro? The tax on insured deposits resurrects the questions about whether a euro in a peripheral bank is worth the same as one in a core bank. It's just due to fiscal risk now instead of exchange rate risk -- but the effect is the same. Peripheral depositors would once again be rational to move their money. "One-off" events have a way of not always being so.
Now, that's not to say that a continental bank run is looming. Credit default swaps on peripheral debt increased a bit relative to core debt as of 9:45 this morning, as you can see below in the chart from Bloomberg, but there's no sign anything worse will happen. Markets have been mostly calm.
But just because there hasn't been any contagion so far doesn't mean it made sense to risk it over €5.8 billion. There's nothing more destructive than giving people the idea that insured bank deposits are not so inviolable.
It's a dangerous roll of the dice, for not much pay-off.
The tension between religious liberty and same-sex marriage may eventually come to a head in the courts, but probably not through the Kentucky clerk’s case.
As Rowan County clerk Kim Davis crawls further and further out on a limb, Supreme Court experts agree that she has little chance of prevailing. District Judge David Bunning, on August 12 ordered Davis, in her capacity as county clerk, to issue marriage licenses to all couples who meet the statutory criteria for marriage in Kentucky—a definition that, since the Court’s landmark decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, includes same-sex couples.
Davis has refused, citing “the authority of God.” The U.S. Supreme Court, without comment, denied her emergency request for a stay. This throws the case back to the Sixth Circuit, which will hear the appeal of Judge Bunning’s order. Assuming she loses in the Sixth Circuit—a fairly good assumption—she would then have the alternative of petitioning the Supreme Court to hear her religious freedom claim. The Court will eventually hear a case about religious freedom and same-sex marriage, but I don’t think it will be this one.
I traveled to every country on earth. In some cases, the adventure started before I could get there.
Last summer, my Royal Air Maroc flight from Casablanca landed at Malabo International Airport in Equatorial Guinea, and I completed a 50-year mission: I had officially, and legally, visited every recognized country on earth.
This means 196 countries: the 193 members of the United Nations, plus Taiwan, Vatican City, and Kosovo, which are not members but are, to varying degrees, recognized as independent countries by other international actors.
In five decades of traveling, I’ve crossed countries by rickshaw, pedicab, bus, car, minivan, and bush taxi; a handful by train (Italy, Switzerland, Moldova, Belarus, Ukraine, Romania, and Greece); two by riverboat (Gabon and Germany); Norway by coastal steamer; Gambia and the Amazonian parts of Peru and Ecuador by motorized canoe; and half of Burma by motor scooter. I rode completely around Jamaica on a motorcycle and Nauru on a bicycle. I’ve also crossed three small countries on foot (Vatican City, San Marino, and Liechtenstein), and parts of others by horse, camel, elephant, llama, and donkey. I confess that I have not visited every one of the 7,107 islands in the Philippine archipelago or most of the more than 17,000 islands constituting Indonesia, but I’ve made my share of risky voyages on the rickety inter-island rustbuckets you read about in the back pages of the Times under headlines like “Ship Sinks in Sulu Sea, 400 Presumed Lost.”
The past is beautiful until you’re reminded it’s ugly.
Taylor Swift’s music video for “Wildest Dreams” isn’t about the world as it exists; it’s about the world as seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment. In the song, Swift sings that she wants to live on in an ex’s memory as an idealized image of glamour—“standing in a nice dress, staring at the sunset.” In the video, her character, an actress, falls in love with her already-coupled costar, for whom she’ll live on as an idealized image of glamour—standing in a nice dress, staring at a giant fan that’s making the fabric swirl in the wind.
The setting for the most part is Africa, but, again, the video isn’t about Africa as it exists, but as it’s seen through the filter of nostalgia and the magic of entertainment—a very particular nostalgia and kind of entertainment. Though set in 1950, the video is in the literary and cinematic tradition of white savannah romances, the most important recent incarnation of which might be the 1985 Meryl Streep film Out of Africa, whose story begins in 1913. Its familiarity is part of its appeal, and also part of why it’s now drawing flack for being insensitive. As James Kassaga Arinaitwe and Viviane Rutabingwa write at NPR:
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
A Brooklyn-based group is arguing that the displacement of longtime residents meets a definition conceived by the United Nations in the aftermath of World War II.
No one will be surprised to learn that the campaign to build a national movement against gentrification is being waged out of an office in Brooklyn, New York.
For years, the borough’s name has been virtually synonymous with gentrification, and on no street in Brooklyn are its effects more evident than on Atlantic Avenue, where, earlier this summer, a local bodega protesting its impending departure in the face of a rent hike, put up sarcastic window signs advertising “Bushwick baked vegan cat food” and “artisanal roach bombs.”
Just down the block from that bodega are the headquarters of Right to the City, a national alliance of community-based organizations that since 2007 has made it its mission to fight “gentrification and the displacement of low-income people of color.” For too long, organizers with the alliance say, people who otherwise profess concern for the poor have tended to view gentrification as a mere annoyance, as though its harmful effects extended no further than the hassles of putting up with pretentious baristas and overpriced lattes. Changing this perception is the first order of business for Right to the City: Gentrification, as these organizers see it, is a human-rights violation.
But letting customers buy their own would force cable companies to improve their equipment.
One of the least glamorous realities of the American cable industry is a relic invented in 1948: the cable box. The box has become a fixture in the American household, not least because it is surprisingly profitable. Earlier this year, a U.S. Senate study found that American households pay $231 a year on average renting cable boxes. Further, the report estimated that 99 percent of cable customers rented their equipment, and, across the country, that added up to a $19.5 billion industry just renting cable boxes.
The senators who commissioned the study, Ed Markey of Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, noted that this dependable rental revenue gave the industry little incentive to innovate and make better cable boxes. Which begs a really good question: Why aren’t more people purchasing their cable boxes?
Massive hurricanes striking Miami or Houston. Earthquakes leveling Los Angeles or Seattle. Deadly epidemics. Meet the “maximums of maximums” that keep emergency planners up at night.
For years before Hurricane Katrina, storm experts warned that a big hurricane would inundate the Big Easy. Reporters noted that the levees were unstable and could fail. Yet hardly anyone paid attention to these Cassandras until after the levees had broken, the Gulf Coast had been blown to pieces, and New Orleans sat beneath feet of water.
The wall-to-wall coverage afforded to the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina reveals the sway that a deadly act of God or man can hold on people, even 10 years later. But it also raises uncomfortable questions about how effectively the nation is prepared for the next catastrophe, whether that be a hurricane or something else. There are plenty of people warning about the dangers that lie ahead, but that doesn’t mean that the average citizen or most levels of the government are anywhere near ready for them.
Though it wasn’t pretty, Minaj was really teaching a lesson in civility.
Nicki Minaj didn’t, in the end, say much to Miley Cyrus at all. If you only read the comments that lit up the Internet at last night’s MTV Video Music Awards, you might think she was kidding, or got cut off, when she “called out” the former Disney star who was hosting: “And now, back to this bitch that had a lot to say about me the other day in the press. Miley, what’s good?”
To summarize: When Minaj’s “Anaconda” won the award for Best Hip-Hop Video, she took to the stage in a slow shuffle, shook her booty with presenter Rebel Wilson, and then gave an acceptance speech in which she switched vocal personas as amusingly as she does in her best raps—street-preacher-like when telling women “don’t you be out here depending on these little snotty-nosed boys”; sweetness and light when thanking her fans and pastor. Then a wave of nausea seemed to come over her, and she turned her gaze toward Cyrus. To me, the look on her face, not the words that she said, was the news of the night:
According to Franklin, what mattered in business was humility, restraint, and discipline. But today’s Type-A MBAs would find him qualified for little more than a career in middle management.
When he retired from the printing business at the age of 42, Benjamin Franklin set his sights on becoming what he called a “Man of Leisure.” To modern ears, that title might suggest Franklin aimed to spend his autumn years sleeping in or stopping by the tavern, but to colonial contemporaries, it would have intimated aristocratic pretension. A “Man of Leisure” was typically a member of the landed elite, someone who spent his days fox hunting and affecting boredom. He didn’t have to work for a living, and, frankly, he wouldn’t dream of doing so.
Having worked as a successful shopkeeper with a keen eye for investments, Franklin had earned his leisure, but rather than cultivate the fine arts of indolence, retirement, he said, was “time for doing something useful.” Hence, the many activities of Franklin’s retirement: scientist, statesman, and sage, as well as one-man civic society for the city of Philadelphia. His post-employment accomplishments earned him the sobriquet of “The First American” in his own lifetime, and yet, for succeeding generations, the endeavor that was considered his most “useful” was the working life he left behind when he embarked on a life of leisure.
Why haven’t more challengers entered the race to defeat the Iraq War hawk, Patriot Act supporter, and close friend of big finance?
As Hillary Clinton loses ground to Bernie Sanders in Iowa, where her lead shrinks by the day, it’s worth noticing that she has never made particular sense as the Democratic Party’s nominee. She may be more electable than her social-democratic rival from Vermont, but plenty of Democrats are better positioned to represent the center-left coalition. Why have they let the former secretary of state keep them out of the race? If Clinton makes it to the general election, I understand why most Democrats will support her. She shares their views on issues as varied as preserving Obamacare, abortion rights, extending legal status to undocumented workers, strengthening labor unions, and imposing a carbon tax to slow climate change.