There's a simple enough way to resolve the mess in Cyprus. It doesn't even involve asking the Germans to pay more or the Cypriots to tax bank deposits. It's called printing money.
A quick recap. Cyprus needs to raise €5.8 billion ($7.4 billion) to rescue its insolvent banks or the European Central Bank (ECB) says it will cut off the "emergency liquidity assistance" (ELA) loans keeping those zombie banks afloat. It's not so easy to come up with €5.8 billion in just a €19 billion economy. So Germany has told Cyprus to tax bank deposits, including supposedly insured amounts below €100,000, to get what it needs. The Cypriot parliament hated that idea and voted in unison to reject the bank-deposit tax on Tuesday.
There are three players here -- Germany, Cyprus, and the ECB -- and each comes with a big hurdle. First, Germany insists it won't hand over any more than the €10 billion it's already committed. Angela Merkel doesn't want to fully bail out the less-than-reputable Russian oligarchs who use the island as a tax haven, particularly in an election year. Second, Cyprus doesn't want to cripple its future as an offshore financial center (although it's too late for that) with any kind of deposit tax. Third, the ECB has to sign off on any agreement.
This is what we call an impasse. Germany doesn't want to pay more, Cyprus doesn't to tax more, and the ECB doesn't want to print more. It's a game of chicken with the future of the euro potentially at stake (again). The question is who moves first. With Germany and Cyprus still quite far apart, it's up to the ECB. After all, the magic of the printing-press would make the Cyprus banking disaster much easier to solve.
Here's how Cyprus could save itself in three, easy steps -- with the ECB's tacit support.
1. Merge Cyprus' Big Banks and then Spin Off a Bad Bank
The best way to deal with the losses in Cypriot banks is to isolate them. This just means putting all the good assets from its biggest banks into a good bank pile. The rest goes into the "bad bank" pile. But how does this improve things? Well, for one, it gives the government an idea of the size of the black hole in bank balance sheets. For another, it replaces two zombie banks that won't lend with one dead bank that won't and one healthy one that will. In other words, it should, albeit slightly, increase the amount of credit in the economy.
2. Convert Uninsured Deposits to Bank CDs
Deposit tax or not, the Cypriot financial system is doomed. Its business model of giving rich Russians a place to park (perhaps ill-gotten) cash and avoid taxes is finished. Just the specter of the deposit tax will be enough to spur deposit flight from abroad.
This capital exodus will only hasten the next bailout. Cypriot banks can afford to lose a bit of their deposit base, but losing too much will turn their balance sheets even more upside down -- and make them even more dependent on ELA funding. It won't be long before the banks need more capital from the Germans.
What is to be done? As Felix Salmon points out, sovereign debt guru Lee Buchheit and Mitu Gulati of Duke University have come up with an elegantly simple solution: Convert uninsured deposit amounts above €100,000 into bank certificates of deposit, or CDs. Now, this wouldn't solve the banks' capital problems now, but it would reduce the banks' capital problems in the future. Banks would give uninsured depositors the choice of accepting either a five- or ten-year bank CD, with the latter offering either a higher interest rate or some kind of natural gas bond as a sweetener. The government would also extend the maturity on its sovereign debt by five years -- which Buchhet and Gulati estimate would save €6.6 billion.
3. Recapitalize the Bad Bank with Government-Guaranteed Natural Gas Bonds
This is where things get tricky. Even if the Cypriot government did all of the above, it would still need to recapitalize the bad bank. And that's still not easy for Cyprus to do. But with a little legerdemain, Cyprus can get the ECB to print what it needs. That is, after all, what Ireland recently did.
There's a wildcard in all of this. Cyprus might have huge natural gas reserves. Upper-end estimates value the hoped-for-reserves at €300 billion, but that's all they are for now: hoped for. Almost none of the reserves have been proved yet. And besides, even if they do exist, it would still be another decade before they came on line. But this could be enough to save Cyprus now. Here's how it would work.
First, securitize future natural gas revenue into long-term bonds. These bonds would have maturities between 25 and 40 years, and the senior-most tranche would go exclusively towards recapping the bad bank. Depositors who term out their accounts could get junior tranches if they prefer the upside risk to a lower interest rate on their CD.
Second, the government guarantees the senior-most tranche of these natural gas bonds. In other words, the government will cover the difference between what these bonds are supposed to pay, and what they do if it turns out there isn't much (or any) natural gas. Now, this looks like a pretty daunting contingent liability for a government with a €19 billion economy, but it's much more manageable over 25 to 40 years.
Third, backload the payments on the bonds.
Fourth, give these government-guaranteed bonds to the bad bank to use as collateral for ELA loans. Let's be clear what this means. These bonds would almost certainly trade far below par, but that's not what the Cypriot government cares about. It cares about giving the bad bank safe-ish assets it can use as collateral for ELA money from the Central Bank of Cyprus. The bad bank gets the capital it needs now, and the government doesn't have to pay much until much later. It's money-printing in disguise. Of course, the ECB Governing Council could overrule this extension of ELA by a two-thirds vote ... but would it would really push Cyprus out of the euro zone if crisis had been averted? Probably not.
I know this sounds incredibly fanciful. Gimmicky, even. A government driven into bankruptcy by its banks can save them, and itself, by issuing some new long-term debt to give them? Really? Well, yes. This kind of alchemy is precisely what Ireland has done.
Like Cyprus, Ireland has an outsized financial sector that made some outsized bets that went bad. Financial bankruptcy turned to national bankruptcy and then bailout after the Irish government guaranteed losses it couldn't possibly guarantee. So far, so bad. But here's where things get interesting. The Irish government nationalized its biggest problem bank, and recapitalized it with promissory notes -- basically, front-loaded government debt instruments. The now-nationalized bank then used these promissory notes as collateral for ELA funding, which allowed it to slowly wind itself down. (Irish economist Karl Whelan has the best explanation of all this, if you want the full wonk).
Then they had a revelation. Wouldn't it be great if they could exchange these promissory notes with their upfront repayments for back-loaded, longer-term bonds? Yes, yes it would. The Irish government ripped up the promissory notes and issued 25-to-40-year bonds to use as collateral instead. (For legal reasons, they also closed down the nationalized bank, and transferred its remaining assets to a bad bank). The ECB could have vetoed this, but it chose not to.
Again, the benefit of all this financial sleight-of-hand was the central bank printed money for Ireland today, and Ireland didn't have to pay it back for many years. As Wolfgang Münchau of the Financial Times explains, it was a deliberately convoluted way of printing money for the government to hide that they were printing money for the government.
Cyprus should pull an Ireland, and force the ECB to make a decision. Either the ECB refuses to accept guaranteed natural gas bonds as collateral, and Cyprus gets booted from the euro, or the ECB relents, and the panic subsides.
In other words, make the ECB decide whether the euro is worth printing 5.8 billion euros.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
Across China, where new developments are keeping pace with the rapidly growing economy, reports continue to surface so-called "nail houses."
Across China, where new developments are keeping pace with the rapidly growing economy, reports continue to surface of so-called "nail houses." These properties, standing alone amid the ruins of other buildings, belong to owners who have stood their ground and resisted demolition. Defiant property owners say the compensation being offered is too low. Some of them have remained in their homes for years as their court cases drag on and new construction continues all around them. A few homeowners have won their fights, but most have lost. Meanwhile, these nail houses have become powerful symbols of resistance against the world's fastest-growing major economy.
Ben Stiller’s follow-up to his own comedy classic is a downright bummer, no matter how many celebrity cameos it tries to cram in.
You don’t need to go to the theater to get the full experience of Zoolander 2. Simply get your hands on a copy of the original, watch it, and then yell a bunch of unfunny topical lines every time somebody tells a joke. That’s how it feels to watch Ben Stiller’s sequel to his 2001 spoof of the fashion industry: Zoolander 2 takes pains to reference every successful gag you remember from the original, and then embellish them in painful—often offensive, almost always outdated—fashion. It’s a film that has no real reason to exist, and it spends its entire running time reaffirming that fact.
The original Zoolander, to be fair, had no business being as funny as it was—it made fun of an industry that already seems to exist in a constant state of self-parody, and much of its humor relied on simple malapropisms and sight gags. But it was hilarious anyway as a candid snapshot of the fizzling-out of ’90s culture. Like almost any zeitgeist comedy, it belonged to a particular moment—and boy, should it have stayed there. With Zoolander 2, Stiller (who directed, co-wrote, and stars) tries to recapture the magic of 2001 by referencing its past glories with increasing desperation, perhaps to avoid the fact that he has nothing new to say about the fashion industry or celebrity culture 15 years laters.
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
When four American women were murdered during El Salvador’s dirty war, a young U.S. official and his unlikely partner risked their lives to solve the case.
On December 1, 1980, two American Catholic churchwomen—an Ursuline nun and a lay missionary—sat down to dinner with Robert White, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador. They worked in rural areas ministering to El Salvador’s desperately impoverished peasants, and White admired their commitment and courage. The talk turned to the government’s brutal tactics for fighting the country’s left-wing guerrillas, in a dirty war waged by death squads that dumped bodies in the streets and an army that massacred civilians. The women were alarmed by the incoming Reagan administration’s plans for a closer relationship with the military-led government. Because of a curfew, the women spent the night at the ambassador’s residence. The next day, after breakfast with the ambassador’s wife, they drove to San Salvador’s international airport to pick up two colleagues who were flying back from a conference in Nicaragua. Within hours, all four women would be dead.
Most people know how to help someone with a cut or a scrape. But what about a panic attack?
Here’s a thought experiment: You’re walking down the street with a friend when your companion falls and gashes her leg on the concrete. It’s bleeding; she’s in pain. It’s clear she’s going to need stitches. What do you do?
This one isn’t exactly a head-scratcher. You'd probably attempt to offer some sort of first-aid assistance until the bleeding stopped, or until she could get to medical help. Maybe you happen to have a Band-Aid on you, or a tissue to help her clean the wound, or a water bottle she can use to rinse it off. Maybe you pick her up and help her hobble towards transportation, or take her where she needs to go.
Here’s a harder one: What if, instead of an injured leg, that same friend has a panic attack?
The revolution that ended the reign of beards occurred on September 30, 331 b.c., as Alexander the Great prepared for a decisive showdown with the Persian emperor for control of Asia. On that day, he ordered his men to shave. Yet from time immemorial in Greek culture, a smooth chin on a grown man had been taken as a sign of effeminacy or degeneracy. What can explain this unprecedented command? When the commander Parmenio asked the reason, according to the ancient historian Plutarch, Alexander replied, “Don’t you know that in battles there is nothing handier to grasp than a beard?” But there is ample cause to doubt Plutarch’s explanation. Stories of beard-pulling in battles were myth rather than history. Plutarch and later historians misunderstood the order because they neglected the most relevant fact, namely that Alexander had dared to do what no self-respecting Greek leader had ever done before: shave his face, likening himself to the demigod Heracles, rendered in painting and sculpture in the immortal splendor of youthful, beardless nudity. Alexander wished above all, as he told his generals before the battle, that each man would see himself as a crucial part of the mission. They would certainly see this more clearly if each of them looked more like their heroic commander.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
The bureau successfully played the long game in both cases.
The story of law enforcement in the Oregon standoff is one of patience.
On the most obvious level, that was reflected in the 41 days that armed militia members occupied the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge near Burns. It took 25 days before the FBI and state police moved to arrest several leaders of the occupation and to barricade the refuge. It took another 15 days before the last of the final occupiers walked out, Thursday morning Oregon time.
Each of those cases involved patience as well: Officers massed on Highway 395 didn’t shoot LaVoy Finicum when he tried to ram past a barricade, nearly striking an FBI agent, though when he reached for a gun in his pocket they finally fired. Meanwhile, despite increasingly hysterical behavior from David Fry, the final occupier, officers waited him out until he emerged peacefully.