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.
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.”
By announcing the first detection of gravitational waves, scientists have vindicated Einstein and given humans a new way to look at the universe.
More than a billion years ago, in a galaxy that sits more than a billion light-years away, two black holes spiraled together and collided. We can’t see this collision, but we know it happened because, as Albert Einstein predicted a century ago, gravitational waves rippled out from it and traveled across the universe to an ultra-sensitive detector here on Earth.
This discovery, announced today by researchers with the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO), marks another triumph for Einstein’s general theory of relativity. And more importantly, it marks the beginning of a new era in the study of the universe: the advent of gravitational-wave astronomy. The universe has just become a much more interesting place.
By mining electronic medical records, scientists show the lasting legacy of prehistoric sex on modern humans’ health.
Modern humans originated in Africa, and started spreading around the world about 60,000 years ago. As they entered Asia and Europe, they encountered other groups of ancient humans that had already settled in these regions, such as Neanderthals. And sometimes, when these groups met, they had sex.
We know about these prehistoric liaisons because they left permanent marks on our genome. Even though Neanderthals are now extinct, every living person outside of Africa can trace between 1 and 5 percent of our DNA back to them. (I am 2.6 percent Neanderthal, if you were wondering, which pales in comparison to my colleague James Fallows at 5 percent.)
This lasting legacy was revealed in 2010 when the complete Neanderthal genome was published. Since then, researchers have been trying to figure out what, if anything, the Neanderthal sequences are doing in our own genome. Are they just passive hitchhikers, or did they bestow important adaptations on early humans? And are they affecting the health of modern ones?
Why the Syrian war—and the future of Europe—may hinge on one city
This week, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air strikes and Iranian-supported militias including Hezbollah, launched a major offensive to encircle rebel strongholds in the northern city of Aleppo, choking off one of the last two secure routes connecting the city to Turkey and closing in on the second. This would cut supplies not only to a core of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, but also to the city’s 300,000 remaining civilians, who may soon find themselves besieged like hundreds of thousands of others in the country. In response, 50,000 civilians have fled Aleppo for the Turkish border, where the border crossing is currently closed. An unnamed U.S. defense official toldThe Daily Beast’s Nancy Youssef that “the war is essentially over” if Assad manages to seize and hold Aleppo.
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.
Once it was because they weren’t as well educated. What’s holding them back now?
Though headway has been made in bringing women’s wages more in line with men’s in the past several decades, that convergence seems to have stalled in more recent years. To help determine why, Francine D. Blau and Lawrence M. Kahn, the authors of a new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research parse data on wages and occupations from 1980 to 2010. They find that as more women attended and graduated college and headed into the working world, education and professional experience levels stopped playing a significant role in the the difference between men and women’s wages. Whatever remains of the discrepancy can’t be explained by women not having basic skills and credentials. So what does explain it?
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.
The hit new indie release is the opposite of action-packed, yet it’s compelling in its simplicity.
Solitude, it turns out, can be addictive. So I learned playing the new hit indie game Firewatch, where all the action amounts to you, the player, being alone in the woods. You’re a lookout assigned to a summer posting in the Shoshone National Forest of Wyoming in 1989, meaning your job consists of nothing more than wandering around, clearing brush, and calling in any fires you might spot. Most video games equip you with tools and weapons, complex missions, and action sequences. All Firewatch gives you is a map, a compass, and a walkie-talkie—but it’s still one of the most compelling video games I’ve ever played.
It’s the latest in a quiet movement of video games, more psychological products that tap into the atmosphere and wonder of loneliness rather than looking for the simpler thrills the medium usually provides. It’s tempting to trace this trend’s origins back to Minecraft, which launched in 2009 and became a worldwide phenomenon on the back of its extraordinary simplicity. But in Minecraft, you start armed only with your bare hands in a world of monsters, and can eventually upgrade into a city-builder armed with powerful tools. Firewatch is a more intimate affair: a short story, playable over a few hours, that succeeds first and foremost as an emotional experience.
If Bernie Sanders is serious about a political transformation in America, he needs a better plan.
If there’s one thing that fires up Bernie Sanders supporters—and makes his detractors roll their eyes—it’s his call for a “political revolution.” To his base, it’s the very point of his anti-establishment, anti-elite candidacy. To his critics, it’s the very embodiment of his campaign’s naïve impracticality and vagueness.
But now that voters in Iowa and New Hampshire have spoken, it’s time to take the idea of political revolution more seriously—more seriously, indeed, than Sanders himself appears to have. It’s time to ask: What exactly would it take?
It starts with Congress. And here it’s instructive to compare Sanders and Donald Trump. Both rely on broad, satisfying refrains of “We’re gonna”: We’re gonna break up the big banks. We’re gonna make Mexico build the wall. We’re gonna end the rule of Wall Street billionaires. We’re gonna make China stop ripping us off.