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.
The First Lady took to the stage at the Democratic National Convention, and united a divided hall.
Most convention speeches are forgotten almost before they’re finished. But tonight in Philadelphia, Michelle Obama delivered a speech that will be replayed, quoted, and anthologized for years. It was as pure a piece of political oratory as this campaign has offered, and instantly entered the pantheon of great convention speeches.
Obama stepped out onto a stage in front of a divided party, including delegates who had booed almost every mention of the presumptive nominee. And she delivered a speech that united the hall, bringing it to its feet.
She did it, moreover, her own way—forming a striking contrast with the night’s other speakers. She did it without shouting at the crowd. Without overtly slamming Republicans. Without turning explicitly negative. Her speech was laden with sharp barbs, but she delivered them calmly, sometimes wryly, biting her lower lip, hitting her cadence. It was a masterful performance.
When something goes wrong, I start with blunder, confusion, and miscalculation as the likely explanations. Planned-out wrongdoing is harder to pull off, more likely to backfire, and thus less probable.
But it is getting more difficult to dismiss the apparent Russian role in the DNC hack as blunder and confusion rather than plan.
“Real-world” authorities, from the former U.S. Ambassador to Russia to FBI sources to international security experts, say that the forensic evidence indicates the Russians. No independent authority strongly suggests otherwise. (Update the veteran reporters Shane Harris and Nancy Youssef cite evidence that the original hacker was “an agent of the Russian government.”)
The timing and precision of the leaks, on the day before the Democratic convention and on a topic intended to maximize divisions at that convention, is unlikely to be pure coincidence. If it were coincidence, why exactly now, with evidence drawn from hacks over previous months? Why mail only from the DNC, among all the organizations that have doubtless been hacked?
The foreign country most enthusiastic about Trump’s rise appears to be Russia, which would also be the foreign country most benefited by his policy changes, from his sowing doubts about NATO and the EU to his weakening of the RNC platform language about Ukraine.
For the party elders, day one of the convention was about scolding the left back together.
Against a restive backdrop, the party’s top lieutenants were forced into the role of prime time peacemakers, tasked with encouraging Democratic unity in a party that has only lately acquiesced to tenuous detente. They did so through a combination of alarmist truth telling—borne from the reality of a Trump-Clinton matchup that has lately gotten tighter—and cold-water scolding about party division—driven equally by frustration and exhaustion.
The pressures of national academic standards have pushed character education out of the classroom.
A few months ago, I presented the following scenario to my junior English students: Your boyfriend or girlfriend has committed a felony, during which other people were badly harmed. Should you or should you not turn him or her into the police?
The class immediately erupted with commentary. It was obvious, they said, that loyalty was paramount—not a single student said they’d “snitch.” They were unequivocally unconcerned about who was harmed in this hypothetical scenario. This troubled me.
This discussion was part of an introduction to an essay assignment about whether Americans should pay more for ethically produced food. We continued discussing other dilemmas, and the kids were more engaged that they’d been in weeks, grappling with big questions about values, character, and right versus wrong as I attempted to expand their thinking about who and what is affected—and why it matters—by their caloric choices.
The Democratic chairwoman had few supporters—but clung to her post for years, abetted by the indifference of the White House.
PHILADELPHIA—As Debbie Wasserman Schultz made her unceremonious exit as chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, what was most remarkable was what you didn’t hear: practically anybody coming to her defense.
The Florida congresswoman did not go quietly. She reportedly resisted stepping down, and blamed subordinates for the content of the leaked emails that were released Friday, which clearly showed the committee’s posture of neutrality in the Democratic primary to have been a hollow pretense, just as Bernie Sanders and his supporters long contended. She finally relinquished the convention gavel only after receiving three days of strong-arming, a ceremonial position in the Clinton campaign, and a raucous round of boos at a convention breakfast.
Physicists can’t agree on whether the flow of future to past is real or a mental construct.
Einstein once described his friend Michele Besso as “the best sounding board in Europe” for scientific ideas. They attended university together in Zurich; later they were colleagues at the patent office in Bern. When Besso died in the spring of 1955, Einstein—knowing that his own time was also running out—wrote a now-famous letter to Besso’s family. “Now he has departed this strange world a little ahead of me,” Einstein wrote of his friend’s passing. “That signifies nothing. For us believing physicists, the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
Einstein’s statement was not merely an attempt at consolation. Many physicists argue that Einstein’s position is implied by the two pillars of modern physics: Einstein’s masterpiece, the general theory of relativity, and the Standard Model of particle physics. The laws that underlie these theories are time-symmetric—that is, the physics they describe is the same, regardless of whether the variable called “time” increases or decreases. Moreover, they say nothing at all about the point we call “now”—a special moment (or so it appears) for us, but seemingly undefined when we talk about the universe at large. The resulting timeless cosmos is sometimes called a “block universe”—a static block of space-time in which any flow of time, or passage through it, must presumably be a mental construct or other illusion.
Identity politics loomed large on the first night of the Democratic National Convention.
PHILADELPHIA––As successive speakers took the stage at the Democratic National Convention Monday, Farhad Manjoo of the New York Timesobserved that the participants were much more liberal than the ones that helped nominate Bill Clinton. One child spoke of having parents who were undocumented immigrants. Another was a college graduate who is here in this country unlawfully.
Those speakers alone would’ve marked a departure from the past. And alongside them were a lesbian veteran who spoke of serving in the days of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.” A disability-rights activist with cerebral palsy and spastic quadriplegia spoke up against the prejudices faced by the community on whose behalf she works. And the whole roster highlighted the Democratic Party’s racial and gender diversity.
Stock-market crashes, terrorist attacks, and the dark side of “newsworthy” stories
Man bites dog. It is one of the oldest cliches in journalism, an acknowledgement of the idea that ordinary events are not newsworthy, whereas oddities, like a puppy-nibbling adult, deserve disproportionate coverage.
The rule is straightforward, but its implications are subtle. If journalists are encouraged to report extreme events, they guide both elite and public attitudes, leading many people, including experts, to feel like extreme events are more common than they actually are. By reporting on only the radically novel, the press can feed a popular illusion that the world is more terrible than it actually is.
Take finance, for example. Professional investors are fretting about the possibility of a massive stock-market crash, on par with 1987’s Black Monday. The statistical odds that such an event will occur within the next six months are about 1-in-60, according to historical data from 1929 to 1988. But when surveys between 1989 and 2015 asked investors to estimate the odds of such a crash in the coming months, the typical response was 1-in-10.
Two new novels ponder the still-urgent question of what could have compelled young women to do such terrible things.
The most fascinating part of the Manson story has always been the girls.
Not the man who cobbled together bits of hippie philosophy, Scientology and How to Win Friends and Influence People to gather followers who’d do his bidding and help make him a star (and when that didn’t work out, kill people to try to start a race war). The ones willing and vulnerable enough to be gathered. Who wanted a community to belong to.
Even now, no one knows whether Charles Manson believed his own insane manifesto, or was just using it as a tool to get what he wanted. But the girls believed. Patricia Krenwinkel, Leslie Van Houten, Susan Atkins—they believed. They belonged. And then, on two infamous evenings in 1969, they helped kill seven people.