How to Fix the Cyprus Bank Disaster in 3 Steps

There's a simple-enough way to resolve this mess. It's called printing money.
CyprusBank3.jpg.jpg
(Reuters)

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.
Presented by

Matthew O'Brien

Matthew O'Brien is a former senior associate editor at The Atlantic.

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