ECB Taper News

What Business Insider’s Mike Bird somewhat ironically calls #euroboom2015 seems to be well and truly with us.

The WSJ’s Simon Nixon spelled  it out for us in his “QE is Working Better than the ECB Dared Hope” article:  “one month into the ECB’s €1 trillion ($1.06 trillion) quantitative-easing program, and ECB President Mario Draghi was only too happy to take credit for a remarkable turnaround in the economy’s fortunes at Wednesday’s news conference.” And he goes on to give examples:

“Growth forecasts have been continually revised up since January when the program was announced: the International Monetary Fund said this week it now expects the eurozone to grow by 1.5% in 2015. Business and consumer confidence are the highest since 2007. Bank lending is finally picking up.”

“The strongest growth is coming from former crisis countries: Spain is forecast to grow by up to 3% and Ireland up to 4% this year. Meanwhile German policy makers fret that with growth likely to hit 2.5%, the economy may overheat.”

 Naturally, as he also says, “not all of this can be traced to quantitative easing.” But then, here comes the point: “Indeed, if the ECB had delayed its decision on quantitative easing until March, as the Bundesbank had urged, it may have concluded it didn’t need to buy any bonds at all.” Continue reading

The snakes-and-ladders model, again

They say the first rule of editing is “kill your darlings”. The first rule of science, however, is “sacrifice your darlings humanely in accordance with the research ethics committee guidelines, but keep their brains for further investigation”. So it is with this post. Per Mason, apparently the GFC looks a lot different to past recessions and it’s important to include the full span of the ECEC data back to 1986. So here goes.

The ECEC civilian workers series doesn’t go back to 1986, and neither does all workers, so I picked on the series for “private industry” – after all you’d expect public sector employment to be less responsive to the business cycle by definition – which does. The orange dots on the chart mark ECEC data points, while the blue ones mark the composition-weighted ECI series for private industry. ECEC after 2002 is quarterly, and is averaged to give an annual figure.

snakes

The big orange outlier is 2002. ECEC was issued as a slightly different series in 2002-2003, so perhaps we should exclude that one. I’ve plotted regression lines for the two series, orange and blue respectively, and for ECEC excluding 2002, black.

As you can see, ECI is still more cyclical than ECEC (R^2=0.33 vs 0.03 – ten times as much). Excluding 2002 helps a bit, but not enough (R^2=0.33 vs 0.11, three times as much). The correlation between the change in ECEC for the private sector and the output gap is 0.19, and that between private sector ECI and the output gap is 0.58. The blue outlier is 1985-1986.

Purely visually, it looks like the difference between the two series is in fact greatest in the 1980s, but any effect is accounted for by three data points (’86, ’87, ’88) and in any case, it seems to have disappeared 30 years ago. Alternatively, the BLS has changed the method it uses to collect ECEC several times in that period and this might be an artefact.

Is The Crisis Now History In Spain?

Mariano Rajoy is a man who is not shy when it comes to being controversial, as the storm surrounding his stance over the recent Greek bailout negotiations clearly illustrates (and here). So it is perhaps not surprising that he did not notably blush when he informed a Madrid audience recently that “In many ways, the crisis is history.” Such was the storm that followed that he was forced to at least partially retract the offending phrase after a meeting with union officials some four days later. “In many ways the crisis is history, but its consequences are not,” he clarified.

Of course all of this is mainly political rhetoric at the start of what is set to be an election year, but still, it does raise interesting questions. Where exactly is Spain? What is the outlook for the future? Is the country still in crisis, or is it, as Rajoy 2.0 suggests simply suffering from the legacy of an earlier one? These questions are not as easy to answer as they seem at first sight, nonetheless in what follows I will take a shot at it. Continue reading

Testing the snakes-and-ladders model

Just to follow up on this post, a simple test of the model would be to check if the ECEC (i.e. not normalised for compositional shifts) wages series is strongly correlated with the output gap. Output gap is easy enough – real potential GDP and real GDP are in FRED, and we convert this to a gap expressed in % of GDP:

The ECEC’s not in FRED, though, and in fact it’s tiresomely split up into three series (here, here, and here). But that shouldn’t detain us long. Without further ado, here’s the chart:

ecec-rgap

Looks like a nice smooth correlation, and in fact the correlation coefficient is a very decent 0.51 for the annual data from 1991 to 2014. For the period 2003-2014 I’ve averaged the quarterly observations. But that’s just the classical effect, right? We need to compare the two indices. Here’s a plot with both series from 2002 to 2014 against the output gap.

ecec-vs-eci

It doesn’t look like I can replicate the result that the ECEC is more cyclical than the ECI, at least for the period 2002-2014. The correlation between the annual change in ECI and the output gap for that period is 0.83 and that for ECEC is 0.73. The covariance in ECEC is higher than ECI but both are really low (0.03 and 0.01).

A little model of the labour market.

JW Mason has an interesting discovery among the data. Specifically, it looks like the US data series for wages, normalised for shifts in the composition of jobs, is much less cyclical than the raw data. In other words, the business cycle seems to affect wages through composition shifts. In recessions, people lose jobs and eventually get hired back into ones with lower productivity and pay than they had before. People who manage to stick to their jobs through the crisis don’t see much difference. In booms, people who lose their jobs (or quit) tend to get hired into ones with higher productivity, and pay, than they had before.

This makes sense. Imagine that people try to pick a job that suits them – or in economicspeak, that maximises their labour productivity. Imagine also that firms try to hire people who suit their requirements. I doubt this will be very difficult. This is a pretty basic market setup, matching workers and vacancies. Now, consider that people tend to acquire skills and knowledge as they work. This might be something exciting, or it might be as dull as someone in sales building up a contacts book. As a result, people will tend to get onto some sort of career path, picking a speciality and getting better at it.

This might be horizontal – people with a highly transferable skill who move across industries – but I think it’s more likely to be vertical. As they gain in skill, knowledge, or just insidership, they are likely to get paid more. We should at least consider that this matches higher productivity. But then, there’s an explosion – suddenly a lot of firms fail, and their employees are on the dole. They now need to search their way back into work. It is likely, at least, that if they have to find it in another sector or even another firm they will lose some of the human capital they acquired in the past. The unemployed are suddenly driven off their optimal productivity path, and are usually under pressure to take any job that comes along, no matter how suboptimal. Until they get back to where they were before the crisis, on their new paths or on their old ones, the economy will forego the difference between their potential and actual production. You could call it an output gap, but that’s taken, so let’s call it the snakes-and-ladders model.

This, in itself, is enough to explain why unemployment is a thing – you can’t price yourself back into a job with a firm that has gone bust – and why productivity might be depressed for some time post-crisis. In the long term people will climb the ladder again, but this is deceptive. Society, and even firms, can think of a long term. Individuals cannot, as life is short. As the man said – in the long run, we are all dead. Hanging around at reduced productivity is a waste of your time. The recovery phase represents a substantial deadweight loss of production to everyone, concentrated on the unemployed. And there are dynamic effects. Contact books get stale, and technology changes, so the longer people stay either unemployed or underemployed, the bigger the gap. This little model also gives us hysteresis.

But we can go further with the snakes-and-ladders model. Markets, we are often told, are information-processing mechanisms. Let’s look at this from a Diego Gambetta-inspired signalling perspective. The only genuinely reliable way to know if someone is any good at a job is to let them try. I have, after all, every reason to pad my CV, overstate my achievements, and conceal my failures. The only genuinely reliable way to know if someone is an acceptable boss is to work for them. They have every reason to talk in circles about pay and repress their authoritarian streak.

In a tight labour market, people move along close-to-optimal career paths. In doing so, they gain both experience, and also reputation, its outward sign. Importantly, they also gain information about themselves – you don’t know, after all, if you can do the job until you try. The same process is happening with firms and with individual entrepreneurs or managers. Because the information is the product of actual experience, it is costly and therefore trustworthy.

Now let’s blow the system up. We introduce a shock that causes a large number of basically random firms to fail and sack everyone. Because the failure of these firms is not informative about the individuals in them, the effect is to destroy the accumulated information in the labour market. Whatever the workers knew about Bust plc is now irrelevant. In so far as they’re now looking for jobs outside the industry, what Bust plc knew about them is also irrelevant. In the absence of information, the market for labour is now in an inefficient out-of-equilibrium state, where it will stay until the information is re-created. Walrasian tatonnement, right?

This explains an important point in Mason’s data that we’ve not got to yet. Why should people thrown off their career paths take much lower productivity jobs? You don’t need much information to know if someone can mow the lawn. In the post-crisis, disequilibrium state, low productivity jobs are privileged over high productivity jobs.

It strikes me that this little model explains a number of major economic problems. The UK’s productivity paradox, for example, is nicely explained by a huge compositional shift, in part driven by labour market reforms designed to make the unemployed take the first job-ish that comes along. Students who graduate into a recession lose out by about $100,000 over their lives. Verdoorn’s law, the strong empirical correlation between productivity and employment, also seems pretty obvious. Axel Leijonhufvud’s idea of the corridor of stability also fits. In the corridor, the market is self-adjusting, but once it gets outside its control limits, anything can happen.

And, you know, despite all the heterodoxy, it’s microfounded. Workers and employers are entirely rational. Money is just money. It’s not quite simple enough to have a single representative agent, because it needs at least two employers and two workers with dissimilar endowments, but it doesn’t need any actors who aren’t empirically observable.

It also has clear policy implications. If the unemployed sit it out and look for something better, you would expect a jobless recovery and then a productivity boom – like the US in the 1990s. If the unemployed take the first job-like position that comes along, you would expect a jobs miracle with terrible productivity growth, flat to falling wages, and a long period of foregone GDP growth. Like the UK in the 2010s. And if your labour market institutions are designed to prevent the information destruction in the first place, with a fallback to Keynesian reflation if that doesn’t cut it? Well, that sounds like Germany in the 2010s.

Call it Hayekian Keynesianism. Macroeconomic stabilisation is vital to keep the information-processing function of the labour market from breaking down.

That said, I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t point out that there are a whole lot of structural forces here that discriminate against specific groups. The post-crisis skew to low productivity jobs wouldn’t work, after all, if workers weren’t forced sellers of labour to capitalists. And there is one very large group of people who tend to get kicked off their optimal career path with lasting consequences. They’re about 50% of the population.

Is Finland’s Economy Suffering From Secular Stagnation?

After the Great Depression, secular stagnation turned out to be a figment of economists’ imaginations……..it is still too soon to tell if this will also be the case after the Great Recession. However, the risks of secular stagnation are much greater in depressed Eurozone economies than in the US, due to less favourable demographics, lower productivity growth, the burden of fiscal consolidation, and the ECB’s strict focus on low inflation.”
Nick Crafts – Secular stagnation: US hypochondria, European disease? – In Secular Stagnation: Facts, Causes and Cures, Edited by Coen Teulings and Richard Baldwin

 Finland’s economy has been attracting a lot of interest of late. And not for the right reasons, unfortunately. The economy in a country previously renowned for being highly placed in the World Bank’s “Ease of Doing Business Index” has just contracted for the third consecutive year. Once famous for being a symbol of “ultra competitiveness” (it came number 4 in the latest edition of the WEF Global Competitiveness Index) the country is now fast becoming the flagship example of another, less commendable, phenomenon: secular stagnation.The origins of the theory of secular stagnation go back to the US economist Alvin Hansen (see here) who first used the expression in the 1930s. The hallmark of secular stagnation, he said, was a series of sick “recoveries which die in their infancy and depressions which feed on themselves and leave a hard and seemingly immovable core of unemployment.” This seems to fit the Finish case to a T. Continue reading

When Will The ECB Start To Taper?

What matters isn’t what you think should happen, it’s what others think will happen that counts.

Funny days these, the world seems to be constantly turning upside down. I could be talking about the arrival of negative interest rates in many European economies, but I’m not. What I have in mind is the crossover that seems to be taking place in the perceived fortunes of the US and the Euro Area economies. At the end of 2014 it was all “Europe bad, USA good” to the point that most observers were expecting an imminent rate rise from  the Federal Reserve, even while the Euro was in such a bad state that ECB was being steadily pushed – kicking and screaming – towards a full blown programme of sovereign bond buying QE. Continue reading

Why Is Spain’s Population Loss An Economic Problem?

“Growth theory was invented to provide a systematic way to talk about and to compare equilibrium paths for the economy. In that task it succeeded reasonably well. In doing so, however, it failed to come to grips adequately with an equally important and interesting problem: the right way to deal with deviations from equilibrium growth……..if one looks at substantial more-than-quarterly departures from equilibrium growth……….. it is impossible to believe that the equilibrium growth path itself is unaffected by the short- to medium-run experience…….So a simultaneous analysis of trend and fluctuations really does involve an integration of long-run and short-run, or equilibrium and disequilibrium.
Robert Solow, Nobel Acceptance Speech

When the IMF said last year that Spain’s unemployment level was unacceptably high, I was pretty critical of the fact that they didn’t spell out the consequences of this, or offer any substantial policy alternative. The most obvious impact of this failure to find an alternative is being seen right now, with the emergence of political movements which could well turn the country’s two party system completely upside down, and the steady flow of talented young people out of the country in search of work.

Continue reading

Cyprus and Iceland: a tale of two capital controls

Both in Cyprus and Iceland foreign funds flowed into the islands, in the end forcing the government to make use of extreme measures when the tide turned. These measures are normally called ‘capital controls’ which in these two cases hides the fact that the measures used are fundamentally different in all but name. In Iceland, the controls contain the effect of lacking foreign currency, effectively a balance of payment problem – in Cyprus, the controls were a way of defending banks against bank run, i.e. preventing depositors to move funds freely.

It is a sobering thought that two European countries now have capital controls: Iceland and Cyprus; sobering for those who think that in modern times capital controls are only ever used by emerging markets and other immature economies. Cyprus has been a member of the European Union, EU, since 2004 and part of the Eurozone since 2008; since 1994 Iceland has been member of the European Economic Area, EEA, i.e. the inner market of the EU. – The two EEA countries were forced to use measures not much considered in Europe since the Bretton Woods agreement.

Although the concept “capital controls” is generally used for the restrictions in both countries the International Monetary Fund, IMF, is rightly more specific. It talks about “capital controls” in Iceland and “payment restrictions,” i.e. both domestic and external, in Cyprus.

Both countries enjoyed EEA’s four freedoms, i.e. freedom of goods, persons, services and capital. –Article 63 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union prohibits “all restrictions” on the movement of capital between Member States and between Member States and third countries.

Both countries attracted foreign funds but different kind of flows. While the going was good the two islands seemed to be thriving on inflows of foreign funds; in Iceland as a straight shot into the economy, in Cyprus by building a financial industry around the inflows. Yet, in the end the islands’ financial collapse showed that neither country had the infrastructure to oversee and regulate a rapidly expanding financial sector.

It can be argued that in spite of the geography both countries were immature emerging markets suffering from the illusion that they were mature economies just because they were part of the EEA. As a consequence, both countries now have capital controls and clipped wings, i.e. with only three of the EEA’s four fundamental freedoms.

The “international finance centre”-tag and foreign funds

Large inflows of foreign funds are a classic threat to financial stability. At the slightest sign of troubles the tide turns and these funds flow out, as experienced by many Asian countries in the 1980s and the 1990s. Capital controls are the classic tool to resume control over the situation. None of this was supposed to happen in Europe – and yet it did.

Although not on the OECD list of tax havens Cyprus has attracted international funds seeking secrecy by inviting companies with no Cypriot operations to register. After the collapse of the Soviet Union money from Russia and Eastern Europe flowed to the island as well as from the Arab world. Even Icelandic tycoons some of whom grew rich in Russia made use of the offshore universe in Cyprus.

The attraction of Cyprus was political stability, infrastructure, a legal system inherited from its time as a British colony and the fact that English is widely spoken in Cyprus. By the time of the collapse in March 2013 the Cypriot banking sector had expanded to be the equivalent of seven times the island’s GDP. This status did also clearly limit the crisis measures: president Nicos Anastasiades was apparently adamant to shelter the reputation of Cyprus as an international finance centre arguably resulting in a worse deal and greater suffering for the islanders themselves (see my article on the Cyprus collapse and bailout here).

Iceland also tested the offshore regime. Under the influence of a growing and partly privatised financial sector the Icelandic Parliament passed legislation in 1999 allowing for foreign companies with no Icelandic operations to be registered in Iceland. Although it could be argued that Iceland enjoyed much the same conditions as Cyprus, i.e. political stability etc. (minus an English legal system), few companies made use of the new legislation and it was abolished some years later.

But Iceland did attract other foreign funds. Around 2000 a few Icelandic companies started their shopping spree abroad. The owners were also large, in some cases the largest, shareholders of the three main banks – Kaupthing, Landsbanki and Glitnir. The banks’ executives saw great opportunities for the banks to grow in conjunction with the expanding empires of their main shareholders and largest clients. By 2003 the financial sector was entirely privatised, another important step towards the expansion of the financial sector.

In addition, the Icelandic banks had offered high interest accounts abroad from autumn 2006, first in the UK, later in the Netherlands and other European countries, even as late as May 2008. Clearly, Icelandic deposits were not enough to feed the growing banks. They found funding on international markets brimming with money. In 2005 the three banks sought foreign financing to the amount of €14bn, slightly above the Icelandic GDP at the time. In seven years up to the collapse the banks grew 20-fold. In the boom times from 2004 the assets of the three banks expanded from 100% of GDP to 923% at the end of 2007.

The Icelandic crunch: lack of foreign reserve

At the collapse of the Icelandic banks in October 2008 Icelandic króna, ISK, owned by foreigners, mostly through so-called “glacier bonds” and other ISK high interest-rates products amounted to 44% of GDP. These products, popular with investors seeking to make money on high Icelandic interest rates, had been flowing into the country, very much like “hot money” flowing to Asian countries during 1980s and 1990s.

Already in early 2005 foreign analysts spotted funding as the weakness of the Icelandic banks. In. February 2006 Fitch pointed out how dependent on foreign funding the Icelandic banks were. In order to diversify its funding one bank, Landsbanki, turned to British depositors in October 2006 with its later so infamous Icesave accounts. The two other banks followed suit. In addition, the banks were supporting carry trade for international investors making use of high interest rates in Iceland.

Steady stream of bad news from Iceland during much of 2008 caused the króna to depreciate drastically. After the collapse foreigners with funds in Iceland sought to withdraw them. On November 28 2008 the Central Bank of Iceland, CBI, with the blessing of the IMF, put capital controls in place (an overview of events here). IMF’s favourable stance to capital controls was a novelty at the time; not until autumn 2010 did the Fund officially admit that controls could at times solve acute problems as indeed in Iceland.

It was clear that the CBI’s foreign reserves were not large enough to meet the demand for converting ISK into foreign currency. What no one had wanted to face before the collapse was that the CBI could not possibly be a lender of last resort in foreign currency.

The controls were from the beginning on capital, i.e. capital could neither move freely out of the country nor into the country. The controls were not on goods and services, hence companies could buy what they needed and people travel but investment flows were interrupted (further re the controls see here).

The migrating króna problem

The core problem calling for controls was and still is ISK owned by foreigners, i.e. offshore ISK, but the nature of the problem has changed over the years: the original carry trade overhang has dwindled down to 16% of GDP, through CBI auctions where funds seeking to leave were matched with funds seeking to enter. Now, the major problem is foreign-owned ISK assets in the estates of the three banks, i.e. owned by foreign creditors who, without controls, would seek to convert their ISK into foreign currency.*

As outlined in CBI’s latest Financial Stability report, published last September there is a difference between the onshore and the offshore ISK rate: 17% in autumn 2014, about half of what it was a year earlier. These and other factors indicate that the non-resident ISK owners, i.e. those who owned funds in the original overhangs, are most likely patient investors; after all, interest rates in Iceland are higher than in the Eurozone. Although these investors cannot move their funds abroad the interests can be taken out of the country.

The classic problem with capital controls as in Iceland is that the controls – put in place to gain time to solve the problems, which made them necessary – can also with time shelter inaction. With the controls in place the urgency to lift them disappears. Over time, controls invariably create problems as the CBI pointed out in its latest Financial Stability report: The most obvious (cost) is the direct expense involved in enforcing and complying with them. But more onerous are the indirect costs, which can be difficult to measure. The controls affect the decisions made by firms and individuals, including investment decisions. Over time, the controls distort economic activities that adapt to them, ultimately reducing GDP growth. 

The main ISK problem is now nesting in the estates of the three collapsed banks where the problem, as spelled out in the CBI’s last Financial Stability report , is that “…settling the estates will have a negative impact on Iceland’s international investment position in the amount of just under 800 b.kr., or about 41% of GDP. This is equivalent to the difference in the value of domestic assets that will revert to foreign creditors, on the one hand, and foreign assets that will revert to domestic creditors, on the other. The impact on the balance of payments is somewhat less, at 510 b.kr., or 26% of GDP.

The balance of payment, BoP, problem could be solved in various ways, i.a. through swaps between Icelandic creditors who are set to get foreign currency assets from the estates, sales of ISK assets for foreign currency and write-down on some of the ISK assets. In addition there are tried and tested remedies such as time-structured exit tax where those who are most keen to leave pay an exit tax, which is then scaled back as the problem shrinks.

The political stalemate

In March 2011, under the Left government in office from early 2009 until spring 2013, the CBI published Capital account liberalisation strategy, still the official strategy. The strategy is first to tackle the offshore króna problem outside the estates, which has been done successfully (judging by the diminishing difference between the on- and offshore ISK rate) through the CBI auctions. That part of the strategy has now come to an end with the last auction held on 10 February.

The next important step towards lifting the controls is finding a solution to the foreign-owned ISK in the bank estates. Their creditors are mostly foreign financial institutions, either the original bondholders or investors who have bought claims on the secondary market.

As indicated above there are solutions – after all, Iceland is not the first country to make use of capital controls while struggling with BoP impasse. However, as long as the political unwillingness, or fear, to engage with creditors prevails nothing much will happen.

When the present Icelandic coalition government of Progressive party (centre; old agrarian party) and the Independence party (C) came to power in spring 2013 it promised rapid abolition of the capital controls. So far, the process has been a protracted one with changing advisers, unclear goals and general procrastination. There has at times been an echo of the belligerent Argentinian tone, blaming foreign creditors for the inertia in solving the underlying problems; importantly, the Progressive party has promised huge public gains from the resolution of the estates, which it seems to struggle to fulfil.

In its concluding statement in December 2014 following the Article IV Consultation IMF points out that the path chosen in lifting the controls “will shape Iceland for years to come. The strategy for lifting the controls should: (i) emphasize stability; (ii) remain comprehensive and conditions-based; (iii) be based on credible analysis; and (iv) give emphasis to a cooperative approach, combined with incentives to participate, to help mitigate risks.” The “cooperative approach” refers to some sort of negotiations with creditors, which the government has so far completely ruled out.

It is important to keep in mind that the estates of the banks, by now the major obstacle in lifting the controls, are estates of failed private companies. The banks were not nationalised and the state has no formal control over the estates. However, as long as the ISK problems of the estates are unsolved the winding-up procedure cannot be finished and consequently there can be no payouts to creditors.

The winding-up procedure will either end with bankruptcy proceedings, which majority of creditors are against, or with composition agreement, which the majority seems to favour. Crucially, the minister of finance has to agree to exemptions needed for composition, which means that the government is indirectly if not directly responsible for the fate of the estates.

The political tension regarding the controls is between those who claim that solving problems necessary to lift the controls is the main objective and those who claim that no, this is not enough: the state needs and should get a cut of the estates.

Finance minister Bjarni Benediktsson has strongly indicated that his objective is to lift the controls whereas prime minister Sigmundur Davíð Gunnlaugsson has allegedly been of the latter view. He has recently been supporting his views by stressing the great harm the banks caused Iceland reasoning that pay-back from the banks would be only fair. This simplified saga of the banking collapse is in conflict with the 2010 report of the Special Investigative Committee, SIC, which spelled out the cause of the collapse as regulatory failure, failure of the CBI and political failure in addition to how the banks were funded and managed.

The government has Icelandic and foreign advisers working on these issues. But as long as the government does not make up its mind on what direction to take nothing moves. Meanwhile Iceland is effectively cut from markets, which makes the financing cost high, in addition to other detrimental effects of the capital controls.

The Cypriot crunch: bank run

The run up to the Cypriot banking collapse in March 2013 was a sorry saga of mismanaged banks, mismanaged country and the stubborn denial of the situation ever since Cyprus lost market access in May 2011. But contrary to Iceland, there has been no investigative report into the collapse, which means that in Cyprus hardly any lessons can be drawn yet from the calamities.

Data from the European Central Bank, ECB, shows that deposits were seeping out: in June 2012 they stood at €81.2bn. In January 2013 they were €72.1bn, down by 2%, in February at €70bn, 2.1% month on month and in March €64.3bn. According to the Anastasiades report (written at the behest of president Anastasiades, leaked to NYTimes and published in November 2014) €3.3bn were taken out of Cypriot banks March 8–15, the week up to the bail-in.

This was an altogether different situation from circumstances in Iceland ensuing from the collapsing banks. Cyprus, part of the Eurozone, was not struggling to convert euros to other currency but it was struggling to convince those holding funds in the Cypriot banks not to withdraw them and move them abroad.

As Iceland, Cyprus was trying to maintain a banking system far larger than the domestic economy could possibly support under adverse circumstances. By the end of 2011 there were 41 banks in Cyprus: only six were Cypriot; 16 were from EU countries and tellingly 19 were non-EU banks. It was clear to regulators that the size was a risk but they maintained that both regulation and supervision was conservative enough to counteract the risk, as bravely stated in a report by the Ministry of Finance on the financial sector in Cyprus. – Ironically, Cyprus had to seek help from the troika just a few months after these assertive words were written.

The controls were put in place with the full acceptance of the troika, i.e. the IMF, the EU Commission and the ECB. “The Enforcement of Restrictive Measures on Transactions in case of Emergency Law of 2013” as the capital controls measures were called by the Cyprus Central Bank, CBC, restricted i.a. daily cash withdrawal to €300 daily, no matter if directly or with a card, or its equivalent in foreign currency, per person in each credit institution. Cheques could not be cashed.

Trade transactions were restricted to €5,000 per day; payments above this sum, up to €200,000 were subject to the approval of a Committee established within the CBC to deal with issues related to the controls. For payments above €200,000 the Committee would take into account the liquidity buffer situation of the credit institution. Salaries could be paid out based on supporting documents. Those travelling abroad could only take the equivalent of €1,000 with them.

The roadmap for abolishing them came in August 2013, again with the full blessing of the troika. There was no time frame, only that the measures would be “in place for as long as it is strictly necessary.” They would be removed gradually and with prudence, always with a view on financial stability. First the restrictive measures on transaction within Cyprus would be abolished and only subsequently could the restrictions on cross-border transactions be lifted.

The controls have since gradually been eased and by May 2014 all domestic restrictions were indeed fully eliminated. On 5 December 2014 i.a. the limit for travel abroad was sat at €6,000, from previous €3,000 and business activity not subject to approval was sat at €2m. With the last change, on 13 February, those travelling abroad can now take €10,000 with them. Transfers of funds abroad were increased from the December limit of €10,000 to €50,000. The island’s pension funds are still subject to capital controls.

As in Iceland, abolishing, for unspecified time, one of the EEA’s freedoms was to be in place only for a short time. Until late 2014 it seemed as if the Cypriot capital controls might be entirely abolished by the end of that year. That did not happen. The last bit remaining is the politically tough one.

The task for Cyprus: overcoming the political hurdles

With the domestic restrictions abolished the IMF Staff report in October 2014 for the Article IV Consultation pointed out that the “external-payment restrictions” in Cyprus have to be relaxed in a gradual and transparent way. “…owing to the short deposit-maturity structure, significant foreign deposits (close to 40 percent of the total), large reliance of BoC (Bank of Cyprus) on ELA (Emergency Liquidity Assistance), and the lack of other market funding, external restrictions remain in place. While restrictions do not apply to fresh foreign inflows into Cyprus, they limit outflows, hampering trade credit and affecting overall confidence.” If the external restrictions remain in place they can damage investors’ confidence and consequently foreign direct investment, FDI.

As in Iceland, the main Cypriot problems stem from political tensions, which “could have adverse implications for confidence and the recovery,” according to the IMF. The key obstacle in Cyprus is lack of progress in addressing non-performing loans, NPL, staggeringly high in Cyprus at 37.9% of total gross loans in 2014. Debt-restructuring framework, including i.a. a foreclosure legislation and insolvency regime is still a lingering political problem. Further, banks need to restructure and build capital buffers, critical to lift the remaining restrictions.

Visiting Cyprus in early December I was told that the work on the NPLs was about to be finished and a new insolvency framework would be in place by the end of the year. It is still not in place, a sign that the politial tensions have not eased. In spite of all that has been done Cypriots have lost trust in their banking system: almost two years after the collapse it is estimated that the islanders keep up to 6% of GDP at home, under their proverbial mattresses or wherever people stash cash.

The political test for Cyprus and Iceland

Both islands face a political challenge lifting capital controls.

In 2012 the CBI published a report on Prudential Rules Following Capital Controls, thus outlining what is needed once the capital controls have been lifted. This is greatly facilitated by the fact outstanding work of the SIC. Consequently, life and prudence after the controls are lifted has been staked out.

Iceland is however struggling to throw off shackles of nepotism, even more so under the present government than for quite a while: personal connections seem to matter more not less than before. Lifting the controls will test the times, if they are new times with accountability, transparency and fairness or the old times of nepotism, opacity and special favours.

Cyprus stands harrowingly high on the Eurobarometer corruption index and it suffers from lack of stringent analysis of what happened, making it difficult to draw any lessons, i.e. on how regulation needs to be improved, failures at the CBC etc. Cyprus authorities have some way to go in order to win trust with the islanders. The fact that no public inquiry has been held into the collapse, no investigation, no report written adds fuel to the already low trust. I have earlier written that Cyprus with high unemployment and contracting economy bitterly needs hope.

Both Cyprus and Iceland will have to show that they understand what happened and how it can be prevented from happening again. The exit from capital controls for both these islands will depend on political decisions, which will shape their next decades.

*I have blogged extensively on Icelog on the capital controls in Iceland. Here is the latest one, on the politics. Here is one from end of last year, on i.a. the various possible solutions. I have at times blogged on Icelog on Cyprus or compared Iceland and Cyprus. Here is a collection of blogs on Cyprus, i.a. two on the topic of Cyprus, Iceland and capital controls. – This blog is cross posted on Icelog.

Does The Arrival Of Negative Interest Rates Change the Attractivess of EMU?

This is the second in a series of posts (first one here) in  which I try to argue that the balance between costs and benefits of belonging to the European monetary union has shifted in the post crisis world, especially for heavily indebted countries such as those to be found on the European periphery. Continue reading