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, 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, 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.

The good, the bad and the foreign: Icelandic lesson for stabilising the Greek banks*

Ever since 2010, when Greece first turned to the IMF for assistance, the crisis handling has been characterised by too little too late, which is why Greece is still grabbing the headlines. The Greek banks are a serious part of the problem with liquidity crunch and non-performing loans at 33.5% 2010-2014 according to World Bank data. Banks with such numbers can hardly perform their role of stimulating the economy with sustainable lending. Whatever measures Greece will use to tackle its problems the banks have to be dealt with.

In October 2008 the three largest banks in Iceland experienced liquidity problems due to a series of mistakes, fickle foreign funding, outright fraud, bad luck and a weak lender of last resort.

The Greek banks are in a less dire situation than their Icelandic counterparts in 2008. However, if Athens, Brussels and Frankfurt do not soon present a credible plan for Greece a bank run (compared to the recent trot of €100-200m a day) unavoidably ensues at some point: depositors, distrusting the deposit insurance system, take out their savings and stash them at home rather than waiting for a bail-in, as in Cyprus or bankruptcy proceedings.

Here is a lesson from Iceland. In October 2008 the Icelandic government acted on a bank run by forcing the dysfunctional banks, by then lacking liquidity, into receivership, splitting their operation in two. Instead of the classic split into a good bank/bad bank the domestic operations were consolidated in a New bank with the foreign operations left in the estate of the Old failed bank; in effect a split into a good domestic bank and a bad foreign one. Some weeks later, capital controls were put in place, forcing investors to stay put and shoulder the risk.

An aside on the Icelandic capital controls: they came into being with full support of the International Monetary Fund, IMF because the foreign currency reserves were not enough to meet demand. This is a very different situation from Cyprus where capital controls were put in place for the banks to hold on to deposits, as would be the case if capital controls were used in Greece.

The Greek banks do now rely on both domestic and foreign funding: domestic deposits and European Central Bank, ECB, funds (through various mechanisms) amounting to 20-25% of the balance sheet.  The assets are mostly domestic: performing and non-performing loans, cash, real estate etc. Hence, a clean domestic/foreign split is not possible – but a mixed split is.

Table 1 gives an example of the balance sheet of a typical Greek bank and what a domestic and semi-foreign split might look like:

Billion Euros “Old” banks “New” Bank “Bad” bank
Total assets 172 120 52
Loans to customers 144 104 40
Cash 6 6
Other (Equipment) 22 10 12
Total liabilities 158 110 48
Deposits 110 110
ECB funding 40 40
Other 8 8
Equity (including funds from HSF) 14
Greek gov equity 10

A split would wipe out most of the assets owned by the Hellenic Financial Stability Fund (or indirectly the European Financial Stability Facility) amounting to €17bn or 7% of GDP. The Greek government would have to put in equity, at least 8% of the balance sheet of the new bank in accordance with Basel rules. Performing loans would be moved to the New/good bank with non-performing loans left in the Old/bad bank.

Hence, the split would be a mixture of good bank/bad bank and a domestic/foreign. The ECB would unavoidably be left with non-performing Greek loans locked inside a bankrupted estate in exchange for its involvement in recent years. As in Cyprus, some form of temporary capital controls might be needed.

This strategy is of course no panacea but it could be an important step towards stabilising and stimulating the economy. It is indeed costly for all involved parties; in an estate the ECB Emergency Liquidity Assistance, ELA, the provision now being €68.3bn, would automatically be discounted and the ECB treated equal to other creditors. However, instead of the perennial too little too late the cost of stabilising the Greek banking system once and for all might well be worth a whole lot to the Eurozone.

*This article was co-written with Thórólfur Matthíasson professor of economics, University of Iceland. A French version of this article has appeared on the website of Le Monde ($$$). In 2013 we wrote Five years on: Myths and lessons from post-collapse Iceland – and the Eurozone debt crisis seen from the North; see also our article on the cost of the Icelandic banking collapse: State Costs of the 2008 Icelandic Financial Collapse.

Cyprus: an island in search of a saga to learn from

Why do the inhabitants of an EU country prefer to keep cash amounting to ca. 6% of GDP hidden at home? Badly burnt after the banking collapse in March 2013 Cypriots neither trust their government nor banks to keep their money safe. After following from afar the events in Cyprus I recently visited the island. Many Cypriots feel that the banking collapse is now only history and no point thinking about it. But that is far from the truth: as long as neither Cypriots nor the other EU countries know the whole Cypriot saga it can neither provide lessons nor a warning; and the mistrust lingers on. In addition to a public investigation of what really happened and why, write-downs of household debt and a functioning insolvency framework Cypriots desperately need one thing: hope for the future.

Crisis-stories are a plenty in Cyprus and the islanders are more than willing to tell them. During the traumatic days in March 2013 when the banks were closed for ten long days people called the Central Bank of Cyprus, CBC, crying. “The bail-in wasn’t fair because it hit depending on with which bank you were banking,” one Cypriot said. “And look at what it’s done to us, all the empty space in the centre,” said the owner of a small business. “One of my clients,” said a man working in finance, “had a loan of €5m and €7m in deposits. Next day, he still had a loan of €5m but only €100,000 in deposits.” The client, of course, banked with Laiki Bank, also known as Cyprus Popular Bank and Marfin Popular Bank. Then there was the man on the beach in Paphos, selling boat trips. He now owns 500,000 shares in Bank of Cyprus worth quite a bit less than the €500,000 on his account until his funds, together with all other deposits above €100,000, were converted into shares.

In March 2013 Cyprus stared into the abyss of financial collapse. In order to qualify for a €10bn Troika loan, the absolute maximum the Troika – i.e. the European Union, EU, the European Central Bank, ECB and the International Monetary Fund, IMF – was willing to lend, Cyprus had to raise €5.8bn. After the Eurogroup threw out its first rescue plan, which included a levy on guaranteed deposits, i.e. less than €100.000, the Cypriot Parliament rejected a levy on non-guaranteed deposits only. Instead, the Cypriot government grabbed deposits above €100,000 in Laiki to merge it with Bank of Cyprus where non-guaranteed deposits were turned into shares.

From the Cypriot point of view it seems unfair that whereas Cyprus had to find own funds other hard-hit European countries – Ireland, Greece, Portugal and Spain – got Troika loans to bail out banks. The overwhelming feeling in Cyprus is that the island’s 1.1m inhabitants and an economy contributing 0.2% of the euro zone economic output was too small and insignificant to matter to the Troika. Abroad lingers the suspicion that Russian money in Cyprus were unpalatable to the Troika.

However, the reason for the misery seems more complicated and closer to home: the government of Demetris Christofias was adamant not to enter a Troika programme; a noble aim in itself but the government’s manoeuvres to avoid it seem less noble. CBC officials fed incomplete if not misleading information to the ECB. Fragments of this story have emerged only recently, not from the two attempted public enquiries but from a secret report done at the behest of president Nicos Anastasiades, later leaked to the New York Times.

“People want answers,” one Cypriot said but so far, there are few answers but plenty of questions, the most pressing being why there is no strive to do a proper investigation on the events leading to the drama in March 2013. The Special Investigative Committee, SIC, set up in Iceland after the Icelandic collapse in 2008 would be an ideal inspiration.

The story of the Cypriot collapse has many intriguing aspects. One of them is the sale of Greek branches of Cypriot banks, i.a. Bank of Cyprus Greek operations; another is the purchase of Greek sovereign bonds (mainly from German banks, which had a high exposure on Greece) by Cypriot banks, possibly seeking high-risk high yield investment to cover earlier disastrous lending.

Below, two further aspects are scrutinised: why the bail-in happened and why the Troika accepted, though only for some hours, a crisis levy on guaranteed deposits.

The rumours before the collapse and the hope that this time, it would be different

As in Iceland, the Cypriot banking sector was far too large – seven times the island’s GDP – for Cyprus to support it on its own. Its destabilising core was Laiki Bank,. The bank had for a long time offered higher interest rates than other banks; only ever attractive to risk-takers and naïve investors who do not recognise it as a warning sign. In the summer of 2012 the Cypriot government attempted to solve the Laik problem by nationalising the bank.

With Ireland, Portugal, Greece and Spain struggling there had been little focus on tiny Cyprus but its problems were evident to anyone who bothered to look. After the nationalisation of Laiki there were talks with the Troika in late summer and autumn 2012 as to what should be done. No one, least of all the Cypriots, expected any drama. My Cypriot contacts kept telling me that the talks would no doubt end quietly in a negotiated bail-out of some sort. After all, Cyprus was a small economy, the Troika had by now some practice in dealing with failing banks threatening an entire economy; and there was also a growing awareness that private debt should not be shifted on to the state. Compared to the on-going Greek drama his would go well, I heard.

There were however rumours that this time it would indeed be different. In January 2013 Landon Thomas wrote in the New York Times of “Questions of Whether Depositors Should Shoulder the Bill:” officials in Brussels and Berlin were said to be working on “a controversial plan that could require depositors in Cypriot banks to accept losses on their savings. Russians, holding about one-fifth of bank deposits in Cyprus, would take a big hit.” Truly a radical departure from bailouts in Portugal and Ireland and a haircut, albeit only after an earlier bailout, in Greece – so far, bank deposits had been held sacrosanct.

Considering the delicate situation CBC governor Panicos Demetriades gave a rather remarkable interview to Wall Street Journal on March 5 2013 where he rejected the idea of haircut on depositors. Instead, he aired the idea of a “special solidarity levy” on interest income, which could give the state an annual income of as much as €150m – a risible sum compared to what was needed – but hoped that privatisation would gather €4.5bn. Alex Apostalides lecturer at the European University Cyprus has recently written about an encounter with Demetriades on the fateful 15 March 2013: when asked, Demetriades said that any haircut on deposits would be a catastrophe for the banking sector.

At the beginning of 2013 all the Cypriot political energy was in the presidential election campaign. But some were more aware than others that something might happen; there are still rumours of people who emptied their bank accounts just before the bail-in. ECB data 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 €3.3bn were taken out of Cypriot banks March 8–15, the week up to the bail-in.

Capital controls, i.e. limits on amounts taken out from deposits or moved between deposits, were part of the package in March 2013. Yet, money did allegedly seep or even flow from certain deposits in spite of the controls. In Cyprus stories are told of private jets clouding the skies over Nicosia on and after 18 March, carrying neck-less black-clad men accompanying their angry-looking masters to the banks; all returned smiling with bursting hold-alls. List with names of people said to have taken out money in spite of the controls circulated in the media. – All of this is part of the still unwritten report of what really happened.

What seemed like good idea at the time: ‘un-guaranteeing’ the €100,000 deposit guarantee

On Friday March 15 2013 the Eurogroup met in Brussels at 5pm after markets closed. In the wee hours of March 16 the Group published a statement and its representatives held a press conference. The statement itself was short but not sweet, at least not for the Cypriots who had hoped and believed that their island would be assisted like other troubled euro-countries.

The press release stated (emphasis mine in all quotes):

The Eurogroup further welcomes the Cypriot authorities’ commitment to take further measures mobilising internal resources, in order to limit the size of the financial assistance linked to the adjustment programme. These measures include the introduction of an upfront one-off stability levy applicable to resident and non-resident depositors. Further measures concern the increase of the withholding tax on capital income, a restructuring and recapitalisation of banks, an increase of the statutory corporate income tax rate and a bail-in of junior bondholders. The Eurogroup looks forward to an agreement between Cyprus and the Russian Federation on a financial contribution.

The Russian loan never materialised any more than a Russian loan promised to the governor of the Central Bank of Iceland as the Icelandic banks collapsed in October 2008. Cyprus’ relationship with Russia was long-standing Iceland was not known to have any particular relationship with Russia, which meant that this promise seemed very much out of the blue. However, just as the Christofias government was against a Troika programme the governor and a few others were equally against seeking assistance, in Iceland’s case from the IMF.

Interestingly, neither the press release nor the statement specified what ‘an upfront one-off stability levy’ implied. Those present at the 4AM press meeting were ill at ease and unwilling to spell out the action. Christine Lagarde director of the IMF only talked of “burden sharing.”

According to Reuters, citing an unnamed source, Cyprus “agreed a one-off levy of 9.9 percent to apply to deposits in Cypriot banks above 100,000 euros and of 6.7 percent for deposits below 100,000 euros…”

With this fundamental diversion from earlier policies the Eurogroup agreed that an EU country could touch deposits below the guaranteed €100,000. In other words: depositors in EU now knew that in a financial crisis their guaranteed deposits were no longer untouchable.

Whether a momentary mental black-out or a wish to try something unorthodox this solution evaporated over the weekend. The statement released following a Eurogroup phone conference on Monday March 18 carried a very different message:

The Eurogroup continues to be of the view that small depositors should be treated differently from large depositors and reaffirms the importance of fully guaranteeing deposits below EUR 100.000. The Cypriot authorities will introduce more progressivity in the one-off levy compared to what was agreed on 16 March, provided that it continues yielding the targeted reduction of the financing envelope and, hence, not impact the overall amount of financial assistance up to EUR 10bn.

Given the fact that the Eurogroup had less than 48 hours earlier agreed to a levy on guaranteed funds the word “continues” does not quite rhyme with the earlier statement.

The banks remained closed on the following Monday, March 18 2013 as the Cypriot government under president Nicos Anastasiades, only in power since March 1, struggled to get a grip on failing banks – and to find another solution when the original idea lost its sparkle.

In a rare display of tense irritation the ECB issued a statement on March 21 saying that the ECB governing council had “decided to maintain the current level of Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) until Monday, 25 March 2013. Thereafter, Emergency Liquidity Assistance (ELA) could only be considered if an EU/IMF programme is in place that would ensure the solvency of the concerned banks. – As far as is known, this is the only time the ECB has ever issued a statement acknowledging the end of ELA.

The Cypriot banks remained closed until March 28. When they opened again there were capital controls in place to prevent a run on the banks – and depositors in Laiki and Bank of Cyprus had been singled out to carry the cost.

In hindsight, it is profoundly interesting that the Eurogroup, ECB and the IMF did indeed agree to levy on guaranteed deposit. Allegedly, the Germans were not happy but agree they did. In the end, things did change in the coming days. A general levy was voted down in the Cypriot parliament. The Cyprus collapse did not happen over a few days in March but over almost two years, from May 2011 when the island lost access to markets. The course of events cannot just be explained by panic.

Indeed the bail-in was no panic solution but had been in the making for more than half a year; only the Cypriots did not know it.

A pact with the offshore devil

Since slamming a levy on guaranteed deposits truly was a novel idea the short struggle to ram this measure through merits attention, also because it can be argued that it was indeed a much fairer financing of the crisis solution than the one used.

According to much of the media coverage the idea of a levy on guaranteed deposits came from the Cypriot government. However, sources close to these events have indicated to me that the EU commission, attempting to merge various and to some degree conflicting points of view, originally suggested a levy on guaranteed as well as non-guaranteed deposits. The preposition was that Cyprus had to fund a big part of the rescue package, banks have heaps of money on deposits – and a small percentage levy is a relatively painless way for a state to spread the burden in a crisis.

The various parties to the talks were advocating various solutions. IMF advocated the full resolution of the two banks, Laiki and Bank of Cyprus and did not seem to be opposed to a bail-out. The Anastasiades government was looking for a traditional bail-out programme apparently unaware that the Christofias government had worked on a bail-in (more on that below). The Commission was looking for a middle way where wealth tax could perhaps fill a gap if needed but sensed that a bailout was out of the question.

The country needed to raise €5.8bn in order for the Troika to lend the €10bn needed. It was a matter of arithmetic how to juggle the percentage so as to land on the right sums; it proved a struggle as Reuters recounted on 18 March. President Anastasiades and his team refused to go above 10% on the uninsured deposits and settled for 9.9%. These deposits amounted to €38bn, insured deposits were €30bn which meant that €2bn had to be taken off the latter if the government held onto 10% being the pain threshold; ergo, the percentage had to be respectively 6.75% and 9.9%.

Non-Cypriot officials wanted the percentage on the guaranteed deposits to be lower, even considerable lower. Already at the meeting the feeling was the Anastasiades was sheltering the island’s offshore status, ignoring the interest of ordinary Cypriots.

The political reaction in Cyprus drew the attention from the fact that after sleeping on it the Eurogroup woke up realising that the levy would ‘un-guarantee’ the guaranteed €100,000. The original plan must have come with some convincing reasoning (from the EU Commission, right?); otherwise, it would not have gone through. For sure, it worked like magic – but struck by daylight the carriage was again a pumpkin.

“The guaranteed deposits turned out to be EU’s sacred cow,” one source said. In a certain sense, for every country crisis is utterly unique, not in the general mechanism, but in the outward detail. If Cyprus had indeed accepted a levy on guaranteed deposits the EU would have been in a difficult position: it would have had to argue that Cyprus was an utterly unique case.

In order to reach the necessary sum of €5.8bn 15% levy on the uninsured deposits would have done the trick. But on an island, which lives – and has lived well – from its off-shore status and the foreign funds it attracts the government baulked at taxing the non-guaranteed deposits too heavily so as not to drive these funds elsewhere. That was the cost of the Cypriot pact with the offshore devil.

Laiki: the core of the Cyprus problem

In the euro-crisis context the bail-in was a remarkable solution but as can be seen from the Anastasiades report it was, quite remarkably, not a new idea. It had been in the making for some time, at least from autumn 2012, and was closely connected to the core problem: Laiki. The report traces the drafting of a new bank resolution framework, which rested on using deposits in an insolvent bank in a bail-in.

The desperate state of the Cypriot economy was exposed when Cyprus lost market access in May 2011, much due to Laiki Bank owned and managed by Andreas Vgenopoulos. Laiki was diligently issuing bullet loans to Vgenopoulos’ companies. Bullet loans are familiar to those who have studied the operations of the Icelandic banks where they were issued to large shareholders and other favoured clients. The Icelandic bullet loans to these clients were either constantly rolled over or refinanced, rarely paid back. The bullet loan wonder on a balance sheet is i.a. that in spite of not being paid back they are not non-performing.

One insistent question for Cypriots is why the CBC and other Cypriot authorities allowed Laiki to operate as it did and for so long. By summer 2012 the Cypriot authorities had run out of excuses and justifications for continued assistance to Laiki, to the ECB and others. Instead of investigating Laiki’s operations, the bank was nationalised, hook line and sinker and no questions asked.

It is a pertinent question when the CBC realised that Laiki was a dead bank. There were leaks in Cypriot and Greek media in autumn and winter 2012 on the severe state of Laiki, allegedly known to the CBC. Even sending staff to be questioned by a prosecutor CBC focused on investigating the leaks, not the issues they raised.

Nationalising Laiki increased the state’s liabilities; the EU and the IMF were uneasy, as expressed at a Eurogroup meeting 12 September 2012 in Cyprus. Laiki was in a sorry state and it was dragging down another weak bank, Bank of Cyprus. The government continued its delay-tactic, thereby taking the entire banking sector hostage.

The Troika held a meeting 9 November 2012 in Cyprus but could not reach an agreement with Cyprus. By now, Cyprus was, quite literally, living on borrowed money, straight from the ECB: on 15 November 2012 ECB’s Emergency Liquidity Assistance, ELA, to Cypriot banks, i.e. Laiki, amounted to €11.9bn.

The Troika’s patience was evaporating fast: when president Demetris Christofias visited Brussels 22 November he was informed the ECB would stop the ELA immediately. The following day finance minister Vassos Shiarly said the government had now agreed to the terms of the “Memorandum of Understanding on Specific Economic Policy Conditionality.”

The birth of a brutal and unfair solution

The November 2012 MoU was full of good intentions. But the direction taken was not new. During the Troika meeting in Cyprus in June 2012 those present had agreed that the core of the Cypriot problem was an over-extended financial sector, which the feeble island economy could not support. Consequently, an alternative way to recapitalisation had to be found but the question was how.

In a 2 July 2012 letter ECB stated, referring to its opinion on legal support for Laiki, that the best way was to use a fully-fledged bank resolution tool, as outlined in Directive proposal, COM (2012) 280 final adopted in June 2012, for bank resolution where the cost was not being borne by tax payers, adopted in June 2012 and later developed into a Bank Recovery and Resolution Directive.

Hence, amongst those working on the coming Cyprus banking rescue operation it was already clear by the summer of 2012 that Cyprus could not expect anything like the other troubled euro countries. The assessment circulating, i.a. from Fitch, was that Cyprus needed €10bn in financial aid, 60% of GDP.

The three key objectives of the MoU were “to restore the soundness of the Cypriot banking sector by thoroughly restructuring, resolving and downsizing financial institutions, strengthening of supervision, addressing expected capital shortfall and improving liquidity management; to continue the on-going process of fiscal consolidation in order to correct the excessive general government deficit” by reducing current primary expenditure, maintaining fiscal consolidation i.a. by increasing the efficiency of public spending, enhancing tax collection and improve the functioning of the public sector; structural reforms to support competitiveness.

As the MoU shows Cyprus was not stingy with its promises, i.a. : “With the goal of minimising the cost to tax payers, bank shareholders and junior debt holders will take losses before state-aid measures are granted. Before any state recapitalisation is granted, the Central Bank of Cyprus will require a conversion of any outstanding junior debt instruments into equity for the purpose of protecting the public interest in financial stability, including by implementing voluntary or, if necessary, mandatory subordinated liability exercises (SLE)… the necessary legislation will be introduced no later than [January 2013]. The Central Bank of Cyprus together with the EC, the ECB and the IMF will monitor any operation converting junior debt instruments into equity.”

The innocent-looking clause in the November 2012 MoU, which the Cypriot government was arm-twisted into accepting, was a further foreboding of the bail-in to come: The authorities will introduce legislation establishing a comprehensive framework for the recovery and resolution of credit institutions, drawing inter alia on the relevant proposal of the European Union.

The Anastasiades secret report concludes that it was clear from summer 2012 that the legal tools being forged would prevent a bail-out, forcing Cyprus to rescue its financial system with own resources, i.e. a bail-in:

However, the perception which prevailed was that neither the government nor the CBC adequately understood this context. Moreover, no one admitted to know or have heard about the bail-in before the Eurogroup of 15 March 2013. The fact that the government, the state and its institutions acted as if they could not comprehend what was going on in order to disguise their inadequacy… ultimately proved to be a very effective policy to avoid taking responsibility. The reality is that as early as 6 November 2012, the CBC Governor, Panicos Demetriades, informed the ECB President, Mario Draghi that the resolution law was almost done, three whole weeks before the MoU of 25 November. …

From the moment the two major banks would pass into the hands of the Resolution Authority, the CBC should have to act within the given legislative framework and to provide solutions which would not bear any burden to the taxpayer. The law in itself was prohibiting the bail out and was legalizing the bail-in.

The law, legalising a bail-in, was supposed to be passed in January 2013 but the Cypriot government and the CBC continued the delay game. After being reassured that short-term financing need was covered, the Eurogroup finally accepted to wait; it seemed clear that the final agreement on a programme would have to wait until after the election in February.

When the Anastasiades government came into power March 1 2013 neither the out-going government nor the CBC presented it with the draft for the resolution law. Accordingly, the new government seems to have intended to negotiate a bail-out as in previous Eurozone crisis countries. The old powers and the CBC kept quiet, making it look as if the bail-in was all the work/fault of the new government – or that is at least how the story is told in the Anastasiades report. The Resolution of Credit and Other Institutions Law of 2013 was published 22 March 2013 as part of the crisis measures.

The Anastasiades report shows that though panicky the decisions taken over the fateful days in mid March were no last-minute solutions. The Christofias government had been planning a bail-in, i.e. a self-financed salvation or refinancing of the banking system – and it was vehemently against entering a Troika programme.

The “punishment for the Russian connection” theory and other speculations

In hindsight – always a great vantage point – a one-off levy on deposits, even a tiny sliver on guaranteed deposits, would have been a lot less painful to Cypriots in this time of great crisis. But the political reaction in Cyprus was such that the government stepped back and abandoned any general levy. “The measures chosen did not punish risk-takers but made some people poorer completely by chance,” one source said.

“The solution was to treat deposit holders as investors,” as one Cypriot put it. Indeed, but only deposit holders in two banks took the hit for everyone else; a much more brutal and arguably a less fair measure than a levy.

In the weeks following the Cypriot bail-in there were speculation that the anomalous outcome had been dictated by a lack of trust in Cyprus for allowing Russian funds to flow so freely through the country’s banking system. It is alleged that 20% of Cypriot deposits are Russian; considering the long-standing connections between Russia and Cyprus this does not seem shockingly much.

In addition there are rumours, strenuously denied by Cypriot authorities, that the island’s financial system had been facilitating money laundering. According to persistent rumour the German authorities had commissioned a secret report that showed as much. However, nothing concrete did ever materialise and certainly no German report.

Cypriot officials were very much aware of these rumours and visited some European capitals in January 2013, i.a. Den Haag, to rebut the rumours and explain measures taken in Cyprus against money laundering.

The IMF viewed Cyprus as a unique case because of the size of its banking sector. Germany was in no mood for a bail-out. “Cyprus had irritated the Troika so much,” one source said. The ECB press release on ELA 21 March 2013 proves the point. Christofias had publicly spoken badly of the IMF; his attempts to get loans from China and Russia were not successful.

Essentially, a bail-in had been in the making for a while and seems to be what Christofias and his government had in mind. “It was clear that Cyprus would indeed be different,” on source said. “The obstacles were mostly political.”

Why the Christofias government did aim at a bail-in can only be clarified in a Cypriot SIC report. Perhaps the government saw that as a good way to keep the Laiki story buried, a continuation of the fact that Laiki had been nationalised but neither restructured nor scrutinised. And/or Christofias the communist was content to nationalise it to prove a political point. Fundamental question on the March 2013 events can only be answered in a thorough report. Sadly, it seems that very few Cypriots believe that such a tell-all report is possible on their little island.

No appetite for investigations

The Anastasiades report bears the telling title: Laiki Popular Bank – How a bank’s mismanagement toppled an economy. Laiki was not the only problem in the Cypriot economy but it was the crystallisation of many problems. Some advisers had recommended action on Laiki already when Cyprus lost market access in May 2011 but to no avail. As one source said: “It was a grave mistake not to take Laiki over earlier.”

The Anastasiades report was not intended for publications. It was not the first investigation into the Cypriot banking mess. There was an earlier planned investigation, which as the Anastasiades report stated, “didn’t happen.”

In August 2012 the CBC assigned Alvarez & Marsal, a management and restructuring consultancy, to examine why Laiki and Bank of Cyprus had requested state support, which they got, in total €1.8 bn. The following four points were to be investigated:

1. Bank of Cyprus’ losses from investing in Greek bonds

2. The purchase of shares of the Romanian bank Banca Transilvania

3. The acquisition by the Bank of Cyprus of the Russian bank Uniastrum

4. The merger of Marfin Laiki with Egnatia and in specific the conversion

of Egnatia from a subsidiary of Marfin Laiki to a Cypriot bank

In October 2013 this assignment was in the news, not for the firm’s findings but for its fees: on top of €4.5m it turned out that CBC governor Panicos Demetriades had, without the CBC knowledge, agreed to a further fee of €11m. Nothing has been heard of the report and regrettably the four items above remain unexplained.

As the Anastasiades report states: Now we know why: An investigation into the reasons why the Cyprus Popular Bank requested state support of €1.8 bln, would reveal the disastrous decision taken by the Christofias government to nationalize the Cyprus Popular Bank and this was achieved in collaboration with both CBC Governors, initially Orphanides and later on Demetriades.

The Anastasiades report comes to its own conclusions:

The Cyprus Popular Bank, was insolvent before the haircut of the Greek bonds. After the haircut, the Bank had little chance to survive. The only realistic option for a successful recapitalization was through the EFSF. However, it was impossible to receive funding from the EFSF without entering a programme. Christofias’ government followed a policy of avoiding the programme at all costs. By refusing the programme, Christofias’ government led the entire banking sector into captivity.

What the Anastasiades report spells out quite clearly is how Cypriot authorities, from autumn 2011, led by the various ministers of finance and governors of the CBC kept convincing the ECB that all was well and fine with Laiki. When it was no longer possible to dress the bank up as a solvent company the bank was nationalised. In March 2013 it was no longer possible to plaster over the cracks, the bank was restructured and merged with Bank of Cyprus – at the cost of €5.8bn from deposits in the two banks.

According to the New York Times, Benoît Coeuré executive board member of the ECB was also instrumental in coming up with a collateral plan when there were seemingly no collateral left to support further ELA for Laiki. Cypriot authorities, led by the CBC, conspired to thwart suspicious ECB. This whole exercise left the Cypriot state with €10bn of ELA debt, apparently the cost of trying to save a failed bank.

After the events in March 2013 president Anastasiades set up an investigative committee to examine possible civil, criminal and political liabilities regarding the development in the Cypriot economy and financial sector. The six members were all elderly judges with long careers.

Their report was handed over to the cabinet end of September 2013. It has not been made public. The documents leaked by the New York Times indicate that there is plenty of material that the commission did not make use of. Since this report has not been published it is impossible to say how thorough it is but the general feeling is that the 280 pages did not reveal anything much. The attempts to investigate the events leading up to March 2013 and the aftermath have so far been futile exercises.

Based on available material it seems logical to conclude that the bail-in was part of the Christofias government plan to avoid a Troika programme and possibly the scrutiny that might follow. If the latter was the case all fears have been groundless: regrettably, the Troika has never pushed for an investigation to clarify events.

The fact that Cypriot authorities did everything to hide and deny the dire situation from May 2011 had hardly mellowed the Troika in March 2013 when action could no longer be postponed. But it does not explain the attempt to put a levy on insured deposits.

Being a gateway to offshore structures may not have helped Cyprus. That said, EU and IMF officials are hardly squeamish in these matters: Luxembourg and Malta offer similar environment not to mention the tax structures provided by Ireland and the Netherlands.

What Cyprus needs

The ECB is trying to strengthen trust in the European banking sector. In general, an important step towards creating confidence “is to recognize loans that are bad and write them off, ” according to William White, former economic adviser to the Bank for International Settlements. Non-performing loans have been a major problem in the Cypriot financial sector. I heard in December that with a new insolvency or foreclosure framework, soon to be finished, this would be resolved.

Therefore it is both surprising and worrying that according to Eurogroup remarks 16 February 2015 the foreclosure framework has still not been finalised but is much needed in order to enable banks to clean their balance sheet and start lending again. This is now the main hurdle in the recovery program for Cyprus.

Household debt is a problem – Cyprus could do with some general measures similar to the Icelandic “110% way” where mortgages were written down to 110% of the estimated value of the property to pull households out of the doldrums of negative equity.

“Confidence in the Cypriot banking sector has not been restored,” one source pointed out. That can i.a. be seen from the fact that many prefer to keep cash at home; as much as 6% of GDP could be under pillows and mattresses.

As so often in countries plagued by corruption everyone is aware of it but it is rarely mentioned except when it surfaces in news. But is indeed a huge problem as can be seen from EU Anti-Corruption Report 2013: 78 % of Cypriot Eurobarometer respondents claim corruption is widespread, EU average is 76 %; 92 % say that bribery and good connections is the easiest way to access certain public services, EU average is 73 %. Among Cypriot business people 64% say corruption is a problem compared EU average of 43 %. And most seriously, 85 % of entrepreneurs think that favouritism and corruption hamper business competition in Cyprus when EU average is 73 %.

Cypriots need to know exactly what happened and when – and so does Europe, if any lessons are to be drawn from the crisis. But most of all, Cyprus needs hope. Parents need to believe there is future for their children on the island. Young people have to see a reason for staying after their education or returning there after studying abroad. A country marred by untold stories, unexplained action and corruption is simply not a good country for growth and optimism – the necessary prerequisite for hope.

*My oral sources are all from Cyprus. In agreement with them they are not identified by position since Cyprus is a small country. – Blog is cross-posted on

À propos Falciani: the risk of stingy banks still with faulty IT systems

One of the things that the HSBC whistleblower Hervé Falciani has pointed out is the mess the HSBC computer system was with all the inherent safety risks involved, not to mention that it made it difficult for the bank to have any meaningful overview.

There are several reasons why Falciani’s statement does not come as a surprise. The Anton Valukas’ report on Lehman tells i.a. the story of a big bank with a patchwork of computer systems and applications. And there have been several spectacular IT failures in banks, i.a. at the RBS in December 2013 when the bank admitted to underinvestment in IT “For decades…”

Also, over the years sporadically talking to people working on IT in banks, I got the clear idea that IT costs were a source of irritation for many managers: many of them found it difficult to understand the costs and what benefit could be derived from the suggested improvements. IT people are or at least were low in the banking pecking order.

Lehman – a patchwork of over 2600 computer systems

The share size of the Lehman system was staggering: “The available universe of Lehman e?mail and other electronically stored documents is estimated at three petabytes of data – roughly the equivalent of 350 billion pages.” 

When Valukas set about to organise the operation of mining the Lehman system for his report he was faced with the daunting task of extracting information from a patchwork of over 2600 computer systems and applications. The way the report deals with this attempt and success in mastering the material feels to be a story told with some understatement. But the share size was only part of the problem (emphasis mine):

Many of Lehman’s systems were arcane, outdated or non?standard. Becoming proficient enough to use the systems required training in some cases, study in others, and trial and error experimentation in others. In numerous instances, the Examiner’s professionals would request access to a particular system, expend the time necessary to learn how to use the system and only then discover that access to two or three additional systems was required to answer the necessary questions. Lehman’s systems were highly interdependent, but their relationships were difficult to decipher and not well documented. It took extraordinary effort to untangle these systems to obtain the necessary information

This was the system in a big bank where nothing was spared when it came to bonuses and pay. In a sense Lehman was like a palace with shitty basement toilets, which no one cared about because they were out of sight anyway. Except of course that an “arcane, outdated and non-standard” computer system poses a real security risk, which a ditto toilet does not.

IT staff – low in the banking pecking order

I have heard computer system staff in banks complain about the lack of IT understanding among those who hold the spending power. Those with such power were seen to weigh spending according to parameters of immediate visible effect. Spelling out the disasters that might happen, when nothing has happened for a long time or ever, can be a difficult bargaining position.

A case in point was the RBS computer glitch, which severely affected clients in December 2013. Following the incident RBS admitted the following: “For decades, RBS failed to invest properly in its systems… It will take time, but we are investing heavily in building IT systems our customers can rely on.” – It would be interesting to know exactly what was done and if this has been a sustained process.

This too late – and often too little – has unfortunately very much been the pattern: the promises to do better and invest in IT have come only after the public incidents. It would be interesting to know if the RBS IT staff had been fully aware of the problems and how much it had tried to avert senior managers to the problem.

From IT employees in banks I have over the years heard loud complaints about senior managers who have little understanding for the importance of keeping the systems up to date and investing in the proper IT infrastructure. Asking for funds for IT was (is?) normally met with complaints about costs.

One employee told me that managers were normally reluctant agreeing to costs for things unless they understood the issue at stake themselves and which could be shown to increase profits. Since the level of IT understanding among senior managers was generally low IT was generally seen as only cost.

Banking – where the science of big data has not been appreciated

As many banks in particular those that aim at speedy international growth, HSBC grew by i.a. buying banks. Its Swiss operation where Falciani worked had been bought; the same with the Mexican branch where HSBC was found to have facilitated money laundering for drug lords, resulting in fines of $1.9bn in December 2012.

Banks are in enterprises with old roots and many of them seem to suffer from lack of technical insight among their highest echelon of power. Many senior bank managers in their fifties and older have never been exposed to much technological stuff other than their smart phones.

Over the last many years many big banks seem to have been focusing on growth and inventing new financial products. The feeling is that RBS and Lehman are not the only banks where IT systems have lagged behind, not only in terms of security but also in terms of how to have the best systems for overview. How can internal audit i.a. be meaningful in an international bank with 2600 systems, some of which are “arcane, outdated and non-standard”? Or in a bank with IT underinvestment for decades?

If senior HSBC managers did not know at the time as they have insisted of the bank’s massive failures, both in Switzerland and Mexico, it is also because the proper technology was not in place and probably had not been thought to matter.

Big data, the ability to sift through and derive information from a large set of data can of course be used in many ways within a bank. One of many uses should be to keep track of behaviour that could potentially be criminal. With the kind of patchwork system Lehman had that would hardly have been possible.

True, Lehman collapsed over six years ago, Falciani was working at HSBC eight years ago but the RBS glitch happened only just over a year ago. Banks might have worked miracles on their IT systems lately but the doubt lingers on especially because the IT insight and understanding might still be lacking at the top.

Greece and common political sense

– Forget economics, politics is key to understanding the Eurozone

The cries of the Grexit criers lately have mostly been a repetition of an earlier discourse: in February 2012 Citi’s economists Willem Buiters and Ebrahim Rahbari coined the term “Grexit,” by July 2012 estimating its likelihood to 90%. Cheered on by the media, economists have taken over the debate of the Eurozone which is why much of it has been such a futile exercise: it is not economics, which ties the Eurozone together but the political determination of its leaders to make the euro work. With political will likelihood of any exit is 0. Ergo, Grexit is as unlikely now as it has always been in spite of the EU brinkmanship. One route Greece seems to be exploring is a tried and tested one: the “bisque clause” from 1946.

In December 2009 the European Central Bank, ECB, published a working paper, Withdrawal and expulsion from the EU and EMU; some reflections (recommended read, clear and intelligent), by Phoebus Athanassiou. As Athanassiou pointed out, talk of ‘secession’ from the European Union, EU and European Monetary Union, EMU would earlier “have been next to absurd, considering the EU’s contribution to lasting peace and stability in Europe,” not forgetting successful enlargement. Athanassiou concluded that “negotiated withdrawal from the EU would not be legally impossible… a Member State’s exit from EMU, without a parallel withdrawal from the EU, would be legally inconceivable; and that … a Member State’s expulsion from the EU or EMU, would be legally next to impossible. – But legal aspects are one thing, economics another and politics yet a separate aspect.

The eurocrisis has hit EU’s economy; economists and the financial media have led the crisis discourse. But the euro is a political construction, built on political will and at the root of the crisis there are politics: there has been a political unwillingness in the EU to be more than fair-weather friends. Fearing loss of sovereignty ministers have been unwilling to yield power to the various EU institutions (Athanassiou has some intriguing observations on sovereignty). – This is in essence what Mario Monti wrote in the summer of 2011 in a timely Financial Times article where he partly blamed the eurocrisis on the EU being too deferential and too polite to its member states.

With the crisis and hesitant action it has been ever more difficult to portray the EU as a success in spite of earlier glory. Much of the political demagogy on the left and right ends of the political spectrum in Europe is nourished by politicians from the established parties who have been far too willing to blame the EU for their own failures.*

Now Greece has voted in a new government who though critical of how the Troika, i.e. EU Commission, European Central Bank, ECB and the International Monetary Fund, IMF, has dealt with Greece makes no mention of Grexit and claims it wants to repay its debt. In a BBC interview minister of finance Yanis Varoufakis stressed that Greece was not going to toy with “loose or fast talk of Grexit” and fragmentation, which would only unleash destructive forces.

“Grexit is not on the cards,” Varoufakis said. At the same time, the government is hell-bent on finding a way to tackle what Varoufakis has called a “humanitarian crisis” in Greece, in addition to scutinising earlier privatisation and renegotiating, perhaps with an eye on the so-called “bisque-clause” from 1946.

Renegotiating, or whatever term will be found, is no mean feat also because all solutions are bound to be relevant for other problem countries. The Irish found a clever way though with their Promissory Notes, did it unilaterally with the ECB governor Mario Draghi commenting dryly that the ECB “took note” of it. – EU has always been brilliant at finding compromises though arguably its comprises have not always been brilliant.

The changing euro sentiment

On August 14 2007 ECB governor Jean-Claude Trichet stated that the bank was paying great attention to developments in the market, i.e. nervousness, increased volatility and ‘significant re-appreciation of risks’ which could be ‘interpreted as a normalisation of the pricing of risk.’ The bank had provided liquidity ‘needed to permit an orderly functioning of the money market… We are now seeing money market conditions that have gone progressively back to normal,” was Trichet’s reassuring conclusion.

Two years and some months later, in December 2009, it was clear that Trichet’s hopeful words were just that: hopeful. Ireland was under crisis clouds after the Irish government had been forced to fulfil its blanket guarantee of the banking sector. The situation in Portugal and Spain looked ominous not to mention Greece. All of this made Athanassiou’s paper a timely one.

Fast forward from Trichet’s 2007 statement to the ECB’s recent statement of a monthly asset purchase amounting to €60bn, at least until September 2016. ECB governor Mario Draghi has repeatedly stressed that the bank alone will not pull the EZ out of stagnation and slow growth. The political appetite for growth stimulus and the structural reforms needed has been negligible and attempts to challenge growth-quenching corruption, where needed, even less. It might even be argued that with the asset purchase, aka “quantitative easing,” into austerity-ruled EU the Union is like a boat rowing in opposite directions.

“The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury”

Jean-Claude Juncker’s €315bn fund is too little too late; a nod in the stimulus-direction rather than a real u-turn. After over six years of austerity the EU seems slow in revising on the 1930s lesson that the state has to step in when the private sector is sluggish. Greece now seems to want a realistic solution. Although only 2% of the EZ GDP it might inject new ideas into the Troika solutions, i.e. forcing reality instead of unsustainable solutions – effectively, earlier measures for Greece did not solve the problem and everyone involved knew it.

Simon Wren-Lewis’ summary of the obvious lessons from the Great Recession is: “Give any student who has just done a year of economics some national accounts data for the US, UK and Eurozone, and ask them why the recovery from the Great Recession has been so slow, and they will almost certainly tell you it is because of fiscal austerity.” Further, Wren-Lewis has recently summed up the necessary lessons from earlier attempts to debt restructuring, with a timely focus on Greece, saying the “Troika should welcome the opportunity to put right earlier mistakes.”

Yet and yet, austerity was the first and still is the strongest reaction to the eurocrisis. The IMF, for its part, has to a certain degree acknowledged its part in the mistaken routes chosen. For Greece there was a certain woeful blindness as to what the measures in 2012 would achieve in terms of growth, inflation, fiscal effort and social cohesion; this should not happen again as Reza Moghadam former head of the IMF European department wrote recently in the Financial Times, admitting to his share of the responsibility since he was part of Troika discussions 2010 to 2014 and pleading for halving Greek debt.

The new Greek government has plenty of research to bolster its case. In a 2013 paper, Òscar Jordà and Alan M. Taylor have shown “that austerity is always a drag on growth, and especially so in depressed economies: a one percent of GDP fiscal consolidation translates into 4 percent lower real GDP after five years when implemented in the slump rather than the boom.” And as John Maynard Keynes wrote in 1937, quoted by Jordà and Taylor: “The boom, not the slump, is the right time for austerity at the Treasury.”

To a certain degree the faith in austerity has been steered by predictable party politics as Simon Wren-Lewis covers here. Not surprisingly Wolfgang Schäuble claims that “austerity is the only cure for the eurozone.” With policies earlier belonging to the political right having to a great degree permeated the left, New Labour being the arch-example, there has been remarkably little left opposition to austerity. The political antagonism within the crisis countries has tended to be between parties in power, enforcing austerity and the opposition, opposing austerity so as to gain from the unpopular austerity measures.

Austerity is the easy route – structural reforms the really difficult one

But the last few years of austerity in Europe have also shown that although austerity is a tough path to follow, structural reforms are even harder. The Troika prescriptions for program-countries have all come with a list of structural reforms, which have been far tougher to fulfill. Though the structural reforms advised have often been sensible domestic politics and interest groups block them. The latest IMF review on Greece, from June 2014, lists the tough reforms still lacking, i.a. tax administration and public sector reforms.

The fact that there has often been little ownership of measures in the program countries has been part of the problem. One reason why Iceland sailed relatively smoothly through its IMF program was Iceland’s strong ownership of the program. Execution will be easier if the Greek government can renegotiate a sustainable plan it believes in contrary to earlier measures, which all involved knew was to a certain extent little but wishful thinking.

Consequently, scrutinising Troika programs it seems that although a tough path to follow austerity has been the easy route compared to structural changes where strong interest groups and politics clash.

Corruption – the dirty porn of EU politics

It is intriguing to note that the worst hit EZ countries are also countries where sentiment of corruption is high, as can be seen in the Eurobarometer. Yet, corruption has not been high on EU political agenda.

Only in 2011 did the EU Commission establish an Anti-Corruption report to monitor and assess efforts of individual EU countries to address corruption. The first report was published in 2014; reports will now be published every two years.

Given the fact that the cost of corruption is assumed to be 5% of GDP on a world scale, and clearly higher in corrupt countries, it has taken the EU scarily long to turn its attention to this problem. Again, that is no doubt partly due to the politeness Mario Monti had in mind – corruption is an embarrassing and dirty word in the EU, truly the dirty porn of EU politics.

Foreign media mostly focused on Syriza’s presumed anti-EU sentiments even though majority of Greeks want to stay in the EU and the euro. But Greeks noticed that Syriza broke with the norm of silence on corruption and campaigned on fighting it. Any step in that direction will be a great political achievement – and an example to follow for other countries. The fact that Syriza campaigned on the issue of corruption is already inspiring other countries, most notably the Spanish Podemos party.

It has caused some concern abroad that Syriza is going to stop or review the on-going privatisation. There is however indication that assets have been sold not on best price but best connection; something the Troika should not be too politie about, not least in a country with the sorry reputation of corruption. Privatisation will not be popular in Greece if people see state assets sold in a corrupt way.

Demagogues and the German problem

In 2009 it was easy for Athanassiou to refer to the success of the EU and the euro. Now the story in many EU countries, even in stoic and earlier so staunchly pro-EU Finland, is the rise and rise of anti-EU demagogical parties. So far, these are fringe parties, very often indirectly nurtured by politicians blaming the EU of their own failings.

But it is equally worrying that German Chancellor Angela Merkel is increasingly irritating other EU leaders with her moralising on other countries. After almost a decade as the leader of EU’s most powerful country, Merkel seems to be falling pray to the inherent law of power: the longer time in power the more myopic a leader is, ever more occupied with his or her legacy. This has not proved positive for her European engagement.

Given her long time in power Merkel has followed the course of the crisis countries from well before the crisis. She has had ample opportunities to speak out or warn her colleagues. Greece had for example been running a budget deficit more or less uninterrupted since the early 1980s enabled by German banks financing much of this deficit.

German banks, though prudent at home (or rather, Germans are prudent borrowers) were large lenders not only in Greece but also in other crisis countries, also in Iceland. German banks have behaved like the kind of teenagers who are faultlessly polite at home but run wild when partying at friend’s place cutting up the furniture and peeing in the corners.

Merkel did not seem worried until the problems in Greece and elsewhere threatened German financial stability. With the Troika involvement the German risk migrated to public sector lenders and the German banks avoided facing their risky behaviour.

It’s not the economy stupid, it’s the politics

Merkel herself is aware of the political dimension of the euro, or rather the lack of its political anchor. Her predecessor Helmut Kohl and his contemporary European leaders constructed a monetary union without a proper political dimension. More could not be achieved at the time; the wishful thinking was that the missing political part would come later. According to a German official Merkel thinks the euro, with the political part missing, is “a machine from hell” that she is still trying to repair. – As things stand now the machine will hardly be repaired any time soon– the one legacy likely to elude Merkel.

All through the eurocrisis the politics have lagged behind. As shown convincingly by Philippe Martin and Thomas Philippon concerted action such as the Outright Monetary Transactions, OMT already in 2008 and not as late as 2012 would have made the world of difference, not least for Greece.

Those running the “machine from hell” were slow in figuring out how to deal with the crisis. Domestic politics in the EZ were pointing in all and sundry direction. Merkel’s way of tackling any problem is to move slowly, very slowly. Her sluggishness has cost the Greeks dearly. But since the destiny of Germany and Greece are tied together in the euro the German sluggishness certainly has come at a cost to the Germans themselves.

Apart from the lack of political union to back up the euro – or at least some mechanism to deal with crisis – the EU made bad uses of what little mechanisms in place. This is what Mario Monti, wiser after his time as a European commissioner, pointed out in 2011, i.a. regarding Greece: “As for politeness, would Greece have been able to run for years public deficits vastly above its officially published figures – until the excess became known in late 2009 – had Eurostat had the power to conduct serious investigations to check the adequacy of nationally produced statistics? Of course not.”

Had the ECB been allowed to react already in 2008 with some form of OMT (yes, wishful thinking but let us assume these measures were conceivable already then though clearly not politically palatable) it would have run into the problem of ELSTAT where gathering statistics has turned into a political thriller still running: as late as January this year an ELSTAT supervising commission, one of whose members is from Eurostat, expressed concern and disappointment that some officials tried to influence ELSTAT’s reassessment of debt and deficit figures Brussels had called for. – Tackling the problem of ELSTAT would strengthen the trustworthiness of the new government.

The price of politeness is also evident in EU’s unwillingness to acknowledge the problem and cost of corruption (as I have pointed out earlier); unwillingness, which in itself a political vice among the EU countries. The EU countries are in it together but shrink from sifting through their neighbours’ dustbins to come up with compromising material.

Greece – with appetite for “bisque”?

Yanis Varoufakis and his team have had ample time to study the best approach but time is limited. Deposits are flowing out of Greek banks and the present Troika program ends on February 28, which jeopardises i.a. the ECB’s Emergency Liquidity Assistance, ELA.

Proselytising on Greek debt makes little sense – the debt is there not only because of Greek appetite for debt but for banks’ willingness to lend. The banks have sold off their Greek debt, IMF and ECB gobbled it up. It is too late to punish the original lenders, now it is only the Greek borrower left. There are many ideas floating around, here is Fistful of Euros’ Alex Harrowell summing up some of these ideas.

The problem with Greece is not just its debt, but the fact that the country is ever more crippled by earlier non-solutions as Syriza has stressed. Yet, the new Greek leaders have emphasised that they want to repay its debts to its lenders, ECB and the IMF as Alexis Tsipras said in a statement January 31. Greece is clearly trying to come up with a route that might suit everyone but is at the same time adamant that it must be allowed to run expansionary policies at home. Hiring Lazard as adviser shows the government pays attention to the markets as well as expecting tough talks.

The Troika loans amount to €226.7bn, ca. 125% of GDP, roughly two-thirds of total public debt of 175% of GDP. As Syriza has pointed out the unfortunate thing here is that the GDP has been shrinking making the debt ever less sustainable. This is i.a. part of the vicious circle that is dragging Greece down.

One way of going about the Greek problem might be to learn from history. The Stiglitz report, Report of the Commission of Experts of the President of the United Nations General Assembly on Reforms of the International Monetary and Financial System, from 2009 refers to the so-called “bisque-clause” from 1946:

There might also be alternative ways of ensuring flexible payment arrangements that would allow automatic adjustment for borrowers during bad times. For instance, one possibility is for coupon payments to remain fixed and for the amortization schedule to be adjusted instead. Countries would postpone part or all of their debt payments during economic downturns and would then make up by pre-paying during economic upswings. A historical precedent was set by the United Kingdom when it borrowed from the United States in the 1940s. The 1946 Anglo-American Financial Agreement included a “bisque clause” that provided a 2 percent interest payment waiver in any year in which the United Kingdom’s foreign exchange income was not sufficient to meet its pre-war level of imports, adjusted to current prices.

Sources have mentioned to me that the “bisque-clause” has inspired the approach being advocated by the new Greek government.

The “erroribus” of exit

“The world works thus that some help erroribus to circulate and others then try to erase it – and thus, both have something to do,” professor of antiquity at the University of Copenhagen Árni Magnússon (1663-1730) wrote.

Athanassiou’s conclusion was that “negotiated withdrawal from the EU would not be legally impossible even prior to the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, and that unilateral withdrawal would undoubtedly be legally controversial; that, while permissible, a recently enacted exit clause is, prima facie, not in harmony with the rationale of the European unification project and is otherwise problematic, mainly from a legal perspective; that a Member State’s exit from EMU, without a parallel withdrawal from the EU, would be legally inconceivable; and that, while perhaps feasible through indirect means, a Member State’s expulsion from the EU or EMU, would be legally next to impossible. This paper concludes with a reminder that while, institutionally, a Member State’s membership of the euro area would not survive the discontinuation of its membership of the EU, the same need not be true of the former Member State’ s use of the euro.”

For those who have nailed their professional reputation to Grexit it might be hard to swallow that nope, Grexit is apparently not on the agenda – not for the new Greek government, not for the German government and, so far, no other EU government. German politicians may talk bravely about contained contagion from Grexit but dream on, who is willing to test the containment?

In order to understand the eurocrisis and find sustainable solutions forget the economics and focus instead on the politics. After all, the euro is a political construction, based on political will and as long as this will is there among Europe’s leaders there will be no Grexit or any other exit. Neither the ECB nor any EU institution will pull the rug from under Greece – this is not a question of some technical trick to force an end no government in Europe wishes for.

The euro is not just a currency, but the tangible sign of a union in which the earlier success of the internal market and enlargement was to be joined and entwined. For a few years it worked well, further cementing earlier progress. There are those who say it could never have worked and they are among the loudest in the Grexit choir as is, unsurprisingly, part of the UK media.

So far, the EZ countries have solved one problem after the other – yes, (too) often it has been too little too late, not always glorious. However, the political will to solve EZ troubles has been there and still is. Which is why it would be more fruitful to focus on the possible solutions – as the Greek government seems to be trying to do – rather than fable about Grexit.

* Þórólfur Matthíasson professor at the University of Iceland and I have argued that the eurocrisis has to a large degree been symptom of underlying problems in the crisis-countries, ignored or not solved in time, to be solved at national level. 

The Swiss franc appreciation and the sorry saga of FX lending

Back in the 1980s Australians, many of them farmers, were offered low-interest loans, appealing in a high-interest environment. With changes in currency rates the loans in Swiss francs and Japanese yen quickly became much beyond the means of the borrowers to service with ensuing pain and suffering. Icelanders felt the pain of FX loans as the Icelandic króna depreciated in 2008 as did many Eastern-European countries. – The same story has played out in country after country with the obvious lesson reiterated: for people with income only in their domestic currency FX borrowing is far too risky. All these loans, often the result of predatory lending, follow the same pattern and it is no coincidence where they hit. There is now ample case for countries to take action: banks should be forbidden to lend in FX to private individuals with no FX income. Australia in the 1980s, New Zealand in the 1990s, Iceland and a whole raft of other European countries in the 2000s saw liberalised markets but inflation was high and so were interest rates. By taking an FX loan or even just a loan pegged to FX the high domestic interest rates could be avoided – it seemed too good to be true.

Sadly it was indeed too good to be true: currency fluctuations changed the circumstances and servicing FX loans for those with income in the domestic currency became unsustainable. For loans running over many years this was, statistically seen, almost unavoidable. FX loans have turned into a huge problem in countries such Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Poland and Ukraine but politicians and banks have ignored the problem.

These cases were spelled out at a conference on CHF/FX loans in Cyprus in December. Organised by Katherine Alexander-Theodotou president of the UK Anglo-Hellenic and Cypriot Law Association and various representatives of organisations fighting FX loans, the organisers have recently set up European Legal Committee for Consumer Rights to co-ordinate their work in the various countries marred by FX loans.

The recent shock of the CHF appreciation is now forcing the problem into the foreground in these countries. But more should be done: this problem should be solved once and for all because as long as banks and investors see profits in these loans this sorry saga will continue in new countries.

Australia in the 1980s

In Australia banks started offering customers, many of them farmers, yen and CHF loans in the 1980s. With Australian interest rates at around 10-16% the 7% rates of the yen and the CHF was attractive. When the Australian dollar started depreciating in 1986 the difference in interest rates was by far not enough to compensate for the new ratio between the Aussie dollar and other currencies.

As always, the borrowers first tried to keep on paying, then to negotiate new terms with the banks followed by court cases, mostly based on the banks’ negligence of warning the borrowers of the inherent risk of FX loans. To begin with, the borrowers were fighting on their own, not realising that there were so many others in the same situation.

The banks had the upper hand in court: people should have understood the risk and it was neigh impossible for the borrowers to prove what the bankers had said or not said, promised or not several years earlier. The banks claimed the loans had been issued in good faith and foreseeing the Aussie dollar depreciation had been impossible.

Westpac had been particularly successful in the FX loan market. In 1991 a former Westpac executive, John McLennan, leaked two letters from 1986 showing that the bank was well aware of the risk. What ensued was an investigation, which exposed that not only had Westpac been aware of the risk but a law firm had helped it covering its track. This turned into a classic whistle-blower case: Westpac sued McLennan but later settled.

The letters set the story straight, politicians finally turned against the banks and thus the borrowers got the upper hand and some compensation. But all of this only happened five years after the depreciation, leaving many borrowers bankrupt with all the tragedies such events bring on.

The Australian saga entails the same elements later seen in country after country: banks lend in FX to people who neither have an FX income nor are particularly well-placed to gauge the risk; politicians side with the banks – and only after much struggle and long time are borrowers able to get a write-down or other assistance. But by then, tragedies such as divorce or homes lost have already happened and things can never be the same or compensated.

Iceland: where politicians sided with borrowers

High inflation and consequently high interest rates characterised booming Iceland after the privatisation of the financial system in 2003. Banks were eager to grow by issuing loans and lend funds they borrowed internationally. With credit boom in Iceland savings were insufficient to satisfy the credit demand. Icelandic borrowers were offered so called “currency basket loans”: FX indexed loans usually based on a mixture of currency, usually US$, euro, CHF and yen.

As in Australia, things changed and fairly quickly. From October 2007 to October 2008 the króna had been depreciating drastically: €1 cost ISK85 at the beginning of this period but ISK150 in the end; by October 2009 the €1 stood at ISK185.

Borrowers complained, turned to their banks and some individual solutions were found. However, quickly borrowers were not only turning to the banks but to courts. There were no class actions but individuals sought to court, the cases were well publicised and others in the same situation followed them intently.

Already in June 2010 the first Supreme Court judgment fell regarding two such cases. According to the ruling it was against Icelandic law to tie interest rates on Icelandic loans, loans in Icelandic króna, to foreign currency but perfectly legal to lend in FX.

The result was huge uncertainty: first of all, which loans were legal and which were not, i.e. which loans were real FX loans and which were only FX indexed loans – and if some of these loans were illegal what should the interest rates be?

The banks distinguished between loans to private individuals and to companies where company loans have mostly been regarded as legal FX loans, i.e. the companies did indeed receive FX whereas loans to individuals have all been treated as illegal, i.e. not proper FX loans but only with interest rates tied to FX, no matter the form. The Supreme Court ruled that instead of the FX currency interest rates the lowest CBI rates should be used causing substantial losses to the banks.

The Supreme Court has by now ruled in around thirty FX loans’ cases. There are however still on-going FX loan cases in the courts, some of them related to consumer information such as Directive 87/102/EEC The Consumer Credit Directive, Directive 93/13/EEC The Unfair Terms Directive and Directive 2005/29/EC The Unfair Commercial Practices Directive

The peculiarity of the Icelandic FX loans saga is that the courts ruled fairly quickly in favour of borrowers, thereby gaining political support, very much contrary to other countries where FX loans have been common. This may be partly due to the fact the Icelandic households have long been highly indebted, which has to a certain degree tilted sympathy towards debtors rather than towards those who are trying to save money.

Croatia, Hungary and Poland

The fight of Croatian FX borrowers have their own organisation, the Franc Association but their fight has been arduous, as covered earlier on Icelog. Already last year, Franc won a case against eight banks, all foreign or foreign-owned subsidiaries: UniCredit – Zagreba?ka Banka, Intesa SanPaolo – Privredna Banka Zagreb, Erste & Steiermärkische Bank, Raiffeisenbank Austria, Hypo Alpe-Adria-Bank, OTP Bank, Société Générale – Splitska banka and Sberbenk.

The banks were found to have violated customer protection law by not informing clients properly. Further, the Croatian government has now decided to freeze interest rates for one year while further solutions will be sought, with banks forced to take a write-down on these loans.

In Hungary, where FX loans were among the most widespread in Eastern Europe before the 2008 crash, the government ordered banks last year to fix conversion of euro and CHF loans into Hungarian florints to a rate well below market levels. Following the recent CHF appreciation the government has said that no further action will be taken.

Polish FX loans have not been issued since the financial crisis of 2008 but the number of loans before that had been high, which means that many are still suffering their effect. Last year, governor of the Polish Central Bank Marek Belka said these loans were a ticking time-bomb. It certainly has blown up now with the CHF appreciation. The Polish government is now seeking a solution and regulators are investigating collusion on lending terms among the banks issuing the FX loans.

The underlying mechanism of FX loans

Although FX loan sagas vary in details from country to country the general mechanism is everywhere the same, always with four actors involved: international financial institutions looking for interest margins; investors, often called “Belgian dentists,” i.e. wealthy individuals looking for moderate-risk long-term investments; domestic financial institutions (often foreign subsidiaries) selling domestic currency, looking to lend in FX; domestic borrowers looking for low-interest loans.

The FX loans are normally marketed to middle or low-income earners in small or transition economies, recently been liberalised, with unstable currency or where the currency lacks credibility – and/or where interest rates are high. The banks issuing the loans are often, but not always, foreign banks, operating in a weak legal environment with weak or no customer protection.

There are certainly FX loans in other countries, such as the UK but there they have mostly been issued to wealthy borrowers often financing property deals abroad. The situation can certainly be painful for those individuals but these loans are anomalous, hitting only a very limited part of borrowers. In France, many local councils are struggling with CHF loans and fighting financial institutions in court, again clearly a major problem for the councils but now following the general pattern of FX loans listed above.

The general description above fits Australia, New Zealand, Iceland – and the countries where many borrowers have been sorely struggling with FX/CHF loans since 2008, i.a. Poland, Croatia, Hungary and other countries. With the exception of Iceland these countries have been fighting the banks for years, often with limited or only very late success. Only the recent CHF appreciation has finally managed to clearly demonstrate the calamity these loans are for normal borrowers with income only in their domestic currency.

The only sensible solution to FX (predatory) lending

For more than thirty years FX loans have periodically been causing huge harm and personal tragedy in country after country. The pattern is always the same. Banks continue this type of lending, every time minimising or ignoring the risk to unenlightened borrowers. The only new elements are a new country and new people to suffer the consequences.

Since this story has been repeating itself for decades, bankers issuing these loans cannot reasonably claim to be unaware of the risk. Instead, FX lending to private individuals with no FX hedge increasingly looks like predatory lending: the banks must have been aware of the risk and known that the risk had indeed materialised earlier in other countries.

Bankers have so far shown little aptitude of learning anything at all from the past few decades. National and international organisations working in the field of financial regulation and consumer protection should work towards making FX lending to private individuals with no FX hedge illegal. Until that happens the FX loans will continue to find new countries to wreck havoc in.

*Another side to the FX lending is whether the banks issuing the loans have properly hedged their FX exposure of their liabilities. There is indication that banks in i.a. Austria, Croatia and Hungary have held more CHF assets than liabilities. This is another interesting aspect, which I hope to cover later.