Eleven lessons from Cyprus’ that could apply Anywhere
Cyprus has paid dearly, and will continue to pay a high price for several years, for the profligacy of its public sector, the recklessness of its banks, and the procrastination of its policy makers in taking corrective measures in the face of the crisis. The jury is still out on whether Cyprus has learnt its lesson, a very expensive one indeed. For other countries, Cyprus’ bitter experience holds many lessons, for which a generous tuition fee has already been paid by Cyprus.
Lesson#1: Control public finances and the size of the public sector. If you cannot trust politicians to resist the temptation of paying supporters and cronies with public sector jobs and salary raises and privileges, adopt a constitutional requirement for balanced budgets and a low ceiling on public debt. Keep the power of public-servant unions in check.
Lesson #2: Know what your bankers are doing; they may not have the country’s best interests in mind; they may not even serve their own bank’s best interests. Without effective corporate governance and strict supervision they may be gambling depositors’ money by putting all their eggs in one basket or taking unreasonable risks or expanding into markets they don’t understand. Don’t be reckless, not even careless about risk exposure. Instead, be ruthless about risk assessment and risk management. Don’t trust the central banker blindly to keep the banking sector sound and solvent, or as former President Reagan used to say “trust but verify”.
Lesson#3: Do not allow your banking sector, or any individual organisation or company to become so big that it is too big to let it fail and at the same time too big to save. You are putting yourself in a no win situation, the economy in jeopardy and sovereignty at risk. Healthy competition, diversification, and proportionality have become bywords for prudence. A banking sector eight times the size of the country’s Gross Domestic Product, as was the case in Cyprus, could neither be left to fail, yet neither could it be saved by the country.
Lesson #4: Do not give away your currency and monetary policy by joining a common currency area such as the Eurozone if you are not able to compete. Invest first in research and technology, innovation and entrepreneurship, cost control and quality management to raise productivity, cut costs, upgrade quality and produce innovative products and services that are internationally competitive. Common currency areas, especially those which do not involve transfer payments from the better performers to the laggards, ultimately benefit those who are able to compete effectively at the expense of the rest.
Lesson #5: Do not allow your labour unions to acquire such strength as to hold a chokehold on vital sectors and the economy as a whole, or destroy the flexibility of the labour market. Learn from Cyprus’ experience with the unions; don’t repeat it. The insatiable demands of the unions especially those of banking employees and civil servants have been protagonists in Cyprus’ drama. Even today, with 16 per cent unemployment and rising and the public and banking sectors buckling under the weight of wage bills and overstaffing, the unions are blocking life-or-death reforms.
Lesson #6: Do not buy the economic tale about natural monopoly, or the social tale about the need to provide affordable services to the poor, or the political tale about sectors of national or strategic importance. State enterprises such as Cyprus Airways or semi-public organisations such as CyTA and the Electricity Authority, have proved to be little more than another vehicle to tax the citizen, to allocate positions and favours, and to share the loot among the political parties, while the customer citizen is stuck with exorbitant bills due to greed and inefficiency.
Lesson #7: Beware of easy credit, bubbles and pyramid schemes. The economic history of the world is littered with stories of economic collapses and catastrophes caused by “ingenious” schemes of buying into easy and quick riches. In Cyprus, first there was the rapidly rising stock prices of the late 1990s inflated by easy credit which in the span of a few years led to collapse and the loss of fortunes by many people. It has been labelled “the stock exchange scandal” and, though nobody was punished, the stock market never recovered, despite the institutional reforms.
Then it was the real estate bubble: inflated by easy credit, property prices kept rising at 20-30 per cent a year; yet no one expected them to stop rising much less to collapse. This came to be known as the “real estate bubble” which burst a couple of years ago. Property prices are now continuing to fall steadily increasing the number of unsecured loans. Another bubble kept gathering steam since the early 2000s and accelerated since we joined the eurozone. The financial and banking bubble was built on high deposit rates of interest, poorly secured lending, attraction of “offshore” companies and reckless investments in Greek bonds and global expansion without risk assessment; it collapsed under its own weight and it is still in a coma.
Lesson # 8: Do not deviate from the iron rule that ties the growth of wages to the growth of productivity; measure public sector productivity, and assess and pay civil servants accordingly. If you earn and spend more than you produce on a long-term basis you are not building a sustainable economy. Sooner or later the economy will collapse, sooner if it is hit by a global economic crisis, as in the case of Cyprus. With the meddling of political parties, the pressure of the labour unions, and the support of parliament, wages and benefits in the wider public sector rose well above productivity, contributing to budget deficit and increased taxation on the private sector, sinking the economy into deeper recession.
Lesson #9: Save for a rainy day. Build an emergency fund, the size of your GDP, as a security against uncertainties, world economic crisis and generally the vagaries of markets and nature. Save in good years for the bad years. If you spend the unusually high revenues in good years on salary raises and overstaffing as well as marginal and unproductive show-off projects, you increase the state’s financial obligations for bad years too without having the means to meet them and you set yourself for deficit spending, escalating debt, and a need for a bailout (or a bail in).
Lesson# 10: Anticipate problems and challenges and formulate alternative strategies. Act early and proactively while you still have time and resources, while the problems are still manageable and you can still set your own terms. Always have a plan B ready. Delays and procrastination carry a heavy price: the problem becomes that much bigger and more pressing, while you lose any bargaining power you may have had to influence the terms of support when you finally resort to it. Cyprus learned this lesson the hard way.
Lesson #11: Establish strong alliances but never forget that in international politics there are no friendships, only shared interests. While this was known since ancient times and was repeated many times in modern history, Cyprus almost blindly counted on its friends and allies in the EU to show their solidarity and run to its rescue. Instead, they were quite unsympathetic administering bitter medicine or “tough love”, as some of us see it. Even our blood brothers, the Greeks, officially have shown little empathy, despite the help from our side in their moment of need. Our interest and theirs in this juncture did not coincide.
Other countries in the European south and beyond should heed the lessons of the bitter experience of Cyprus with its banking and fiscal crisis that brought down its economic edifice, like a house of cards. Avoiding Cyprus’ mistakes can make the difference between a sustainable economic model or a casino-type economy with easy riches alternating with economic collapse.
Dr Theodore Panayotou is director of the Cyprus International Institute of Management (CIIM) and ex-professor of Economics and the Environment at Harvard University. He has served as consultant to the UN and to governments in the US, China, Russia, Brazil, Mexico and Cyprus. He has published extensively and was recognised for his contribution to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Contact: email@example.com
NICOSIA (Reuters) – Big depositors in Cyprus’s largest bank stand to lose far more than initially feared under a European Union rescue package to save the island from bankruptcy, a source with direct knowledge of the terms said on Friday.
Under conditions expected to be announced on Saturday, depositors in Bank of Cyprus will get shares in the bank worth 37.5 percent of their deposits over 100,000 euros, the source told Reuters, while the rest of their deposits may never be paid back.
The toughening of the terms will send a clear signal that the bailout means the end of Cyprus as a hub for offshore finance and could accelerate economic decline on the island and bring steeper job losses.
Officials had previously spoken of a loss to big depositors of 30 to 40 percent.
Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades on Friday defended the 10-billion euro ($13 billion) bailout deal agreed with the EU five days ago, saying it had contained the risk of national bankruptcy.
“We have no intention of leaving the euro,” the conservative leader told a conference of civil servants in the capital, Nicosia.
“In no way will we experiment with the future of our country,” he said.
Cypriots, however, are angry at the price attached to the rescue – the winding down of the island’s second-largest bank, Cyprus Popular Bank, also known as Laiki, and an unprecedented raid on deposits over 100,000 euros.
Under the terms of the deal, the assets of Laiki bank will be transferred to Bank of Cyprus.
At Bank of Cyprus, about 22.5 percent of deposits over 100,000 euros will attract no interest, the source said. The remaining 40 percent will continue to attract interest, but will not be repaid unless the bank does well.
Those with deposits under 100,000 euros will continue to be protected under the state’s deposit guarantee.
Cyprus’s difficulties have sent jitters around the fragile single European currency zone, and led to the imposition of capital controls in Cyprus to prevent a run on banks by worried Cypriots and wealthy foreign depositors.
Banks reopened on Thursday after an almost two-week shutdown as Cyprus negotiated the rescue package. In the end, the reopening was largely quiet, with Cypriots queuing calmly for the 300 euros they were permitted to withdraw daily.
The imposition of capital controls has led economists to warn that a second-class “Cyprus euro” could emerge, with funds trapped on the island less valuable than euros that can be freely spent abroad.
Anastasiades said the restrictions on transactions – unprecedented in the currency bloc since euro coins and banknotes entered circulation in 2002 – would be gradually lifted. He gave no time frame but the central bank said the measures would be reviewed daily.
He hit out at banking authorities in Cyprus and Europe for pouring money into the crippled Laiki.
“How serious were those authorities that permitted the financing of a bankrupt bank to the highest possible amount?” Anastasiades said.
The president, barely a month in the job and wrestling with Cyprus’s worst crisis since a 1974 war split the island in two, accused the 17-nation euro currency bloc of making “unprecedented demands that forced Cyprus to become an experiment”.
European leaders have insisted the raid on big bank deposits in Cyprus is a one-off in their handling of a debt crisis that refuses to be contained.
But policymakers are divided, and the waters were muddied a day after the deal was inked when the Dutch chair of the euro zone’s finance ministers, Jeroen Dijsselbloem, said it could serve as a model for future crises.
“The content of his remarks comes down to an approach which has been on the table for a longer time in Europe,” Knot was quoted as saying by Dutch daily Het Financieele Dagblad. “This approach will be part of the European liquidation policy.”
The Cyprus rescue differs from those in other euro zone countries because bank depositors have had to take losses, although an initial plan to hit small deposits as well as big ones was abandoned and accounts under 100,000 euros were spared.
Warnings of a stampede at Cypriot banks when they reopened on Thursday proved unfounded.
For almost two weeks, Cypriots were on a ration of limited withdrawals from bank cash machines. Even with banks now open, they face a regime of strict restrictions designed to halt a flight of capital from the island.
Some economists say those restrictions will be difficult to lift. Anastasiades said the capital controls would be “gradually eased until we can return to normal”.
The government initially said the controls would stay in place for seven days, but Foreign Minister Ioannis Kasoulides said on Thursday they could last “about a month”.
On Friday, easing a ban on cheque payments, Cypriot authorities said cheques could be used to make payments to government agencies up to a limit of 5,000 euros. Anything more than 5,000 euros would require Central Bank approval.
The bank also issued a directive limiting the cash that can be taken to areas of the island beyond the “control of the Cypriot authorities” – a reference to Turkish-controlled northern Cyprus which considers itself an independent state. Cyprus residents can take 300 euros; non-residents can take 500.
Under the terms of the capital controls, Cypriots and foreigners are allowed to take up to 1,000 euros in cash when they leave the island.
(Additional reporting by Ivana Sekularac and Gilbert Kreijger in Amsterdam; Writing by Matt Robinson; Editing by Giles Elgood)