Bailout or no, Cypriots simply want their money
NICOSIA, CYPRUS — With her wedding day three months away, Despina Charalambous is desperate to have access to her savings, which have been frozen at the Bank of Cyprus for more than a week. She plans to take out all her money once the banks reopen, even though the new bailout plan for her country supposedly guarantees the safety of her deposits.
“I have lost my trust in Bank of Cyprus and banks in general,” Charalambous, 33, a biologist, said, still bitter that just last week the country’s president was ready to skim money even from small savers like her to help secure a 10-billion-euro, or $12.9 billion, lifeline to the nation’s banking industry.
Multiply Charalambous’ concerns by tens of thousands of account holders in Cyprus, and it becomes apparent why average people, business customers and many experts have a sneaking suspicion: that European leaders, by scrambling to cobble together a solution to the Cyprus crisis, have come up with little more than a Band-Aid for what is likely to become a growing wound.
Based on the reaction of the markets and many analysts and economists on Monday, there is little widespread confidence that the measures hammered out Sunday night in Brussels will go nearly far enough to right all that is wrong with Cyrpus’ banks. Stocks were down broadly in Europe, and the borrowing costs of financially shaky Spain and Italy spiked upward as the markets digested the Cyprus news — and the broader implications for the euro currency union.
While depositors with less than 100,000 euros in their accounts will be untouched, people with more money will take losses, in a first for eurozone bailouts. So will senior bondholders in some of the banks, who have hitherto been untouchable in such bailouts.
And breaking additional new ground, a eurozone country is taking steps to prevent people from taking their money out of financial institutions on a large scale. The measures, known as capital controls, have typically been used only in emerging countries, like Argentina. Now Cyprus, a longtime money haven, is struggling to figure out how to prevent it from fleeing.
“This is just the beginning,” said Nicolas Veron, a senior fellow at Bruegel, a policy research group in Brussels, and a visiting fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.
“For the first time, we have capital controls in the eurozone. We’ve just spent the last three years saying we can’t have that,” he said. “The next time there is a crisis somewhere else in the world, people will think of what happened in Cyprus and will try to get their money out much faster.
“These are the new rules of the game.”
But Charalambous will have to wait a bit longer for her cash. Despite promises since last week that the country’s banks would reopen on Tuesday, the government late Monday ordered Bank of Cyprus and Laiki Bank — the nation’s largest financial institutions, with most of the accounts on the island — to stay shut through at least Thursday. And their automated cash withdrawals will be limited to 100 euros a day.
Under the terms of the bailout, Laiki will be restructured, with its guaranteed deposits to be transferred to Bank of Cyprus.
Smaller banks will reopen Tuesday, but local bankers conceded that the country was ill prepared to deal with implementing capital controls. It had not, for example, determined what types of controls to put in place — whether restricting local transfers, or forcibly extending the maturity of term deposits, or even in extreme cases closing bank accounts.
Bankers and lawyers still working on the bailout deal Monday said that a decision had not yet been reached as to whether Cypriots with deposits under 100,000 euros will be able to walk into their local branches and transfer their deposits to another, safer bank on the island.
“They definitely will not be able send their money overseas,” said a person involved in the discussions who was not authorized to speak publicly.