Cyprus – Cinderella and the Ugly Sisters

The oldest known version of the Cinderella story dates back to ancient Greece – how ironic.

Cyprus was, for many years, an idyllic island – originally settled by Mycenaean Greeks around 4,000 years ago. Known for its beauty and its beaches, it became a tax haven before 2004 when it joined the European Union. Its economy benefitted enormously – Cyprus did, indeed, go to the Ball.

The Sisters turn Ugly

Yet Cyprus is now being rejected by its two ugly sisters – the EU and Russia, who have conspired with Cyprus throughout the last ten or so years by enabling illicit money to flow into the country. Cyprus has benefitted from its relationships with the EU and Russia but those sisters are now turning ugly.

Isaac Newton was an alchemist but even he could not transmogrify base elements into gold. Modern counterparts are far more able to magically transform base elements into gold on a massive scale that would amaze even the alchemists of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Now that money is digitized, base elements (the profits made from illicit activities) can be changed in seconds within banks situated in secret jurisdictions.

The essence of the problems in Cyprus is that a vacation destination, home to many hard-working and energetic people, has been itself transmogrified into an offshore banking centre that is many times the size of the rest of the economy. That the part of Cyprus within the European Union is close to bankruptcy is astonishing enough to many.  Even more astonishing is the evidence that is mounting about a small country enriched in the short-term by a Faustian sale of its soul to Russian criminals.

Cyprus is an island with around 1 million people and a GDP of around $24 billion. Some years ago, the government of Cyprus decided (or was persuaded) that attracting huge sums of digitized money from wherever it could get it would increase their income. So, through increased secrecy laws, a multitude of double-taxation agreements with other countries and low tax rates in Cyprus, it created itself as a tax haven. Russians, for many years with interests in the country, flocked to Cyprus – preceded by their money. Cyprus became a home of money laundering as well as a tourist destination. The combination has been very powerful.

The banking crisis

When the sub-prime crisis hit in 2007/8, Cyprus was enjoying substantial growth. However, it had followed the high interest rates in Greece and invested in Greek banks. When they failed so famously (requiring massive “haircuts” from those investing in them), Cyprus – massively over-extended in them – suffered badly.

While its two ugly sisters worked out a way to enable Cyprus to be the beneficiary of illicit hot money for many years, one ugly sister (the EU) rebels at the thought of such mismanagement leading to a call on it to prop it up. While the EU is full of tax havens – from the City of London to Luxembourg to Austria – the political will of members of the EU such as Germany to continue to prop up Cyprus is vanishing fast. Hard-working German taxpayers, already riled by the needs of Greece, the political anarchy in Italy and the mass youth unemployment in Spain, have been further spooked by the machinations of discredited politicians in Cyprus – already in hock to the Russian mafia on a grand scale. This is why they demanded a contribution from Cypriots that resulted in the mass demonstrations in Nicosia and elsewhere as the middle classes were confronted by the fact that their insured deposits in Cypriot banks were not, after all, insured against the EU.

Where’s the Fairy Godmother?

Cyprus now realizes that its pact with the devil (Russian mafia) and its focus on becoming a secretive, tax haven has turned sour. To remain in the EU, it needs to save its banks. To save its banks, it needs to raise significant sums from its people (in terms of further tax revenue or long-term bond issues) and also from other, overseas, depositors. The latter are mainly Russians – and much of that money is illicit. The mere thought of taxing the Russian mafia is enough to make the story of Cinderella into a horror film – that might make the new wave of horror films based on fairy tales (such as Hansel and Gretel – Witch Hunters) look insipid by comparison.

There appears to be no Fairy Godmother who will let Cinders go to the Ball. It seems to be the case that Cyprus is between the rock and the hard place – between two ugly sisters: one that has plied it with funny money for years, the other that has conspired with it to do so and stayed quiet until now.

Greece has suffered five years of depression. The problems for Cyprus are only just beginning but whereas Greece’s problems remain its own, Cyprus is in much more danger – it is in hock to a mafia-ridden nation and appears to have few friends within the EU who are willing to turn it around. For its people, this could be a disaster – economically and also in terms of the way of life for its citizens. The EU allowed this situation to develop – it should not be blind to the plight of its smallest member. It is enough that fear has been struck into the citizens of Cyprus and to those in Italy, Greece, Spain and maybe France, who now know that bank deposits are not theirs any longer. Bank runs come from times like this.

Allowing Cyprus to be so wayward for so long is bad enough – to allow it to go completely off the rails and into the clutches of a mafia state would be too far.  Cyprus needs a short-term remedy and a long-term plan to get it away from the drug of tax havens. The EU has to turn from Ugly Sister into the Fairy Godmother (and stay the course) or this may well be a Lehman moment that will not easily be forgotten.

EZ money – you can Bank on it!

It is just like a circus act – spinning plates as the audience waits for one to fall. When one falls, the act is over and they all fall. The plates – the Eurozone and banks – are spinning still – just – but the spinner is tiring, there is less time to go and the plates are shaking wildly.

 

Both the European banking system and its impact on the Eurozone are in critical mode. The illnesses are not being treated – we are merely ameliorating the symptoms. The new package of measures announced on 29th June provide some breathing space but the banks are the same banks as they were before and the Eurozone has exactly the same problems as it did on the 28th June.

 

Twin Devils: EZ and Banking

 

Banking is a devilish concoction – see my earlier posting: https://jeffkaye.wordpress.com/2012/02/05/banks-and-time-travel/

which focuses on the Mephistophelean trade that banking makes with us – the bringing forward of tomorrow’s wealth into today (with our soul in return). No government since money was invented has properly understood banking or had the ability to control it and democracies are ill-suited to manage the banks, the bankers or their products (although that is not a case made for ending democracy!).

 

On the same day that the EZ nations announced their new answers to the EZ crisis, UK banks were being vilified for their LIBOR manipulations and for wrongly selling interest rate insurance to small businesses (many of which collapsed under the strain of the repayments when interest rates collapsed under the banking-induced downturn in 2008). It couldn’t be made up!

 

The EZ nations horse-trade over more loans to the banks which bypass the sovereign debt obligations of Italy and Spain, amongst others. Banks will get loans directly from the ECB (for example) – which means that Germany will guarantee 50% of the loans, but France, Italy and Spain will also carry a burden.

 

The twin devils are fighting for their existence and the markets applaud every move – but, the problems persist.

 

Twin headache

 

Banks have existed far longer than the EZ and will outlive it. The likelihood is that the EZ nations, fighting for the survival of the Euro, will continue to miss the point. Banks are not, in the main, national entities, they form part of a world-wide consortium. Banks are a supra-economy and their product – money – can be created easily and changes time – lending and borrowing transform today’s problems into tomorrow’s – in a way that nothing else in economics can do.

 

Banks’ ability to transform time (the magical transformation that lending and, to some extent, insurance provides) is exactly what has provided the EZ with its problems – and the issue that wrecked Lehmans and nearly wrecked the US banking system. The banks’ inability to control themselves within reasonable and rational limits of lending has now been transferred to the countries where they are based. Sovereign debt has been amassed to cover the time travelling antics of the banks. Twin problems.

 

Paying it Back

 

Most economists are unclear about the problems that banks provide when unregulated on a macro-economic scale – all governments suffer the same lack of understanding, Money is not just easily created and employed, it effects transfers between time that equilibrium-based traditional economics does not understand. A loan provided to a company at an interest rate with payments spread over many years represents the ability of that company to achieve something now rather than later. The debt is paid off through interest (the economist’s price of money) and over time. Discounted cash flow techniques (based on interest rates) debase the future – eventually, it completely discounts it as though it was worthless.

 

But, the price of money is not just the interest rate. Price is repaid from tomorrow’s debt mountain when the debts pile up beyond the ability of payers to pay. The devastation of the Greek economy and young people’s work prospects in Spain testify ingloriously to this. The price is a heavy burden when the macro-economic effects of out of control banks are misunderstood. Supply and demand curves for money are meaningless when money is more or less free and money becomes free very often in society – which assumes a zero risk. It happened in the 1990’s and it happened just prior to 2007/8 – money was free because it was being created from nothing – by new forms of leveraging in secondary and tertiary markets that no-one understood. Interest rates were of no use as bankers and financiers scoured the market for easy bets (for that is what they were).

 

Now, we face many years of deleveraging – where yesterday’s over-leveraging is paid back – where time travel gets reversed. It must be that the discounted cash flow calculations were wrong – the assumptions were riddled with errors.

 

3D Chess played with blindfolds in different time zones

 

Economic management of banks and of sovereign debt makes assumptions based on projections that are misunderstood. Fund flows and interest rates that are meant to cover the supply and demand parameters miss the critical build-up of debts at a national level and at an international level. It is the mass of debt and the difficulty of managing that debt pile against a continuously changing assembly of poorer and poorer borrowers that constantly defeats bank management. The constant desire to bring forward projects from tomorrow into today – whether by an individual or a company or a government – feeds that process. It is the drive to consume now, the size, complexity and continuous shifts that make the problem so much greater than it was in the 19th Century.

 

3D Chess played with blindfolds and over different time zones looks easy in comparison and the answers are not easy to come by. The answers being implemented are micro-economic in the way that individual banks are required to increase capital ratios, for example.

 

The complexity in a period of deleveraging allied to a need for growth is enormous. Governments cannot (over time) have it both ways. Most developed nations are over-leveraged having borrowed far too much out of tomorrow’s wealth. At the same time, we are being told that we need more growth to help repay the debts. There is a limited intelligence involved here – or just maybe that the limited intelligence of politics is competing with economic reality. We should all be aware that for those countries in a downward spiral there are but three ways out of this: to deleverage (i.e. pay back debts); to reflate and debase a currency; to default – or a mix of the three. In the US and UK, reflation and currency debasement has been attempted; in Greece, there has been a default; elsewhere in Europe, the can keeps getting kicked but it looks more and more likely that German taxpayers will pay out for Italian and Spanish profligacy without the huge institutional and cultural changes that would make the investment worthwhile.

 

What’s the answer?

 

Governments have been trying to control banks for hundreds of years and failed. In the 21st Century, complexity has risen as has the ability of major banks and their staff to manipulate markets and manipulate customers.

 

This is not just a banking or EZ crisis – we have now to question our economic judgement and whether capitalism as we have practiced it for the last fifty years works. Just like corruption, banks and bankers will swarm into any gap that the market allows. It is not much use to anyone to swing the pendulum back and forth on regulation as economies grow or splutter.

 

After all, the problems in banking and in the EZ are problems of economies and problems that are due to a laissez faire relationship with growth as measured by….money (GDP). The only targets that we (not just the UK but world-wide) measure our success in is in money. The only targets are GDP targets – growth targets are GDP.

 

What is the answer? The answer lies in our ability to bring quality (and ethics) into our economic affairs.

 

Quality vs Quantity

 

As the Chinese and other developing nations rise up the GDP scale and as the world continues to use up its natural resources, we have not assessed why we continue to follow 19th Century economic principles that propose that we spend our way to happiness. GDP growth is important as societies develop – as hunger is eradicated, shelter is found, clothing is ensured and jobs provided. How important it is when we are “grown” is the debate that is now needed. Growth in what?

 

The rush for money (what seems to be the mainstay of society) is what has rushed the banks and EZ into the mire. We don’t understand the impact we are having on the next generation and beyond in terms of debts built-up and resources squandered.

 

We now have a quality vs quantity argument that underlies all the short-term “solutions” that we read about. The right answers require the right questions and the right questions may include something like: “do we need to use up tomorrow?” – that is what banking is, a discounted cash flow estimate of the future where everything is translated into numbers and where quality is completely overcome by the quantitative.

 

Numbers are in charge – and therefore banks (based solely on numbers) are at the forefront of such an economy. EZ crises are based on money and the addiction to numbers – GDP and growth. While this continues, so will our willingness to allow banks to seek out new methods of extracting tomorrow’s benefits to today.

 

To untangle societies from the rush for loans and products that banks supply (and EZ countries end up securing – and paying back through taxation) we should address the root cause – our predilection to the amassing of tomorrow’s money or its equivalent at the expense of tomorrow’s quality of life. Our kids and their kids deserve better – ask young Greeks or Spaniards.