Daniel W. Drezner

The surprisingly resilient global financial system

Well, this sounds like very bad news for the global financial system:  A plan to rescue the tiny European country of Cyprus, assembled overnight in Brussels, has left financial regulators, German politicians, panicked Cypriot leaders and a disgruntled Kremlin with a bailout package that has outraged virtually all the parties. In the end, a bailout ...

Well, this sounds like very bad news for the global financial system: 

A plan to rescue the tiny European country of Cyprus, assembled overnight in Brussels, has left financial regulators, German politicians, panicked Cypriot leaders and a disgruntled Kremlin with a bailout package that has outraged virtually all the parties.

In the end, a bailout deal that was supposed to calm a financial crisis in an economically insignificant Mediterranean nation spread it wider. Word of the plan unnerved markets across Europe, raised fears of bank instability in Spain and Italy and sent pensioners into the streets of the island’s capital, Nicosia, in protest.

As markets tumbled and the Cypriot Parliament fell into turmoil, salvos of blame were hurled back and forth across the Continent.

Officials scrambled to explain what went wrong and how best to control the damage of what Philip Whyte, a senior research fellow at the Center for European Reform, called a “completely irrational decision” to make bank depositors liable for part of the bailout. The deal flopped so badly that finance ministers who came up with it shortly before dawn on Saturday were on the phone to each other Monday night talking about ways to revise it.

Now, on the one hand, you would be hard-pressed to find anyone who will defend the Cypriot deal as it was announced on Saturday — but it’s pretty easy to find critics of the proposed deal across the political spectrum. So this seems like yet another data point confirming the truly mind-boggling stupidity of European governments and regulators. It’s particularly galling that they did this during a time when global capital markets are still fragile from the 2008 financial crisis.

Oh, except, wait a minute, it turns out that those markets aren’t as fragile as the perception suggests. If you burrow into the McKinsey Global Institute’s latest report on global asset markets, it turns out that, excepting Europe, the rest of global finance has experienced a decent recovery from the 2008 crash. According to MGI: 

With the pullback in cross-border lending, foreign direct investment from the world’s multinational companies and sovereign investors has increased to roughly 40 percent of global capital flows. This may bring greater stability, since foreign direct investment has proved to be the least volatile type of capital flow, despite a drop in 2012.

Of course, this was written before the Cypriot stupidity, so now markets are really roiled, right? Well… here’s Business Insider’s Joe Weisenthal’s take early this a.m.:

Markets are down a bit in Europe although not dramatically so yet.

US futures were flat, and Asia was actually up nicely, with Japan gaining 2%.

That seems like a thoroughly appropriate reaction. And over at the New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin explains why that’s the rational and appropriate reaction:

While the bailout of Cyprus is a fascinating case study and raises interesting theoretical questions about moral hazard for policy wonks and talking heads, here is the reality: It is largely irrelevant to the global economy. Cyprus is tiny; its economy is smaller than Vermont’s. And the bailout is worth a paltry $13 billion, the equivalent of pocket lint for those in the bailout game.

Even the larger issue about bailing out a country by taking money from depositors — which quickly created outrage around the world — seems overblown….

[I]n truth, the smart money knows that the bailout of Cyprus says very little about future actions.

“I would assume that anyone in Spain, Portugal or elsewhere who knows about the taxation of Cypriot depositors also would know that the Cypriot banking system is a very different animal than anywhere else in the euro zone,” Erik Nielsen, chief economist at UniCredit, wrote in a note to clients.

Mr. O’Neill of Goldman also acknowledged: “I am sure it will not set a precedent.”

Cyprus is unique. Besides being tiny, its banking system looks different from those in most other countries. Much of the big money deposited in its banks is from foreign investors, including Russians who have long been suspected of money laundering. Those investors had fair warning that Cypriot banks were troubled. The issue has been simmering for six months. But those investors left their money in the bank, in part because they were gambling that the banks would be bailed out at no cost to them. If the current plan is approved, depositors will have lost that bet.

Now this is a perfectly rational analysis. What’s significant is that it seems like markets are making the same calculation. When financial markets are fragile, when there’s a fear of financial contagion, they don’t make the rational calculation — they freak out. That hasn’t happened with Cyprus.

I know I’m at the risk of pulling a Donald Luskin here, but what’s happening in Cyprus right now primarily affects Cypriots, with a small concern about regional effects. It doesn’t look like it’s triggering the same kind of concerns of either the Lehman collapse or the Greek sovereign debt crisis. And anytime the abject stupidity of European financial statecraft can be confined to Europe, that’s a very, very good thing indeed for the global financial system.

Am I missing anything? 

 Twitter: @dandrezner

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