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Cyprus Bailout To Hit Depositors, Sends Shivers Through Markets

Take the money and run: An ATM in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on Sunday.
Hasan Mroue
AFP/Getty Images
Take the money and run: An ATM in the Cypriot capital Nicosia on Sunday.

A vote in Cyprus on whether to approve a controversial bailout plan has been postponed after the prospect of the deal caused bank customers to rush to withdraw their savings and drew the ire of overseas depositors.

As NPR's Krishnadev Calamur wrote in a post over the weekend: "The money [is] needed because Cyprus' banks lost 4.5 billion euros on their Greek bond holdings, which were written down last year after Greece's second bailout."

The bailout, which is now set for a vote Tuesday, is just $13 billion, a tiny sum compared to the $150 billion given to Greece. But it's the first time the eurozone and the IMF have taken a cut of people's savings — a one-time levy of 6.75 percent on deposits under 100,000 euros and 9.9 percent on higher amounts — to finance the plan.

NPR's Joanna Kakissis reports that some economists and commentators have called the deal legalized robbery, and many depositors have already voted with their cash, emptying ATMs. Cyprus' markets were closed Monday for a bank holiday, and there has been talk about extending the holiday for an extra day.

[Update at 10:45 a.m. ET: Bank Holiday Extended:

The Associated Press, citing an announcement from the central bank in Cyprus, says that the island's banks will remain closed until Thursday.]

European stock markets and the euro have fallen sharply on the bailout plan.

Update at 6:06 p.m. ET: Eurogroup President Statement

The eurozone finance ministers appeared to show some flexibility on the issue of small depositers – those people with less than 100,000 euros in Cyprus' banks. In a statement Monday that followed a conference call, the Eurogroup president said:

"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."

Update at 12:05 p.m. ET: Gold Hits New High:

Reuters reports that the Cyprus uncertainty has helped push spot gold to a new high, as it gained 1.2 percent at $1,610.81 an ounce in trading on Monday.

The BBC also reports Joerg Asmussen, a member of the European Central Bank's governing council, saying there would be no objection to Cyprus altering the bailout terms.

"It's the Cyprus government's adjustment program. If Cyprus' president wants to change something regarding the levy on bank deposits, that's in his hands," the BBC quotes Asmussen as saying. "He must just make sure that the financing is intact. The important thing is that the financial contribution of 5.8bn euros remains."

Here's the rest of our original post:

According to NPR's Jim Zarroli, Cyprus has become known as a tax haven. "Like Ireland and Iceland, it set out to become a financial center," he says. "Its banks were heavily invested in Greece and lost a lot of money."

Eurozone leaders are concerned that the Cypriot banking system is too bloated — more than seven times the size of its GDP, when the eurozone average is around 4 times the size of GDP.

The New York Times reports that analysts at Société Générale "noted that the Cypriot banks had issued debt equivalent to just 1.3 percent of their total liabilities, meaning that if the European Union insists on so-called bail-in by creditors, depositors were the only ones able to pick up the tab."

Analysts also say Russian oligarchs are stashing their ill-gotten billions in Cyprus while Cypriots look the other way, Kakissis reports.

The BBC says, "Moody ratings agency estimates that, at the end of 2012, Russian banks had placed $12bn in Cypriot banks, with corporate deposits at $19bn. So Russian corporate and individual investors could lose up to $2bn."

"Assessing the possible decision of imposing additional tax by Cyprus on deposits, [President] Putin said that this decision, if taken, would be unfair, unprofessional and dangerous," Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said, according to the BBC.

Speaking to Reuters on Monday, Russian Finance Minister Anton Siluanov threatened to renege on a deal to extend by five years the terms of a 2.5 billion euro loan to Cyprus.

He said Moscow had not been consulted on the deal and therefore "will consider the issue of restructurization of the (Cyprus) loan taking into account our participation in the joint actions with the European Union to help Cyprus."

Cyprus' President Nicos Anastasiades, who assumed office March 1, said Sunday that if the deal doesn't pass, it could mean "a complete collapse of the banking sector." Addressing the nation on Monday, he called the situation the worst crisis to hit the island since 1974, when Turkey invaded and occupied the northern third.

NPR's Zarroli reports that while there have been some recent instances of levies on bank accounts in countries such as Italy, they have been quite small. Ireland and Spain have also imposed other kinds of taxes on residents to help finance their bailouts.

Anastasiades said he was essentially blackmailed into accepting the deal to avoid bank failures and a messy default. In an apparent attempt to stall the capital flight, the president also promised that those who keep deposits in Cypriot banks for the next 2 years will get bonds linked to revenues from natural gas reserves recently discovered off the coast of the island nation.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne said Sunday that the government would compensate troops and civil servants affected by the bank levy.

The Associated Press reports that the Cypriot government is now trying to modify the deal to lower the burden on small savers with less than 100,000 euros in the bank. Any change in the deal would have to be approved by the other eurozone finance ministers before the Cypriot parliament can vote on it.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Scott Neuman is a reporter and editor, working mainly on breaking news for NPR's digital and radio platforms.