Trouble in the Mediterranean

Joe PreisserJoe Preisser, Investment Strategist, Brinker Capital

Blue-chip stocks listed in the United States stumbled on their quest to reclaim the historic heights they recently attained, as a renewal of concerns from the European continent served to unsettle investors. Proverbial wisdom contends that markets will climb a, “wall of worry”, and this statement has rung particularly true this year as the Dow Jones Industrial Average has marched steadily higher amid a torrent of potential pitfalls. Up until this week, market participants have largely disregarded the political gridlock ensnaring Washington, D.C. and the possibility of a resurgence of the European sovereign debt crisis, instead clamoring for risk assets, and in so doing, have driven stocks into record territory. The current rally has, however, paused for the moment with the increased possibility that Cyprus may become the first member of the Eurozone to exit the currency union, once again casting the shadow of doubt across the Mediterranean Sea and onto the sustainability of this collection of countries.

A decision rendered by leaders of the European Union last weekend—to attempt to impose a tax on bank deposits within the nation of Cyprus in exchange for the release of rescue funds the country desperately needs—sent tremors through global financial markets. Although the Cypriot population stands at slightly more than one million citizens, making it one of the smallest countries in the Eurozone, the repercussions of this decision were felt across continents. Policy makers representing the nations of their monetary union hastily gathered to decide what conditions would need to be met in order to disperse the necessary financial aid to Cyprus, totaling ten billion euros, and in so doing, made a significant policy error. According to The New York Times on March 19, “Under the terms of Cyprus’ bailout, the government must raise 5.8 billion euros by levying a one-time tax of 9.9 percent on depositors with balances of more than 100,000 euros. Those with balances below that threshold would pay 6.75 percent, an asset tax that would still hit pensioners and the lowest -income earners hard.” Although the intentions of the European leaders making this decision were to target large foreign depositors, who have historically used the country’s banks as a tax haven, the proposed inclusion of those on the lower end of the spectrum has created widespread uncertainty.

EurosThe imposition of a tax on deposits that would include those of 100,000 euros and less, which had been guaranteed by insurance provided by the European Union, has created concerns over the stability of the banking system in Cyprus and by extension, that of the Eurozone in its entirety. By negating the very guarantee that had been put in place to strengthen this vital portion of the Eurozone’s financial system, policy makers have increased the risk that large scale withdrawals will be taken across Cyprus, which is exactly the type of situation they had hoped to avoid. The New York Times quoted Andreas Andreou, a 26-year-old employee of a Cypriot trading company, who gave voice to the feelings of the populace when he said, “How can I trust any bank in the Eurozone after this decision? I’m lifting all my deposits as soon as the banks open. I’d rather put the money in my mattress.” In order to forestall such an event, and protect against the possibility of contagion to the other heavily indebted members of the currency union, the country’s banks have been shuttered and are scheduled to remain so until Tuesday.

Uncertainty continues to swirl in the warm Mediterranean air as the Cypriot Parliament on Wednesday rejected the original terms of the bailout, casting the nation’s leaders into direct conflict with those of the European Union. With the deadline for
the country to propose a viable plan to raise the requisite 5.8 billion euros,
set by the Continent’s Central Bank for Monday, fast approaching, the stakes of
this game of brinksmanship have been raised, as the possibility of the country
leaving the euro zone has been broached. Eric Dor, a French economist who is the head of research at the Iéseg School of Management in Lille, France offered his opinion on the rationale of Europe’s leaders in The New York Times on Thursday, “They are saying we can take the risk of pushing Cyprus out of the Eurozone, and that Europe can take the losses without going broke.” Although the raising of the possibility of Cyprus being expelled from the monetary union, is most likely a negotiating tactic designed to goad Cypriot leaders into adopting the reforms the E.U. has deemed necessary, with the more likely outcome of a compromise being reached, the current impasse serves as a reminder of the difficulties facing the Continent as it continues its unprecedented experiment in democracy.

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