By Michele Kambas and Karolina Tagaris | From Reuter.com | On Monday, March 25th, 2013
(Reuters) – The president of Cyprus assured his people a bailout deal he struck with the European Union was in their best interests, but banks will remain closed until Thursday – and even then subject to capital controls to prevent a run on deposits.
Returned from fraught negotiations in Brussels, President Nicos Anastasiades said late on Monday the 10-billion euro ($13 billion) rescue plan agreed there in the early hours of the morning was “painful” but essential to avoid economic meltdown.
He agreed to close down the second-largest bank, Cyprus Popular, and inflict heavy losses on big depositors, many of them Russian, after Cyprus’s outsize financial sector ran into trouble when its investments in neighboring Greece went sour.
European leaders said a chaotic national bankruptcy that might have forced Cyprus from the euro and upset Europe’s economy was averted – though investors in other European banks are alarmed by the precedent of losses for depositors in Cyprus.
“The agreement we reached is difficult but, under the circumstances, the best that we could achieve,” Anastasiades said in a televised address to the nation on Monday evening.
“We leave behind the uncertainty and anxiety that we all lived through over the last few months and we look forward now to the future with optimism,” he told compatriots who face an immediate, deep recession and years of hardship unlikely to be milder than those experienced by Irish, Greeks and Portuguese.
Many Cypriots say they felt anything but reassured by the bailout deal, however, and are expected to besiege banks as soon as they reopen after a shutdown that began over a week ago.
Reversing a previous decision to start reopening at least some banks on Tuesday, the central bank said late on Monday that they would all now stay shut until Thursday to ensure the “smooth functioning of the whole banking system”.
Little is known about the restrictions on transactions that Anastasiades said the central bank would impose, but he told Cypriots: “I want to assure you that this will be a very temporary measure that will gradually be relaxed.”
Capital controls, preventing people moving funds out of the country, are at odds with the European Union’s ideals of a common market but the government may fear an ebb tide of panic that would cause even more disruption to the local economy.
Without an agreement by the end of Monday, Cyprus had faced certain banking collapse and risked becoming the first country to be pushed out of the European single currency – a fate that Germany and other northern creditors seemed willing to inflict on a nation that accounts for just a tiny fraction of the euro economy and whose banks they felt had overreached themselves.
Backed by euro zone finance ministers, the plan will wind down the largely state-owned Cyprus Popular Bank, known as Laiki, and shift deposits under 100,000 euros to the Bank of Cyprus to create a “good bank”, leaving problems behind in, effectively, a “bad bank”.
Deposits above 100,000 euros in both banks, which are not guaranteed by the state under EU law, will be frozen and used to resolve Laiki’s debts and recapitalize the Bank of Cyprus, the island’s biggest, through a deposit/equity conversion.
The raid on uninsured Laiki depositors is expected to raise 4.2 billion euros of the 5.8 billion euros the EU and IMF had told Cyprus to raise as a contribution to the bailout, Dutch Finance Minister Jeroen Dijsselbloem said.
Cyprus government spokesman Christos Stylianides said losses for uninsured depositors would be “under or around 30 percent”.
Laiki will effectively be shuttered, with thousands of job losses. Officials said senior bondholders in Laiki would be wiped out and those in Bank of Cyprus would have to make a contribution – setting a precedent for the euro zone.
Comments by Dijsselbloem on the need for lenders to banks to accept the potential risks of their failure had a knock-on effect in the euro zone, raising the cost of insuring holdings of bonds issued by other banks, notably in Italy and Spain.
Global equity markets and the euro retreated on his comment that the Cyprus bailout could be a template for solving other problems, by shifting more risk to depositors and stakeholders:
“What we’ve done last night is what I call pushing back the risks,” Dijsselbloem, who heads the Eurogroup of euro zone finance ministers, told Reuters and the Financial Times.
A first attempt at a deal 10 days ago had collapsed when the Cypriot parliament rejected a proposed levy on all deposits, large and small. That proposal outraged ordinary Cypriots, leading to queues at bank cash machines.
The central bank has imposed a 100-euro daily limit on withdrawals from ATMs at the two biggest banks to avert a run.
Russia signaled it would back the bailout even though it would impose big losses on Russian depositors, who by some estimates may hold a third of all deposits in Cypriot banks.
President Vladimir Putin ordered officials to restructure a loan Moscow granted to Cyprus in 2011 – having rejected Nicosia’s request for easier terms in crisis talks last week.
Among Cypriots sipping coffee in warm sunshine, there was a mood of wariness about the deal: “How long will it last?” asked Georgia Xenophontos, 23, a hotel receptionist in Nicosia.
“Why should anyone believe anything this government says?”
In the morning, a public holiday, residents of the capital lined the streets to watch a parade by soldiers and students to mark Greek Independence Day, waving the Greek and Cypriot flags.
“On this day I’m proud to be Greek, but at the same time I feel humiliated,” said Marios Charalambous, 56, a print-shop owner. “I’m worried what will happen when the banks reopen.”
Cyprus’ tottering banks held 68 billion euros in deposits, including 38 billion in accounts of more than 100,000 euros – enormous sums for an nation of 860,000 people that could never sustain such a big financial system on its own.
The U.S. Treasury, noting the importance to the United States of financial stability in Europe, its largest trading partner, said it was now up to Cypriots to rebuild their economy: “It is critical to lay the foundation for a return to financial stability and growth in Cyprus,” the Treasury said.
(Additional reporting by Luke Baker, John O’Donnell, Robin Emmott, Philip Blenkinsop and Rex Merrifield in Brussels, Costas Pitas in Nicosia and Lionel Laurent in Paris; Writing by Giles Elgood and Matt Robinson; Editing by Alastair Macdonald)