How can they do that?! A look at Cyprus' decision to tax depositors

PARIS – People with bank accounts in Cyprus were shocked Saturday to learn that as part of an agreement reached with international creditors the government has imposed a tax on all deposits to help bail out the nation and its banks. Here’s a look at the tax, which can be as high as 9.9 per cent, and the problems it may pose.


As one of 17 nations that use the euro currency, Cyprus can to raise or lower taxes whenever it wants. Early Saturday, it secured a €10 billion ($13 billion) bailout from its European partners and the International Monetary Fund to save the banking sector and avoid bankruptcy. In return, the island nation has imposed the new tax, among other moves. It isn’t the first time that a eurozone nation has raised taxes to cope with mounting debt and to prop up struggling banks. Residents of Greece, Portugal and Ireland — all bailout recipients — have seen their tax bills skyrocket in recent years as those countries tried to reduce their debts. But Cyprus is charting new ground here, and there could be legal — and political — challenges.


Banks have already acted to seal off the amount of the levy — a 6.75 per cent tax on deposits under €100,000 and 9.9 per cent on those above — so depositors can’t access it. Bank customers still can draw on the rest of their funds via ATM machines this weekend, although banks that usually open on Saturdays had limited hours. No international transfers will be able to go through until Tuesday, since Monday is a holiday. Cyprus’ parliament is expected to meet Sunday to pass the required legislation. The deal also needs the approval of several eurozone parliaments; it’s unclear how fast they can act and what will happen to bank deposits in the meantime.


So far in the euro crisis, depositors have been protected. But European countries have taxed bank deposits before. In the 1990s, Italy levied a tax on every bank account to stave off the collapse of its lire currency. The rate, however, was miniscule — 0.06 per cent — compared to what Cyprus is enacting. Iceland — another island with an outsized financial sector, although worse weather — also relied on depositors to prop up its banks. When the crisis hit there in 2008, Iceland protected its domestic deposits but reneged on deposit insurance for overseas, Internet-based accounts held by British and Dutch. Those two governments stepped in to help their citizens to the tune of $5 billion. The U.K. and the Netherlands sued Iceland unsuccessfully in a European court to get their money back, but Iceland has nevertheless started to repay some of that money.

European officials are promising this Cyprus is a unique case, and they are right in one aspect: Cypriot banks are overwhelmingly funded by deposits, not bondholders. So it wouldn’t have been very fruitful to go after bondholders.


All people with money in Cypriot banks — except those with money in Greek branches, which will be sold to Greek banks. EU and IMF creditors clearly wanted to protect struggling Greece, but perhaps also saw that Greece is the most likely place in the eurozone for a bank run. Protecting depositors there minimizes that possibility. Of the more than €68 billion on deposit in Cypriot banks, foreigners hold about 40 per cent — and most of those are Russians. Cyprus could have only gone after non-EU depositors, but it may have been hard to distinguish between Cypriot and Russian savers, said Jacob Kirkegaard, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. That is because many Russians have dual citizenship and many Russian businesses are registered on the island. Kirkegaard said Cypriots may paradoxically welcome this measure since the government just managed to widen its tax base to include a lot of Russians; the taxes levied in Greece, Portugal and Ireland were for residents alone to shoulder.


Cyprus built its economy in recent years by becoming a financial centre, much the way Ireland and Iceland before it did. Its banks offered Internet accounts to foreigners, were renowned for their service, provided substantial privacy to clients and had very low taxes. It worked so well that Cyprus’ banking industry ballooned to nearly eight times the country’s gross domestic product at the height of the boom. In December, it was still more than seven times Cyprus’ €17.5 billion GDP. Russians — looking for warmer climes, lower tax rates and shared culture in the form of Orthodox Christianity — are thought to hold the majority of those accounts, with about €20 billion in the island’s banks.

But Cyprus’ banks held a lot of Greek debt and suffered significant losses when they took a writedown of those bonds as part of the Greek bailout. Much of Cyprus’ bailout money will be used to recapitalize Cypriot banks to prevent them from collapsing. Like other eurozone countries, Cyprus has also seen its deficit and debt explode as growth has ground to a halt. And with the banking system so large, the government wouldn’t have been able to bail it out even in a healthy economy.


Cyprus may be on holiday Monday, but the rest of the world will go back to work. Kirkegaard says that the decision to tax tap depositors indicates that the European Central Bank is confident that the risk of a bank run elsewhere in the eurozone is low — and by excluding Greek branches of Cypriot banks, they have reduced the possibility even further. Bond markets may react a little since bondholders were also tapped. Bank stocks will probably fall and they’ll see their borrowing costs rise since this deal signals that other eurozone countries may call on bondholders if their banks run into trouble.

But Heather Conley, director of Europe program for the Center for Strategic and International Studies, says it’s hard to know the far-reaching implications of this one-off deal. The “exceptions” created to solve Europe’s debt crisis are adding up, she said. And some investors may look at this late-night, three-day-weekend deal and see what she saw: a dress rehearsal for a country dropping out of the euro.


Associated Press Writer Menelaos Hadjicostis contributed to this report from Nicosia, Cyprus.