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The Politics of Moral Hazard

BRUSSELS – It is an old and never-ending contest. On one side are the moral-hazard scolds, claiming that one of the major responsibilities confronting policymakers is to establish incentives that demonstrate that imprudent behavior does not pay. On the other side are the partisans of financial stability, for whom confidence in the financial system is too precious to be endangered, even with the best possible intentions.

Cyprus is the latest battleground between the two camps. On March 25, after the decision had been taken to wind up the country’s second-largest bank, and to impose large losses on uninsured depositors in the process, Eurogroup President Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch finance minister, declared that a healthy financial sector requires that “where you take on the risks, you must deal with them.” The aim, he added, should be to create an environment in which Europe’s finance ministers “never need to consider a direct recapitalization” of a bank by the European Stability Mechanism. He was apparently reading from a textbook on moral hazard.

Immediately after this declaration, however, prices of European bank stocks plunged, and Dijsselbloem was accused by many (including some of his colleagues) of having poured oil on a burning fire. Within hours, he issued a statement indicating that “Cyprus is a specific case with exceptional challenges,” and that “no templates are used” in the approach to the European crisis.

This is not convincing. Markets learn from a current crisis which principles will be applied in the next one. And letting them learn is precisely what the fight against moral hazard is about.

European policymakers have been agonizing over the same dilemma throughout the Cyprus crisis. The burden of bailing out the country’s ailing financial institutions was too heavy for an already-indebted Cypriot state, and the International Monetary Fund was adamant that it would not pretend otherwise. So, in mid-March, Cyprus was heading for a precipitous retrenchment of its banking system, resulting in the loss of a very large part of the country’s financial wealth. For the IMF and Germany, which pushed for such an outcome, the rationale was the need to prevent moral hazard.

Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, reportedly with some support from European institutions, desperately tried to avoid this fate – in the name of financial stability. The solution found during the night of March 15 – a one-time tax on deposits – was defensible from the Cypriot viewpoint. Preserving domestic financial stability required limiting taxation of large deposits, because a substantial proportion belonged to foreign account-holders. Avoiding a massive withdrawal of foreign capital therefore implied taxing all deposits below the €100,000 ($130,000) threshold. Absent a foreign bailout, no other solution was on offer.

But this solution was detrimental to financial stability in the rest of Europe, because it signaled that the €100,000 threshold below which deposits are guaranteed was not sacrosanct. Legally, of course, this guarantee is only worth the solvency of the guarantor – in this case the near-bankrupt Cypriot state. But its abrogation would nonetheless be symbolically powerful, sparking anxiety throughout Europe.

The obvious way out of this dilemma would have been for Cyprus’s eurozone partners to assume the cost of the tax on deposits below €100,000. Doing so would have cost them an estimated €1.3 billion, or roughly 0.01% of their GDP – a ridiculously low price to pay for financial stability. It would not have created much moral hazard: large depositors would have been taxed, and the Cypriot government would still have suffered the strictures of an IMF/eurozone program – bitter enough medicine.

But, at a time when northern European citizens are full of resentment against banks and seething with anger over transfers to the south, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her peers did not want to ask their taxpayers to pay for a partner country’s mistakes.

The March 15 agreement was not politically viable, and was overwhelmingly rejected by the Cypriot parliament. So, ten days after the ill-fated solution was proposed, the Eurogroup ministers changed course and adopted the approach that they had tried to avoid. Banks are being precipitously resolved.

The consequences are already visible: to avoid a complete meltdown, Cyprus has been forced to introduce capital controls – which everyone had thought were illegal and unthinkable within the eurozone. As a result, investors and depositors have learned that the erection of financial barriers within the currency area is indeed a genuine risk. And the Cypriots are so angry at Europe that a deliberate exit from the eurozone has become a distinct possibility.

Ultimately, the true contest is less between moral hazard and financial stability than it is between financially sensible and politically acceptable solutions. In Europe, as elsewhere, financial policy used to be the remit of specialists – central bankers, regulators, and supervisors. Not anymore: the experts have lost their legitimacy.

Nowadays, angry citizens are in charge, and politics is driving financial policy. But politics in Europe is national, and what one national parliament regards as the only possible solution another national parliament regards as entirely unacceptable. Europe has not yet found a response to this problem, and it is not on the way to finding one.